Carly & Dara enjoy backpacking Vietnam and motorbiking, kayaking, sightseeing their way through Hà Nội and Huế!
Things to do in Hanoi
Trip to Halong Bay
We did a day trip tour of Halong Bay, which was long, considering the 3-4 hour bus ride, but definitely worth it. Our tour included a great lunch on the junk boat, kayaking/bamboo boats, and a tour of Heaven Palace Grotto. There are a ton of tours available, with not a ton of variation between them, but I would recommend getting one that goes by the Grotto. If you have time, the overnight ones seemed like the best deal and they help cut up the journey so you have more time at the bay than traveling to and from. Be aware that while 100% worth the trip, it has become pretty commercialized, meaning that you will be surrounded by other tourists at all times. (We weren’t the only ones backpacking Vietnam!) See beautiful Halong Bay in the header photo above.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
While wonderful during the day, Hoàn Kiếm Lake is truly stunning during the night. The lights around the lake, on Ngoc Son Temple and Tháp Rùa are beautiful. It’s a great place to walk around, grab some lime-aid or sugar cane juice from a vendor, and people watch. If you go at the right time, and are paying attention, you can also see them light the lamps inside Tháp Rùa.
Hoa Lo Prison
The Hoa Lo Prison is a very important stop for anyone backpacking Vietnam. The history of this prison is relevant for everyone. Built by the French during their colonization of Vietnam, it housed Vietnamese revolutionaries, important communist leaders, and later POWs during the Vietnam War. Learning and understanding the perspective of northern Vietnam with regards to the Vietnam war was one of my favorite parts of the visit.
Temple of Literature
Temple of Literature is a beautiful complex and worth the slight detour, especially if you are in higher education. They have tortoise sculptures with the dissertations of some of their first PhD students engraved on them.
Ho Chi Minh Museum
While we just missed its afternoon hours, Ho Chi Minh Museum is something that I really wished we could’ve gotten the chance to visit.
This place is right in the Old City and is famous for its pho (which is the only thing they serve – that’s how you know its legit.) The line will be long, but it’s worth the experience. You just tell them how many bowls, pay, they hand you the pho and you grab a stool where ever is available at the tables inside and on the street.
The Rustics Coffee
This is probably the best coffeehouse I’ve ever been to. The decorations/atmosphere is amazing, the staff is super friendly and attentive, and it is a perfect respite from the weather. Order a Vietnamese ice coffee then go sit upstairs on their balcony with your personal fan and just relax. I found coffeehouses synonymous with others backpacking Vietnam. (21 Điện Biên Phủ, Điện Biên, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
Hanoi Party Backpacker Hostel
Located in Old Hanoi, Hanoi Party Backpacker Hostel is a solid hostel. We met other great travelers also backpacking Vietnam. While I think pretty standard for hostels in Vietnam, it was handy having a travel agency in the lobby through which you could book day trips, and where we bought our bus tickets to take us from Hanoi – Hue – Hoi An. They do have free beer during happy hour, which is a nice touch, and cold water for sale in the lobby which was very handy.
Walking. Especially in old Hanoi, walking is maybe 20 times fast than driving or taking a motorbike. Be prepared to have motorbikes and cars drive by within an inch of you and to walk in the road when motorbike parking takes up the sidewalk. Pro-tip: safety in numbers. If others are crossing, cross with them. do not hesitate and cross with confidence.
Things to do in Hue
We took motorbikes out to visit the Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh, Minh Mang Tomb, Tu Duc Tomb, as well as the Thien Mu Pagoda, with our last stop at the Imperial City. I would definitely recommend making a stop here and taking the time to visit the different Tombs. We hired two drivers and they took us around. It was the best way to visit these amazing complexes. I think you can get a bus, but with the motorbikes we were able to quickly get between each spot without any crowds. They simply drove us to each place, then waited while we took our time looking around. The tombs are a must see if you’re backpacking Vietnam.
I would recommend booking drivers at Madarin Cafe (24 Trần Cao Vân, Phú Nhuận, tp. Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế, Vietnam) which is right next door to the cafe where the bus drops you off in Hue. Also, they have awesome banana pancakes.
Imperial City was the last stop on our motorbike tour; it was wonderful to wander around the grounds and see some of the restorations in progress. The freedom you have to walk into different buildings is amazing. There are several stops within the complex that are worth the stop. Having a guidebook, or reading up about it beforehand is definitely worth it – the history of some of the buildings is stunning.
We ate street food everywhere, specifically Bún Bò Huế – a popular Vietnamese rice and beef soup. Street food is a staple if you’re backpacking Vietnam.
We walked everywhere within the city.
Backpacking Vietnam Travel Tips:
Visa – You do need to apply for a visa to enter Vietnam. You need to pay to get a letter of intent of getting a visa through a separate party, and you need to show your letter when you check in for your flight to Vietnam. (I used www.vietnamsvisa.com and it was really easy.) On arrival, you will have to go to a separate counter where they will actually give you the visa before you go through customs.
Buses – A more general tip for traveling around the country are the hop-on/off buses. You can buy an open ticket that lets you catch the buses any day and they are a comfortable, cheap way to get from place to place. (Though make sure you reserve a spot, about a day in advance.) We took the overnight bus from Hanoi to Hue (which had bunk bed sleeper seats) and the bus from Hue to Hoi An. I would definitely recommend it. A lot of people backpacking Vietnam use the buses to get around.
Health – Do not drink the water out of the tap unless it is specifically specified as safe. If you order water at a restaurant, specify cold.
Coffee – Don’t have more than one Vietnamese coffee a day. As a grad student, I have a high tolerance for caffeine, and I was kind of freaking out after my second.
Weather – it is very hot, very humid and rainy in Southeast Asia.
– Pack a thing of wet-wipes. It will be hot and you will be so so sweaty. Having these in your travel bag can be a God-send, especially if you are coming off the street to a temple or museum, or nice restaurant. Some restaurants will have these on the tables – you DO have to pay for them if you use them.
– Bring one of those water bottles that keep the water cool for 24 hours. I brought a knock off one (it held the temp for about 6 hours) and it was so worth it. In Vietnam, do not fill it up with water from the tap, but instead, buy cold water bottles and use them to fill it up. After hours of walking around in the heat, you’ll be so glad to have something cool to drink.
– Bring a pair of shoes that you are comfortable wearing in the rain (NOT rain boots) and can get wet and still use. Plastic sandals, nice watershoes, or those croc flats with the holes in them are good options.
– If you bring a raincoat or poncho, make sure it is light and breathable. It will rain, but it will also be super humid and hot. Also, have an umbrella and a rainsack to cover your bag with.
– Sunscreen is pretty expensive over there so bring your own. Pro-tip: Get one of those sunscreen sticks. They look like deodorant and are solid, so you don’t have to worry about the 3oz rule if you are carrying-on.
Follow the rest of Carly’s trip backpacking Southeast Asia here:
Bangkok & Koh Samet, Thailand – Solo Traveler’s Guide to Backpacking Thailand
Singapore – Solo Female Traveler’s Trip to Singapore
Tokyo, Japan – Explore the Culture of Tokyo
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