Exploring Vietnam: All That a Backpacker Needs to Know
Backpacking is possibly the greatest way to discover a new country, meet new people and experience different cultures. It also helps you soak in the unique and the amazing things you will see around you and appreciate your travel.
A backpacker is not a typical tourist. He is bound to have more adventure and surprises, and should expect his itinerary to change with little or no warning. The unpredictable nature of backpacking in a foreign country gives an unparalleled high to the seasoned wanderers.
Vietnam is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia. The country offers a memorable experience to the discerning explorer. Pristine beaches and quaint fishing villages, ancient cities, cloud-kissed mountains and friendly hill tribes, vibrant cities and fabulous street food; you name it, Vietnam has got it!
If you are a planning a backpacking trip to Vietnam, the following tips will prove to be helpful.
Plan Your Route Wisely
Vietnam offers so much that you will have a tough time deciding what to see and what to skip. It is a skinny country, so you can plant travel from north to south or vice-versa and fit in all the must-see destinations in your trip.
Here are a few of the favorite spots for backpackers.
In the north, the capital city of Hanoi is a great place to start your journey. Hanoi can be a quite a shock if you haven’t prepared yourself well. The city is big, busy and buzzing, and may seem chaotic and crazy to the Western visitor.
There are millions of scooters, taxis, cars, bicycles, rickshaws and buses on the road. There are no hard and fast traffic rules and you are expected to work your way around. Don’t try to locate a safe spot to cross the road, you are better off trying to wind your way in-between the continuous flow of traffic. Don’t stand still and once you get the hang of it, you will get over your terror.
The Old Quarter is a unique experience and you will get a real taste of Vietnamese life and culture here. The roads and lanes are narrow and traffic meanders between hair-cutting saloons and vendors who operate from right in the middle of the road!
Ha Long Bay is another place to not miss if you are backpacking North Vietnam. This is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous for the limestone karsts that dot the landscape.
Vietnam’s highest peak Fansipan is also located in the northern part of the country. There are lovely beaches too if you find enough time to fit them in your itinerary. The wide variety of water sports available should make any adventurer mighty pleased.
North Vietnam offers unbeatable diversity to backpackers. You can trek the lovely mountains and spent time with the ancient hill tribes that inhabit them.
Central Vietnam is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Towns of Hue and Hoi An.
Hoi An is the place to visit if you want to return home with tailored suits and dresses that are well-fitting and surprisingly affordable. The town is populated with hundreds of tailors and this is what originally made the town famous for. The town is laid back and though a tourist attraction, does not appear tourist-centric. The warm and non-intrusive air is what visitors love about Hoi An.
You can take a stroll through the quiet pedestrian town and also visit the beach nearby.
Hue is famed for ancient temples, mainly the Imperial Citadel. But most of the landmark structures have been destroyed in the numerous wars and conflicts that Vietnam has been witness to, so be ready to be slightly disheartened.
The nearby Tombs of the Emperors are a great way to explore ancient Buddhist architecture, and Vietnamese culture and aesthetics.
South Vietnam is a tourist’s paradise. Be sure you earmark enough days to explore Ho Chi Minh City.
The motorcycle tours here are famous or notorious, depending upon your perception. This is quite an expensive trip, but worth every dollar you splurge. It will take you riding pillion across the length and breadth of the city at breakneck speed. If whizzing through busy Vietnam streets at lightning speed is not your thing, you can skip this. But give it a try, I say, provided you are not pregnant or weak-hearted.
The local markets are stunning and bewildering. The sights, smells and experiences you have will last forever. Live frogs, slithering eels, souvenirs, handicrafts and livestock of all variety are a few things you get to see here.
The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City gives visitors a peak into Vietnam’s painful past. The visit will be shocking and distressing in most parts, but the perils of wars and their effects on humanity are made amply clear to all.
Nha Trang is the place you should be heading to for a night of hard partying. There are innumerable pubs and bars dotting the beachside city, and beer is damn cheap. Also you can go for a swim in the morning to cure the hangover!
Mui Ne is the wind-surfing capital of Vietnam and this charming fishing village offers plenty for backpackers to explore and discover.
Mekong Delta is another popular backpacking destination in South Vietnam. You can explore this region on a motorbike. There are rivers and tributaries crisscrossing the region inviting exploration. The delta is dotted with rice and paddy fields and locals do not find it offending if you choose to ride over heaped grains, because very often that is the only way to go.
It's Best to Go Unplanned and Improvise as You Go Along
Do not plan your route, stops and duration of stay at each place beforehand. This will prevent you from experiencing the vagaries, the excitement and the adventure that you will have while backpacking in a foreign country.
Seasoned tourists vouch by seeing Vietnam on motorbikes. You can go off the beaten track and truly relish the local flavor.
Do not buy multi-stop bus/train tickets in advance. This will be highly restrictive and you will spend plenty of time trying to juggle your trip around the bus time-table.
Relish the mind-boggling variety of street food that Vietnam offers. Pho Bo (steaming beef noodles) and Bia Hoi (traditional draft beer) are must-try.
Like in all tourist spots, scams and overcharging are quite common. Always ask ‘how much’ beforehand and don’t fall into traps. Be careful with your money and spend wisely. Make it clear to the locals that you are not a sitting duck; this will save you plenty of trouble and heart burn.
Backpackers are not tourists, they are wanderers. And once you succumb to wanderlust there will be nothing strong enough to stop you from hopping on to the next flight. Alien and diverse cultures are any wanderer’s dream come true, and it won’t get any better than in Vietnam. Vietnam is a truly amazing experience, one that will satiate all your senses and want you coming back for more.
Eric Andujar is a freelance writer and traveler. He writes about the best destinations and travel deals. One of his favorite places on Earth is Vietnam and he loves talking to people about the country, how to get a visa Vietnam and why it’s a country that needs to be visited at all costs.