Before I started planning my trip to Vietnam, I had no idea it was such a mainstream backpacker/ expat place. Typically, when you think of Southeast Asian budget paradise, the first thing that comes to mind is Thailand; but Vietnam is actually one of the cheapest places to travel in the world! (1USD = 23,191 VND; 2019) As solo budget travel becomes increasingly popular, Vietnam finds itself more and more on the map every year.
Vietnam is a long and narrow country, but packs in a TON of attractions. Whether you're seeking big city (Ho Chi Minh), culture (Hanoi), or a tropical jungle getaway (Halong Bay) Vietnam has it; plus, so much more. I personally opted for Halong Bay- Hanoi- Ho Chi Minh; but there are any number of possibilities. Central Vietnam is also world renowned for jaw-dropping sites in Hoi An, Hue, and Da Nang.
The Cafe Apartments, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Land in Hanoi in the evening, find your hotel/ hostel and eat dinner. Pick a hotel in the Old Quarter because everything is within walking distance and you'll save on transportation. If you're up for it, feel free to venture out and grab a hearty Vietnamese dinner. If you're too exhausted from the long day, use the Grab app to order food right to your hotel. In my experience it was incredibly easy to use, delicious, cheap, and fast.
You absolutely cannot go to Vietnam without seeing Halong Bay. The deep, blue-green water against the limestone mountains is a once in a lifetime view; and because of the incredible scenery, it has become quiet the tourist spot. Good: it's easy to get to and you have a wide variety of tours to choose from. Bad: peak season can litter the view with cruise ships and tourists dawning lifejackets and selfie sticks. If you can, it's recommended that you go in the off season. With only a week to spare, you should opt for a day cruise, but if you have the luxury of going longer definitely stay for at least one night. I went with Paradise Cruise because I was looking for a day cruise with the best itinerary, and a tad of luxury. Every cruise line will offer free transportation from Hanoi (about 2.5 hours).
It's a full day aboard the ship. Starting with a Vietnamese buffet lunch and a glass of wine, get settled in and slather on the sunscreen. From about noon to sunset, you can expect to lounge on the beach, explore a cave, experience a bamboo boat ride, and hike to the best view of Halong Bay. Make sure you enjoy the view outside as the ship docks at golden hour.
It's true that Hanoi is a fairly small city with all its major sites within walking distance. Of course, you can spend an extra day to take a day trip or go outside of the city center, but 24 hours is just enough really to see the city.
Rise and shine, the first thing you need to do is try a Vietnamese egg coffee. I'm not exaggerating when I say this is the BEST coffee you will ever try. Not only is it strong enough to fuel an entire army, but the condensed milk and whipped egg makes it taste egg-sactly like liquid tiramisu. Drink it both hot and iced, but make sure you try it before you leave Hanoi; because it's just not the same down south.
First on the list is Hoan Kiem Lake. It's only 30,000 VND ($1.30) to cross the bridge and visit the Temple of the Jade Mountain.
Only a 10-minute walk away is St. Joseph's Cathedral. Vietnam is quite the quirky little country because it's Southeast Asian, but the French culture has a heavy influence on its language and architecture everywhere you go. It's not every day you see a church in Asia, but they are a little more common in Vietnam.
Not as amazing in my opinion, but equally as popular is Vietnamese coconut coffee. Blended like a frozen latte, most people opt to try it iced with shredded coconut on top. The best place in Hanoi for coconut coffee is easily The Note Café; a super cute, colorful café covered in sticky notes you can leave behind in remembrance of your time in Hanoi.
Arguably the biggest attraction in Hanoi is Train Street, which boasts miles of train track; lined with rainbow colored eateries, coffee shops, and even residences. It is a functioning train track, so check the schedule if you want to experience the train go by. Just make sure you're cooped up safely in a shop before it comes.
An interesting, cultural experience to have in Vietnam is to see a traditional water puppet show. It's a unique sight to see the creepy little puppets dance and flail around in the water, but cute, nonetheless.
Dodging rush hour motorcycle traffic choose your dinner using the Foody app; which gives you ratings, photos, and menus of restaurants in your location.
If you're not exhausted by now, head to the Loading T Café for after dinner desserts and more (egg) coffee.
Take a quick flight down south to Ho Chi Minh (referred to by the locals as Saigon) and arrive at your hostel. I found that Ho Chi Minh hosts almost 100% of the expats in Vietnam. The city is crawling with backpacking English teachers; just have a conversation with anyone in your hostel. There's a good chance they teach English; and it's always nice to find friendly travelers with a common interest to go sightseeing with.
For all your authentic souvenir needs, walk around Ben Thanh market and practice your bargaining skills with the sellers to get the best price.
For dinner and drinks, go around the corner to Ben Thanh Street Food Market. Sample all the Vietnamese (and foreign) food your stomach can handle; and because its so cheap (about 20,000 VND/ $0.86) why not wash it down with a couple beers?
Today is the day to knock some of those big-ticket items off your to-do list. Grab your morning coffee at The Loft Café and enjoy the view. Visit the Notre Dame Cathedral, and then cross the street to the Saigon Central Post Office. Spend some time taking photos in front of the vintage yellow façade before you go inside and send a postcard to your parents back home.
Spend the afternoon exploring the Café apartments, also known as 42 Nguyen Hue. The story is the building used to house shipyard workers; but as the construction needs of the city changed, the tenants started renting out their units to businesses. Of course, this is illegal, but the government never acted for whatever reason. Luckily it drew in many tourists and the economy prospered, and so it still stands today. Explore all 8 floors of cute boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants, spas, and bookstores.
You can't visit Saigon without experience the chaos of Bui Vien backpacker street. Lined with bars, clubs, street food, and hostels, this is the place for a wild night out. Considering this, I wouldn't choose a hostel here if you're looking to sleep at any point in time. The neon lights and club music rage 24/7. If clubs aren't really your scene, there is a cute little cat café at the end of the block for those looking to escape the madness.
Out of the city center in district 10 is the most exquisite coffee shop you've ever seen. Café Tram (not to be confused with Tram Café) is a two- story restaurant and coffee house, boasting fairy lights, a koi pond, and Chinese lanterns, to create a temple-esque ambiance.
After your daily dose of caffeine has hit, take a motorbike taxi to the Pink Church (Tan Dinh). The Christian church wears a Pepto-Bismol shade of pink, making it a colorful photo op for your Instagram feed.
Chill out on your last full day in Vietnam by relaxing with a tropical drink poolside at the Rex Hotel. Smack in the center of downtown, the infamous rooftop pool is a perfect place to cool down and enjoy the view of the city.
Speaking of rooftops, you can't leave Ho Chi Minh without having a beer or two at The View rooftop bar. Located just off the backpacker street, The View is appropriately named for having the best view of Saigon's neon, energetic city life; and the cheapest beer. Hint: If you go for happy hour, you'll stay all night.
Pro tip: the best memories are made by going with the wind. Allow yourself to absorb the energy of the city, people watch, or strike up a conversation with a local. Always try to leave room in your travels for spontaneous adventure.
Take the early flight out to wherever your next destination may be; or back to work. If you're on a bigger backpacking adventure than just Vietnam, almost all tour offices and hostels in Ho Chi Minh offer buses to Cambodia. Either way, your time in Vietnam is nothing short of extraordinary.
When planning your adventures, take into consideration your vacation days and teaching hours. Plan strategically so that you can maximize your time on holiday. For example, most teachers get 10 vacation days a year, plus public holidays. So, if you really want to visit as many countries as possible, maybe tack a couple of days onto the end of a weekend. Alternatively, if you're looking to explore a few countries in depth, contemplate adding several vacation days onto already long holidays. Just don't forget to plan your travels so that you arrive in plenty of time to adjust back to work life. All it takes is a missed train to throw off your whole schedule. Trust me, it's a mistake you don't want to learn the hard way. The good news is school directors are often keen to work with you, making your travel time very easy and flexible.