VIETNAM: backpacking from the south to the north

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Coming in to Ho Chi Minh City from Cambodia was a pretty easy bus ride and the border check was rather quick. After staying in the city a couple of days and exploring the Mekong Delta we moved on towards the north. Altogether it was about a month and we ate so many delicious new foods, the countryside is so diverse that you almost forget what you have all seen when you come to the end. From big towns with great history to beaches, jungles, rice fields, and limestone islands. It´s more developed and more expensive than Cambodia, but still relatively cheap. There are also, much more tourists here. We had some inconveniences with the locals trying to get money out of us, at times being also quite persistent and even aggressive. And the officials often did not not know important information. And again, there was the „crossing the road“ problem, but it did seem a bit more organized than in Phnom Penh for instance. We successfully escaped all the Buzz and Fuss and spend a few great days in the Ninh Binh area, cycling around the fields and enjoying the nature.

Who: 2 friends

When: November 2007

Visited: Ho Chi Minh, Can Tho, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Ninh Binh, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Mai Chau

How: low budget backpacking

Stayed in: guesthouses



Between the towns we used the so-called Open Bus, which costed only 20$ in total and brought us from Mui Ne to Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Ninh Binh and Hanoi. The sleeper bus version will cost more. For some reason we really both liked to walk a lot, so we almost never took some sort of transportation in the cities. I think we also wanted to save money on that, since we had the time to walk and were never in a hurry. If your legs hurt then just take a „cyclo“- a three-wheel bicycle taxi. Definitely a good choice to rent and explore the countryside on rented bicycles! There are also many different organized trips to the Mekong Delta, Halong Bay and similar which last from 1 to 3 days and there everything is taken care of by your guides (pick up, ferry, boates, accomodation…). There is also north-south railway connection, but we never used the train. One last advice: take warm sweaters for the bus ride, the AC can be crazy. And if you are not a deep sleeper, expect to have a lousy night on a night bus (the horn just doesn´t seem to stop beeping), so bring your earplugs!

Cham Commune, Prey Veng, Cambodia to Sam Neua, Houaphan, Laos - Google Maps - Mozilla Firefox 15042015 095604


You can pay with US$ almost everywhere, but have some VND ready for the markets. ATMs are easily accessible. We paid 35$ for the visa (done that in Phnom Pehn at the embassy). Breakfasts were 1-2$, dinner 2-5$ (in restaurants), beer and fruit shakes usually 1$. The cheapest hotel was 3$ per person and the most expensive one 6$ per person. A 2 day trip to the Mekong Delta was 15$ and a 2 day trip to Halong Bay was 25$ (food and accomodation included). Prices for such trips vary a lot, so do check with different agencies and negotiate the price. Actually, you can negotiate for pretty much everything – even for a bottle of water at the street seller. Bicycle for a day was 1$, motorbike 6-8$.


Delicious, cheap and available on every corner. After weeks on the road I did start to miss the potatoes a bit. And red wine. But the fish, amazing fruits, snacks and local beer were not a bad alternative at all. „Pho“- the traditional noodle soup for breakfast is a must, but if you are feeling extremely adventurous there are also restaurants with snakes, rats, dogs, or porcupine on the menu. We were quite satisfied with just the usual stuff.. In bigger cities you can also find Japanese, Italian, Thai, Indian and other restaurants. Try the extremely cheap local draft beer (bia hoi). Coffee will come with the sweet condensed milk, if you do not like that, tea is a great alternative. My new favourite: chilli salted pineapple!

vietnam food1

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Huge busy city, also known as Saigon, with lots of parks and an interesting mix of old and new architecture. You can easily spend more days there and visit the museums, markets, palaces and restaurants. The cheapest area to stay is Pham Ngu Lao, where you also find many bars, nightclubs and tourist agencies.



Here it looks like evyrthing is built on the water. Floating markets, houses, schools and pagodas. Imagine being in a small wooden boat, making your way through the waterways, trying not to get stuck into the palm leaves hanging down from the banks and observing the everyday life. If you get the chance, stay at a local family for the night.

mekong delta



Ok this is a funny place. The beach is probably the reason why you stop there in the first place, but you can discover places which might surprise you. Like sand dunes and canyons (prepare to be hassled for money from the little „guides“) and russian restaurants. Before we left Europe we did make a loose plan where we want to go, but of corse we did not read every single detail and we were really almost schocked to find such sand dunes in Vietnam.

mui ne


There is the beach, there are some islands around for snorkelling, some huge smelling fish drying places and many many many blue boats.

nha trang


Tailor shops, everywhere you look. For best deals head straight to the market. It did look like everyone was working for someone and everyone was getting a commission for bringing you somewhere. We were there in 2007 and I can only imagine its even worse now. Other than that the town is quite picturesque. Funny I say that and have almost no photos of the place. Maybe we were just too caught up in the whole „oh-i-need-new-custom-made-shorts-and-shoes“ spirit. There are also some cool galleries and small art shops. Head to China beach if you feel like it´s time for a swim.


For us this was just a short stop along the way, so we just walked around a bit, the weather was not coorporating so that´s why we moved on pretty soon. But it looked like an interesting town, with a citadele (under Unesco).



This place was really nice. It was sooo peaceful and almost no tourists. Most of them come on a day tour from Hanoi and visit the ancient capitol, Hoa Lu and the Tam Coc caves. The first morning we just took an aimless walk into the town and ate breakfast with the locals on the street, drank coffee with an old lady who spoke no english and just observed every day life. It was all somehow quieter and slower and the climate was nice. Scenic bicycle trips, the countryside is similar to Halong Bay, but on land.


ninh binh


The capital. Somehow surprisingly clean and organised. Again, many parks in the center, museums, mausoleums, temples and markets. I was never in China, but Hanoi looked a bit like it. For a change go and see the water puppet show.




A wonderful area of countless limestone pillars and islands rising out of the sea. Overnight on a ship is a great idea, explore the bay kayaking and just enjoy the scenery. There are also the famous caves you can visit – honestly i do not understand the purpose of „green-red-blue-pink lights“ in the caves, but maybe that´s just my personal taste. We spend our evenings relaxing on the boat deck talking to fellow travellers.

halong bay

Originally we planned to go up to Sapa to do some trekking, but once we were in Hanoi, we felt like the time spend in Vietnam was coming to an end. We needed to rest our ears from all the beeping horns, and the idea to cross the border to Laos turned out to be a great one (but only once we were on the other side)!


Seems like there were not many tourists who wanted to cross the border at this specific crossing, so we did have a bit of a hard time organizing this leg of the trip. After being persuaded from the guesthouse lady that this is a bad idea and we should just take some other route (which would take too much time and would bring us to a complete different part in Laos), we finaly convinced her, that we do want to do it our way. She sold us the bus tickets and said the bus will take us to the last stop and then we need to find our way from there. As we were about to leave the hotel, she informed us that our first bus from Hanoi was postponed and that we can wait some more in the hotel. Then it turned out that the bus was not postponed so we had to urgently take a taxi to the station in order not to miss it. as ee came to the station the bus was full (having bought tickets for the trip did not help us). They offered us to sit on those mini plastic chairs in the aisle, but that was not what we paid for and it sounded impossible to sit on those for such a long time. After some discussion they called us a taxi back to the guesthouse, where we demanded our money back. Unlucky for us, there was another guy at the reception who claimed he did not know what was going on and only after long discussions and a few phonecalls he did give us a free room for the night, since it was not our fault that we are not at the bus and it was already late in the evening.

The next morning we talked to the woman who sold us the bus tickets in the first place and surprisingly she had no problems giving us the money back. Another day, another try. This time it worked, off to the Ha Dong bus station, paid for a minivan that was supposed to bring us to Mai Chau – but we had to switch to a bus in Hoa Binh (pay for this bus again). The bus got broken soon and we had to wait about 2hrs, but we were already used to such things. Finaly we arrived in Mai Chau when it was almost dark. We are talking about 160km, but it took us the whole day. It was time to find a place to sleep and it actually turned out to be a nice evening.

Next day we were taken to the Na Maew/Nam Xoi border crossing with an older russian jeep and after about 7 hours of smelling the gasoline filled air we were finaly at the border! Our visas were done already in Hanoi, so crossing was easy peasy. There were almost no other people, just some friendly officers who even arranged a place to sleep for us just 200m away, at a friendly family. Since it was getting dark already we were extremely happy that we were finaly on the other side!

laos border crossing

We had a good time in Vietnam and could easily spend another month if we wanted to see more. We left out places like Dalat, Danang, Sapa and the Phu Quoc island, but to see everything is always impossible. Even if you have 3 months time.




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