Plan your backpacking Vietnam budget (from $15 per day) and route from Saigon to Hanoi by train – with this DIY itinerary for 10 days.
The only thing I would change about our 10 days in Vietnam – would be to make it longer. It is the kind of country that you travel through, not just stopping in the capital to tick it off your bucket list. The long stretch of land and a sturdy rail system makes it an easy country to backpack, or even bike, if you are feeling brave.
The distinctive Vietnamese cuisine, culture, and landscapes will have you talking about this magnificent country, long after leaving. It has a special place in my heart and I hope by sharing these experiences you will have the best possible Vietnam backpacking trip. This article includes:
- Vietnam backpacking route
- Traveling Vietnam by train
- Vietnam backpacking itinerary
- My budget for 10 days in Vietnam.
You can also read my ex-pat and digital nomad guide to Vietnam for information on:
- Applying for a tourist visa in Vietnam
- Buying a SIM card
- Renting a scooter
- Getting cash out without paying huge fees.
Vietnam backpacking route
Most travelers in Vietnam either travel south to north or north to south. Your Vietnam backpacking route will depend on how much time you have and your chosen method of travel. If you are planning on riding a motorbike or hitchhiking then you are going to be traveling at a much slower pace than someone who is taking the train or bus.
We traveled north by train and in 10 days were able to cover Nha Trang, Da Nang (and Hoi An), Hue, Vinh, and Hanoi. Although as we were living in Nha Trang, I would add a couple of extra days at the beginning of the itinerary so you can enjoy the city. With two weeks, you could either add Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) before Nha Trang, Halong Bay or Sapa at the end.
With three to four weeks, you could do them all and consider adding some of the other popular destinations including:
- Dalat: the green hill town a 4-hour bus inland from Nha Trang
- Ninh Bình: referred to as the cheaper alternative to Halong Bay, 1-2 hours south of Hanoi
- Phu Quoc: southern Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia.
Traveling Vietnam by Train
Buses can be one of the cheapest options for travel in Vietnam, however, as I get motion sickness we opted for trains. There are a lot of other benefits to traveling by train, including the ability to get up and walk around. Most of the trips between the major cities can be eight or more hours, so paying a little bit extra to stretch may be worth it. Also, the travel time on trains can be shorter than by bus.
When purchasing your tickets, you will have the option of a hard or soft seat. Don’t be swayed by the lower prices of hard seats, it is literally a wooden bench! For overnight trips, you also have the option of sleeper carriages which are clean and comfortable.
You can book your tickets directly at the station. Most ticket sellers we met didn’t speak English but were adept at making the booking with a bit of finger-pointing at a schedule.
Vietnam backpacking itinerary
Day 1: Nha Trang
Where to eat in Nha Trang: ABC Bakery for a Banh Mi Thit Bo, Cafe Milano for a Ca Phe Sua Phin, and Quan pho Hong Gian for Pho Bo. If you want international food, check out the incredible Mix Resturant.
Nha Trang is considered to have one of the best beaches in Vietnam. Although some will argue that there are too many tourists and Qui Nhon is lesser developed and nicer. If you go to Hon Chong Rocks and get swamped by the tour groups, you will probably agree (which is why we never went!). But there is so much more to Nha Trang that makes it my favorite city.
My boyfriend and I actually rented a studio apartment here and lived for a whole month on an average of $12 USD per day. This walkable city provides the perfect setting for a relaxed lifestyle with plenty of fun things to do. In addition to the stunning beach that stretches in front of Nha Trang, you can rent a scooter to visit Bai Dai or Doc Let for a bit more privacy.
Around town, you have the Long Sơn Pagoda (free), Po Nagar Tower (22,000 Dong), and an incredible food scene! There is a night market but it’s really just for tourists buying souvenirs. If you want to experience a local food market, you can go to Cho Xom Moi but please be respectful of the people working there. Try not to get in anyone’s way and don’t take photos without permission.
Near the night market, you can also get a cheap one hour massage for as little as 150,000 Dong. They might start at a higher price but you don’t need to haggle very hard to get a good deal.
If you are hankering for international food or struggling to find vegetarian options, then head to Mix Restaurant (their vegetarian platters are extremely generous and ridiculously tasty – even if you are a meat-eater).
Overnight train to Da Nang
To travel from Nha Trang to Da Nang, Max and I booked an overnight train that lasted about 10 hours. We made the mistake of choosing hard seats (120,000 Dong each) and once we boarded, I realized why the ticket seller looked so surprised when we bought them.
Hard seats on Vietnamese trains are literally wooden benches. The locals who buy these tickets, go prepared with mats and blankets to lay on the floor so they can get a good night’s rest. Safe to say, we did not. The light stayed on the whole night and the windows opened, which resulted in me getting a bad cold. Pay the extra dollars to get the soft seats!
Day 2: Da Nang
Where to eat in Da Nang: Street food vendors.
Our first day in Da Nang was mostly spent sleeping after our bad night on the train. The only things we managed to enjoy was Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese iced coffee with milk) at a local cafe, and ramen at a Japanese restaurant.
Da Nang reportedly has great street food – so get out there, try it all, and let me know what is good in the comments. The beaches also look amazing, at least from what I saw from the back of a scooter.
Day 3: Marble Mountains and Hoi An
Where to eat in Hoi An: Banh Mi Phuong.
One of the main reasons we came to Da Nang, was to visit Hoi An. There is a direct train connection from Nha Trang to Da Nang, and the accommodation was cheaper there. In the end, it was more cost-effective to stay in Da Nang and visit Hoi An as a day trip. We rented a scooter in Da Nang for 150,000 Dong (plus 30,000 for fuel), which was more expensive than what we were paying in Nha Trang at 100,000 Dong per day.
When traveling to Hoi An from Da Nang, there is a mystical attraction along the way. Marble Mountains is something that needs to be seen. It is a cluster of five hills with caves and temples inside. It cost us around 40,000 Dong each to get inside the caves and see the unique sculptures and lightning. There is also supposed to be a great view from the top of the mountain but I think it is a separate entrance and fee.
Continuing on to Hoi An, the entire journey by scoot is around 45 minutes direct. Hoi An is one of the most loved destinations by tourists and has quickly become popular with digital nomads moving here. This UNESCO listed old town is utterly charming with colorful streets and no cars. The prices of food and drinks will be a little more expensive here than in Da Nang and Nha Trang, but you can still find a deal if you head away from the old town.
Day 4: Train to Hue
From Da Nang to Hue we purchased train tickets with a soft seat in second class (35,000 Dong each). The journey was much shorter at 2.5 hours and really enjoyable.
Day 5-6: Hue
Where to eat in Hue: You can buy cheap and tasty Banh Mi and Pho from street vendors.
When you arrive in Hue by train, I highly recommend that you walk from the station to the center if you can. The path takes you along the river where you will find beautiful parks and gardens. This road, Le Loi, is also reportedly where they have markets every night.
The center surprisingly caters to tourists, something that I did not see anywhere else in such a highly concentrated rate. It is not developed in the sense of being overly commercial or built up, but the majority of the restaurants in this area are charging tourist prices (also don’t be surprised if you get offered weed on every street corner). We stayed just north of the center and could find a few low-cost street food and restaurants there.
The big highlight of Hue is The Imperial City, a walled palace, and a UNESCO heritage site that was previously used by the Nguyen dynasties. The giant complex is now open to the public, with different prices depending on which section you want to see. Unluckily for me, I was horribly sick for two days and only saw the outside of The Imperial City.
Overnight train to Vinh
After our disastrous overnight train journey from Nha Trang to Da Nang with the hard seats, we splurged a little to buy tickets in a second class sleeper to go to Vinh (220,000 Dong). We slept in a six-bed carriage, but there may also be an option to have four-bed. The mattresses are narrow but comfortable and we had a good sleep before arriving in Vinh at some crazy hour like 5 AM.
Day 7: Vinh and train to Hanoi
Where to eat in Vinh: Street food carts outside the Vinh train station and Pho Bo at local restaurants.
The reason for our stop in Vinh, was really to break up the journey between Hue and Hanoi. But in retrospect, it probably would have been better to push through to Ninh Bình as there really is not much to do in Vinh. We stayed just one day to rest (I was still sick) and enjoyed the local dishes. You can get good Ca Phe Sua Da and Pho Bo at any of the local restaurants in the area, also there are some great street food options in front of the train station.
Day 8-10: Hanoi
Hanoi is a true foodie paradise! So much so, that we quickly went over our usual daily limit (around $12 USD) to indulge in all the incredible dishes. Before even arriving at our Airbnb, Max had picked out a well-rated restaurant for Bun Bo Nam Bo. This is beef and noodles, southern style, served in a jungle-themed restaurant. We had the main dish and loved the different textures with a contrast between smooth and crunchy.
This was a great start to a series of incredible meals during our time in Hanoi. This is matched by the fun nightlife. Here you can find the cheapest beer in the world, Bia Hoi. This beer is only in the north and can be enjoyed for as little as 6,000-,8000 Dong ($0.26-$0.35). We went to Bia Hoi Corner at around 10 PM to sample but it was all sold out for the night. If that happens to you, don’t despair as there are many other refreshing and cheap varieties of Vietnamese beer to try.
While in Hanoi, we stayed in the old quarter and managed to get around completely on foot. One of my favorite things to do in Vietnam is to find local cafes and drink Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese iced coffee). Vietnamese cafes can be lively and animated, with a lot of people chatting with their friends and taking time to enjoy their coffee. In addition to trying the traditional coffee, you must try a Cafe Phe Trung (egg coffee) which is only in the north. I paid 30,000 Dong for mine but you may have to search a little to find one that cheap in this area.
The most well-known attractions in the old quarter are Hoan Kiem Lake and Hoa Lo Prison Museum. The lake is beautiful to walk around in the later afternoon, while people watching. If you plan to take photos, come earlier, as it gets busy. Hao Lo Prison Museum was formerly Maison Centrale used to hold Vietnamese revolutionaries during French colonialism, then American Prisoners of War (POWs) during the Vietnamese War. Two important aspects of recent Vietnamese history. It costs 30,000 Dong to enter.
My budget for 10 days in Vietnam
All costs are quoted in the local currency (Vietnamese Dong). See below for the average daily spend per person including currency conversion to USD and AUD. I always try to find and negotiate the best prices to share with my readers. If you know of a better deal, tell me about it in the comments below.
Accommodation: My boyfriend and I searched for the best deals for private rooms with free wifi.
- Da Nang: Private room and bathroom in a hotel for two people (117,000 Dong per night). We stayed at Da Nang Center 2 Hotel but don’t recommend it, so look for other accommodation options in Da Nang.
- Hue: Private room and bathroom in a basic guesthouse for two people (125,000 Dong per night). See prices at Daisy Hostel or look at other accommodation options in Hue.
- Vinh: Private room and bathroom in a nice guesthouse for two people (205,000 Dong per night). See prices at Thanh Dat Guesthouse or look at other accommodation options in Vinh.
- Hanoi: Private room and shared bathroom in an Airbnb for two people (265,000 Dong per night).
Food: You can’t drink the tap water in Vietnam and as only the guesthouse in Vinh provided free water refills, we had to buy bottled water almost every day. None of the guesthouses we stayed at offered free breakfast, although In Hue and Hanoi, we had access to hot water and cups, so we bought our own instant coffee and milk to save money. For our meals, we ate mostly street food (Banh Mi, Pho, etc) and at local restaurants. We splurged more in Hanoi but the food scene there is fantastic and should be enjoyed. (142,050 Dong average per day on food and drink).
Activities: One hour massage in Nha Trang (150,000 Dong), Marble Mountains (40,000 Dong), Hoa Lo Prison Museum (30,000 Dong).
Transport: Overnight train from Nha Trang to Da Nang with a hard seat (120,000 Dong), scooter rental in Da Nang (75,000 each), fuel for the scooter (15,000 each), train from Da Nang to Hue with a soft seat (35,000 Dong), an overnight train from Hue to Vinh in a shared six-person sleeper (220,000 Dong), train from Hue to Hanoi with a soft seat (115,000 Dong)
Other: Clothes washing at the Airbnb in Hanoi (30,000 Dong).
Average daily spend: 346,950 Dong each* ($20.15 AUD / $15.25 USD as of 26 May 2018).
*This daily amount could be reduced by cutting back on the beer (oops!) and sticking more strictly to street food in Hanoi.
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