If you only have time for one SE Asian country, make it Vietnam. With its superb street food, long stretches of beach, minority hill tribes, ancient cities and monuments, stunning trekking opportunities, unreal scenery, and motorbike routes galore, Vietnam makes the perfect vacation.
But for all the pluses, Vietnam is also developing a reputation for being a difficult country to travel through, with locals trying to rip off tourists at every turn. The tips below will help you avoid the worst and find the best in this country that really can claim to have it all.
Pick your destinations wisely
Vietnam eats a one-month visa like Rob eats bun cha—voraciously! Even with 31 days, we had to skip several sights, but our favorites from what we did see were Mui Ne for natural scenery, Hoi An for architecture and food, Sapa for man-conquered nature, Hanoi for city you could live in, and Ha Giang for so far off-the-beaten-track that they think dog is vegetarian. Surprising even us, Halong Bay didn't make our top destination list. It's beautiful, but it didn't surpass the pictures.
Avoid the "open tour" buses
While these may seem like a good deal, they limit your options and pin you as a tourist, which makes you more ripe for theft. By booking bus tickets one at a time, we had maximum flexibility and actually ended up saving money compared to the open tour option!
Eat the street food
It's amazing, and each city has its own specialty! For about $5/day, you can have tons of delicious food and really experience Vietnamese cuisine. In fact, during our 30 days in the country, we only ate at restaurants four times! In addition to eating the food, make sure to try the "bia hoi" or fresh beer. It's super cheap, refreshing, and puts you right in the heart of local life.
Say it when bus drivers try to charge you extra for bags, when someone attempts to move you to a bad seat, when hotels want to keep your passport overnight, really whenever you feel something fishy is going on. Usually saying "no" two or three times did the trick as the Vietnamese, like all Asians, don't want to "lose face," especially because of a foreigner.
Always ask "how much?"
We met several groups of travelers who were charged up the wazoo for their meals because they never inquired about the price. Ask beforehand and the locals will be too scared to rip you off. Forget to ask, and your noodles may cost an arm and a leg.
Take the buses, but be prepared
We met travelers who paid more for one train ticket than we did for all transport over four weeks—just because agents told them the buses were "bad." Don't get ripped off, and don't let the travel agents scare you. The night buses are, in all honesty, fine, if not actually good. You just have to know what to expect. Bring a fleece, a pillow, earplugs, and an eye mask. And make sure you get a seat/bed on the top level in the middle of the bus by having the agent you book with write down—in Vietnamese—that that's seat you paid for. If you're stuck on the bottom, it's very likely that you'll become someone's cuddle buddy.
Don't book tours/excursions at your hotel
This is especially true if you're staying at a cheap guesthouse. The way these places make most of their money is by up-marking their tours. Even if the price seems "cheap," head to a travel agency and inquire about the price there. The best and most helpful one we found in Hanoi was Lily's Travel at 18 Ngo Huyen. Using Lily, we paid about half of what other travelers paid for the exact same tours.
Destination specific tips
See our one month Vietnam itinerary for tips on specific destinations in Vietnam.
Leave your tips for backpacking Vietnam in the comments!