Well maybe a few more seconds… As with any country there’s a standard route that’s traveled. In the case of Vietnam, it’s North to South coming from Laos, and that’s what I would recommend (over South to North). So here we go;
Hanoi – The Smaller yet more cultural of the two major cities. Stay at “Hanoi Backpackers”; walk the city, see a museum, and get to Sapa or Halong bay (Read below). Staying at Hanoi Backpackers will ensure you’ll meet many of the same friends on your trek south towards Ho Chi Minh City, as they know how to unite people through beer.
Sapa – A beautiful rice step farming community that offers the opportunity to stay with a local family. You can do it on your own for cheap ($50ish), but expect a quiet, peaceful, beautiful trip. If you’re a backpacker you probably want a quiet, peaceful, beautiful trip and good people with plenty of free rice wine to share the experience with (wink, you know who you are). In that case, book through Hanoi Backpackers ($120ish, a lot of the extra price goes to a more expensive sleeper train ride, but it’s comfy as hell and includes a free toothbrush). Also, don’t forget your hiking boots! Fun Fact about Sapa; They originally applied to be an opium farm but were denied the license, so grew rice instead.
Ha Long Bay – A beautiful bay with islands of shear cliffs rising from the ocean all round you. Again, you can do a boat cruise for cheap through any local travel agency (they’re everywhere and will run you about $50-$100 everything inlcuded), or you can do it the backpacker way (It’s $210, very expensive! but read about Castaway and see if it’s right for you).
Hue – Very significant during the Vietnam War with a many relevant and popular historic sites (i.e. the Citadel).
Hoi An – Food, shopping and very pretty (I didn’t go). Suppose to be some of the best food in all of Vietnam and great shopping. Also, the place to go for custom suits and clothing. Some tailors are dirt cheap and some are fixed and a little more pricey. Ask your hostel/guest house for recommendations, as there are some very high quality tailors but plenty of ripoffs.
Hue vs. Hoi An – Many try to choose one or the other, as I did… either do that based on above, or choose option three; Start at one and do one of the motorbike tours to the other. You can ride on the back of a motorbike or rent your own with a guide (or go all solo, but if you do, don’t tell the bike rental shop your leaving the town. They’ll charge 4x as much). Everyone who chose this motorbike option loved it.
Na Trang – A beach front city that has it all. You can relax at the beach all day, go to a mud spa, or to the water amusement park for like $4, shop; whatever you want… It’s a city with a beach. It also has a very established backpacking culture which means booze cruises and backpacker bars. While booze cruises are plentiful around Asia, the one’s in Na Trang do offer something a little different, making it worth it. PS. Lots of Russian’s.
Mui Ne – A pretty and small beach fishing community with awesome sand dunes. Many go here to relax and see the beautiful sand dunes. I did not go and regret it. It’s a good stop in between Na Trang and Ho Chi Ming City; it breaks up the bus ride and can be done in a day or two.
Ho Chi Minh City – The Vietnam’s largest and most modern city. Most go and see the “Cu Chi Tunnels” which were part of the underground network of tunnels used to fight America during the war (Two hours outside the city and only around $15 for a day trip). Some take two day trips to the “Delta’s”; A river network outside the city said to be beautiful. At night most drink in the backpacker area where there are hundreds of child sized plastic chairs crammed together and beers are 50 cents. A fun and funny experience for a night or two.
I try to keep these overviews short and sweet, but ask any questions you’d like. For instance; what was it like being woken up at 2am by two drunk, hot, half naked girls running around the dorm room wasted (an Aussie and English). There were two more girl’s, but they were sober and kept their bra and undies on.