50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

We’ve gone through many rounds of trial and error while traveling, especially during the time we spent in SE Asia. If you’re headed to this part of the world, check out our top 50 take aways from five months in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

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Best of Vietnam

A breakdown of our favorite places to explore, things to do, and experiences to splurge on in Vietnam.

Best Experiences to Do for Free (or very cheaply)

War Remnants Museum (Saigon)

Wander around the night markets

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Explore the Old Town of Hoi An

Rent bikes or scooters and wander around (Tam Coc)

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Hike 450 stairs up Hang Mua, a.k.a. Lying Dragon Mountain (Tam Coc)

River tour (Tam Coc)

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Wander around the Old Town of Hanoi

Explore the lakes around Hanoi

Try egg drop coffee (Hanoi)

Rent a swan boat on the lake (Hanoi)

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Train Street (Hanoi)

 

Best Experiences to Splurge On

Cu Chi Tunnels (Saigon)

Canyoning and jungle trekking (Dalat)

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Tailoring clothes (Hoi An)

Oxalis Tour in Phong Nha National Park

Kayaking tour in Phong Nha Cave

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Ha Long Bay cruise

Bar crawl (Hanoi)

Motorcycle road trip (Ha Giang Loop)

 

Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

Canyoning in Dalat (the tours take the photos for you!)

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Old Town lanterns in Hoi An

Anywhere in the jungles of Phong Nha National Park

The top of Hang Mua in Tam Coc

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Landscapes of the Ha Giang province 

Bikini pics in Ha Long Bay

 

Best Restaurants & Bars

Secret Garden Restaurant (Saigon)

Pho Hoa - The Family Dynasty One (Saigon)

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Broma Not a Bar (Saigon)

The Gin House (Saigon)

Whiskey & Wares (Saigon)

The Maze Bar (Dalat)

The BBQ place in Dalat, ask someone at Wolfpack Hostel, they’ll know

Either of the Morning Glory restaurants, they also offer cooking classes! (Hoi An)

**DO NOT MISS** Banh Mi Queen (Hoi An)

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Jim’s Snackbar (Hoi An)

Mr Bean Bar (Hoi An)

Bamboo Cafe (Phong Nha)

Paradise Pizza (Phong Nha)

Andy’s Bar and Restaurant (Phong Nha)

Oasis Bar (Cat Ba Island)

Pasteur Street Brewing Co. (Saigon & Hanoi)

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Bit Tet Chim Quay (pop up restaurant, corner of Hang Buom and Hang Giay)

The Alchemist (Hanoi)

Mojito Bar (Hanoi)

Polite and Co. (Hanoi)

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The Mad Botanist (Hanoi)

 

Best Places to Stay on a Budget

Bui Vien Hostel (Saigon)

Wolfpack Hosel (Dalat)

Hoa Binh (Hoi An)

Trang An River Homestay (Tam Coc)

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Catba Central Hostel (Cat Ba Island)

Babylon Garden Inn Hostel (Hanoi)

 

Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did

Sapa terraces

Chu Chi Tunnels

Mekong Delta

Phu Quoc, Nha Trang, and other southern islands

Tailored Clothes and Night Markets in Hoi An

If you have a slightly better idea of all the places you’re going than we typically do, you already know on your way to Hoi An that this is THE place in Vietnam to shop till you drop. It was by chance that we were traveling with someone who knew that Hoi An is world famous for tailored clothing, so we had some time to prepare before we arrived.

It is absolutely overwhelming how many tailored clothing stores there are in this colorful city. There are hundreds of tailors, thousands of fabrics, and millions of styles for you to choose from, and it’s quite intimidating to navigate without a bit of prep. You typically will need at least 2-3 days to get any one thing done, because clothes need to be measured and adjusted multiple times, and longer than that if you’re getting a substantial number of things (guilty). 

Here’s what worked and didn’t work for us throughout our tailoring experience in Hoi An. 

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Getting Clothes Tailored in Hoi An

Step 1: Know what you want (kind of) and know your budget

PINTEREST my friends. Anyone who knows me, or at least my social media habits, knows that I’m a self-professed queen of Pinterest. I’m addicted. It’s the virgo in me, can’t get enough of lists and folders and folders within folders. 

Other than helping me navigate the arduous task of learning how to cook for myself in college, Pinterest served all of us so well in Hoi An. The best way to get what you want out of your tailoring experience in Hoi An is to know what you want before you go. Every tailor will try and sell you on more ideas, more options, this coat, that blouse, but if you know what you want you’re way more likely to get exactly that.

Sounds redundant, right? You’d be surprised at how many people buy things in this city and then wonder why they made the choices they did after they leave. Trust me, explore Pinterest and the wider internet and think to yourself, “what do I want tailored?” AND, “what would I buy designer if I had all the money in world?”

To get you started, here are some ideas we, or someone we knew, started with:

  • Tailored, two piece suits

  • Linen dresses and pants

  • Winter coats

  • Burberry or Coach winter coat (they will come out EXACTLY the same minus the fancy logo)

  • Leather jackets & biker vests

  • Leather shoes

  • Formal dresses & jumpsuits

After figuring out an idea of what you want, figure out how much you want to pay, total, for everything you get. As you go around the shops, you’ll get an idea of what each item you want will cost and you can deduct it from your total budget. This is the best way to not go over what you want to spend, which is easy to do here!

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Step 2: Exploring your options

Since we arrived a day early, Sim and I spent a whole just wandering the area around our hostel and checking in on all the shops around our block. I really, really recommend taking this step before you begin getting things made. Prices, fabrics, and tailor skill will all vary A LOT, so it’s worth going around with your budget and your pictures to figure out the best place(s) to get things made. 

We took pictures of stores and fabrics that we liked so that we knew which to go back to and what we wanted to get made in each. If they couldn’t give us a price we wanted, we kept going. The tailors will try and convince you to buy something immediately because most of their business happens on the spot. Don’t get roped in! They will be right where you left them tomorrow. 

*TIP* The tailor shops on the main streets and in Old Town are bigger, more popular, and comparatively more expensive. We walked around a square block and found everything we wanted for decidedly cheaper than we would’ve found it on the Main Street. 

The hostel we stayed at was called Hoa Binh Hostel in Cam Pho Ward and it was great. Amazing breakfast, cheap and clean rooms, nice showers, etc. THAT AREA is great for tailors that will be a little less busy and less pricey than those on Duong Tran Hung Dao (nearby main street).

 

Step 3: Choosing your tailors

Like I said, there are endless options for you here. We chose our tailors (we used about 5-6 different ones between all of us) based on a couple of criteria:

  • Fabric (quality, color, texture, etc.)

  • Price (you can always negotiate but you’ll quickly see it varies quite a bit, especially from material to material)

  • Time (the whole process can take a while, so always check you have enough time before paying for anything!)

Take pictures and get quotes from a number of places before narrowing it down. It’s the easiest way to get exactly what you want!

Here are a couple of the tailor shops we used that we would recommend. They’re all located on the block around Hoa Binh Hostel.

  • LyLy Tailors

  • Rubin Tailors

  • Babi Tailors (these ladies were AMAZING - we all got numerous things at a great price and the quality was perfect)

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Step 4: Negotiating

Now for the fun part…

The entire tailoring process can be negotiated. This is the main reason I recommend shopping around before choosing a tailor. You’ll get a good sense of what something should cost and you’ll be better prepared to negotiate with the tailor you end up going with.

The more you buy, the less each individual thing will cost, like anything else you’d buy in SE Asia. If you can work with a friend, even better!

Here are a couple of things that will affect the price of your tailored clothes:

  • Size of the piece (a jumpsuit does not equal a romper does not equal a pair of shorts, etc.)

  • Material (leather and linen will always cost you more than cotton and silk)

  • Complexity of the piece (fabric covered buttons, complicated stitching, etc.)

  • Quantity you’re buying

  • Location

  • Your own power of negotiation

Always remember that, in SE Asia, negotiating is a way of life. They won’t sell you something if they don’t make a profit. HOWEVER, this does not give you the right to be rude or irritable with the people you’re negotiating with. Be patient, but firm, and you’ll usually end up getting a price you’re happy with. Remember - that Burberry coat could be a couple hundred or a couple thousand!

 

Step 5: The Tailoring Process

Depending on what you’re getting made, this whole process can take one day or four. It’s a good idea to ask how long something will take (roughly) so you know you have enough time!

The tailoring process, at least our experience with it, goes a little like this:

Day 1

  1. Choose a tailor

  2. Pick what you want made and the fabric you want (again, pictures help a lot!)

  3. Negotiate the price (it will all be in USD) and work out payment. Some places will ask you to pay upfront, some will ask you to pay half upfront and the rest on delivery, some will let you pay everything at the end. Remember, once you’ve ordered something you will have to pay for it whether you like it or not!

  4. Initial measurements

Day 2 or Day 3 (depending on how fast they’re working)

  1. First fitting

  2. Adjustments

Day 3 or 4

  1. Second fitting

  2. Wrap up and pay OR additional adjustments

We had some things ready on the first go, some things took up to three or four fittings. Some things take longer than others to get right, so be ready to be patient - it’ll be worth it in the end. 

*TIP* It helped me a lot to make a schedule in my phone to keep track of all the fittings I had to do and where they were. I had 10+ things made at 5+ tailors, so I had more to work with than most of our friends, but either way this helped out a lot. 

*PRO-TIP* In between all those fittings, go grab sandwiches at Anthony Bordain’s (RIP) favorite banh mi shop - Banh Mi Queen! Honestly the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten and they’re only $1. I think we ate over 50 of them between five of us before we left Hoi An. If you stay at Hoa Binh maybe you’ll see the tally we wrote out on the locker in our room 😜 

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Step 6: Shipping Home

Ahh yes, everyone’s favorite thing to deal with while on a backpacking trip (or any trip, let’s be honest). Once you’ve bought all your goodies, and a few lanterns from the night market, you’re probably going to have to get them home by some means other than your own carry on! 

Each time we’ve shipped things home before Hoi An, we used the local post office (to varying degrees of success). However, in Hoi An, because shopping and tailored clothes are such a big business in this city, there’s a private service you can use that’ll come right to you with everything you need. The price is roughly the same as the local post and they send you updates throughout the shipping process to help you keep track of your box. They even help out with customs!

The service is called Dai Nam Postal Service and they have great reviews. We contacted them through our hostel and they were at our door within 30 minutes. 

 

Shopping in Old Town and the Night Market

Just when you were about to say, “I can’t possibly be expected to buy all this and ship it back home,” I’m going to jump in here with a, “but wait, there’s more!” 

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Hoi An is a truly beautiful city, and nowhere is this more true than the city’s Old Town. Nestled next to the river running through Hoi An, there’s never a bad time to explore this area of the city. After a few hours strolling through the cobblestone streets under the light of innumerable paper lanterns, you’ll certainly agree that, night or day, this city feels like a fairytale. 

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Across the river from Old Town, you’ll find the heart of Hoi An’s nightlife in the shape of rooftop bars, clubs, and pubs lining the street, and the city’s night market. Here you can sample the best, and cheapest, of Hoi An’s street food as well as dazzling array of local wares. Stalls overflowing with lit paper lanterns (yes, they collapse!), old school gongs, unique and artistic miniatures that you have just enough room for in your box - this place is dangerous! And you absolutely can’t miss it. 

After all, you’ve got to do something in Hoi An while the tailors are crafting your custom clothes. 

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Bangkok

Any traveller who’s ever visited Thailand has probably made their way through Bangkok at some point, and they all have something different to say about it. In fact, there are few cities we’ve been to that inspire more love/hate reactions than Thailand’s capital.

Home to nearly 8.3 million people, this gigantic city has no shortage of new experiences and things to do. In fact, there’s so much to Bangkok that it’s almost daunting to try and plan out what you want to do here. Personally, I think this, and Khao San Road, are the main reasons some people claim to “hate” this city. 

BUT, don’t knock it till you try it, no matter what anyone says. There are many, many amazing things to do in Bangkok. We spent a little less than a week exploring the city and had a blast. Here’s a breakdown of some of our highlights.

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Experiences in Bangkok

Chatuchak Weekend Market

Over 400,000 visitors hop on the metro to Chatuchak Park each weekend in order to browse the 15,000 stalls of Chatuchak Weekend Market, the largest market in all of Thailand. You can get lost for hours, like we did, among the thousands of visitors and vendors haggling over Nepalese gemstone bags, delicate silver jewelry, and ornate wooden carvings. Anything you could hope to shop for, there’s probably 6 of, so take the day (or, hell, the whole weekend) and get ready to drop some dollars at this fabulous market.

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Ladyboy Show

Something that we unfortunately didn’t get to, ladyboy shows are frequently labeled a “must do” attraction of Bangkok, so they have be included as our “coulda, woulda, shoulda, but didn’t.” The most popular is called Calypso, and you can catch this eye-popping performance twice every day, so there’s plenty of opportunity. 

 

Wat Phra Kaew (Reclining Buddha)

If you’re looking to explore one of the more cultural attractions of Bangkok and don’t feeling like shelling out for the Grand Palace (aka, if you’re just like us), this is a great alternative. Much cheaper, less crowded, and with plenty of temple views and photo ops for you rising instagram stars. Despite being near impossible to photograph, the reclining buddha in this temple is incredible, and regardless of whether or not you hit up the Grand Palace, this temple is absolutely worth a visit. 

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Floating Markets of Bangkok

Another thing we opted out of, Bangkok is famous for its floating markets. While they’re a bit pricy to go see, you either splurge for a tour or catch a cab out of the city and hire a boat, there’s no doubt that it’s a sight to see. There are five floating markets outside of Bangkok, the most famous of which is Damnoen Saduak. We decided it was a bit too pricy for us, but many would argue the getting to witness the hundreds of boats floating up and down the river laden with fresh fruits, vegetables, and other goodies make it well worth the money.

 

Unicorn Cafe

Another one for the instagrammers out there. Unicorn Cafe has gone viral for the simple reason that suddenly everyone is obsessed with unicorns (the internet is a weird place). That being said, it’s a fun place to check out and a great place to take some pictures. Go early, it gets very crowded very fast. The food is all rainbow, a little weird but, hey, that’s the theme. We weren’t all that hungry for rainbow pasta, but the crepe cake was awesome! Must love sugar. 

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Where to Stay

Hint: not Khao San Road. 

We met a lot of backpackers who warned us off Bangkok and the majority of them (major shocker here) stayed on or near Khao San Road, the famous backpacker street in city. It is crowded, dirty, and full of absolutely wasted travelers by 9:30pm most nights. Even if you’re looking to party in Bangkok, we wouldn’t recommend you stay there because not only are there other places to party but its also pretty far away from the metro, which is the best way to get around.

We stayed in an area called Sukhumvit and loved it. It’s known as a party central, with major clubs and bars all within walking distance of the metro stop. We stayed at a hostel called 1SABAI and it was great, if quiet. It was right next to Slumber Party Backpackers, which has numerous hostels throughout Thailand and is definitely where the party’s at. 

Either is a great stay, depends how much you want to sleep each night, and they’re both a quick 10 minute walk to the metro that will take you almost anywhere you want to go. Definitely recommend staying in this area. Less touristy, plenty to do, great food, easy access to metro…what’s not to love?

 

Where to Eat & Sip on Some Coffee

There's no shortage of amazing restaurants, cafes, bars, and cheap food options in Bangkok and I don't know how one could create a "complete" list, but here's a couple of highlights from our personal food tour in Bangkok.

Simple Natural Kitchen: We are slightly addicted to brunch, and this place had an epic one. We ordered shakshouka and avocado toast and it was great. Definitely recommend.

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Wonderwall: We parked it at this coffee shop for a couple of hours to get some work done. Can't argue with great coffee and a chill atmosphere.

25 Degrees: Looking for a great burger in Bangkok? 25 Degrees has got you covered. It also have a fantastic happy hour and is a great place to stop after a long day of touring some of the Bangkok's more famous attractions.

Not Just Another Cup: We so badly wanted to make it here (again, addicted to brunch) but we didn't realize until too late that you'll need a reservation to sit down. Don't be like us. Reserve and enjoy.

Iwane 1975: We ate here maybe 2-3 times while we were in Bangkok. Easy walking distance from the metro station in Sukhumvit, about halfway between our hostel and the station, this place has an amazing brunch/lunch (we have a problem) and absolutely everything we ordered was delicious. I'd recommend one thing in particular but it's just all great. Take yourself here and thank me later. 

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Terminal 21 Mall: Much like Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Bangkok has some fantastic malls. We spent tons of time in Terminal 21 because it was so close, has amazing destination themed floors (go to Tokyo!), and has a fantastic food court. You've got plenty of options and it's an easy and typically cheaper option than restaurants every night. 

Where to Party

Hint: not Khao San Road.

I’m not just hating here. The government and police force in Bangkok have imposed a strict midnight curfew and even conduct raids along Khao San Road in an effort to curb the wild partying in Bangkok. Other bars and clubs are also being affected by this curfew, but Khao San Road has been hit the hardest and if you go on a weekend night you’ll see the streets packed with drunk partiers by 11:30pm as the bars begin to close down.

It. Is. Not. Fun.

Some alternatives? The club scene around Sukhumvit is good, but not easy on the wallet. You’ll pay to get in and then you’ll pay double for drinks.

If you’re looking to go clubbing, and you’re in the Sukhumvit area, go check out Slumber Party Backpackers. Ask them where is best to go on any particular night OR make it even easier on yourself and join them when they hit the clubs. The night we went with them we hit Route66 Club and they went on to Onyx Club, which we opted out of. They host solid pregames every night and it’s a great way to meet fellow backpackers in such a big city. 

Sukhumvit Road is also an option, especially the Red Light District around Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboys. GENTLEMEN, watch your wallets, these ladies know what they’re doing and they’re probably not just interested in your face (though I’m sure it’s great).

Rooftop bars! There are TONS of rooftop bars in Bangkok and they are a great time. We only hit one while we were there, Sky on 20, and loved it. Shop around a bit and see which one suits your fancy, but chances are you won’t go wrong with a fantastic view and a fancy cocktail. 

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Another alternative is take you and your gang on a self guided bar crawl! We did this one night and had a blast just walking around and checking out any fun bar or brewery we could find. Our favorites that we found were CRAFT, a fun outdoor brewery venue with beer flights and good old American rock tunes, and Iron Fairies.

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Iron Fairies is dope. I have a thing for absinthe bars and this one was absolute magic. The decor is dark and suits the name. The live band is very talented and, though they’re a bit pricy, the drinks are great. We didn’t try the food, but heard great things about that as well. Even if it’s just for one drink, it’s a quirky and fun place to check out.

 

How to Get Around Bangkok

Metro, metro, metro (and walking)! If you can avoid Tuk Tuks and Grabs in this city then absolutely do, they can get pricy and the traffic is AWFUL at peak times. The metro is easy to use and cheap, definitely the best way to explore the city and surrounding areas. Whenever we hit a place that the metro couldn’t take us, we got as close as we could and walked. 

There’s also a great Sky Train in Bangkok, which we used to get to the Unicorn Cafe. There’s a stop for it in Sukhumvit as well if you’re staying there! More expensive, but worth taking at least one trip on. 

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Bangkok is a vibrant, chaotic, and diverse city that easy to get lost in, literally and metaphorically. Give yourself the time to explore it a bit and don’t listen to the haters - this city’s got a great time waiting for those who seek it.