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

A Self-Guided Bar Crawl in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and the largest city in the north, is the second largest city in the country and the northern equivalent of Saigon in the south. Almost anyone traveling throughout Vietnam will either begin or finish their tour in Hanoi, and it’s a fantastic place to do that.

Hanoi is ancient and no area better reflects its rich history than the Old Quarter. Chaotic and colorful, this area of the city somehow manages to make you feel like time has stopped - even though the thousands of motorbikes and people that clog its narrow streets never do. 

It’s here, in this crazy little section of the city, that our bar crawl takes place.

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Anna and I stayed in Hanoi for about a week, opting to stay behind when MJ took a motorbike tour north to do the Ha Giang Loop with the boys. To fill the time, we wandered all over the Old Quarter, explored the famous lakes, ate at pop up street restaurants, took a tour of an art gallery, and fashioned ourselves a self-guided bar crawl of some of Hanoi’s greatest bars.

If you’ve got a couple of free nights in Hanoi, or hell, even just one, check out some (or all?!) of these epic spots.

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Mojito Bar & Lounge

Cocktail to try: The Pho Cocktail

This quirky venue is tucked off a small side street in the Old Quarter and is a great place to head for live music and the famous Pho Cocktail. I won’t spoil the surprise of how it’s made, but I will tell you that it tastes weirdly close to actual Pho and it’s delicious!

Bonus: Straight upstairs from Mojito Bar & Lounge is another cocktail bar called The Alchemist. It wasn’t open yet when we went up to check it out - but if you’re looking for an easy next location to try it doesn’t get much closer than one flight of stairs. 

Mad Botanist

Cocktail to try: Anything with gin!

This gin bar has multiple floors, one of which is a swanky, jazz inspired cocktail lounge. Think white tuxedos and red velvet floors. The other is a rooftop space that looks out over St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Between the stunning view and the unique gin cocktails, this place is well worth a visit.

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Pasteur Street Brewing Co.

Cocktail to try: just kidding! Get that beer flight, honey. Jasmine IPA all the way.

What bar crawl is incomplete without some fantastic craft beer? This craft beer company brews up some awesome beers that are sold throughout Vietnam. This location is particularly great due to an inviting outdoor space and the option of giving a bunch of their beers a try with a beer flight. Don’t miss out on this one!

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Polite & Co. 

Cocktail to try: Anything off their “Mixology Journey” menu.

This place is AMAZING. Polite & Co. has a super funky, modern design and the bartenders there mix up some truly unique creations. When we went, they were featuring drinks that were based off of Asian Street Foods. Anna tried the Tum Yum Sour and I tried the Indian Spices cocktail and both were admittedly odd but delicious. We loved the atmosphere here so much we stuck around for a second drink!

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Standing Bar

Cocktail to try: craft beer all the way!

While it’s not exactly in the Old Quarter, Standing Bar is a fun place near Truc Bach Lake that offers a great selection of craft beer and an even better view of the lake from the upstairs terrace!

Red River Tea Room

Cocktail to try: Whiskey slaps anyone? Fancy a game of Cards Against Humanity?

Talk about a tucked away gem. Not near the Old Quarter, but worth the commute, Red River Tea Room is a little bit of whatever you want it to be. Want a great craft beer with a view of the West Lake from the roof? Fancy a round of cards or Cards Against Humanity? Want to cuddle the dog, pull a book from the shelf, and curl up with a glass of wine for an hour or so? Now you know where to go.

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Still Going…? On to Beer Street!

The quintessential going out street in the Old Quarter, Bia Hoi Junction, or Beer Street, as it’s so aptly nicknamed, is the place to go if you’re looking to party all night with locals and travelers alike. Line your stomach before you go and see how long you can keep up with the $0.25 beer offerings. 

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A few more suggestions…

We didn’t make it to these, but you might!

  • Le Pub Hanoi

  • King Pirate’s Pub

  • Binh Minh’s Jazz Club

  • Rockshore Hanoi

  • Tadioto

  • Bar Beta

Kayaking in Phong Nha Cave

Ahh, the epic caves of Phong Nha National Park. The one adventure that got away from me.

MJ and I had planned since we left to do a multi-day tour of the legendary cave system (the largest in the world!) with Oxalis Tours. Unfortunately, my body was having none of it and due to some mysterious hip pain that I never really figured out, I had to miss out. 

MJ and Anna set out on a 3D/2N tour of Hang Tien cave and had an epic time - check out her post!

SO. Because of this set back, I hung around the beautiful city of Phong Nha, right in the national park, for a few days to let my body get back to homeostasis.

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I also took the opportunity to take a short day trip with two friends that took us kayaking deep into Phong Nha Cave. It was unbelievably cool.

Here’s a bit more about it.

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Phong Nha Cave

Phong Nha Cave is one of the most accessible caves to tourists within Phong Nha National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its entirety, this enormous cave, the namesake of the whole cave system, is 7729 m long. Tourists can only get about 1500 m, which was about how far we got on our kayak adventure. 

The cave is famous for beautiful rock formations as well as its use as a hospital, storage place, and base throughout numerous military campaigns in Vietnam. There are relics and evidence that date as far back as the Cham civilization, but most recently, the cave was used by the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War against South Vietnam and the United States.

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The cave served as an important link on the Ho Chi Minh trail, allowing soldiers to camp out and hide both themselves and supplies at a strategic location in central Vietnam.

There are a number of caves you can visit that are considered a part of the Phong Nha Cave. Some of the most famous of these are called Paradise Cave and the Dark Cave. Tours to all of these caves, as well as the kayak tour I took, can be booked locally at Phong Nha Caves Tour Center or through your hostel/hotel. 

 

Kayaking in Phong Nha Cave

Why kayak over boat? Kayaking into this cave allows you to go about 1.5km into the cave, about 1km further than the boat tour. You’ll also get a chance to explore smaller caves off to the side of the main river, which is an amazing experience.

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The tour is straightforward, informative, and a fantastic adventure. You’ll get picked up early in the morning (take a dry bag or ditch the valuables!) and hop into a kayak on the Son River to paddle into the cave. 

The entrance to the cave is stunning, perhaps even more so going out than going in. Huge rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites, tower above and around you from all sides, gaining this cave the nickname “The Fairy Cave.” As you venture further into the cave, lit only by flashlights, you’ll reach your first stopping point.

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This first side cave offers you a glimpse at some of the cave’s history. Scrawled across the walls of this cave, further back than you dare go, are charcoal messages from soldiers who hid in the caves back during the Vietnam War and even earlier campaigns. This was where they cooked, slept, and trafficked supplies across the country. It’s surreal to see the evidence of that so far into the cave.

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After this brief stop, you’ll jump back into your kayak and continue as far as you can into the cave before getting out again. Then it gets rocky.

The hike to reach the underground lake is tricky, but definitely doable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. Pay attention to your guides and watch where you put your feet (and hands, those cave spiders…).

After breaking about half-way for an amazing picnic lunch on a particularly large rock, we finally reached our destination - the underground lake. 

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We spent a little over an hour swimming, cliff jumping, and lazing about in the icy black water. It’s unbelievably quiet and peaceful this far back into the caves, something I’d imagine anyone who wasn’t scared of the dark would enjoy.

We finally paddled out of the cave, wet, tired, and happy, and slept about as well as you’d expect after our full day. The cost of the tour was roughly $70-$80 pp and if you’re interested in seeing the caves within this national park, but don’t feel quite up to a multi-day excursion, this is a wonderful alternative. 

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Interested in something a little more intense? Check out Oxalis’ legendary tours, including their famous 4D/3N expedition into Son Doong Cave, the largest cave in the world.

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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Exploring Dalat with Dalat Adventure Tours

With no competition, Dalat was my favorite city in Vietnam. The colonial style city is found north of Saigon up in the mountains and has a uniquely beautiful culture and climate that you won’t find anywhere else in the country. 

The weather is cooler, the hostels incredible and dirt cheap (we stayed at Wolfpack and would highly recommend it), it’s not too crowded, and there’s no shortage of adventures you can go on to explore the surrounding wilderness. 

I went up there with one of our friends while MJ caught a plane to Taipei with her friend Anna. Sim and I filled our days with jungle treks, canyoning, and family dinners at Wolfpack Hostel and had an absolute blast for four days. Here’s a taste of what it’s like exploring the more adventurous side of Dalat.

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Canyoning

Canyoning has been on my bucket list for years. I’ve never had the opportunity to do it, either because of time or money, so I jumped at the chance to try it in Dalat. Our hostel recommended Dalat Adventure Tours, which had great reviews, and for only $50 per person for a whole day of canyoning, I wasn’t going to look elsewhere.

So what exactly is “canyoning”? The tour company explains it as “white water rafting without the raft,” which is actually a perfect way to describe it. We spent the whole day navigating an enormous river as it twisted and poured itself through the mountains in Dalat. Sometimes you swim, sometimes you hike, sometimes you rappel down a waterfall. 

Sounds cool? You’re damn right it does.

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The tour guides at Dalat Adventure Tours speak amazing English and were incredibly friendly throughout the whole day. They first teach everyone the basics, which, in this case, includes rappelling down the side of a small, slanted wall. It took some people (me..) a few tries to get it right, but they’re very patient and make sure everyone is comfortable before heading out.

We hit the trail and had the most epic day. In total, we rappelled three times (actually much easier to do down a cliff than down the wall), hiked a solid few miles, cliff jumped over a waterfall (the highest point is 11m - SO much fun), and even threw ourselves down a natural waterslide. 

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The guides are amazing. They work hard to make it an enjoyable, safe day for everyone and even take professional pictures for you all day, free of charge. Our day was wrapped up with a delicious picnic lunch of banh mi sandwiches on the side of the river.

It’s definitely a strenuous day, so be ready for that, but you can’t ask for a more adventurous experience in Dalat and I highly, highly recommend it. 

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Jungle Trekking

Oh boy, my legs were hurting after this one. 

Disclaimer: I am NOT a hiker. I occasionally will be seen making the odd attempt at hiking a reasonably sized mountain/hill, but that’s rare. For the most part I’m dragged/coerced up a mountain and halfway to the top, when it’s just a little too late to turn back, I curse myself, the nature, and whoever’s idea it was because it probably wasn’t mine.

Turns out jungle trekking is just hiking through a jungle. Go figure. So this was a long day for me, but absolutely worth it. Sim and I were the only ones booked to go on this tour on the day we went, so we got the chance to go at our own pace and grill the guides with all the questions we could think of. 

 

This was my second tour with Dalat Adventure Tours and it was every bit as wonderful as the first. One of the guides who took me canyoning came again with us on this trek through the jungle. Both he and the other guide were patient, friendly, and funny. 

The day started in a small village in Dalat called Lat Village, or Chicken Village. You’ll understand why they call it that when you get there. As you take a deceptively easy stroll through the picturesque coffee plantation, the guides will explain the local tribes and customs of the locals in Dalat, as well as how they make their famous weasel coffee. I’ll leave it to them to describe that delicious process…

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After a while you start heading up into the jungle and the mountains. You’ll pass through an enormous pine forest that looks and smells exactly like Cape Cod, MA. You’ll make your way across rivers and up steep climbs into the thick of the forest. When you arrive, sweaty and out of breath, at the top of the climb, you’re treated to an amazing picnic lunch that’ll have you thinking, “they hiked this whole way with that in their packs?”

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The climb down is always easier, I find, than the way I up. Maybe because the end is in sight? I told you, I’m not a hiker. 

Here you start to see some really incredible views of Dalat and the surrounding landscape. We wound our way down through the jungle and even saw elephant prints deep in the mud as we crossed yet another river. The trail concludes near a private resort/camp that’s right on the water and, oh, what a beautiful place it is. The property has a number of horses stomping around and, if you’re lucky like we were, you’ll catch them as they go down to the water for a drink.

The trek costs around $30 per person, which, for what you get out of it, is nothing. We arrived back to Wolfpack, sweaty, exhausted, and grinning ear to ear.

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Other Options

While we only had enough time for a day of canyoning and another of trekking, but after those two days we were absolutely beat. 

Dalat Adventure Tours offers a number of other itineraries, from white water rafting to bike tours to multi-day excursions. There’s no shortage of ways to explore this amazing city and countryside. 

If you’re looking to hop around Dalat on your own, it’s easy to rent a scooter or bike and go from there! If you’re interested in hiking the jungle, however, you’re probably best off with a guide. Some of the trails are very narrow and tricky to follow and that would be an awful place to get lost.

Happy exploring!

Exploring Phong-Nha National Park with Oxalis Adventures

Phong Nha-Khe Bang National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Vietnam protected as one of the largest karst formation zones in the world. The park, situated in the middle of Vietnamese jungle, is known for its exceptionally high level of biodiversity. The intricate system of caves, grottos, and underground rivers that makes up the park continues to be majorly uncharted and unknown to the public. 

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Son Doong Cave, one of the parks many features, is regarded as the largest cave in the world. However any cave in the park is unique and worthwhile to experience. We chose to explore the park with Oxalis for a multi-night trek, but there are other options too! Check out our other post for ideas on how to explore the magnificent caves without sleeping among the creatures of the jungle.

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Oxalis

Oxalis is an internationally accredited adventure company that receives glowing reviews year after year. The Oxalis team of local guides and international managers are very fluent in English, French, and even German. They offer a variety of tours ranging in intensity, from full day adventures to 4-day trekking expeditions.

We opted for the Hang Tien Exploration to enjoy multiple days in the jungle. It was nice to spend a couple of nights camping in the national park. Check out their website for info on their other tours!

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Hang Tien Exploration

Rated as one of their Level 4 options, the Hang Tien tour is designed for active lovers of the outdoors to spend a few days immersed in the jungle of the park. We covered 22km in 3 days, with multiple river crossings and mountain climbs per day.

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Caves

Secret Cave - cave pearls, sparkly curtains, great introduction to cave environments.

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Hung Ton Cave - epic river swim through that empties into a beautiful lagoon for lunch.

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Tien 1 Cave - massive cavernous opening, boundary lines, "flying fox” zipline across a dark canyon.

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Tien 2 Cave - another massive cavern with a beautiful open space where you have the opportunity to experience the true darkness of a cave.

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Gear to Bring

First we’ll start with things they provide for you, so don’t bother bringing:

  • a tent, a sleeping bag, or a sleeping mat

  • a special flashy red backpack for trekking during the day

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  • a headlamp

  • protective gloves for when you climb sharp cave rocks

  • mess kits and food items

 

In terms of clothes, you’ll want to bring:

  • personal essentials (take the toothbrush, leave the face mask - you won’t even have access to showers)

  • 2-3 long sleeve shirts even though it’s hot, there are a lot of thorny plants in the jungle

  • 1-2 long pants, again, it’s thorny jungle

  • as many undies as you’ll want - that number’s up to you

  • at least 3 pairs of non-cotton socks - they will get wet and dirty from river crossings and muddy terrain. Do yourself a favor and pack a fresh pair for each day.

  • a swimsuit for floating through the river cave and relaxing at the camp watering hole

  • an extra layer for when the sun goes down

  • a raincoat - you might not need it, and if you do, it might not even help... bring it anyway

 

Things you might want to bring, but don’t need to

  • a lightweight, quick-dry towel

  • a book for down time at camp

  • flip flops, crocs, or birkenstocks for walking around camp

  • deodorant - plan on smelling bad no matter what you do

 

Hiking shoes, here’s the deal -

You will be crossing at least one river at the beginning of each day. You have to leave your shoes on, so they will be waterlogged for the rest of the trek. Plus, the terrain is unbelievably muddy. So much mud. Drowning in mud.

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SO, if you opt to use your own shoes, make sure:

  1. they are not gortex, waterproofed, special at all kind of boots, and

  2. you don’t give a shit if they get absolutely destroyed

Otherwise, Oxalis lends out shoes you can guiltlessly destroy. They’re basically camouflaged converse high-tops with unnecessarily long shoestrings. They have exceptionally horrible support, so you may want to pluck the insoles from your own shoes and slip them into your combats for the trip. Just don’t forget to take them out before leaving Phong Nha.

You really only need to bring your personal essentials. If you’re already in the middle of Vietnam before you realize you don’t have enough socks or need an extra pair of pants, Oxalis offers last-minute gear you can buy before hitting the trailhead. Packing light is the name of the game. The porters take your gear for you, so don’t pack any bricks. Other than that, don’t worry about it! All your stuff will show up at camp before you do!

 

Camping

An expedition inherently requires sleeping in a tent, there's no getting around it. Oxalis has a series of camps throughout the national park, and depending on what tour you embark on, you’ll get to sleep in some really amazing places.

La Ken Camp - Right next to a little babling brook. You'll get there later in the day, so expect to be pretty exhausted. The chefs cook an amazing dinner, and you'll sit around the smoky fire all night waiting for your clothes to dry.

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Tien Camp - This is a bigger camp, and it's next to a much bigger river. There's an unreal swimming hole next to a massive rock face where the water seeps out seemingly out of nowhere. You'll get into camp during the early afternoon, so you have the rest of the day to float around in the creamy blue water. Wake up early for a morning dip if you don’t mind hiking with wet hair.

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Food

Amazing. No chance of going hungry. Every meal is a feast.

Breakfast is a bowl of instant noodles with a fried egg on top. Plus pancakes and fruit! AND coffee! Instant coffee, but coffee.

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Lunch comes from a massive bin of fried rice. Vegetarians have their own box, while everyone else gets some chicken or shrimp chopped up in theirs.

Dinner is where the feasting happens. Morning glory, potato carrot curry, barbecue chicken, tomato-y tofu, lots of rice, some kind of salty soup, garlicky green beans, salted peanuts, and of course - rice wine. Choco pies and oreos for dessert!

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Transport

An Oxalis van will pick you up and drop you off at your accommodation in Phong Nha town. They even provide a congratulatory beer for the ride home! Be sure to tip your guides and porters before heading out if you appreciated their hard work! And don’t be afraid to drop them another glowing review on TripAdvisor...

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More Pictures!

 

 

 

A Week in Saigon: Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat

Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh, is the 24/7 beating heart of southern Vietnam as well as the largest city in the entire country. Home to over 8.5 million people, Saigon has endless cultural and metropolitan attractions and serves as the starting or ending point for nearly every traveler passing through Vietnam. 

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Before I dive into a passionate description of the best pho in Saigon, I want to touch briefly on the history of the city. The reason I call this city Saigon rather than its actual name of Ho Chi Minh has a lot to do with the locals I met throughout southern Vietnam. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh after the former Prime Minister of Vietnam who led the forces of Northern Vietnam against the south during the Vietnam War. 

While Ho Chi Minh is the recognized name of the city, I’ve met many Vietnamese people who don’t recognize the new name and still refer to the city as Saigon. In their words, “only someone who wasn’t from the south or who wasn’t Vietnamese at all would refer to that city as Ho Chi Minh, it’s still Saigon to those of us who are from there.” It’s because of this preference that I refer to it as Saigon.

If you visit this city, you’ll have many opportunities to learn about the Vietnamese side of the Vietnam War. I encourage you to take the chance while you’re there to learn as much as you can, especially if you come from the states.

Brief history aside over.

Some people fly through this city in just a few days, some stick around for weeks at a time. No matter how much time you have, here are a couple of highlights for your stay in Saigon.

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What to Do

Cu Chi Tunnels
Possibly the most popular tourist attraction in Saigon, the Cu Chi Tunnels are an immense system of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. These tunnels cover much of the country and were used extensively in the south for military purposes, providing everything from shelter, hospitals, dormitories, conference rooms, weapons stashes, kitchens, and strategic military positions to the North Vietnamese army. 

Certain sections of the tunnels are open to tourists and it’s extremely easy to arrange a tour to go out and see them. Visitors can enter sections of the tunnels, fire assault rifles, and get a taste of what life was like down in the tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels provide a unique take on the Vietnam War and absolutely shouldn’t be missed!

Ben Thanh Market
Who doesn’t love a good market? The Ben Thanh Market is the largest market in Saigon and stands in one of the earliest surviving buildings in the city. If you’re looking to browse the local wares and feast on some fantastic treats all in the same location (or if you’re panicking because you’re about to fly home and haven’t gotten your mom the present that says “I saw this and knew you had to have it”) this is your one stop shop!

The market is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

War Remnants Museum
Brace yourself for this one. The War Remnants Museum is probably the best place in all of Saigon, to understand the impact of the Vietnam War in Vietnam. It's a heavy place, but absolutely worth doing.

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Bui Vien Walking Street
On a different note, if you’re looking to party and get to know some of your fellow travelers without breaking the bank, Bui Vien Walking Street is your place. This walking street is lined from end to end with cheap, rowdy, and colorful restaurants, bars and clubs, and makes for a great night out. 

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Tao Dan Park
If you’ve got a beautiful day in Saigon, Tao Dan Park is a wonderful place to spend it. Home to picturesque manicured gardens, temples, and charming cafes, this is the ideal way to laze away an afternoon before hitting the surrounding area for dinner and sundowners.

Where to Stay

Bui Vien Hostel
We all stayed in this hostel for a couple of nights in Saigon and absolutely loved it. It’s cheap, the beds are wonderfully comfortable, it’s perfectly located right off of Bui Vien walking street, and it sells beer for less than 75 cents. What more could you ask for?

The Like Hostel & Cafe
While in a slightly different part of the city, The Like Hostel & Cafe has a charming rooftop lounge area, is located close to a number of bars and restaurants, and has comfortable rooms and beds. 

The Common Room Project
The one that got away…We were so hoping to be able to stay at Common Room before we got to Saigon, but unfortunately it was completely sold out. Don’t be like us, book it early. Just look at the pictures, you’ll understand.

Where to Eat

The Hungry Pig
Awesome sandwiches, breakfasts, coffee, etc. Right off of Bui Vien walking street. I haunted this place so much they gave my a free sandwich after a week.

Great wifi, friendly staff, good food, and great, cheap coffee.

Secret Garden
Secret is right. This quirky little restaurant is notoriously tricky to find but an absolute gem. Don’t be discouraged by the many stairs or the strange little alley it lives on. When you’re thinking, “this can’t possibly be right,” you’re almost there. The fantastic Vietnamese food and charming atmosphere is worth the hike up those stairs I promise. 

Pho Hoa - The Family Dynasty One
Cheap, instantaneous service, as authentic as it gets, and absolutely delicious, you really can’t ask for more when it comes to a solid bowl of pho in Saigon. 

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The Workshop Coffee
If you’re looking for fantastic coffee, fast wifi, and an airy, bright space to hunker down and get some work done, then you’re heading to The Workshop. Get caffeinated and enjoy the productive atmosphere. 

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Where to Drink

Whiskey & Wares
Calling all whiskey lovers - this is the bar for you! Whiskey & Wares offers a laidback, comfortable atmosphere and a wide selection of whiskey drinks to get your night going. 

Broma Not a Bar
In a city full of expensive rooftop bars and clubs with entrance fees and dress codes, Broma is an absolute gem. This laidback rooftop bar has amazing views of Ho Chi Minh City Hall and the surrounding area as well as a delicious drink menu. 

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The Gin House
This one’s for the gin lovers, like me. The Gin House has an intimate and casual atmosphere and offers an incredible variety of gin cocktails as well as a number of infused gin & tonics. 

Bui Vien Street
ONE MORE TIME - this street is an awesome place to bar hop without breaking the bank, paying cover charges, or needing to dress to impress. Looking for a casual night out that has the potential to become a "casual night out"? Head to Bui Vien Street.