I researched the heck out of the best gear for backpacking Southeast Asia and Vietnam specifically. I research the heck out of everything, so it wasn’t surprising I went overboard for my lifelong-dream trip!
Okay, a few things about this page. For my friends following my trip, this page will totally bore you to tears. Seriously, turn back now!
This page is meant to be a potential resource for anyone backpacking Vietnam who happens to stumble on it. I can’t express how grateful I was, as I was doing my massive amounts of research, to the many backpacking and travel bloggers who blogged about their gear and their clothes, so I’m just paying it forward. I’ll definitely update the page with my actual experiences once I return.
Also, the links are included for reference only. They are not affiliate links, and I receive absolutely no compensation from any of the companies or stores. (P.S. I didn’t spend anywhere near the current prices of these items as I post the links; check out my tip under “backpack organization” on how to get insane deals compared to the regular Amazon prices. I did also luck out in my timing of shopping for the trip, which I did from the end of January through the beginning of March, because a lot of the items I had my eye on became discontinued and were subsequently priced to move. Now they’re in that nebulous spot of being desired but less available—and therefore, in some cases, are more expensive than the original list prices, let alone steals I got them at. Just be patient, and you can find great deals, too! After all, if you’re planning the trip of a lifetime, you’re probably doing it at least a little bit in advance, right?)
Backpack: Osprey Farpoint 70 Travel Backpack
This being my first backpacking trip, this was the item I put the most research into. There are different styles of backpacks, and those that are great for hiking (generally top-loading) are not all that great for urban travel (where a back-loader is preferred). Osprey backpacks came highly recommended by a lot of blogging urban backpackers and people who’d left reviews at store sites. They’re of really good quality and thoughtfully designed. After continually reading a lot of good reviews about them and seeing how wonderfully organized they are, I was sold. And reading the company’s history, vision, and promise just solidified everything for me.
Most people recommended 50L to 65L, but I went with 70L because I know myself. 🙂 And it’s still smaller than the pack I carried a lot farther when I was in the Navy (yes, I was a lot younger then, but still…). Since I planned to check it no matter what, I was less worried about the bigger size. (Some airplanes can accommodate it as a carryon and some can’t, so it would’ve been a gamble.)
This is really two backpacks, a main 55L pack and a 15L daypack (which will be perfect for many of side adventures, including my overnight in Halong Bay. The tour company encourages travelers to carry a dayback on the 1-night/2-day excursion and keep their main backpacks in the company’s locked facility in Hanoi). For my main travel to and from Vietnam and train travel between cities, it will act as one 70L bag. What’s great is how easy it is to remove and then securely replace the daypack out of and into the main pack. There are a ton of other great features, too. From Amazon:
The Farpoint 70 also offers several extra straps for carrying gear, including removable sleeping pad straps, dual ice axe loops, and multiple gear attachment points. Other features include a StraightJacket compression system, top and side carrying straps, a panel-zip main compartment with lockable pulls, a zip-and-clip removable daypack, a zippered mesh pocket on the internal front panel, and an adjustable sternum strap with a rescue whistle.
I had made up my mind and then waited to get a good deal. It took about 2 weeks before Amazon dropped the price by half, and I snatched it up (and that was a lot faster than I was expecting!). It was on backorder, so waiting for that backpack to *finally* arrive was the longest week of my life! 🙂 I was absolutely beside myself the day UPS dropped it off.
I haven’t put it to the ultimate test of actually using it to travel 1142 km (709 miles) from north to south Vietnam on a train, but I’ve packed it with most of what I’ll be bringing and carried it around the house, and it’s roomy and darn comfortable. I can’t wait to hit the road with it!
I’ve been using eBags regular packing cubes for years and years now. I have two sets (one black and one grasshopper) plus three eBags shoe bags (black, grasshopper, and denim), and I have not taken one trip in the last decade without at least two of them in my suit case or duffel bag. I’m leaving for a 9-day business trip to DC tomorrow, and I have four of them in my suitcase keeping my different categories of clothes/shoes nicely organized. I’m leaving from my parents’ house after having spent a few days there, so I have two in the duffel I packed for the weekend. Sometimes, I just use the large size as a duffel itself for an informal overnight trip. Also, it’s awesome when I’m spending more than one night at a hotel to throw the unzipped cubes in the drawer. When it’s time to leave, I just zip them up again and throw them in my suitcase. It’s like unpacking without having to unpack, and it makes you feel less like you’re literally living out of a suitcase
My long-winded point is that I love these things. Besides my iPhone with my TripIt app, these are the only things that I absolutely *always* must have with me when I travel. So, when I was researching backpacking organization and a backpacking blogger absolutely raved about how she cannot live without the eBags slim packing cubes (which I had not been aware of) for backpacking, I was sold. Again, I waited for a good deal on Amazon, and when the price dropped, I pulled the trigger.
And, on that note, if you have time to wait to order anything from Amazon, I highly recommend setting up a private shopping list (like a wish list, but only you can see it) and adding anything you need to buy to that list. Then, check once or twice a day and just see how the price changes! I’ve gotten so many things at 50 to 75% off by doing this; the price drops sometimes only stick around a few hours and sometimes up to a day or two, but grab them while you can! Of course, some things go up in price, too, so it can be a gamble. When the prices go up, they do generally come back down again.
Clothing: Mostly ExOfficio with some Calvin Klein Performance and Calvin Klein Jeans pieces thrown in
Once again, I stalked backpacker blogs, especially those who’d blogged about Southeast Asia and Vietnam, to find out what I should wear. I wanted to take into effect the Vietnamese culture and weather as well as the best fabrics for backpacking travel. Backpacking is different than a lot of travel because you have less room to pack and you’re usually gone for a longer time, so that means doing laundry at least a few times is a given. I needed to know what was out there that was wrinkle resistant, quick drying, cool to wear in August in Vietnam, and yet still (pretty) fashionable. Another concern is that the beginning and end of my trip (Hanoi and Saigon) will be during the hot, rainy season, whereas the middle of the country will be in its very hot, dry season, so I needed to plan for both.
Over and over again, I kept seeing recommendations for ExOfficio clothes, a brand I hadn’t heard of. (Or thought I hadn’t; more on that later.) The ExOfficio fabrics are wrinkle resistant, dry super quickly, and some of them even include cooling technology with UPF 50 sun protection or bug protection. Pretty perfect! Also, most of the pieces I invested in have secret security pockets. Add to the fact that many of their pieces are reversible and/or serve more than one function (a skirt and a dress all in one), and I was, again, sold.
ExOfficio underwear are particularly highly recommended. Apparently, I knew this without not knowing it. My husband had me order him some underwear on Amazon last year that he had heard raves about and were on SlickDeals.net on super clearance (the man does not order anything unless it’s an amazing deal from Slick Deals). I ordered them because he refuses to have his own Amazon or eBay accounts. After he received them, he couldn’t stop raving about how great they were every time he wore them, especially when partaking in sporting activities. I was searching my past Amazon orders for “ExOfficio” (having gone on a teensy bit of a spree and trying to remember what exactly I had ordered), and lo and behold—those amazing underwear he’s been raving about for a year? Yep, ExOfficio.
Now, I already had some pieces that I love from Calvin Klein, so I decided to bring those, too. They’re not as quick drying, but they are wrinkle resistant, comfortable, and perfect for what I’ve read will be appropriate In Country.
One thing about Vietnam is that the Vietnamese are very modest and yet very nonjudgemental. They may never wear shorts in public, but they’re never going to judge a tourist who does. I, however, want to respect the culture, so I am going to dress as modestly as possible—while trying to keep cool. Not an easy task. Here’s what I finally decided to pack/wear on the flight over:
Two pairs of pants (wearing one on the plane): Calvin Klein Performance Cargo Crop Pant in black and chicory, which I wear everywhere every summer and love because they are comfy and adjustable to two lengths with the little tabs on the side.
One pair of shorts (for more casual locations, like the beach): Calvin Klein Performance Cargo Crop Skimmers in black, which I love because they’re comfortable, cute on me, and can be worn knee-length or rolled for a shorter length.
One skirt: ExOfficio Wanderlux Convertible Skirt in black, with its wicking, quick-drying, UPF, convertable properties seems pretty perfect.
One dress: ExOffcio Sol Cool Dress in black, which I will wear by itself in more casual places like my Halong Bay cruise or in Nha Trang or with a hoodie in more urban areas to cover up my shoulders. The Sol Cool technology promises to “cool the body up to five degrees upon contact with moisture.”
One hoodie: ExOfficio Sol Cool Hooded Zippy in dusk blue. Again, it not only has UPF 50 protection but promises to cool the wearer.
Two tees: Hanes Cool DRI Tee in black and fuchsia. Quick-drying and wicking. Awesome.
One long-sleeve top: Calvin Klein roll-sleeve top in fuchsia, which is lightweight, flowy, modest, has adjustable sleeve lengths. Perfect for the flight over!
One sleeveless top: ExOfficio Lazuli Convertible Sleeveless Top in black. Four tops in one! OMG!
One tank top: ExOfficio Micria Top in fuchsia. This I will use as a bathing suit top and possible as a tank in more casual areas.
Swim skirt: I prefer swim skirts to bikini bottoms anyway, and my black one will be perfect for Vietnam.
Sun hat: Aqua Design SunGuard Reversible Bucket Hat in fuchsia. So cute and practical!
Underwear: Two ExOfficio bras, two each ExOfficio and Adea panties (Adea was another highly recommended, quick-drying brand of underwear), ExOfficio men’s boxers (to sleep in), an Adea camisole, and an ExOfficio tank.
One rain poncho: I decided against investing in a rain coat and instead ordered a $5 Totes Unisex Rain Poncho. I’ll be the north and south in their rainy seasons but before monsoon season really kicks off, and I’ve read that it will probably rain every day, but usually only briefly and not all day. Therefore, I feel comfortable with a cheap poncho I can throw on for a few minutes. Plus it comes with a pouch. I cannot resist things that come with pouches. If I was going to invest in a good jacket, I’d
probably invest in the ExOfficio Rain Logic Jacket (I may still did pull the trigger a month after I wrote this because I got an incredible deal watching it through Amazon, and I do need a good raincoat for my domestic travels; it arrived, and I love it).
I cannot say enough about Cole Haan shoes and boots! When researching what to wear to be fashionable but comfortable for a ton of walking on Paris’ cobblestone streets, everyone recommended Cole Haan ballet flats. That was in 2011, and I have to say that I wear those shoes on all of my urban trips, and they’re insanely comfortable and still going strong. Those were the Cole Haan Air Tali Mary Jane Ballet Flats with Nike Air technology. Sadly discontinued. They were my gateway drug to a few more pairs of Cole Haan ballet flats and three pairs of suede boots with four-inch wedge heels that, because of the Nike Air technology, are insanely comfortable despite the height. When I’m traveling in winter, they are what I wear exclusively to sprint through airports because they are that comfortable, fashionable, and warm. I own them in black, brown, and grey because they are that awesome.
So, when it came time to look for shoes for Vietnam, I knew I had to look to Cole Haan. The pairs I had were more appropriate for Europe than Vietnam. Cole Haan no longer uses Nike Air technology (I cry daily over this fact), but the replacement Zero Grand technology is nearly as comfortable. I found the Zero Grand Mary Jane Sneaker (in black neoprene/mesh). They’re comfortable, easy to clean, perfect for my Vietnam itinerary, and reasonably cute (which is much less important to me in Vietnam than when I’m in Europe). They’re what I’ll be wearing on the flight over, too.
Another favorite shoe brand of mine is Clark’s Privos. As a matter of fact, with three exceptions, all of my shoes are either Cole Haans or Privos. (And, as an aside, all three exceptions are shoes/boots that Kate Middleton wears that I had to indulge because I found insanely good deals on them; well, except for one pair. Those were just a splurge. #guiltypleasure)
Anyway…I have a really cute pair of beige/white Privos sandals that I’ve had for years that are just perfect for occasions that call for cute sandals (beach, dinner, etc.). My pair of brown Privo hiking sandals will be perfect for the more active aspects of the itinerary. Privos are insanely supportive and comfortable. My most-worn pair of shoes, which I’ve worn daily since 2008 (except for the dead of winter), are a pair of Privos. As a matter of fact, they’re lying next to me right now, as I just threw them on to walk my dog a bit ago.
Vietnam is a relatively safe place to travel in terms of violent crimes, but petty theft is rampant. I’m going to wear a security band under my clothes to carry important documents and spare money so that they’re not so easily accessible to thieves. I’d looked at infinity scarves with security pockets on Amazon, but they never went down in price, and I wasn’t willing to pay what they were going for, so I’d given up on getting one. Then I happened across a nice one in a store that was one-third of the cost of the one I’d been eyeing on Amazon, so I scooped it up. I’ll wear it on the plane over, not only because I generally wear scarves on planes but because it’ll be one less thing to pack.
I had the occasion to purchase a travel purse in 2011, and I intentionally chose one that was slashproof because I knew that someday I’d be going to Vietnam (where purse slashing is relatively common). I know that I bought it at Magellan’s and it was part of the Vaultpro line, but it appears to be discontinued, as it’s no longer on the website. The Vaultpro line includes “cut-proof stainless steel mesh embedded in the fabric” and a “lightweight steel cable in the shoulder strap to prevent slash-and-grab theft.” Perfect! Mine is most like the current small crossbody shown on the website (including the zippers that latch and lock and the carabiner clips for tethering), except it has a lot of organizational pockets (I don’t buy anything without a lot of organizational pockets!) and the strap can be worn as a crossbody or as a waist bag. I don’t know whether mine has RFID protection, but my card/cash holder has RFID protection, so it’s all good.
Learning the language: Pimsleur Comprehensive Vietnamese
I can’t tell you how much I endorse the Pimsleur Method. I’ve used it for crash courses in French, Spanish, Catalan, and Italian, and it’s worked beautifully. During my week in France the first time I visited, I was able to converse adequately (but very simply, mind you) in French 75% of the time. And this after only using Pimsleur’s most very basic, cheapest French course for less than a month before my trip. It’s amazing how the method throws you into the language and forces you to learn it. And there’s no books! It’s 100 percent audio. Books can’t teach you pronunciation, so you learn to imitate the natural ebb and flow of words, which means you have less of an accent and are more easily understood. The method is quick fire, so you’re forced to start thinking rapidly in the language you’re learning. And the retention is really good, too. When I returned to France last year, I only needed the most basic of refreshers, even after four years away from the language.
The method works so well that when I landed in Italy last August, exhausted from having had absolutely no sleep for well over 24 hours and from not traveling solo (even short trips exhaust me when I’m thrown off my solo game), and I needed to find a specific location within the Rome airport to catch my next mode of transportation, I felt confident in initiating a conversation with a gentleman who looked as though he worked for the airport. But it’s not this confidence itself that was amazing to me. What was amazing was that my exhausted brain did not revert to its native language. My two explanation sentences and following question came out in a mixture of French and Italian. He understood me, though, and together we had a good-natured laugh at the garbled words that had come out of my mouth. But what impressed me was that my brain, at its most exhausted, reverted to the more comfortable of the two European languages I had studied rather than my own native tongue and still managed to incorporate the language of the country I was in despite having only studied it for a little more than two weeks.
It’s pretty impressive when you think about it.
So, anyway, after I had such a great experience with learning French with the Pimsleur Method in 2011, I kept my eye out for a good deal on the Pimsleur Vietnamese courses, which I managed to snatch up in August of 2013. You know, for that trip I was going to take to Vietnam some day? Well, now it’s here, and I really do need to buckle down with that language course! Vietnamese is so daunting, though! There are completely different words for things whether you’re talking to a male younger than you, a female younger than you, a male your age, a female your age, a male older than you, a female older than you, an elder male, or an elder female. And getting them wrong is not an option if you don’t want to be insulting. Not to mention that it’s a tonal language, so a simple two-letter, one-syllable word can have anywhere from six to eight completely different meanings depending just on your specific tone when you say it!
I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I do love a challenge!
Miscellaneous stuff: Small things I’ve either found useful on past trips or have read will be awesome as a backpacker or in Vietnam/Southeast Asia.
Travel clock with permanent backlight (I can’t stand clocks you have to reach out and touch to get the backlight to light up, and I’ve found that luminescent dials only light up for a couple of hours even after being charged for 15 hours under the Mediterranean or Caribbean sun.)
Carabiner micro lights
Conair TSA colored locks (I have about five, all in different colors from subdued to cheerful)
Retractable cable lock
Triple security cable lock
4-foot coiling cable lock
Mini bungee cords
Carabiners (I don’t have the ones I linked to, but I do like having about five or six on me in various colors whenever I travel)