Our Vietnam adventure took us from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south to about half way up the very long country, finishing in the city of Hue. When I compare our budget to traveling in Thailand and Cambodia, Vietnam seemed surprisingly predictable. There weren’t many thing that were shockingly cheap, and at the same time there wasn’t much that was frighteningly expensive either. In the end, if you manage to avoid the major tourist traps and scams, Vietnam can be traveled on a rather tight budget – and the best part is that you’ll typically feel like you got your money’s worth.
Our 29 day daily average :: $35.58 USD (for two people: one couple) :: 1 USD = 17,000 VND (Dong)
As you’ll see below, the cities with the fewest tourist “attractions” also happened to be the most budget friendly. Surprising, I know. We did actually avoid most major touristy things for many reasons, but we did succumb to a few necessary extras like an awesome cooking class in Hoi An and an okay boat tour of the tombs in Hue. The rest of our time was spent enjoying the city, watching the culture as it watched us, enjoying the addictive Vietnamese coffee, and sampling as much food as we could manage. We stayed in mostly mid-range budget guesthouses which we usually found on TravelFish.org. We ate at food stalls, markets, restaurants and cafes, only really avoiding the super shady or overly expensive eateries. All in all, we lived and traveled relatively comfortably, and some how managed to do on a pretty tight budget. Read below for a detailed breakdown.
Ho Chi Minh City $39.62 (5 day average) :: Da Lat $28.02 (5 d.a.) :: Nha Trang $30.98 (6 d.a.) :: Hoi An $47.18 (5 d.a.) :: Da Nang $29.65 (4 d.a.) :: Hue $38.35 (4 d.a.)
:: Budget Breakdown ::
Sleeping :: Avg $11 USD/Double Room :: Okay, I know I said the average room is eleven dollars, and it is actually the average we paid, but the prices are really all over the place. Each city has it’s own price range and we stayed in guest houses for anywhere from six dollars and up to seventeen. Ho Chi Minh gets the award for most expensive and Da Lat wins for the cheapest beds. We did get breakfast at the most expensive place, jam and toast with eggs and tea, not bad. And to our excitement Vietnam is a very wired country and most of our guest houses had internet and WIFI. If they didn’t, another hotel’s signal was within reach or we just popped over to a cafe offering a portal into the matrix. It was almost too easy to stay connected. The average laundry price was around 16,000 Dong per kilo and actually came out surprisingly clean. All of our rooms were reasonably clean as well with only the occasional leaky, smelly bathroom. The beds just about always left us wishing for a Marriott but we did find a cure for sleep, so it wasn’t that big of a problem. Vietnamese coffee is your friend, but the mortal enemy of the sandman.
Eating :: Avg 25-60,000 VND/Meal, 10-15,000 VND/Snacks :: Vietnam is mostly a small-restaurant country. We didn’t see many food stalls offering quick, cheap grub and there aren’t many snack vendors wandering around town either. Whenever we ate, we just walked around looking at menus until something clicked. You can find some very excellent food in the 25-60,000 Dong range and if you really want to go all out, we saw some set menus for as much as 700,000. Not exactly in our budget, but maybe yours. The few basket lady snack vendors we did see usually had some tasty and cheap treats like mini waffles and pastries. A decent breakfast consisting of baguettes and eggs or Pho noodle bowls can be had at many restaurants for under 25k VND. Just try not to get addicted to the real star of the morning, yeah you guessed it, Vietnamese coffee.
Drinking :: Avg 8,000 VND/1.5L Bottled Water, 10,000 VND/Vietnamese Coffee, 15,000 VND/Small Beer :: The bottled water is generally pretty inexpensive at markets and more surprisingly, at the guesthouses as well. Occasionally, our guesthouse water was some of the cheapest we could find. The coffees are a more difficult item to average though because it really depends on where you’re getting it and how you like it. We typically got the white coffee, which is the Vietnamese espresso with a little sweetened condensed milk. Now they just call this white coffee because black coffee was already taken. Don’t assume this will be a watered down American coffee with skim milk, no way – only at the crappy tourist places. The real stuff comes out of the little metal steeper like thick, creamy, black sludge. It tastes great on it’s own, which was shocking to us since we don’t drink much coffee, but for a sweet tooth the “white” version is enough to give you a cavity in your brain and a caffeine high that could last for days. Get to a locals-only place and you could pay 5,000 VND for the white (they typically charge a little more for white and also a little extra for ice). But then if you go to fancy cafe in Saigon you might pay 25k for the same thing. Whatever you do, avoid the tourist American coffee because as good as the traditional Vietnamese coffee is, some how these are terrible and not cheap enough to be worth the mistake. Now for beer, my true addiction, you should expect to pay some where around 15k VND for a smaller bottle of most brands. Though, it’s not unheard of to find it for as low as 10k and as much as 20k. I would recommend sticking to the Larue Export and Saigon Special labels and avoiding the unfortunately terrible 333 beer (I hoped it would be better because I love the number 3). In Nha Trang they practically give drinks away with every meal and at happy hours, and they also have a tasty microbrewery called Lousianne where we paid about 75k Dong for a taster flight of excellent brew (we shared it and felt nice and fuzzy afterward). Mixed drinks seemed to sit around 35-55k at the bars and seemed pretty stiff but a little small.
Seeing the Sites :: As per usual we avoided most of the typical tourist outings and heard mixed results from people who did partake. We did manage to go to a Water Puppet Show at the Ho Chi Minh History Museum which ran us about 32k VND/person on top of our 15k museum entry fee. The show was cooler than it sounds, but the museum wasn’t much to look at unless your a history/bhuda statue buff. The Botanical Gardens are right next to the museum and a ticket there costs 8k and probably isn’t worth the time – unless you like seeing animals living in pretty horrible conditions amongst a small garden or two. We also splurged on a full day cooking course in Hoi An that was wonderful, though slightly overpriced. It was with the Red Bridge Restaurant and our deluxe class included a free morning drink, market tour, organic farm tour, traditional tea, free drinks all day (including beer), four meals, the recipe book, a boat ride home and an embroidered apron, all for $38 USD/person. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that overpriced, just more than we wanted to spend. Finally, in Hue, we some how got talked into an eight hour boat tour of the pagodas and tombs around the area. We paid $5 USD/person for the trip, a very basic lunch (you had to purchase real meals), and moto transport to the far away tomb. Some other people we know paid $2 for all the same stuff, minus the transport which you can buy for 30k VND on the boat. The two main tombs also run you a 55k Dong entry fee for each, and a smaller pagoda was asking 25k but we decided to skip it. The tombs were pretty nice but the boat trip was boring and we felt they over promised and under delivered – never a good combo. For any other side trips to villages or caves, check with your hotel and some other travel agent and you’ll probably find a reasonable deal.
Extras :: Cell Phone SIM cards are very easy to get in Vietnam. They seem to be sold in just about every little store including some street stands selling cigarrets and beverages. We bought a MobiFone SIM card for 100k VND which came with 60k worth of calling credits which were valid for around 90 days. This was more than enough for our 30 day visa.
Transportation prices were reasonable, at least until the Vietnamese Tet holiday came around. The prices started hiking up for us around Nha Trang which was about two weeks before the official New Year’s celebration on the 25th of January. Apparently prices for just about everything rise during this time, so be careful. Some example prices we paid are as follows: Ho Chi Minh City to Da Lat by bus was $7 USD/person, Da Lat to Nha Trang was $4.90/person by bus, Nha Trang to Hoi An was $17.65/person by overnight sleeper bus, Hoi An to Da Nang was $4.70/person by bus, Da Nang to Hue was $3/person by train, and finally Hue to Savannakhet in Laos was $17.40/person by bus. The trains are the probably the cheapest and typically the most comfortable way to travel, although not exactly clean. The buses can be nice but are usually driven pretty fast and are very noisy with all the honking and occasional music videos playing. The best information we could find online for buses in Vietnam is at SinhCafe.com and for trains at Seat61.com. We didn’t need to take many taxis, motos, or tuk tuks, but on the rare occasion it was very reasonably prices as we never spent more than a couple dollars for two people.
ATM Fees are pretty much unavoidable in this country. The only ATM we found that didn’t take a little off the top was Donga Bank, and these are very few and far between. So expect to donate 20k Dong to the gods of convenience, and to limit these expensive transactions, look for ATMs that allow you to pull out 3-4 Million Dong at once.