Dieu Anh Phung
How to travel well in Vietnam
I'm a born and raised Vietnamese who loves to travel in style. But when people think of travelling in Vietnam, they always seem to think cheap. Cheap hostels, cheap food, cheap services. There have been hundreds of articles about how to travel in Vietnam on a budget.
But if you’re like me, and you love travelling on a budget but still get to enjoy the finer things in life, such as a hotel with a view or a fine dining experience, Vietnam can be a great destination for that as well. In this article I want to share some of my top travel tips so you can indulge in Vietnam’s affordable luxury without breaking the bank and explore one of the best travel destinations in South East Asia.
1. Hotels are nice here
Of all my travels, Vietnam has hands down the best hotels and services. I was shocked when I arrived at a Marriott hotel in Napa Valley, California, and was left to take my luggage upstairs all by myself after 20 something hours of travelling. That would never happen in Vietnam, or even in Asia for that matter.
While most on-budget travelers would automatically opt for cheap hostels and bunk beds, I would urge you to explore the variety of homestays, Airbnb and local hotels offered in Vietnam.
If you prefer having someone change your sheets and towels everyday, local hotels are a great option. I start by looking at Agoda, Booking.com, and Traveloka to see which hotels and locations I like first. Then I usually call the hotel directly or get on their websites to see if they have good deals during my stay. Using this method I’ve found great deals on 5-star hotels such as JW Marriot, Sheraton, and the Intercontinental here in Vietnam. While the room rates for these hotels might be higher, they offer great services in package deals such as 50% off all F&B, spa, day trips, free lunch, dinner, ect. This is how Wiley and I had an amazing stay at La Veranda Phu Quoc, a 5-star resort, for only $200 for 3 nights including room and F&B.
If you’re looking for something even cheaper, I’d recommend a homestay. From the Mekong Delta to the Northern Mountains, there’re plenty of local hosts who offer affordable stays accompanied by awesome tours and home cooked meals. One of my friends, who is a travel writer, stayed at this awesome homestay in Cai Be and had fresh fruit and hot meals delivered to her room everyday by friendly local hosts. Another friend went on an amazing trek with her host while in Thai Nguyen, a mountainous region in the North.
Do check out the Vietnam Tourism Board’s website for hotel deals and homestay options!
2. Local tours are recommended.
Everyone says tours are not “authentic” enough, but recently Wiley shared an article about “A Case Against Authenticity” and I’d agree. As a Vietnamese, I find many local tours to be informative, culturally interesting and definitely engaging.
From North to South, you can easily find tours offered by local hosts, tour providers, and even young volunteers who love meeting foreigners and share about their own cultures. Depending on the level of comfort and organization that you prefer, you can easily research and find one that fits. I'm a city girl through-and-through, so I'm not crazy about nature and outdoor activities. Give me food and art and I’ll be happy. So my personal favorites are the Vespa tour in Danang, the cycling tour in Hoi An, street food tour in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, and a coconut cake/noodle making tour in the Mekong Delta.
Other, more ‘exciting’ tours can include canyoning, caving, Vietnamese cooking class, a coffee tour in Hanoi (where you try from the strongest Vietnamese drip to the more specialty brew around the city), a walking photography tour, a local brewery tour, a museum tour and so much more.
3. Choose your transportation wisely.
Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Vietnam. Because there are so many, you can get yourself one very cheap almost anywhere in the country. However, I’ve seen more than my shares of foreigners and tourists getting on a bike for the first time in their lives and thought they could roam through the country easily. That’s not a wise decision. Traffic accidents in Vietnam are among the highest in the world. The deeper into the countryside, the more dangerous the roads become as there are plenty of reckless local drivers. Plus, don’t take a look at a Vietnamese uncle driving a 20-year-old Honda Dream with flip flops and think you can do the same.
Don’t get me wrong, riding the bike is a great way to see the country, and save some bucks. But there are plenty of other options around. Flights are cheap here, too. From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, the flight usually costs less than 100 bucks, and that includes luggage. While I do not recommend sleeper buses, as they’re not exactly designed for foreign sizes, many limousines are available on different routes with a cost difference of only $10-15 per person. If you insist on enjoying a view while travelling, the railway system in Vietnam has recently been updated, where you can visit pretty much any travel destination in air-conditioned carriages.
Now, should you still want to travel around as a local does, aka on a scooter, do equip yourself with safety gears and stick to inner city routes if possible.
4. Splurge for food.
Food is notoriously mouth-watering, delicious and easily available in Vietnam. For once, the reviews are true. You can spend 50 cents to buy banh my from a lady on the street and get the same quality as any fancy restaurant around. But why not indulge yourself in not only the food but also the great experience that accompanies it when in Vietnam?
I usually treat myself with at least one meal of truly exceptional food and services per trip while traveling in Vietnam, without breaking the bank. Dining in the dark at Noir is a popular stop in Saigon, starting at $50/person. Tung Dining in Hanoi offers 13 courses within an experimental menu combining Scandinavian and Vietnamese cuisine, for less than $100 each person. The presumably best chocolate in the world, Marou, starts at $4 a piece (their chilli chocolate drink is phenomenal). Drop by Mango Mango in Hoi An, where you can find fresh, local food cooked with fine dining quality and a great view over the ancient town.
Don’t skimp on hotel food, either. While most 2-3 star hotels would offer a bland Chinese-style breakfast buffet, 4-5 star hotels definitely upped their game with dining options. We recently had one of the best meals in Phu Quoc at the Peppertree, a French restaurant within the Le Veranda, with fresh seafood grilled in local spices and a scrumptious view of sunset over the ocean. And don't get me started on the sunset-drenched dinner at On The Rocks over at Mango Bay Resort. Heaven!
Aside from these tips, there are so many more ways you can indulge in affordable luxury in Vietnam. There’s more to Vietnam than cheap food, motorbikes and rice paddies. I believe you’ll enjoy Vietnam whenever you’re from and with whatever budget you might have. Options and opportunities are all around. Simply put, it’s easy to travel cheap in Vietnam, and it’s smart to travel well.
Dieu Anh Phung
Dieu Anh is a digital marketer who among other things has worked for the Vietnam Tourism Board. She loves exploring new cultures and has traveled extensively both locally in Vietnam and abroad. She also writes about fashion on her personal website dieuanh.me as well as several fashion publications in Vietnam.