If you’re a traveler headed to Vietnam, you’re in for a treat. This is not a country of natural superlatives unless you’re really into the food, but when it comes to value for your budget, it’s a dream.
Thanks to a currency that has slowly declined against the dollar (23,360 dong to the US dollar as I write this), I didn’t have to update much when working on this country’s chapter of the 5th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. Any price inflation over the past five years has mostly been erased by the 15% exchange rate difference.
These days Vietnam is on par with Thailand in some respects, cheaper in others. Overall, none of the prices are too outrageous so this one comes in squarely as one of the cheapest places to travel in the world. This is not some sad and downtrodden country anymore where a lot of people are struggling to get by though. It’s a thriving economy where motorbikes seem to sprout from the ground each time it rains. When you say “Everybody and his brother has one,” it’s really true. Nevertheless, you’ll find plenty of screaming bargains here and the budget hotels in Vietnam are some of the best for the price you’ll find anywhere in the world.
The two-tiered pricing system of old is vastly reduced, meaning some attractions are cheaper now than they were 15 years ago. Younger, more business-savvy entrepreneurs have discovered the rewards of running an honest business at fair prices, beating out the shady competitors through better online reviews. There’s a higher level of professionalism across the board.
You’ll still be overcharged a lot, especially in the north: the communist “soak the tourists” mentality is still pervasive with street vendors, although it’s far less blatant now than it was when I first visited in the 1990s. The vendors have gotten less pushy and the government no longer charges foreigners two or three times what the locals pay for transportation. You’ll still feel like a walking stack of money sometimes, with everyone you encounter trying to get a piece, but if you’ve come overland from Cambodia, you’ll feel less pressure from vendors and touts at least. As the country’s economy keeps cranking and the population gets richer, there’s not as much desperation in the air. As you watch the never-ending flow of motorbikes and new cars glide by as you try to cross the street, it’s clear the citizens are moving up the economic ladder.
Two could scrape by on as little as $30 per day here if traveling really slowly, but $40 to $50 per day is more realistic for a couple of budget backpackers not moving around much, more if you’re trying to cover the length of the long country in one week. If you have a budget of $60 for a single or $100 for a couple, you will be quite comfortable everywhere and probably have money left over.
Hotel and Hostel Prices in Vietnam
Ask people who have traveled for years where the best lodging values are and they’ll likely say Vietnam. Yes, there are plenty of countries with cheaper places to flop for the night, but what you get for your money here is impressive.
Guesthouse prices in Vietnam aren’t as cheap at the bottom end as in neighboring countries, but the quality is uniformly high in the main destinations. Western toilets, hot water, and even sheets and towels are pretty standard in backpacker places, especially in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. So the bottom price isn’t as low, but neither are the standards. You’ll say “Wow” more often than “Ugh” when opening the door to your room the first time.
Hostel bed: $6 – $10 (there aren’t many of these, especially outside big cities)
Cheap shared bath double room: $10 – $18 including breakfast usually
Basic double with private bath, A/C: $14 – $28
Mid-range 3* or 4* equivalent: $24 – $60
Best hotels in town: $75 – $200
Triples are often just a few dollars more than a double and lots of places have family-friendly rooms or suites.
The best selection of hotels in this country is found on Agoda.com – they have more than 60,000 places to choose from, including the ones under $10 a night. Naturally you’ll find plenty on Airbnb too, though there’s not much of an advantage here unless you’ve got special dietary needs and require a kitchen. It’s so cheap to eat out that some expats who live here don’t even have a stove in their apartment.
Food & Drink Prices in Vietnam
Bia hoi! No that’s not a battle rallying cry. It’s the name of the cheap draft beer sold by the plastic pitcher on the street. Sometimes it comes out to as little as 30 cents a liter if you get the local price. But the bottled stuff is a bargain too, making Vietnam one of the cheapest beer destinations in the world.
The price of travel in Vietnam is really a deal at meal times. There are supposedly 500 traditional Vietnamese dishes, generally variations of rice or noodles with vegetables, seafood, or meat, and a wide variety of soups. You usually use chopsticks and a spoon, often sitting on a small stool on a sidewalk. Vegetarian food is plentiful and cheaper, though it will usually have fish sauce used as a seasoning.
Ice cream cone: 40¢ – $1
Street stall dishes like pho: 40¢ – $1.50
Cheap restaurant meals: 75¢ – $4
Nice restaurant meals in tourist places: $1 to $6, set menus with several courses $5 – $12.
You’d have to hit an international hotel or a restaurant catering to foreign business travelers to spend much more than $30 for two.
Sodas and coffee: 30 – 60¢
Fruit juice/shake: 40 – 90¢
Mineral water: 50¢ – $1 per liter-and-a-half
Two-liter pitcher of draft beer: 60¢ – $1
Large bottled beer in a restaurant: 50¢ – $1.25.
Name brand liquor cocktails: $2 (happy hour) – $5 (nice club)
Getting around in Vietnam can be a big chunk of your budget since this is such a long and skinny country. Go slowly and you’ll spend a lot less than someone trying to cover it top to bottom in two weeks. This is one area where the travel prices in Vietnam are decent, but not great.
Long bus trip (Hanoi to Hue): $8 – $15
Sleeper train same distance: $18 – $65
3-hour train trip (Danang to Hue): $3 – $5
Hop on/off bus Saigon to Hanoi or opposite: $50
Flight Ho Chi Minh City to Danang: $55 – $75
Flight Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi: $110 – $160
City taxi rides: 50¢ – $4
Airport taxi rides: $5 – $20
City bus rides: 15¢
Scooter rental: $5 – $10 per day
Bike rental: $1-$2 for a couple hours, $5 all day
A train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi won’t cost as much as a flight, but you’ll have to devote an entire two days to the trip, more if there’s a breakdown, and expect departures and arrivals to be late. Plan to make some overnight stops because unless you go first-class, it won’t be all that comfortable either. This is a trip where it is definitely a good value to pay the premium for first-class: Hanoi to Hue is around $40 in a soft air-conditioned sleeper, or $65 on the slightly better Livitrain car, with Hue to Ho Chi Minh City being a tad more. Check out Seat61.com for better info on booking than you’ll find locally.
For flight prices, the best bet is usually Skyscanner.
Other Vietnam Traveler Prices
3-day tour of Halong Bay or Sapa: $60 – $90
Day tour of group sightseeing, A/C van: $8 – $10
All-day boat cruise in Nha Trang: $10 – $15
Admission charges: 15¢ to $1.50 most, occasionally $4 (rare, like Hue royal tombs)
Cultural performances: $1.50 – $5
Manicure or pedicure: $1
SIM card for your mobile phone: $3 – $6
Have you been to this country lately? What did you find to be a great bargain among the travel prices in Vietnam?
Portions of this article were excerpted from the 5th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations book, out in September.