How much money should you budget to travel in Vietnam? Travelfish Vietnam expert Don Morgan explains exactly what you can expect to pay for accommodation, food, booze and all your other travel essentials
[Note – see also the companion article How Much Money Do I Need For Travelling In Thailand, How Much Money Do I Need For Cambodia and How Much Money Do I Need For Laos if you are heading there as well].
I’ve spent almost a year travelling in Vietnam and working as a writer/researcher for the website travelfish.org. A lot of people I meet on the road have just flown in from Bangkok, and I find them scrutinizing their newly purchased Vietnamese currency, emblazoned with cheerful portraits of Ho Chi Minh, and wondering how much of it they are going to have to part with along the way. I’ll be giving you and idea of what things cost below, but first, it’s worthwhile to get acquainted with the Vietnamese monetary situation.
Vietnamese Dong and US Dollars – you’ll need both
The Vietnamese Dong is pegged to the US Dollar, so it stays consistently around 16,000 VND per USD. Currently, Aussie Dollars are worth just over 14,000, Euros just under 24,000, and Pounds Sterling are about 32,000 VND. These may fluctuate, however, but if you know what your currency is worth in US Dollars you can always get back to the value in dong. Check out the rates at Travelhappy’s Currency Converter for up-to-date info.
US Dollars are very popular here, and many tourist-oriented activities are quoted in dollars, not dong, so get used to switching back and forth.
Getting the best exchange rate, Travellers Cheques and ATMs
US Dollars can be cashed everywhere – often you can use them for purchases, especially in tourist towns. Banks in smaller towns may not cash other currencies, however, though you can almost always cash any bills you’re likely to have at a gold shop. Some will try to cheat you, but others will give you a better rate than the bank – be sure you know what your bills are worth, and you should never have to settle for less than 1 or, at the most, 2 percent below the current rate. There are many international banks in Vietnam, but be aware that Agribank is domestic only–useless to foreigners unless they have an account there. The place to cash travellers checks is at a Vietcom bank, which charges no commission for dollars to dong. ATMs are widely available, but not all accept international cards. Look for BIDV, Incom, Techcom, Sacom, and Vietcom ATMs with Plus System logos.
Vietnamese numbers – knowing them can save you money
If you learn nothing else in Vietnamese, learn the numbers–this will often get you a better rate. Since all prices are in thousands, sellers often say, “twenty-five”as short hand for 25,000 dong. The Vietnamese word for thousand is ‘nghin’ in the north and ‘ngan’ in the South. Also, Southerners tend to think of prices in ‘chop’ (rhymes with ‘hope’) and if they hold up five fingers, they may mean 50,000 VND.
Notes come in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000 and, less frequently, 200,000 and 500,000 denominations. Vietnamese don’t like coins, for some reason, but many are still in circulation and they love to get rid of them by giving them to foreigners. I see 5,000, 2,000 and 1,000 dong coins every day, though 500 and 200 dong coins do exist and are hard to spend (save them for presents for the kids back home).
Spend your Vietnamese Dong BEFORE you leave the country
Dong, as a rule, cannot be cashed outside the country, though the Viet-Laos Bank in Pakse, Laos will dong you up if you’re headed east. Don’t change too much money at border crossings – the rates are horrible. But your first dong will probably spit out at you from an ATM anyway.
So – how much do things actually cost in Vietnam?
First, you might want to buy some of Travelfish’s Travel Guides for Vietnam for the latest, up-to-date info on accommodation and food prices. A lot depends on what class of accommodation you prefer, and whether you like to eat local or western food. But here are some ballpark figures. Like any good budgeter, I’ve tried to over-estimate in order to leave room for the unexpected. That way, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have money left over for a big blow-out dinner or a shopping spree before you hit the airport for home.
In a nutshell, if you’ve been to Thailand, you’ll probably spend about the same per-day here in Vietnam, with one exception: budget accommodation in Vietnam will seem a bit steep–it’s very hard to find a place to stay for under 5 USD a night, and 6 or 7 dollars is a more realistic minimum.
You can save a lot of money by exploring the cheap and delicious street food available everywhere in Vietnam–concerns about the sanitary conditions under which these foods are prepared are generally exaggerated, and most travellers never get anything more than a tiny touch of tummy trouble. Some street-side dishes are only 3 or 4,000 dong, but portions are small, so don’t count on living off them.
The Vietnamese eat steaming bowls of noodle soup for breakfast (called ‘pho,’ sounds like ‘fur’ without the ‘r’) which go for 10 to 20,000 dong. Cheap enough, but many hotels offer complimentary breakfast: however, this can amount to an indifferently prepared pile of scrambled eggs stuffed in a stale baguette with a cup of instant coffee, so seek out your own breakfast if you can. A full, western breakfast is going to cost about 40,000 VND (2.50 USD). You could eat three meals a day for 20,000 VND each if you’re on a super tight budget, but then you’d miss out on a lot of great local food, and there’s western-style fare to be had in the tourist centres. You’ll be looking at 30 to 50,000 VND (3 or 4 USD) for a small pizza or a plate of pasta, 100,000 VND for an Indian dish with flat bread, and a steak imported from New Zealand will cost 300,000 to 600,000 VND (20 to 40 USD). A conservative average minimum to budget per day would be 120,000 VND per person per day (7.50 USD), but better to think in terms of 10 USD per day if you can, and leave room for a splurge at one of the fancy places in Saigon or Hanoi.
Accommodation – Vietnam hotels and guesthouses
Hotels start at 100,000 VND per night for a double. You can book Vietnam hotels online from $20 US a night. The Vietnamese government does not license hotels to accept foreigners unless they offer air-con, maybe a fridge, private bath, and cable television (though sometimes the cable is only local, and therefore, no English language channels). Amenities are also big here – complimentary soap, shampoo, toothbrush, fresh towels, etc. Fan rooms are rare, but do exist. Better deals can be found with effort and sacrificing some niceties–if you agree not to use the A/C you can sometimes get a buck or two off the price of a room. In Hanoi and Saigon, you’re more likely to pay 10 USD per night for a decent room, but then there are also dorm rooms available in those cities for as little as 2 USD per night, which isn’t the case elsewhere. If you are a budgeteer, plan on spending at least 8 USD a night on average, mid-rangers should budget 20 to 30 USD per night, and luxury travellers are looking at rooms 50 USD and up. Swimming pools are not as standard as they are in Thailand, so only expect to see one in the mid- to luxury-range, and then mostly in the south.
If you’re really want to save, look for signs that say ‘Nha Tro’ or ‘Nha Phong,’ which means ‘boarding house.’ Also, ‘Co Thue Phong’ means ‘we rent rooms.’ They rarely have signage in English, and often are technically not permitted to take in foreigners, but sometimes do anyway. You can get a concrete room with nothing but a bed and a separate bathroom for less than 2 USD a night. Look for them near train and bus stations and in the centre of smaller cities, and be prepared to crack out your phrase book.
Booze and cigarettes
A lot of people who don’t smoke back home do it in Vietnam while they are on vacation. It’s so cheap, you can’t afford not to. A pack of butts starts at about 5,000 VND, though imported tobacco will cost 20,000. Still, comparatively cheap. You’ll notice there are no 7-11’s, or any other chain convenience stores, in Vietnam, but many shops, restaurants, and even beauty parlours will have a cigarette display case out front.
The most popular beers are Bia Hanoi and Bia Saigon, depending on whether you’re in the north or south, though Tiger Beer from Thailand is also widely available, as well as domestic beers like Halida. You’ll pay a minimum of 7,000 VND for a small bottle of local beer, and 20,000 VND for a big bottle of Tiger. Chilled bottles of beer are hard to find outside the tourist centres–get used to drinking it the way the locals do–over ice. Vietnam also serves bia hoi, which is fresh beer without preservatives, served from a keg, made to be consumed the day it’s made. Some places charge 3 to 4,000 VND for a mug, and others charge 14,000 VND for a two-litre pitcher! Yep, basically, Vietnam is cheap beer heaven. Expect to pay 30 to 40,000 VND for a cocktail in a bar, and as much as 6 USD for an imported, speciality beer. Local red and white wines made under the Dalat label start at 40,000 VND a bottle, but you’ll pony up 150,000 or so for a decent import. The Vietnamese don’t know how to store wine, though, and often by the time you buy it, it’s vinegar anyway. Best to restrict your wine-drinking to fancy restaurants that know what they are doing. Home-brewed ‘moonshine’ is illegal, and, of course, ubiquitous. They call it ‘rice wine,’ (ruou trang in Vietnamese) though it’s really more like schnapps or vodka. It’s strong, has a harsh, rice-husky taste, and a small bottle will go for 3,000 VND, though be careful, as the methanol content can be dangerously high. Luckily, the safer, commercial version is still cheap at 30,000 VND a bottle. You could stay drunk all day, every day for 3 to 5 USD, but please…don’t. Think in terms of an occasional night on the town–you can have a very good time with several changes of venue including a few western bars for 10 USD. Drinking the local way requires eating while drinking, but you still won’t spend more than 10 bucks, probably less.
Getting Around – Bikes, Taxis, Buses, Train and Planes
The most popular way to get around within a city is via a motorcycle taxi, called ‘xe om’–short trips cost 10,000 VND, longer trips are a bit more, and you can usually hire a guy for an entire day, with wait time at your destination, for 100 to 150,000 VND. The average car-taxi ride should only be 20 or 30,000 VND. Watch out for price-gouging, of course.
Cheap bus service is available throughout Vietnam–usually about 1 USD or less for every 50 km or one hour of travel time. These buses are often overcrowded and uncomfortable, and paying a bit more for a first-class bus or a tour bus will make life easier. A very popular option is to buy an ‘open tour’ bus ticket. One between Saigon and Hanoi costs about 32 USD, lasts for three months, and allows you to get off the bus wherever you like, and get back on whenever you please, for one flat rate. The downside is, you’re stuck with the ‘open tour’ route which only hits the tourist centres, like Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, etc. Count on some side trips if you’re spending more than a few weeks in Vietnam, and no one should miss out on the sleeper train, though you can expect to pay 30 to 50 USD between Saigon and Hanoi, and it takes a full day. Try for an overnight from, say, Hue to Hanoi for about 20 USD if you just want a taste. Sleeper buses are increasingly being introduced–not as comfortable, but you can still sleep and they are half the price of the train.
Domestic flights vary according to time of year and what specials are being offered. Service is being expanded and new carriers regularly enter the market, so it’s hard to say what kind of prices you’ll face on your visit. In any case, it’s always cheaper to buy domestic tickets here in Vietnam rather than back home through a travel agent before you arrive. Currently you can get shorter flights (say, from the Centre to the North or South) for as little as 25 USD, and flying between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh is currently about 62 USD–which isn’t that much more than a berth on the soft sleeper and a heck of a lot faster. Book well ahead to travel during the Tet Holidays, usually around late January or early February, and expect prices to jump.
Price of Activities in Vietnam
There’s a lot you can see in Vietnam for the price of a motorbike rental (5 USD a day in tourist towns, 10 USD per day elsewhere) or by hiring a motor-taxi driver for the day (6 to 10 USD). Admission fees to museums and national parks are typically low – rarely more than a dollar or two. Of course, if you use a guide once you’re in the park, you’re looking at 5 to 10 USD per day or per excursion, and sometimes transport within a park can be pricey – it’s cheap to enter Bach Ma Mountain south of Hue, for instance, but unless you want to walk 17 km to to the top, you need to pay 400,000 VND for a car to take you up and back down, though per person it’s not too bad if you have a small group.
When it comes to booking tours, prices vary widely. You can snorkel the reefs of Cham Island for 35 USD per day, or scuba dive for 65 USD. A day-long, island-hopping tour off the coast of Nha Trang is only 6 USD. Three days, two nights touring Halong Bay goes for as little as 35 USD, but forking over a bit more will pay off in terms of comfort and service. Windsurfing in Mui Ne or Da Nang can be very pricey–40 USD per hour. Of course, you won’t be on a tour every day, and lying on the beach is free, if that’s all you want to do. If you plan on taking a lot of tours, I’d suggest coming up with a lump sum dedicated to funding tours alone–anywhere from 60 USD on up per person for each week of travel.
Easy Rider Motorbike Tours in Vietnam
As a separate item, consider taking an ‘Easy Rider’ tour for at least four or five days. They are pricey, at 50 USD a day, but that gets you a driver with a powerful bike who will take you and all your stuff on a life-changing tour of the open road, sung to the tune of “Born to be Wild.” You’ll be coursing through some of the most amazing, remote countryside along Highway 14 (the old Ho Chi Minh Trail) edging the Laos border. Tours can be arranged from Saigon, Hanoi, Da Lat, Hue, or Hoi An/Da Nang. The price doesn’t include your own food and accommodation, but both are cheap along the way. If you only have room in your budget for one pricey tour, this is absolutely the one to pick.
Internet access is so cheap, most hotels give it away free to guests, and free wifi access is becoming increasingly common in cafes and hotels if you bring your own laptop. Cybercafes start at 3,000 VND per hour and can creep up to15,000 VND per hour at better hotels. The cheaper the connection, the more likely you are to be wedged between two screaming kids playing video games, so paying more will buy you peace and quiet–many post offices offer cheap internet and don’t allow gaming, so seek those out. Unless a town is really, really tiny, it’ll have internet, if nowhere else, then at the post office. Connections are generally good, though Cat Ba Island is notoriously slow, as it’s off the main grid.
Most people associate cell-phones with work and therefore go without them on vacation. This is a bit of a mistake, because it makes hooking up with fellow travellers and getting around in general much easier – just dial the number, hand the phone to your driver, and let him sort out the directions. Vietnamese SIM cards made by companies like Mobiphone or Vietel are on sale everywhere. They’ll all work in your phone from home, and a card loaded with generous minutes of dialing start at 40,000 VND. You can buy a used phone for 25 USD, though a new one will be more like 50. Coverage and reception are generally quite good, except in remote areas. Networks share cell towers so one is about as good as the next–cheaper SIM cards just have longer phone numbers.
If you’re into stuff and the folks back home are looking forward to souvenirs, you’ll find something to satisfy everyone in Vietnam. Such items are priced for tourists, of course, but even then, I’ve seen some really great objets de art for only 15 or 20 USD, and an original painting or a large photographic print can be had for 40 to 60 USD–really cheap by our standards, and there are innumerable hand-made, high-quality, and even one-of-a-kind items available for such prices.
Many tourists plan on getting tailor-made wardrobe while they are in Hoi An, but you’ll find good tailors in every major city. Be sure to bargain and shop around, but you can get a couple of business suits and a new pair of shiny shoes for 200 to 250 USD, and about a variety of tops and bottoms, say five or six items, with shoes for about the same price. The post office in Vietnam is really quite reliable, and many purchase-points will pack things up and mail it home for a flat fee. This can get expensive, though, so you might plan to do most of your shopping at the end of your trip and cart it home yourself.
Toiletries and other essentials
Two things you’ll want to bring from home are antiperspirant, and sunscreen. These things are available, but sometimes hard to find. Feminine protection is no problem, but if you’ve got a favourite brand, definitely stock up at home. Otherwise, everything you’ll need can be found here, in pretty much every city you’ll visit, and it’s cheaper than it is back home – shaving supplies, soaps and shampoos, etc. But if you’re willing to go with the complimentary amenities available at most hotels, you won’t even have to bother. Definitely bring your prescription meds with you, but make sure it’s in the original bottle, as the authorities here get jumpy at the sight of unidentified pills and they take drug trafficking very seriously. If you lose your meds or need a refill, try a pharmacy and you might be surprised – things like insulin shots, antibiotics, heart meds, and antidepressants can be purchased over-the-counter here at very low prices and without a prescription. A lot of them are imported from Europe or America, so they should be reliable, but use your best judgement.
Get your Vietnam visa in another Asian country
Westerners and antipodeans must have a valid visa before arriving in Vietnam (Koreans and some other Asians get two weeks on arrival.) Visa costs vary, but it’s always cheaper to get visa-ed up in another southeast Asian country–say Laos, Thailand or Cambodia–than it is to do it from home–35 to 45 USD for a month versus up to 100 USD in Oz or Britain. (see How to get your Vietnam Visa in Bangkok for more info). Vietnamese visas start and end on a fixed date, which is yet another reason to wait until you are near your date of entry to buy a visa. If you enter two weeks late, your one-month visa will only have two weeks left and you’ll have to renew to stay longer. Renewals cost about 22 USD for another month, and can be arranged in Saigon, Hanoi, Da Nang, Hoi An, and Hue. For longer visas and/or multiple extensions, you pretty much have to head to Ha Noi or Saigon. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six more months and has plenty of spare pages left in it. Americans can get new pages for free at the embassies in Hanoi and Saigon, but not all nations offer that service to their citizens.
Putting it all together
In sum, 20 USD a day for a solo, shoe-string backpacker is quite doable. A couple could get buy on 30 USD a day, since they make out well on accommodation. A family of four could squeak by on 60 USD a day, but someone had better be keeping a very close eye on the family purse. If you can add fifty percent to those figures, you can travel comfortably, albeit not lavishly. For luxury travellers – well, that’s between you and your gold card.
Vietnam, like Thailand, is slowly becoming more upmarket, but cheap food, transport, accommodation and activities are still available everywhere, if you make the effort to seek them out. And, despite the hype, price-gouging and rip-offs are not the budget traveller’s biggest worry. Bad monetary decisions are made mostly at night when you’re running out of steam, options, and patience. My best advice, if you want to save money, is to always enter a new city well-rested and with plenty of daylight on the clock. Find a place to stash your stuff before booking a room, and hit the pavement. Explore. Be prepared to walk in and out of a lot of places until you find the best deals. And remember: smile. In Vietnam, patience, a sense of humour, and a light touch will get you so much further than trying to be a hard customer. For every scammer you meet, there are five or six Vietnamese ready to take you in, feed you, load you with gifts and pledge friendship for life.