Vietnam is a dream come true for travelers looking to get the most for their precious dollars – provided you understand how things work in your new, temporary home. If you’re willing to look around for deals and eat like a local, you can easily survive for under $20 a day. Here’s how to travel through Vietnam on a tight budget.
Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Vietnam. Because there are so many, you can get yourself one super cheap almost anywhere in the country. For the easiest transaction, though, you should try to buy one off a foreigner completing their own motorbike adventure in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Just punch a few choice words like “Motorbikes for sale” and “Hanoi” into Google and you’ll have hundreds of bikes to choose from. Many of these motorbikes are in rough condition, but repairs are cheap and you won’t have to deal with any ownership papers. With a bit of searching, you can easily find decent motorbikes for under $400 that you can resell for almost the same price once you’re finished with them. We recommend you stay away from fully-automatic bikes, though, since they don’t handle distances well and repairs can easily cost more than the purchase price of the bike.
The roads are fairly well-maintained, but don’t let your guard down in rural areas. There are many potholes just waiting to ruin your day. Get a good helmet and have travel insurance. Accidents happen.
For many people, riding a motorbike through Vietnam’s chaotic traffic is an experience they’d pay good money to avoid. Sure, you could fly over large chunks of the country by plane, or even rumble along the coastline in the comfort of a train, but moving around by bus is a happy medium between comfort, experience and budget. Companies offer air-conditioned routes between pretty well all the major backpacker stops, and since these same buses are used by locals, the prices are very reasonable.
Vietnam was once a wild frontier for backpackers. These days, you can roll into most towns and find a place to match your budget fairly easily. But to really save money, we recommend you book in advance and keep an eye out for deals. Some places will assume you’re out of options if you show up at their door and give you their highest price because they know you need a bed.
The cheapest options will always be large rooms with bunks beds. While this can provide for a lot of fun because of easy friendships with interesting people, you’ll often get lumped in with obnoxious drunks that have zero consideration for you or your schedule. Bring high-quality earplugs with you and let the front desk know you what time you need to be up so they can come get you when you inevitably sleep through your alarm.
Because Vietnam is still a developing country, hotels here are cheaper than you’d pay for a hostel in wealthier countries. So, when you get sick of listening to drunks, splurge on a night in a hotel. Many include breakfast as well, so there’s one of your meals paid for. To find the cheapest hotels, look a bit outside the main touristy areas. Hotels that fill up with foreigners are usually the most expensive.
If you plan on motorbiking through the country, consider bringing a quality hammock. You might have a bit of trouble in urban centers, but in the rural areas you can find restaurants and families that will let you sling yourself up for free. It’s definitely the cheapest way to travel. Famous travel bloggers have done this and kept their expenses down below $10/day with this strategy.
Here’s where you can really save some money. It all depends on your discipline, because everywhere you go you’ll be tempted by Indian, Italian, French, Thai and American cuisines, among others. It’s easy to give in and splurge for a meal, but you can quickly develop a taste for rich foreign foods, sending your budget into a reckless tailspin that you’ll never recover from.
Without really trying at all, you should be able to find tasty meals for under a dollar. Everyone knows about pho, but there are so many other amazing Vietnamese dishes that are all as cheap as a bottle of beer. We recommend you experiment because Vietnam has so many amazing and good value dishes. Try to avoid eating in your hostel or any places that specifically cater to foreigners, since their prices are usually inflated. Also, don’t worry if you don’t know any Vietnamese. You can usually just point to what you’d like. Plus, English is now taught in grade schools, so many locals can speak enough to help you. For the cheapest dishes, look for signs like the ones in the picture below:
phở (pho), mì/mỳ (noodles), bún (noodle soup), cơm (rice)
Most foreigners don’t know the extent of bartering in Vietnam. For food and items like toiletries, there’s usually no bartering. Try to buy from places with their prices listed, because then you’ll avoid the Foreigner Tax – their adjusted prices. The one exception is at fruit markets. While you might not be able to barter with them, you should ask around to a couple different stalls to make them compete with each other.
For anything tourist/souvenir related, barter, and barter hard. These places know what you’d pay for similar items in your home country and often give a price that makes you think you’re getting a deal. You’re not. Be prepared to walk away and you’ll find out what the actual prices are. Keep in mind that sellers in touristy areas barter every day and they’re probably better at it than you. Try to never show your actual interest in an item, because that’s when they dig their heels in.
The entrance fees to museums and historical sites are very reasonable, since they need to be affordable for locals as well. You can get into the most popular spots in the country – Imperial City in Hue, Temple of Literature in Hanoi, War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City – for just a few dollars.
Even if you don’t drive a motorbike the length of the country, you should still consider renting one in certain places like Sapa and Hoi An, because the best (and cheapest) way to explore these wonderful destinations is to drive yourself around and have a look. Guided tours are more efficient, but also much more expensive. Don’t even think about taxis. Backpacker forums and blogs overflow with stories of scams and bad experiences.
In general, more foreigners means more expensive. Unfortunately, if you’re staying in backpacker hostels, it will be very difficult to stray far enough away from the overpriced bars and clubs that fill the touristy areas. We recommend you check online for restaurants and filter your search to Vietnamese cuisine. The other option is to find a bia hơi place, which literally means “cheap beer.” They’re plentiful and it’ll warm your frugal heart to drink all night for under $10 –usually less.
To get to where you want to go, use Uber or Grab. Their cars are fairly cheap, but to really save money, order a motorbike. Xe oms (motorbike taxis) on the street are often notorious cheats, but you can trust the ones on Uber and Grab. They’re vetted and you can even see their scores from previous passengers. These apps have taken over in Vietnam, and they’re probably the easiest way to really save a lot of money. Taxi rides add up fast.
You can bring your phone from home, but be wary of thieves. Foreigners with expensive cellphones are their primary targets, and they’ll even stalk people they think look like easy prey. The other option is buying a cheap smart phone in Vietnam. You can get adequate phones for under $50. Sim cards and data are also super cheap, but the language barrier stops many foreigners from even trying. Either ask your hostel/hotel for some assistance, or simply Google a nearby place. Most shops in touristy areas can speak English. If you need more data, look for signs with whichever carrier your Sim card is through – Viettel, Mobifone, or Vinaphone. If you’re using maps and other data-intensive apps, you’ll probably spend about five dollars per week.
It’s available everywhere, even in rural areas. You won’t have a problem staying connected in Vietnam. It’s not as fast as you’re used to at home, but you’ll still be able to upload all the pictures of your budget adventure in this amazing country.