I lived in Vietnam for three months and spent roughly $500 there. God damn, I love Vietnam. It may be the cheapest country on Earth. I’m of course discounting the countries with the kind of currency that devalues itself by the time the cashier hands you your change, but those will get their own budget guides eventually. For now, we’re focusing on this Southeast Asian beacon of $0.15 beers and cigarettes so cheap the Pope would start a habit.
This edition of the Backpacker’s Budget Guide is gonna take place in Hoi An, Vietnam. This is where my job was, so I didn’t exactly have the most typical spending plan while in the city, but its size and varied wealth makes it an awesome litmus test for the rest of the country. You can spend any amount your little heart desires here, and transplant that kind of spending to any other city your trail blazes through. However, I’ll also be incorporating other parts of the country that you might not otherwise get.
Now here’s the deal with Vietnamese money. They use the Dong (VND). They love the Dong. Everybody finds that sentence funny. The thing is, nobody cares about the exchange rate. Sure, you’ll look it up and find that the American Dollar is currently worth 21,500 dong. That’s great in theory. Not in practice. In practice, Vietnamese people hold the dollar strictly even with their little blue 20,000 VND bill. It puts you at a slight loss when you’re paying, but it actually makes it a lot easier since you’ll never get rid of those 1000 and 2000 VND notes otherwise. So remember: $1=20,000 VND. $10=200,000 VND. You get it.
The Cheap Day
- The best way to have a cheap day is to pair it with a nice aged hangover. So let’s say you wake up at around 11 AM in your dirt-cheap hostel. There are seven other people in the bunks, groaning in their dehydrated half-sleep. It sounds like an Irish zombie apocalypse. Luckily, even the cheapest Vietnamese hostels are pretty nice, with thick mattresses and clean sheets. That’s not to say you can’t find cockroach-infested shitholes, but why would you want to? A good hostel can be as cheap as 60,000 VND a night.
- Now, I’m sure some of you will say that you just can’t stomach food in the morning. Fuck that. Vietnamese food is bomb, and you’re hungover, remember? So go find some breakfast. Luckily, a lot of hostels in the major backpacker towns include breakfast. It can range from basic toast and eggs to a full buffet, but it’s there. For free.
- Now, you’re hungover, but let’s tell everybody you’re going to walk around and do things. That’ll make you feel like less of a bum, like you’re not wasting your time abroad. Hoi an is the perfect size to walk the entire town and make it back just before the hangover reaches unbearable levels and you realize you need to be horizontal at the pool. So go see the sights and don’t whip out your dong.
- Okay, now I’ll let you pull the “I don’t wanna eat” card. Who hasn’t gone without a meal? I ate two meals a day for over two months when I was in the Philippines. At this point, you’re probably tired of walking, so you’ll head back to the hostel to hang out. But since you’re hungover, we should probably throw in one of those fancy 1.5L water bottles for 8,000 VND.
- Hostels in Vietnam, in my experience, have some pretty awesome places to gather and hang out. Pools, pool tables, tables… anything you want. You could hang out here without spending a dime and have a great day talking about the terrible things you did last night. When I was in Hoi An, I watched a couple of people get into a motorcycle jousting fight with a couple of locals. Come on guys.
- You do still need dinner. You skipped lunch. Luckily there’s more street food to be had. Duck soup, fried pig intestines, anything ethnic is at your fingertips. And hell, you’ve been good today, so toss in a beer. Aim for the small, familiy run restaurants, and it’s still not gonna cost you more than 30,000 VND total.
- Head back to your crappy dorm and head to sleep. You don’t need another night like last night. Not until tomorrow night at least.
As those gentle fuzzy sheep bounce merrily over your heavy eyelids, you can smile. Your bed is still comfy, your hangover is gone, and you spent a whopping total of 98,000 VND today. That’s only $4.90. See? I told you Vietnam was awesome. But tomorrow’s a new day. A more interesting day.
The Regular Day
- Alright, let’s get crackin’! You’ve got a totally average day ahead of you! Wake up – sans hangover! – in a slightly better hostel than the last one. As said, hostels in Vietnam skew towards the better side no matter the price range, so frankly you don’t even need to bump up. But for the sake of this budget guide, let’s say you popped into Sunflower Hostel, the centerpiece for early Hoi An backpacker nightlife, which has dorms for 150,000 VND a night.
- Like I said, a lot of hostels in Vietnam include breakfast. But for the sake of pedantry, let’s assume you picked the one ass-backwards place in town that doesn’t have it. They do exist. They suck, but they exist. One cannot appreciate the sun without the occasional cloudy day. So in that situation, head out to a little place to grab some eggs and noodles for 40,000 VND. Food, like talk, is cheap.
- You probably saw all the free sights on the cheap day. At least you did in this neatly arranged, slightly idealized version of a typical backpacker trip. On the regular day, you’ll probably want to do something with a little more pizzazz than that pagoda you couldn’t even fully walk through. Places are like prostitutes; you gotta pay to get into the nicer ones. Luckily, the places in Vietnam, like the prostitutes in Vietnam, are cheap. Even some of the better ones will only put you back another 60,000 VND. Try renting a motorcycle and riding to the beach.
- You may have skipped lunch yesterday, but the food here is just too good. Anthony Bourdain anointed a sandwich shop in Hoi An as the best bahn my he’d ever had. You can find the same shop and buy the same kind of sandwich for 15,000 VND. You don’t need to be rich to eat like a Michelin Man (the gastronome, not the mascot).
- By the time you get back home, you’re probably going to be pretty tired. You should grab some grub and take a nap: you’ve got a big night tonight. We’ll give you the cheaper option and go for street food again. 30,000 VND for a bowl of soup and a bottle of water.
- And, of course, now it’s time to drink. As it often is. Bars in Vietnam can be tricky because almost every single one has some variation of a drink deal, be it an open bar or an assortment of free shots. No two bars are really the same. Beers can cost anywhere between 4000 and 30,000 VND. For the sake of the guide, let’s say you drink 3 cheap beers at the pregame for a total of 12,000 VND. For the bar side, I’ll go mild and say that you took advantage of the 80,000 VND all-you-can-drink deal at Volcano. You may spend more, you may spend less. Everybody drinks differently.
After that, you’ll probably stumble back to the hostel and pass out. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble back to somebody else’s. And after that, what you do is up to you, Lothario. I’m not putting any of those happy endings they offer around town on the budget list. My mom reads this blog. Sans happy ending, you’ve spent a grand total of 397,000 VND, or $19.85.
The Splurge Day
- Funny thing about Vietnam. There’s a little equilibrium for hotels between the ultra-budget ($2 a night) and the ultra-high end ($200 a night). At a certain point, there’s really not much of a difference between the hostel that costs 100,000/night and the hotel that costs 1,000,000. Hanoi Backpackers was the best one I stayed at, and that was 150,000 VND/night, so we’ll leave it there.
- Again, breakfast is often included (it is at HBH), but that gets old. If you’re at the end of your trip and hankering for some authentic stuff, head out to town. I’ll bet the cost of your breakfast you won’t be spending more than 100,000 VND no matter how hard you try.
- You’re probably gonna want to do something today. That something will probably take some time to get to. You could, of course, take a taxi, but where’s the fun in that? Renting a moped is cheaper and more exciting (near-death experiences really make you feel alive!). Even in the biggest cities, it’s only gonna be 100,000 VND/day for an automatic. Their trick is that they give them to you empty. Gas up as much as you need – 50,000 VND should last the day if you’re not going too far.
- As said, the best things cost money to do. Normally, yes, they’re around 20k, but let’s say you want to do something cooler. Just because it’s a splurge day. So maybe it’s a water park? Maybe it’s parasailing at the beach? In Hoi An, maybe you’ll take a trip to the Marble Mountains. Whatever it is, it can reach up to 200,000 VND.
- Since everybody eats three meals a day on their splurge days, go ahead and grab some lunch. Like any normal backpacker, it’s probably not gonna be a full meal. Just something to settle your stomach. You can grab a plate of rice and chicken, or hell even some French fries, for 60,000 VND.
- At this point, I’m sure you’ll spend the rest of the day dicking around, hanging with friends, doing whatever you crazy kids are wont to do. Now’s the time to grab a souvenir for the money grubbers back home. Some bracelets, some clothing, anything. Haggling is pretty easy here, and though most places will start their bids way too high, you can get pretty much any tank top-style shirt down to $2, any bracelet down to $0.50, and anything else you find down to at least $3-4. If you really have a big haul, you still shouldn’t have spent more than 150,000 VND.
- Did I mention that the food in Vietnam is great? I love the street food, but sometimes it’s nice to just find a restaurant and get something made by people who “wash their hands” and “refrigerate their meat.” If you check out the kind of restaurants that Lonely Planet calls hidden gems, you’re sure to find a great dinner to the tune of 160,000 VND. Seems fair, given what that would cost anywhere else in the world.
- Since no splurge day would be complete without drinking, let’s go drinking! We’ll use the same parameters as last time, which took us to 92,000 VND and the kind of hangover that inspires the cheap day. Full circle!
See a relationship between the three days? They’re all pretty similar – the only real difference is your own desire for indulgence. I’ll get into the different ways you can indulge in a second, but for now, we’ll just count up the costs. The splurge day comes out to a total of 1,062,000 VND, or $53.10. That’s a pretty hefty chunk of change there.
Now here’s where I should talk about what you’ll actually be spending. It’s all well and good to list off these possible day itineraries, and personally, my average spending per day came out to around $15-20. Normally, this means I would have been able to survive on around $600-800 in a month, depending on the balance between splurging and saving.
But Vietnam also has some opportunities to spend even more. A tour to Ha Long Bay, for example, is a must-do, but also a pretty good money sink. I went on a booze cruise through Hanoi Backpackers Hostel that put me back $280, without drinks. I would do it again in a heartbeat. But I acknowledge that it’s gonna skew your budget, and it’s hardly the only high priced attraction.
None will put you back as much as that booze cruise did myself, but just for example, there are tours and homestays in Sapa for $45, mud baths and water parks for $25, and other things of the sort that you won’t want to miss, even if you’re trying to count your dollars on the train. It’s not like Cambodia, where Angkor Wat is immediately part of the budget, or the Philippines, where there aren’t so many extraordinary attractions as there is an elevated level of beauty everywhere. Sometimes these things can be unexpected, but that doesn’t mean they should be missed.
Cost of Inter-City Travel:
- By motorcycle: $200-300 (buy your own), $25 (hotel organized single trips)
- By bus: $10-20
- By train: $30-50
- By air: $50 (not worth it)