Vietnam Travel Guide
Farmboy and I visited Vietnam in January this year (2014). We had a wonderful time, and it was one of our favourite holidays we have been on so far. You may be thinking of heading there soon (or sometime in the future) so to help you plan your trip, I have put together a rough budget, as well as some tips from our stay. Please keep in mind that my husband and I may travel very differently to you, and have different likes and preferences for things. I prefer the more luxurious path, while Farmboy would stay in a hammock for the entire trip if it was up to him. So we plan accordingly, and of course, try to stick to the budget.
For this trip we made the terrible mistake of missing our flights home, having to fork out another $1000 for the trip (not included in the budget set out below). Apart from this unfortunate accident, Vietnam was a relatively cheap holiday, the biggest expense was the taxi rides to and from airports as the airports in Vietnam are situated really far from the tourist areas. We budgeted in US$ and were able to pay for the majority of things with dollars, with my Korean credit card or by withdrawing at local banks into Vietnamese Dollars.
This was our first trip planning all our accommodation ahead of time (unlike the Philippines, Cambodia and Malaysia) and we learnt a lot from this experience. There are pros and cons to booking ahead of time (often the photographs online are very misleading, and sometimes you have such a good time in one place that you wish you could prolong your stay). I suggest booking your first and last nights before your trip, and then winging the middle days as you go.
We were away for 13 days, exploring Hanoi, Hoi Ann, Sapa and Halong Bay.
Hanoi 3 nights (first 2 nights and last night)
Halong Bay 3 nights
Sapa 3 nights (2 of which were spent on the over night train)
Hoi Ann (3 nights)
Sapa (Northern Vietnam)
We went during the winter season (I hadn't actually checked the weather before booking our flights...silly me) and so this effected our planning quite a bit. Vietnam is very different in the summer time (especially the Northern parts) and can get rather cold. But the summer is a different story. Instead of rolling green hills and rice field terraces we had heard about in Sapa, we were met with dry, barren landscapes, which were beautiful in their own ways, just not what we were expecting.
We both enjoy making the most of our holidays, and so spend very little time in one place, opting to instead see as much as we can in the time that we have. This isn't for everyone, and the holidays tend to be more fast paced than lounging about and relaxing. This works for us. Most travel forums advised against only spending one actual night in Sapa, as the train journey is quite tiring but we found that 2 full days were just fine (the overnight rains arrives at 5am in Sapa and departs around 7pm leaving 2 full days of travel if you only book 1 night in the actual town).
As you can see from the pictures below, the over train was clean and comfortable. We paid $40 pp each way for the 4 bed room. We had room mates on both trips which wasn't ideal, but everyone kept to themselves and our belongings were very safe under the bed and in front of my top bunk above the door.
We booked a tour guide for $70 and really felt like we had been ripped off. Rather make your own way with a map. I think you would see much more if you trekked around by yourself. Our 4 hour trek took us into our tour guides' home (more so she could feed her baby than for us to see her authentic home) and then through the fields. It would have perhaps been better in summer if the rice paddies were luscious and green, but it was hot (even though it was winter) and rather boring, even though we were able to get some great photographs.
The town itself is fully geared for tourists, with the main roads looking like you've stepped into a Swiss resort. All the restaurants and massage parlours are geared towards tourists and are very pricey (a meal ranging from $12 - $20 and a good massage deal from $15 - $30). We found a little corner cafe away from the main road and ordered delicious bowls of Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) for a much more reasonable $3 a pop.
We did buy knock off North Face jackets for a steal at $22 each, and they look JUST like the real thing. You can get your hands on a whole range of North Face/Jack Wolfskin items, make sure to budget accordingly! They had everything from hiking boots to sports shoes, ski jackets to fleeces.
We made yet another mistake by not heading right for an island off Halong Bay. The bay itself is very touristy with hundreds of different tour companies offering you 1 - 4 night boat trips. We weren't really interested in being cooped up on a boat for 3 days and so booked a hotel in Halong Bay City. This was a mistake as the taxi ride from the city to the port (where you catch the boats to the islands) was a $25 fare EACH way! We wanted to go climbing with Asia Outdoors who are situated on Cat Ba Island. The ferry schedule was very limiting so we actually ended up not staying in our fancy hotel for one night so we could have longer on Cat Ba. We booked a super cheap $10 room on Cat Ba Island, and looking back I would have not booked any nights at the Halong Bay DC Hotel (but the two nights we stayed there were in super comfy rooms which included breakfast and we are able to order room service and get our clothes laundered - which sounded like a great idea and one that we presumed would be cheap...it wasn't, $37 for our clothes was an absolute waste of money, but one can only learn).
On Cat Ba Island we went on a fantastic climbing trip the first day, and the second day we hired a scooter to explore Cat Ba National Park. The hike up the peak of Cat Ba National Park was one of the highlights of our trip.
Our first full day was spent on an amazing cooking course in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. We had a great time and learnt so much about Vietnamese food and culture from our wonderfully experienced chef. Doing a cooking course at the start of your holiday is the perfect way to get to know the local cuisine, so when you walk past street vendors you know whats what. Often street food is delicious and much cheaper than eating in restaurants. We did our course through Hanoi Cooking Centre which included an early morning market walk to buy all our ingredients.
Our last day in Hanoi was spent visiting the local markets around the Old Quarter and drinking Vietnamese coffee while stuffing our faces with as much Pho as our bodies could handle. Pho is very cheap, a bowl going for $2 - $4 a pop and is one of the most delicious meals I have ever had.
We booked cheap internal flights through JetStar Airlines from Hanoi Noi Bai Airport to Danang Airport, and they also offer a bus service (click here) that runs from the Old Quarter to the airport. It was very cheap to use this bus, and it saved us a lot of stress too once we found the bus terminal (thank goodness for the GPS function on our iPhones). From Danang Aiport it was a good 40 minute drive to Hoi Ann (this is what caught us out the most with our budget, all the taxi rides to and from the airports).
Hoi Ann was our favourite place in Vietnam, and perhaps, in the whole of South East Asia. It reminded us a lot of Siem Riep in Cambodia (lantern lit streets to stroll down at night, great food, fabulous cocktails....it's a wonderful, 'vibey' town filled with something for everyone). The beach was only 20 minute cycle away (most hotels have free bicycle rental) and we were able to swim even in the middle of their winter time. Hoi Ann is most famous for its tailors, so make sure to budget accordingly! We hadn't planned to have anything made, but once we saw the quality of the suits we ended up having two made for Farmboy. Be prepared to bargain. You can everything from swim suits to lace skirts, to silk shirts and suits, as well as every leather item imaginable. In particular the leather boots and luggage looked beautiful. It wasn't incedidly cheap, but the quality is amazing, and compared to back Korea or South Africa, the prices were reasonable.
We spent 2 nights at Thanh Van 2 Hotel which was great, and then spent our last night at the incredible Hoi An Ancient House Village Resort. We like to spend our last night or two in luxury, especially if we have been staying in backpackers or really cheap hotels for the rest of the time. We felt like we were on honeymoon again, and the suite was a very reasonable $90 for the both of us including breakfast.
We also did an early morning tour to Masan Temple to see the ruins. There are quite a few tours you can do that leave from Hoi Ann, and your hotel will be able to help you with booking.
A few tips
- Download the Orbitz and Hotels.com apps on your phone. We booked most of our accommodation through the app and always got at least a 15% discount on each booking for using the app. We were also able to book at the last minute and never had a problem with our bookings.
- Book accommodation that includes breakfast. You will save yourself money, and save yourself the stress of trying to find something to eat that doesn't taste too strange, especially early in the morning (or do what we do and pack small ziplock bags of oats, almonds and cranberries to have for emergency breakfasts on the run).
- When booking flights be sure of what is included in your flight booking, especially with Air Asia. We booked flights for Malaysia for really cheap, and then only after booking did we realise that we could only take carry on luggage (which was restricted to 7kg's a person, and they were super strict at the airport, weighing all our bags including my big camera bag).
- If you're short on time, look to see if you can find cheap local flights on sites like AirAsia (this has saved us so much time and we have been able to book flights for reasonable prices). Download the AirAisa app, it's super easy to use. For Vietnam we booked our internal flights on Jetstar for $160 for two people return from Hanoi to Hoi Ann.
- Take your smart phone with you. We didn't have data, although we were told that sim cards were readily available and pretty cheap. But we were able to jump on a lot of free wifi in all the hotels we stayed at and a lot of the cafes. The GPS function on our iPhones was an absolute life saver, as it functions in helping you navigate, even when not connected to wifi.
- Jot down your expenses, this helps you stay on track. We took only cash for our 2 week trip and writing what we spent where helped us to stay within the budget (well, apart from the missed flight and tailored clothes that had to go on the credit card).
- Visa Requirements: For South Africans we had to 'book' our visa on arrival online, pay by credit card and then print out the emailed copy to take with us to when we arrived in Vietnam. It was painless to organise. I used Visa Vietnam and the price was $26 for two people (not included in the budget below)
- Pack a sense of humour. You will get lost. You will fight with your husband/boy friend/friends. You will get sick at least once and you will have an amazing holiday all the same.
The budget below is the expenses for both myself and my husband, including our flights from South Korea.
If you have any questions, please leave me a comment below and I'll get back to you as soon as I can.