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A blog post on how to navigate your way through Vietnam during Tet without busting your wallet, the country's most celebrated two week holiday.

As some of you may know from twitter, I was a bit MIA for about two and a half weeks.  I  know what you’re going to say- “WHAT?! She has a mortgage and she’s going traveling again?! How the heck is this possible?”

Well, I understand what you might be thinking.  In my defense, I did buy my ticket to Vietnam before I bought the place, and the cheap airfare I booked with Kayak.com to Vietnam was only $1000 return (including taxes) which is a steal!  Usually it costs anywhere from $1300 to $1600 return.  I have always wanted to go to Vietnam and it’s on my bucket list (I love the food so much, I could literally drink fish sauce all day).

My motto is- life is short. Live without regrets.  I don’t eat out for lunch every day at work and don’t have a latte factor, so traveling is what I spend my money on and what I value in life.  I tell myself this every time I mumble and grumble to myself about having to make lunch for work instead of eating out.

Vietnam is a very economical country to travel in. It’s definitely on my “exotic doesn’t always mean expensive” list.  For example, a bowl of Pho (beef noodle soup) is $1.10 USD.  A cup of Vietnamese Coffee (super strong coffee with condensed milk, YUM) is $0.50.  A hotel room can range anywhere from $5-$10USD.  I traveled like royalty for about $15 a day.

Here are some tips on how to travel on the cheap in Vietnam

(during Tet, which is Lunar New Year and notoriously difficult to travel around because all the locals are on vacation and the ENTIRE COUNTRY IS MOVING TOO!).

  • Plan ahead– book your planes, trains and buses ahead of time- think WAY ahead.  Like weeks- will save you money and headaches!  We spent a lot of our time in Vietnam asking around for availabilities on transportation, only to find most places were full, buses were full, trains were full, and discount planes were full (namely Jetstar; we ended up having to use Vietnam Airlines)

Here are a few examples of the cost- A bus ride (tourist “sleeping” bus) from Hue to Hoi An (4 hour ride) $6 USD.  An overnight train ticket from Hanoi to Nha Trang (basically halfway across the country lengthwise) $45 USD.  Still super cheap compared to North American standards.

  • Bargain-I found that people in Vietnam didn’t seem as keen on bargaining and negotiating as other Asian countries, but it doesn’t hurt the try.  The main thing is to keep it friendly, smile, and keep it fun.  You’re much more likely to get ahead that way than not.  We bargained for our hotel room costs (got our hotel in Hue down from $20 USD a night to $15 USD a night for three people sharing a room), for tailored clothes, and for taxis.  Though I notice that pretending to walk away and acting disinterested (when you really want it) doesn’t seem to work as well here as say, China.
  • You just might have to accept it- Traveling during Tet is notoriously expensive.  Tet runs usually for two weeks from January to February.  The entire country seems to come to a halt, shops are closed, restaurants are closed, people are celebrating and drinking their faces off (though no firecrackers anymore because that was banned in the mid-90’s).  Restaurant owners even ask their employees to work during Tet for double pay and they still refuse.  The Vietnamese save all their money up the entire year to celebrate these two weeks.  Items and services (like hotels, tours, transportation) can be double or triple the price during the Tet because of this.  They charge a premium because they can.  It’s Tet.
  • Certain things can be last minute– This might sound contradictory to my advice on booking , but you can save money by booking last minute.  We were looking at Halong Bay (the beautiful picture you see above) tours on the internet, and they ranged anywhere from $89 to $249 for a 2 day 1 night tour from Hanoi to Halong Bay.  My lassez-faire friend who I was traveling with, insisted we book last minute.  The tours usually start at 8am and she went to a travel agent at 7am and they told her the cheapest they could do was $79 (it was usually $149).  She spoke to another traveler earlier in the trip who said she booked the same tour for $39 by going last minute.  The travel agency agreed to $39USD for a two day one night tour, and when the tour company picked us up at the hotel, they told us not to tell the other travelers how much we paid (I guess that’s how good of a deal we got!) or else the other travelers might get mad.
  • Research up on relative cost for services/goods before the transaction is made- I know this is very typical advice for any traveler, but knowing how much things generally cost will help prevent you from getting scammed.  We had a taxi driver who took us from our hotel in Hanoi to the train station (a 5 minute drive) and instead of 35,000 Dong (about $1.50 USD) he asked for 350,000 Dong (about $15 USD).  He acted quite confident that it was 350,000 Dong but at the same time didn’t demand that we pay it when we said we knew it should really cost 35,000 Dong.  Also, in taxis, you have the option of negotiating for a fixed price, or using a meter.  Sometimes using the meter can cost more than negotiating a fixed price, so it pays to read ahead (everyone has their copy of the Vietnam Lonely Planet glued to their hips).

My trip:

Just in case you were wondering how my trip went, it was amazing!  I saw so much but I think we did do a bit too much in a very short period of time.  I’m going to try to see if I can describe the trip in a nutshell.  Went to Nha Trang (beach town), not sunny, rode a scooter, fell, and got a lovely calf burn, tried scuba diving for the first time (realized I am quite claustrophobic), flew to Hanoi, went to Halong Bay (even kayaked there- amazing experience), Hanoi was intense (scooters EVERYWHERE!!), took a train to Hue, spent time in Hue sick (Travel tip- don’t be too adventurous on street food to the point you think cooking raw meat over your own little barbeque is a good idea), bussed to Hoi An, learned to cook Vietnamese food in Hoi An, and took a three day two night motorbike tour through the Central Highlands to see the “real Vietnam”.

Readers, have you been to Vietnam (especially during Tet)?  Any travel tips you would like to share?

Article comments

Braden says:

Hey mr young and thrifty!

What did you find was the best and most thrifty way to exchange funds to dong? I also live in Canada and trying to figure whether to bring Canadian money there to exchange or some sort of cheque.

Young says:

@Braden- I can’t recall what I did mainly but I think I just exchanged it there, or had a debit card that didn’t charge extra on foreign transactions and took money out of the ATM.

Kyle says:

The best way is likely to be a currency transfer company Braden.

Laila Hall says:

Hello!! Very helpful article 🙂 Me and my boyfriend are currently in Hanoi during Tet, we have a flight 6:30am on 28th January…how readily available are taxis during this public holiday?! We are panicking we can’t get to the airport!! Any advise would be greatly appreciated! Thank you 🙂

Young says:

@Laila- I took a taxi in hanoi and it was readily available but all I remember is the guy trying to scam us and charge us a higher rate (because we were foreigners/ tourists)!

Carmen says:

Hi! Loved your post!
We have been planing our trip to Vietnam for a while and then were taken a little bit aback because we realized is right on Tet! This year is on the 28th of January and we were planning to be there from the 20th of January until probably beginnings of February (not sure the date).
I was just wondering if perhaps you could tell us if we would be able to, for example, find buses to the little towns around Hanói or perhaps eat in small places the days prior or if they’ll be closed? I have read so many different opinions we don’t even know what to do now!
Many many many thanks in advanced!

Chicken Nanban says:

I had to fly in and out of Ho Chi Minh, so I spent some time there and took day trips to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta. I also skirted off to the north to spend some time in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. If I could do it again and didn’t have the Japanese workplace gods breathing down my neck about taking time off, I’d have given myself another week and a half to visit Sapa, Hoi An, and Hue, but that’s life. Definitely had an amazing time and hope to go back some day.

young says:

@Chicken Nanban- I heard Sapa is really really nice. I didn’t get to see much of Hue because I was busy vomiting the entire day from eating cow udder the night before, but that’s life too! I’m glad you had a great trip! I hope we both get to visit Vietnam again soon.

Chicken Nanban says:

@Young and Thrifty: Thank you SO MUCH for all of your pointers. I wasn’t able to make it to all of the places you recommended, but my trip to Vietnam was BRILLIANT! I can’t wait to go back!

young says:

@Chicken Nanban- You’re welcome!! 🙂 I loved Vietnam too.. yummm the fooooood. So where did you end up going?

Debbie says:

hi nanban, my BF and I are going to Vietnam in two weeks time we’ll be there for 13days. I know we are short on time just like you were. Is there anywhere you reccommend we shouldn’t miss?

Chicken Nanban says:

I just purchased my tickets for Vietnam last night (WOO HOO!), and after reading your review/reflections/(insert appropriate word here), I’ve started to get REALLY excited about my trip. I’ll be flying into Ho Chi Minh City and will be in the country for eleven days. If I were to venture up to north to Hanoi and the surrounding area, how much time would you recommend for sightseeing, tours, or mind-blowing and life-changing experiences? For the record, I’m willing to fly between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi to save time…

young says:

@Chicken Nanban- Exciting! I will live vicariously through you now. Get ready to get DRUNK for really cheap!! 🙂 11 days isn’t very much, I think I was there for 18 days and it was so tight on time. There’s just so much to see. You definitely definitely will need to fly between HCMC and Hanoi to save time, otherwise you’ll spend like.. 2 days on a train! Hanoi/Halong Bay I would recommend 3 days, Hoi An is a must (gorgeous ancient town there, you can rent a bicycle and ride to the nearby pottery village), I would say 2 days there. Are you in and out of HCMC? It would be better to do go from one side of the country to the other.. 🙂 HAVE FUN!

Hi YoungAndThrifty,

My open bus ticket was from Hanoi -> Hue -> Hoi An -> Nha Trang -> Saigon.

In Hoi An, I didn’t feel like taking any more buses and a few travellers told me about muggings in Nha Trang in the evening, so I skipped Nha Trang and took a $36 one hour flight from Hoi An/Danang to Saigon (instead of two 12-hour overnight buses).

– Lily

young says:

@Lily Leung-muggings in Nha Trang? Wow.. it seemed like such a safe little beach town. But I can see how it might seem a bit sketchy at night- lots of unruly tourists lol. I actually used Nha Trang as one of our main “pit stops”.

Sweet picture of Halong bay! I went to Vietnam last year and have fond memories, though I didn’t see as much as I wanted to. I spent some time in Hanoi, Halong Bay, Nha Trang and a very short overnighter in Ho Chi Minh. The flights were all booked beforehand and I think we paid about double for our Halong Bay tour.

Funny story about the taxis and about negotiating, but one thing that was uncomfortable was when we were left on a pier in Halong Bay alone waiting for a boat, it was getting dark, and there was one older Viet man there who kept throwing wisecracks our way because I am a white man and my girlfriend is Asian, and you know what they think about that… but other than that, was a great trip! 🙂

Tourist says:

I agree with you! Vietnam is a very economical country to travel in. If you travel to Asia, Vietnam should be on your list!

I love visiting Vietnam, and am due for a trip back shortly. I will re read this post at the time, and may reach out to you

young says:

@Sunil- Great! 🙂 Looking forward to hear from you 🙂

Sounded pretty awesome! You go on the coolest trips!!!

SavingMentor says:

So glad you had an amazing trip to Vietnam. Sorry to hear that you fell on the scooter – doesn’t sound like you were going to fast when you fell though, were you? Were you driving the motorbike on your subsequent 3 day bike trip? If so, must have taken some courage after having a previous fall.

It is really nice when traveling in a country where the dollar is very powerful. It costs less to stay in hotels and pay tourist prices than it does to live at home. Just imagine how much less it would cost to move there and live like the natives do!

young says:

@SavingMentor- No, I was trying to park the scooter on a sandy part of the road 🙂 and no, I wasn’t driving the motorcycle, the tour guides ride and you sit on the back. Yeah, our dollar would do amazingly well, though I heard from the locals that Vietnam is really expanding and becoming very strong economically. Their real estate is getting expensive too, apparently. One example, is in Hanoi, I saw SO many luxury cars while walking in a 10 block radius area of the Old Quarter (4 Bentleys, almost every car was a Mercedes etc.).

Vietnam wasn’t on my bucket list but I’m glad that you crossed something off of yours. All in all it sounds like you planned ahead, negotiated, got some great deals and most importantly, had a good time. That’s what it’s all about.

young says:

@Sandy @yesiAmcheap- Exactly! Thanks for the perfect summary 🙂

Awesome trip!
We definitely have to visit some day. We usually go visit my parent in Thailand and Vietnam is just a stone throw away. I need to go visit Ankor Wat before Vietnam though.
Spend money on what matters to you! That’s how to get the most out of money.

young says:

@retirebyforty- I’m sure your parents have traversed all over SE Asia since they live in Thailand. Where in Thailand do they have their home? Cambodia is so beautiful but so sad… I went there a few years back.. Ankor Wat is a must, of course, everyone has to see where Tomb Raider was filmed! 🙂

Great tips for budget travel in Vietnam.

I was there during Tet as well and even though things like transportation and accommodations were slightly more “expensive” and more crowded, it was still great value and experience of being there during such a large festival was worth it.

On my trip, the difference in price wasn’t material or budget breaking relative to the purchasing power of the dollar.

For example,
My single room with hot water, AC, WiFi in the ‘backpacker area’ and a few blocks from city centre was $12 (instead of $10).
Open bus ticket from Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Saigon (i.e. from the north to the south) was $60 instead of $50.

Great article and thanks for reminding me of the fond time I had in Vietnam recently!

– Lily

young says:

@Lily- Yeah, being there during Tet definitely gave it a nice atmosphere. You got such a good deal for your Open bus ticket (but was it one stop only or did you get to do all stops?). Too bad we didnt’ get to meet up!

CF says:

Very nice! My parents go to Vietnam once in a while, so I’ll have to mention your cheap tickets – $1000 round trip is an amazing price.

I think traveling while saving/paying for a mortgage is definitely possible – and it’s good to do the things that are important to you. The bf and I are paying a mortgage AND I’m going to be in classes soon, but we have saved cash for a Europe trip this summer. 😉 Gotta do these things while we can!

young says:

@CF- Cool 🙂 Yeah, they were with China Eastern. I had to stopover in Shanghai and hung out in the airport for a few hours, it wasn’t too bad. I completely agree that we got to do things that we can- live life with no regrets.

I have never been to Vietnam. My best travel tip is a general one: know the environment. Our guide in Jamaica last year spared us must grief by educating us about the area and customs. In your case, you already seem knowledgeable.

BTW, it does sound like you got a fabulous deal.

young says:

@Roshawn- That’s a really good tip and very important to know before hand. For example, people in Vietnam dress conservatively and I saw some tourists wearing short shorts SOOOO short that you could see her butt cheek. Not cool!

MoneyCone says:

That picture is stunning! Did you take that shot?

Just looking at that makes me want to take a trip!

young says:

@MoneyCone- No I didn’t 🙂 When I was there it wasn’t as sunny, it was cold and very winter-like. I haven’t even gotten around to uploading my pictures. It’s on my to do list. I’ll be sure to post some pictures when I upload them though.

Dan Brown says:

I also have never been to Vietnam, but that whole area of the world – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, etc. – is definitely on my bucket list.

Like many of the other commenters: Did you take that picture? Stunning! Where exactly is that?

young says:

@Dan Brown- Same here, I wish I was able to do all four (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia too) but didn’t have enough time. I haven’t been to Laos and I heard its stunning.

The picture you see is in Halong Bay 🙂 I think it’s a view from one of the many limestone ‘mountains’ (possibly Song Set cave “Surprise” cave) looking out into the bay.

Fox says:

Awesome picture YT!
Did you take it?
I always wanted to go to Vietnam, but the flight is killer from Toronto. I am sure it’s much cheaper from where you are. How’s the food? Semi-clean?


young says:

@Fox- Yeah, I’ll be the flight is killer, you have all of Canada to cross AND you have to cross the pacific! 🙂 I think Europe is cheaper for you, so I guess we’re even. Food was good, one of the guides we used gave us a tip “if you see a lot of tissue paper and garbage on the floor, that doesn’t mean that the restaurant is dirty, that means the restaurant is good because lots of locals go there”.

Taylor says:

ooOOoo Vietnam. Very nice. Super Jealous!

Any “must do’s” that you recommend?

young says:

@Taylor- I would recommend Halong Bay, Hoi An (it’s a beautiful town, but very touristy), and the Central Highlands. I didn’t get to go to Saigon/Ho Chih Minh unfortunately, but I hear that is really nice too.

Rachel Lai says:

Me and my boyfriend going this end of feb. Didn’t know it clash with the CNY. Any suggestion as to where we should go or do?