Based on the cost of a three week tour, we traveled for roughly the same amount of money for over seven weeks in Vietnam. Three weeks or seven weeks for the same money! Big difference. So how did we do it? And better yet, how can you save money on your trip to Vietnam!
Organize it Yourself
An organized tour is usually the most expensive way to go anywhere or see anything. It is priced at a premium as a trade off for convenience. There is a lot of information about Vietnam (including on this website) and the tourism infrastructure is developed enough that it is easy to organize yourself. If you are worried about the language, most people working in tourism speak English, so it is not really an issue.
Take the weather into account when planning. Vietnam is a long, narrow country. Rainfall and temperatures can vary widely. We traveled from south to north. This was to avoid the north in the cold and rain, and be out of the south before the weather became really hot (it was hot enough when we were there!) Moving in one direction rather than backtracking will also save you time and money.
Your two biggest costs will be transport and accommodation and those are pretty easy to sort on your own. So here’s our advice. Below is a map of our itinerary, so you can follow along.
The cost of getting to Vietnam usually by flying from somewhere else can vary widely depending on departure and arrival points. If you want some tips to find cheaper flights read this earlier post Travel Tips and Resources for Planning Your Trip.
We decided to take the train: my reasoning was it was a night’s accommodation and transport at the same time. In addition the train station was usually easier and cheaper to get to as it was in the center of town, while the airport was usually outside of town requiring a longer and more expensive taxi ride. While this was true, I wouldn’t do it again.
- The train was uncomfortable, old, noisy and generally very difficult to get any sleep on (and I can sleep pretty much anywhere and I usually enjoy the overnight train).
- It wasn’t all that cheap to reserve a sleeper car compared to an airfare.
- The condition of the bathrooms cannot be discussed in polite company.
- We arrived sometimes at the crack of dawn in a destination which made checking in impossible as the previous guest hadn’t even woken up, let alone checked-out.
- Due to lack of sleep, the first day was not all that productive.
- It was always a shared sleeper and it was potluck with cabin mates. On one trip we had a woman who talked non-stop (in Vietnamese) on her mobile. On another we had a man with his rooster in a cardboard box! In case you need more details: the rooster constantly banged about in the box, I had visions of bird flu!, and yes it started crowing at full volume at first light!
- And this was booking in the upgraded sleeper cars!
So being excited to travel the Reunification Express (yep, that’s the name of the train running Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City) I booked the first two legs in advance: HCMH to Nha Trang, then Nha Trang to DaNang. We didn’t have a full itinerary with dates to book the whole thing or I would have! Lucky break your thinking! Ah, but no! You can imagine my disappointment after the first leg of the journey, HCMC to Nha Trang, to discover the only way to get from DaNang to our next stop, Ninh Binh, was the train! So yep, back on the train for the third overnight.
And the only way to travel to Sapa, north of Hanoi, is the overnight train! Luckily this is actually a different line, not part of the Reunification Express, and the train was a bit more comfortable, while still a shared compartment. So that’s two more nights (up and back) on the train. So, if you’re keeping count, that’s 5 nights on the train.
If you don’t want to heed my advice, there is more information about booking the train below in Resources.
Southeast Asia, (yes the entire place), is not a place I recommend driving. Language, reading signs, scams, unenforced road laws, animals and farm equipment (or anything else you can think of) on the road and terrible drivers all make it high on my do not drive list. It not like I am going to be mistaken for a local either. So with driving out of the question, that leaves being driven around or taking public transport. Luckily being driven around is not terribly expensive in Asia and so we took this option for transportation.
- A driver and guide as part of a tour through the Mekong Delta (more below)
- The same driver took us for a day trip outside of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to the Cau Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels
- Private car transfers between Ninh Binh and Mai Chau and then on to Hanoi.
- Private car transfers DaNang to Hoi An and Hoi An to Hue.
- Taxis or walking within HCMC, Hanoi, and Hoi An.
- Walking or biking around Sapa, Hoi An, Ninh Binh and Mai Chau (these are all towns, not cities).
- The occasional (when it was the only option) transport on the back of a motorbike. Always in a rural area and always wearing a helmet.
- 2-way shuttle transfer from the train station to Sapa Town.
- Transfers by private car to and from Halong Bay.
We tend to try and stay at family run accommodation as the service and recommendations for the local area are usually good.
For most of our accommodation we choose what I would call tourist class accommodation (3 star), including a couple of apartments (this is a relative term as most of these have a kitchenette, so cooking is very limited). However you do get more space and eating out is very cheap anyway. We rented apartments in: Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hanoi.
Our luxury splurges:
- One night on our Mekong Delta tour was in a very nice place with a fantastic view and pool overlooking the valley.
- The Sofitel in Hanoi.
- The bungalows we stayed at in Mai Chau.
- Our cruise in Halong Bay.
Some places accommodation was just cheap. The place we stayed in Ninh Binh, was $15 a night. Not because it was awful but because that is what tourist class hotels cost in Ninh Binh. I think everywhere we stayed, except the Sofitel in Hanoi, included breakfast.
Tours & Activities:
Often times when I could not be bothered to sort out or make multiple transfers on local transport for areas more difficult to reach, we did a tour. All of our tours:
- 4 day/3 night tour through the Mekong Delta (including accommodation, guide and driver)
- 3 day/2 night Halong Bay Cruise
- Day tour to the Emperors’ tombs in Hue
- Food Tour Hoi An (walking no transport)
- Day tour to the Bac Ha Market in Sapa
- A day tour to the rural countryside in Mai Chau.
- A bicycle tour in Mai Chau (same guide as the day tour the previous day and it was cheap and we had a blast the first day!)
- Two Cooking schools in Hoi An: at Red Bridge Cooking School and a private lesson at the Red Dragon Restaurant (both including a trip to the market).
Keep in mind, some of this can be organized by your hotel on your behalf which makes it easier and/or you can find a lot of information on the internet.
Similar 3 week tours (covering Hanoi, HCMC, Mekong Delta and Hoi An) were an average of about $3000 to $3500 USD per person. This is after arrival in Hanoi or HCMC. I am using this as an average because the cost is based on similar class accommodation and activities. We found cheaper tours, we found more luxurious. My point is you can save thousands of dollars taking the time to organize it yourself. Vietnam is a cheap travel destination. Transport and accommodation is not difficult to arrange on your own.
If you need some advice on how to plan your own travel, read Travel Tips and Resources for Planning Your Trip.
Vietnam Travel Recommendations
If you need assistance with Vietnam, here are some suppliers we used and are happy to recommend:
- Tony Nong from Ann Tours arranged our Mekong Delta Tour. The driver and guide were excellent. The service was superb and it was all arranged on incredibly short notice. Very professional operation. Additional contact details: Facebook, email, or alternate email.
- Sol Bungalows in Mai Chau
- For all your accommodation, a comprehensive selection can be found on Bookings.com
- For assistance with the Train
– Man in Seat 61 provides all the information you need for train travel in Vietnam (and around the world).
If you have questions, leave a comment. Where would you go on your Vietnam trip?