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Vietnam on a Shoestring – A Budget Traveler’s Guide

Although for many Westerners Vietnam still conjures memories of a decade long conflict that decimated the land and its people, it is a country rich in culture and full of natural beauty. With a favorable exchange rate, cheap cost of living and a wealth of opportunities for adventure, we take a look at some of the best places to see when traveling to Vietnam on a shoestring budget.

A country of wild extremes and natural beauty, Vietnam is home to miles of unspoiled beaches along the coast, stunning hills and valleys in the north and the majestic Mekong Delta and Halong Bay. With a huge range of activities and sights to see, Vietnam is a budget traveler’s ideal destination. Visitors can conceivably experience Vietnam for around $25 USD per day whilst living quite comfortably. So what are you waiting for? Read on and start packing your suitcase in preparation for your Southeast Asian adventure.

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The Best Time to Travel to Vietnam

Vietnam’s geographic position means that it experiences quite dramatic weather patterns and monsoonal weather. As a result, some months are rainier than other, and this affects tourism. The busiest times of the year, when prices for transport and accommodation rise, is from November to March and July to August. Although the weather is often more humid, by traveling away from these peak periods, budget conscious travelers can take advantage of cheaper flights and accommodation.

Tet (the Vietnamese New Year) is a huge cultural festival that occurs in late January or early February. It is one of the busiest times of the year for domestic tourism and prices soar during this period so tourists looking to spend less should avoid travel during this period.

Accommodation

Hotels are a great way to unwind after a long day of traveling, but as any seasoned backpacker will tell you, hostels, home stays and vacation rental homes are the best way to meet other like minded travelers and fully experience the country.

There are a number of hostels available in the major cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, but in smaller cities and towns there are considerably fewer options for this style of accommodation. Generally speaking, a dorm bed in a hostel in Hanoi will cost less than $9 a night, whilst in Ho Chi Minh the price is around $8. Locating and booking a hostel is easy through a site such as hostelz.com.

Whilst slightly more expensive than staying in a hostel, home stays offer a unique opportunity to experience life in a traditional Vietnamese household where travelers can benefit from local knowledge and engage in a meaningful cultural exchange.

Explore the Cities

A deeply divided country for many years, Vietnam’s cities are dramatically different and draw influence from many aspects of Vietnam’s storied history. These are some of the must visit sites:

Hoi An – Visiting Hoi An is like taking a step back in time. Amazingly well preserved, it was the principal port for the area between the 16th and 18th centuries. Whilst prices on food, clothes and entertainment are higher than in other parts of Vietnam in response to the tourism industry, renting a bike will only cost you around 20,000 dong ($1) per day, and cycling is the perfect way to explore this quaint city.

Nha Trang – With a backdrop of sandy white beaches Nha Trang is one of the most popular beachside destinations in Vietnam. The natural beauty of the area lends itself to a host of outdoor activities such as snorkeling, diving, enjoying a sail around the area or simply relaxing on the beach.

Ho Chi Minh City – Positioned in the south of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is always buzzing. With seemingly millions of motorcycles relentlessly zipping around the streets and constant activity on every corner, one can be entertained simply by watching the sheer pace of the city. There is a huge variety of amazing traditional foods on offer and a wealth of affordable activities such as visiting the Ben Thanh Market or exploring the Cu Chi tunnels.

Hanoi – The capital of Vietnam has retained much of its French colonial architecture and style. Nestled amongst lakes and close to national parks and mountains, there is a huge variety of activities to enjoy that won’t break the bank: strolling through the old quarter to catch a glimpse of what life was like at the beginning of the 20th century in Hanoi; visiting the Hanoi night market to hunt for bargains; and viewing the One Pillar Pagoda, one of the country’s most revered Buddhist temples.

Take In the Natural Beauty of Vietnam

With a staggering array of natural landscapes ranging from rugged mountains to clear beaches, dense impenetrable forests to expansive national parks as well as endless rice field paddies – probably the most enduring images of Vietnam – there is a host of amazing sights to see in Vietnam, many of which won’t cost you a dime:

Halong Bay – Translated as “Descending Dragon” Bay, Ha Long is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With are over 3,000 islands nestled within its turquoise waters, Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations. A number of companies provide tours of the area with a range of options available for all budgets. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for, so research the available options through a site such as tripadvisor.com.

Mekong Delta – With its crisscrossing waterways and fertile soil, the Mekong Delta is the agricultural heartland of Vietnam, producing more than half of the rice needed to supply the entire country. Ramshackle boats traverse the meandering body of water and sprawling rice fields are harvested by local farmers in much the same way as has been done for generations.

Da Lat – Thanks to a climate that’s temperate year round, Da Lat has become a popular destination with tourists. Set in the central highland mountains, Da Lat is punctuated by a number of beautiful lakes, sweeping valleys and majestic waterfalls, and has a distinctly alpine feel.

Cuc Phuong Forest – Home to yellow monkeys and flying squirrels, the Cuc Phuong Forest is located approximately 140 kilometres from Hanoi. Botanically rich, it is one of the few remaining primeval tropical forests on earth. Many tour options are available, but for the intrepid, an entry permit costs around 40,000 dong, or $2 USD.

Hit the Beach! – Vietnam is home to hundreds of kilometres of unspoilt beaches, sporting eternal stretches of powdery white sands, crystal clear blue waters, breathtaking tropical islands and secluded lagoons. Some of the best can be found at Nha Trang, Phu Quoc or Doc Leth.

Food

Vietnamese food draws influence from Thai, French and Chinese cooking and makes extensive use of fresh herbs such as basil, parsley, laksa leaf, thyme and chilli. For the budget conscious eating at street-side stalls and at markets, you’ll find a tasty bowl of pho (pronounced fur) for around 30,000 dong ($1.50 USD). Not only is street food authentic – it’s what the locals eat everyday – but you also get to enjoy the spectacle of seeing it cooked in front of you. Splashing out and eating at a restaurant is not an overly expensive proposition either, with many restaurants offering a sit-in meal for around $80,000 – $160,000 dong ($4 – $8 USD).

Top 5 Budget Tips for Vietnam

1. Haggle – Tourists are generally charged more than locals and prices are often not fixed, so don’t be afraid to engage in some friendly negotiations when purchasing goods in Vietnam.

2. Eat at street stalls – Eating from street stalls is not only affordable, but is one of the most authentic ways to enjoy local food. Look for markets in any city for the widest range of options.

3. Use local transport – Local buses present an opportunity to experience day to day life as a Vietnamese person and are generally far cheaper than tourist buses, costing as little as $0.25 USD.

4. Take the overnight bus – When organizing your travel between cities, take an overnight bus. You can sleep throughout the trip and save yourself the cost of a night’s accommodation.

5. Use a public airport shuttle – In any given city there are often multiple options to get from the airport to the major metropolitan area. Abstain from using the more expensive tourist buses, choose  local transport and you can find yourself saving a significant amount of money.

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