19 tips for travelling northern and central Vietnam on a budget
Vietnam is a perfect place to get a mixture of city life, mountains, jungle and beaches – without breaking the bank. Accommodation is cheap, food is too, and beer? Well, you’ll be drinking it like water.
The coastal town of Hoi An (Lauren Taylor/PA)
Here are some tips for making your budget stretch.
1. If you want to travel the length of the country, including Ho Chi Minh, give yourself at least a month. If you’ve only got a fortnight, stick to north and central Vietnam. Otherwise you’ll see more of the roof of a sleeper bus than the sun on your two-week holiday.
2. Save on accommodation so you can spend more on good-quality tours. Use the Hostelworld app for easy booking and prices from as little as £2 a night. For £5, you’ll get a clean double room; and for £12, you might even get a pool too.
The city of Hanoi (Lauren Taylor/PA)
3. Beware of rogue tour companies. In Hanoi there are hundreds operating out of various hostels but apparently not all will take your money and provide you with a tour.
4. Travel around on night trains and sleeper buses so you don’t need to pay for accommodation. Buses are about half the price of trains but are significantly less enjoyable. Make sure you get a seat/bed near the front (away from the on-board toilet) and high up (near the air-conditioning). Although your chances of getting any sleep are low either way.
Enjoying my top bunk, middle row bed.. Good job since I have a 24 hr sleeper bus tomorrow to Hanoi, Vietnam! pic.twitter.com/fuoRySpCs4
— Jennie Payne (@MissPayneHHS) November 13, 2013
5. When it comes to street food, agree a price before you sit down to eat. Otherwise you’re likely to be charged way over the going rate afterwards.
6. Don’t just use Hanoi as a stop-off, spend a few days there if you can. Make sure you stay in the heart of the Old Quarter, a really interesting little pocket of the city where the streets are tree-lines and the pavements are awash with street food vendors and the architecture is gleaming with evidence of a French colonial era.
7. Crossing the street in Hanoi and Ho Chi Min will seem like a monumental challenge at first. Motorbikes and scooters buzz like swarming bees down the narrow streets and there never appears to be a gap in traffic. You simply have to walk out into the madness slowly without any sudden movements and they’ll swerve around you. This isn’t so much a money-saving tip as a life-saving one (but your insurance will thank you).
8. Drink beer instead of wine, spirits or cocktails. It costs between 45p to a £1.20 depending on where you are. The local brew Bai Hoi (mostly found in the north and drunk by people clustered on the pavement on tiny plastic stools) is even cheaper and costs around 10 to 15p a glass! In the rural north many people make their own rice wine, which is surprisingly good.
9. Organise a ‘homestay’ or two. They vary hugely in Vietnam between a more genuine experience in more rural areas where you stay with a local family and eat with them too, and a guest house a bit like a B&B.
10. Don’t do all your tours with an agency. It can be cheaper to travel to Sapa, a pretty little mountain town in the north, independently and negotiate a price with a local guide when you arrive. Two days (with a night in a homestay) is the perfect amount of time to see the towering mountains, spectacular views and the rice paddy fields.
The rice paddies of Sapa in northern Vietnam (Lauren Taylor/PA)
11. Prepare for Sapa to be touristy and you’ll be bombarded by the local H’mong people selling trinket things along the way. It also seems fairly common practice for local women to latch on to tour groups and walk the entire distance with them. However friendly and helpful they are, by the end of the trek they’ll expect you to buy something, so if you don’t have the money, let them know at the start.
12. It’s the same in Halong Bay. The famous cluster of thousands of mini mountains rising up from the sea is a tourist magnet. So if you want something just as beautiful but with less boats, find a tour to Bai Tu Long Bay instead. Tours range from 18-30s-style booze cruises and stays on ‘castaway island’ (complete with university-style initiations) to mid-priced, more civilised tours, and luxury ones. You get what you pay for.
13. Go to Phong Nha Ke-Bang national park in central Vietnam. It’s still in the infant stages of tourism and there’s loads to keep you busy there for a few days at least. Easy Tiger hostel has dorm beds for £4.70 a night, a fun atmosphere and loads of tours to choose from. For something challenging and off-the-beaten track, go for the ‘Abandoned Valleys‘ trek which includes climbing through Dark Cave with headlamps, wading through jungle rivers and swimming in the crystal clear water of Hang E cave.
Swim in the crsytal clear waters of Hang E Cave (Lauren Taylor/PA)
14. Motorcycle taxis in the Phong Nha area are expensive by Vietnamese standards so hire push bikes (for free) instead. If you’re feeling fit, there’s The Pub With Cold Beer outside of town. On the menu is chicken, and out the back they’re still living, so if you’re a veggie, or squeamish, it’s not the place for you. You have to buy a whole chicken, so get a group of three or four together, and you can see how they kill and prepare it (or relax in a hammock if you’d rather not see your dinner alive 20 mins before you eat).
15. To see the home of the Citadel, Hue (pronounced Hway) – rich in history with stunning palaces and pagodas – you don’t need more than a day. If you buy an open bus ticket, you can take advantage of a four-hour stop-over in the city before moving on.
The Imperial City in Hue (Lauren Taylor/PA)
16. Get some clothes made in Hoi An, a seriously pretty coastal town lit up by thousands of lanterns every night. There are enough tailors there that you can negotiate a good price for a made-to-measure outfit.
17. Bargain hard. As a general rule, suggest 50 % of the price and go from there. Make sure you haggle for tour prices as well. Generally you can get an extra 25% off.
The Cham Islands (Lauren Taylor/PA)
18. If you’re really brave, you can arrange a homestay on the more remote Cham Islands. The crystal clear water and (mostly) clean beaches are a draw for lots of people, but very few stay overnight. Mainly because there aren’t any hotels or hostels, but local people offer their spare rooms, home-cooked food and classic Vietnamese hospitality for the equivalent of £5 or £6 a night. Be warned though, there’s no electricity after 10pm anywhere on the island, and therefore no air-conditioning.
19. And, if you have any money left over, treat yourself to a cooking course in Hoi An. The town has a legendary food scene and there are plenty of full-day or half-day cookery courses on offer. The Red Bridge cookery school takes its students on informative tours around the local herb farms and markets before demonstrations and hands-on help for cooking several of your own dishes over a few glasses of wine.
Take some of Vietnam home with you by learning some great recipes (Lauren Taylor/PA)