Planning a Vietnam holiday? Read this guide for some first-hand tips on how to make your Dong go farther.
I grew up in Sydney’s inner-west. I thought I had experienced Vietnam without ever having to go further than the Pho restaurant around the corner. I was very, very mistaken. Real life Vietnam is far from the pork-roll version I was raised on, but after holidaying there I learned a thing or two that might prove useful to future travellers such as yourself.
Prep-work: booking flights, accommodation and your visa
I spent a total of ten days, nine nights in Vietnam, starting in Ho Chi Minh city followed by Hoi An, rounding up the trip in Hanoi. Flight costs made up the bulk of my trip expenses as accommodation was mostly quite cheap and eating there is a steal.
As with all airline booking, the best bit of advice I can give is to do your research before forking over any cash. I was prepared to fly budget (think Tiger or Scoot), but Qantas were having a sale at the time that basically matched the lower prices available. Bonus, I was served a pretty decent meal (by airplane standards) onboard and didn’t have to pay extra for checked-in baggage. I booked together with the people I travelled with and paid all at once – which means I scored a bunch of reward points in the process, even though I had to pay surcharges.
Rewards credit cards to earn loads of points:
In the end, my flights cost me about $900 - $1,000 all up, including the two short flights within Vietnam itself. I travelled in May which isn’t peak season and that helped with prices too. I strongly suggest an off-peak trip – Vietnam broils all year round, save for when it is raining buckets, so trying to plan your trip around the weather won’t do you much good.
Choosing where to stay was a bit onerous. There are thousands of options and each one is priced pretty well (unless you’re going for a 5-star resort). Don’t bother looking for hostels to stay at as the hotel prices are pretty low anyway. If you go as a big group, it might be worth it, otherwise hotels will still be cheap and likely more comfortable.
Ho Chi Minh (right) is bustling and hectic, so it was nice to stay in a sprawling resort style hotel (center) while we were in Hoi An (left).
Hoi An is a small town and the prices reflect that; split with friends, I ended up paying less than $30 a night there on our hotel room and it was really nice. The other hotels we stayed at were a bit less luxurious, but all three provided buffet breakfast standard, without having to add it to our room. Prepare to see Pho and noodles on the menu for breakfast wherever you go.
Booking a flight and a place to stay aren’t the only requisites for travel to Vietnam. You’ll need a visa to get past the airport if you’re flying from Australia. You’ve got a few options to do this, but the easiest is to get it done online. There are a lot of scam websites out there that will offer Vietnam visas but not deliver, so be careful. Personally, I used Vietnam-eVisa.org on a recommendation from a friend. I received my visa request in an email a few days after I applied and paid.
Another must-have before flying out to Vietnam is travel insurance. I recommend getting sports cover added to your policy; in Vietnam, you can hire a jet ski for half an hour for about $30 (AUD), but it comes with a life jacket and nothing else – no boundaries, no rules. It’s fun, sure, but I wouldn’t do it without a strong policy as my safety net in case anything happens (like crashing into a fishing boat which can – and to me, almost did - happen).
Insurers that provide sport cover on travel insurance policies:
Departure day: first impressions of Vietnam
After a nine hour flight (from Sydney), I got my baggage and went through immigration. Landing in Ho Chi Minh, we had to head off to a small counter after baggage claim to receive our visa on arrival before heading outside. Once outside, prepare to be buffeted by the heat and the crowd.
Walk a little ways out of the crowded area and you’ll come to some outdoor ATMs. They charged marginally less in access fees than those inside the airport proper, but if you want to withdraw cash, it’s a fee you’ll have to bear. Cash is necessary if you want to enjoy Vietnam on the cheap as many restaurants and stores, and especially the markets, won’t have eftpos. It converts roughly so that 20,000 Vietnamese Dong is 1 Australian Dollar.
It’s interesting to note that ANZ and Commbank ATMs are actually quite popular in Vietnam. If you bank with either of those (or have a Bankwest Easy transaction account), then you won’t have to worry about foreign ATM access fees (which can be about $5 or so for each withdrawal). Also present are Citi and HSBC, although I didn’t find one personally while I was there.
As soon as you step outside, taxi drivers will swarm you. There’s also a counter you can approach to get a taxi at a set price but you can haggle for a lower fare with the drivers that crowd around, even if it is more of a hassle. There are two golden rules you have to follow when you get a taxi in Vietnam: one - never get in one without first agreeing on the price and two - never accept the first price you get. Be on the lookout for your name here if you booked a hotel with airport pickup. It can be a lot easier to rely on your hotel to organise a driver but it’ll likely be pricier too.
I made my first big mistake when we arrived at our hotel. I had booked the accommodation with my rewards credit card but I hadn’t brought that card with me. I had my 28 Degrees card to avoid foreign transaction fees and didn’t think I’d need the rewards card during my trip. I was wrong. At check-in, they requested my passport, a copy of the booking receipt and the credit card used to pay for the room. Uh-oh. Luckily, I knew my credit card number by heart and had my passport as proof of identity which they accepted, otherwise I have no clue what I would have done.
During your stay: What to do and how to pay for it
To truly enjoy Vietnam, you’re going to have to learn to haggle. The normal tourist tax is around 70 - 100% markup so always start your bids at least half of the asking price lower. This goes for everything: taxi rides, cart and stall food, souvenirs, etc. The worst that can happen is you get told it’s a set price. At best, you save some cash.
The Cu Chi tunnels are really interesting and I fully recommend a day tour there. The ruins at My Son are also breathtaking, so make sure to visit them.
There is one thing you may want to pay for with your credit or travel card: tours and travel packages. You can often find travel agents fairly easily and they’ll charge you less than if you book direct through your hotel. The catch though is credit card surcharges. It might be cheaper to pay in cash and wear the currency conversion fee than taking the surcharge, depending on what your particular card provider charges you.
Credit cards with no currency conversion charges:
For example, I have a Bankwest debit card that charged 2.95% currency conversion plus a $5.00 overseas ATM access fee, but when I booked a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, the travel agent had a 2% credit card surcharge. It made more sense to pay the 2% with my 28 Degrees card than to take out cash on my debit card and pay 2.95% currency conversion.
You’ll have to pay for most everything else in cash though. Hanoi has an especially good night market that you must visit, while Ho Chi Minh and Hoi An both have huge, sprawling markets set up during the day. The stalls are cramped and filled to overflowing with goods, but there’s not an eftpos machine in sight. Make sure you pick up a bottle of snake wine here; bit tricky to get past customs, but it makes a great souvenir.
Beautiful temples, bustling and traditional markets with some … interesting souvenirs too; Vietnam is bursting at the seams with culture you’re sure to enjoy.
There are also beautiful shrines and temples littered throughout the cities that you have got to see. About three quarters of my photos are of gorgeous temple statues or magnificent artworks painted on the temple walls. Most you can just walk into off the street and enjoy for free, but some will require a ‘donation’ to enter.
Don’t bother packing a travel sim card or putting your phone on roaming; it’s a huge waste of money. Everywhere – everywhere – in Vietnam has free Wi-Fi. The roads are lined with massive wires – not the prettiest sight, but they work to keep you connected. Even the beach and parks have free public Wi-Fi. And it’s all fast and stable, too. Download Skype or set up your iTunes account for Facetime before you leave and you’ll be all set.
My last bit of advice to you is to take thongs or closed, waterproof shoes. Scotch-guard your sneakers or take a trusty pair of boots. When it rains in Vietnam, it pours. Usually the showers only last less than an hour before it becomes muggy and hot again, but they’ll drench your shoes and leave them grimy if they’re made of canvas or like materials.