How to Bargain in Vietnam

How to Bargain in Vietnam

getting a lower price in Vietnam

A guest post by Jim from Asia Marvels

Many travellers in Vietnam are so afraid of paying more than they should that they forget to enjoy their trip. Here is some insight into bargaining in Vietnam to make your time here easier.

The first thing you should know about bargaining in Vietnam is that it is considered perfectly acceptable and even expected to argue with a merchant about the price of their goods or services in this country. To most westerners, it can be annoying, time-consuming and feel like getting ripped off. However, this habit has been around for so long it has become part of the Vietnamese culture, so I suggest that instead of holding on to all the negative feelings, why not loosen up a little bit (you are on a trip anyway) and learn how to bargain like a local.

Below are 7 things you must know about bargaining so you can enjoy your Vietnam trip thoroughly.


1. Know when to Bargain

bargaining in Vietnam

Even in Vietnam, not every price is negotiable. You sure wouldn’t want to make a fool out of yourself trying to talk your waiter into giving you a better price at a restaurant. My advice is that if something has a price tag on it, the cost is non-negotiable. This includes restaurants, where prices are usually listed on menus or signs, cabs with taxi meters etc.

Don’t take “always bargain” too seriously, it once took me and 2 waitresses half an hour to convince an American guy that it was not too much to pay 20,000 VND – just less than a dollar for two Bia hoi (Vietnamese draught beer).


2. Take it easy

Westerners often feel cheated and embarrassed when they find out that they have paid too much. But let me get this straight: At first, you’re going to pay too much. There’s no way around it. And even after you’ve been here for a while, you’re probably still going to pay more than locals, more often than not.

But in the end, this isn’t a battle to get the right price so just relax if you later find out that you have paid a few more bucks than you should have.


3. Learn some Vietnamese

Knowing the local language will help you A LOT with haggling with the local merchant. It shows that you probably have stayed here for a while and know how much something should cost. Of course you don’t have to master the language to be able to get a cheaper beer in Vietnam, here are some super useful phrases you can use:

– Bao nhiêu? (bao new) – How much?

– Đắt quá! (dat wa!) – Too expensive!!

Bớt đi (Bot dy) – Reduce the price

– Không (khom) – No

– Dạ (ya) – Yes

– Được (duoc) – Ok (or you can just say ok, most Vietnamese will understand)

After you show off your masterful Vietnamese skills, these shop owners would be likely to give you a much more reasonable price, and it’s kind of cool too.


4. Do some research

How to bargain in Vietnam

If you are looking for something specific, ask a local what the going rate is before you head to the market. It helps to go into the negotiations with an idea of what you’re supposed to pay. Start haggling by quoting a price that is about 10-20% lower than what you think you should be paying. Work your way up from there.

One more way to find out what is a good price for something in Vietnam is browsing around before starting to bargain. In most markets in Vietnam, there are several stalls selling exactly the same products as the other one. When you find something you like, check out all the other stalls in the market and choose the one with the lowest price. The “I love Ha Noi” T-shirt you like might be 10,000VND cheaper in the stall next door.


5. Act like you don’t want it

The last trick, and most successful strategy, is to act like you are not that interested in what they are selling. The less you want it, the better you can bargain.

No matter how much you want the item, try to act as nonchalantly as you can. If it still doesn’t work, pretend to lose interest and walk away, your vendor is likely to lower the price for you. Be careful though cause this trick can backfire sometimes; if you really want that item and can’t find it in any other shops in the area, you might have to come back with your tail between your legs and pay the price they offer.


6. Know when to quit

Sometimes you’ve just got to accept the price, even though you know that it’s more than what a local has to pay for it. If you’ve haggled, thrown in some sneaky Vietnamese and even walked away like you don’t want it anyway and the price still stays the same. Don’t be angry, go to another shop and try again or just accept that this is how things work around here. And if you still feel uncomfortable, think of how much you had to pay for a Frappuccino or a beer back home. Again, this is not a battle and there is no win or lose.


 7. Practice

Travel tips for Vietnam

Bargaining is a skill and like any other skill, practice makes perfect. Each time you bargain for something, there is a chance to hone your skills, learn from what happened and one day you might be able to buy some things you like for half the price they offer. This skill is also useful in many other Asian countries like Thailand, China, Malaysia and India.

 

That’s all guys, hope that this will help you have a wonderful time in Vietnam.


Author Bio

Asia travel

Hi there, I’m Jim – writer at Asiamarvels.com. I love travelling around Asia and share my stories & guidelines with readers. I’m sure there are so many things the world hasn’t discovered about this mysterious land and you’re eager to know more about it, right?

Alright!!!! let me help you. More guidelines, food tours, tricks and tips for your amazing trip to Asia can be found at Asiamarvels.com.

 


This article was published in May 2017.


Vietnam Backpacking Budget

Vietnam backpacking budget

(Map of Vietnam from wikitravel, can be re-used under CC BY-SA 3.0)


Daily Travel Costs in Vietnam on a Shoestring Budget

US$20 | 450,000 Vietnamese Dong

Vietnam remains very budget friendly despite an enormous rise in visitor numbers over the past decade. Costs are pretty typical by Southeast Asian standards and you are likely to find it slightly cheaper than Thailand or Laos but a fraction pricier than Cambodia although it is likely to get more expensive over the coming years. $20 is a realistic Vietnam backpacking budget but doesn’t allow much lee-way for extra excursions and activities. If you eat in ‘local’ restaurants and street stalls all the time, you can probably get by on even less, certainly if you aren’t doing much partying.

See where Vietnam ranks on our World Budget Travel Table.

Backpacking costs in all Southeast Asian countries


More Comfortable Vietnam Backpacker Budget

US$25 | 560,000 Vietnamese Dong

You travel pretty comfortably on US$20 in truth and doubling that doesn’t really provide an enormous upgrade. The temptation to waste your money on partying and alcohol isn’t quite as great here as in Thailand as the backpacker scene is slightly calmer and bars and clubs are less plentiful and shut earlier. Allowing for $25-30 will allow you to fork out on the odd extra excursion/activity every now and then, such as a more extensive boat trip around Halong Bay or kite-surfing lessons at Mui Ne.


Sample Prices in Vietnam

Hue to Hanoi by Train (13-14 hours) – $25-35 (air-con berth on sleeper train)

0.5 litre domestic beer in Ho Chi Minh City bar/restaurant – $1

Meal at a cheap restaurant – $2-3

Cheap dorm bed in a big city – from $3

Budget double/twin private room – from $8

Full day kayaking trip around Halong Bay – $25-30

For money-saving tips, read How to bargain in Vietnam.


Money

Currency – Vietnamese Dong

£1 = 32,700 VND

€1 = 25,000 VND

US$1 = 22,400 VND

(Exchange rates correct as of June 2016)

US Dollars are accepted in many places and are frequently used for larger transactions such as paying for excursions or accommodation in places geared towards foreigners. Therefore it is useful to carry a stash of both currencies.


MFT Recommends

If you find yourself in the Vietnamese capital then we suggest staying at the Hanoi Traveller Hostel, in the charismatic old town, Hanoi’s backpacker hub close to Hoan Kiem Lake. Beds start at around $5/night.


street art in Vietnam

street art in Hanoi, Vietnam (via Mike HauserCC BY 2.0)


Share your Travel Costs!

If you’ve been to Vietnam recently, please let everyone know your typical daily costs by commenting below 😉


This article was published in June 2016

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for an overview of budget travel in the region.


A Mystic Fool: Travels in Vietnam

Mystic Fool: Travels in Vietnam

I had the fortuitous timing to arrive in Vietnam during the culmination of the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese new year. For Vietnamese, Tet probably has the importance of all the Western holidays rolled into one. Families spend time remembering their ancestors and offering to them incredible amounts of food, liquor, cigarettes, and whatever else Grandpa used to really enjoy. The items are placed on the family altars that are ubiquitous in Vietnam, and after a mystical period when their essence passes on to the ancestors in the spirit realm, they can then consume them.

This timing was a boon to anyone fascinated by Vietnamese traditions, but I wished I’d come in low season when I found myself enmeshed in a sea of motorbikes crossing the city’s broad boulevards. Inching through a seemingly impassible maelstrom of motorists, like a school of fish with fire-hot exhaust pipes, was not the most welcoming introduction to Ho Chi Minh City. Needless to say, every person in southern Vietnam seemed to be in the city then.

I crashed at a place offering a $5/night room in Pham Ngu Lao. It was so cozy that I could touch the walls on either side of my bed at the same time.

vietnam beachIn several days I tired of the hustle of Ho Chi Minh City and cast my eyes on the long coast leading to Hanoi, where I had a general plan of staying for a while. I blazed through the quaint coastal town of Mui Ne (right), spending a night in a youth hostel after a trek through town and some red snapper on the beach that I picked out of the tank myself.

My wanderings delivered me next to the former holiday refuge of the French colonials, Da Lat. The nearly alpine environment of that small settlement was what originally drew the Europeans to build vacation homes there, and it still has a feeling of being far removed from the jungles, tropical coasts, and chaotic cities of the rest of the country.

Da Lat is famous foremost for the strawberries, flowers, and other delectables that fill its vast sweeps of nurseries and sloping ridges. It is called “Le petit Paris,”and there is even a miniature Eiffel Tower there. Despite these attempts by the French to imprint upon it their own character, it has much of its own originality that attracted me.

One example is the Crazy House, a seemingly Alice in Wonderland-inspired array of rooms rising like a surreal dream out of the ground. Technically a guesthouse, it’s like a fairy tale on mescaline, a twisting and surprising trip of childhood fancy and playful anomaly.

hoi an vietnamPassing through the relatively uninteresting beach party of Nha Trang, I arrived in Hoi An (left), the entire old section of which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The architecture of the tiny winding streets has been magnificently preserved to appear as it did long ago, and is one of the most historical destinations in Southeast Asia.

After several days in Hue, the old imperial capital, I finally made it to Hanoi, a place that for years I had held as mythical, where it was my will to stay for a long time.

I arrived on an overcast morning after being up all night on the bus from Hue. Knowing nothing about the city’s geography other than that Hoan Kiem was the area I wanted to be in, I ended up walking for miles all over the city that first day, falling in love with it.

I was attracted to Hanoi like it was a living being, more so than any other place I had ever been. It was very seductive, in the facades on houses, the old men with painter’s hats bicycling down the street, and the grey cobblestone underneath. It felt very respectable, refined, yet enigmatic, enshrouded. There was a curious dichotomy to it. On the one hand there was the serenity of the lakes and parks, and on the other, the blitzkrieg whirlwind of people and motorbikes in the street. There was a palpable sense of reverence to history there. Under the shadow of glass and concrete high rises, on streets lit by neon, an ancient stillness refused to be edged away by the impulses of modernity.

I was swooned by its vibrancy. Out of such a turbulent past there seemed to be an immediacy, a poetic urgency to make a future capable of stability. I found the images I saw walking around to be intensely captivating and beautiful. Trees wildly draped themselves over rainy streets and fog hung in the air into midday. At Hoan Kiem lake, old people did tai chi, young lovers embraced surreptitiously, and others sat alone in the stillness that emanates from that mythic water.

hanoiI knew only the simple, everyday necessities of the language, but these coupled with a modicum of politeness rendered more toothy grins and warm handshakes than anywhere I had ever been. People are nice in their own way everywhere, but in Hanoi I found some of the most straightforward and hospitable people I have encountered anywhere.

Walking down the street in Hanoi was like a military exercise. With every step one has to guard against getting creamed by a motorbike, stepping on a family of chickens or an old woman’s foot, knocking over a cigarette vendor’s stock, falling into a hole in the ground, obstructing the path of a woman carrying baskets bulging with fruit, falling over a steaming cauldron of pho broth, or, dazed by these perpetual precautions, just slipping and falling the way one does in the course of a normal walk.

There was an unexpected fluidity to the chaos in the streets, and after a while I realized it wasn’t chaos, but a seamless order. When crossing the street, the best thing to do, I found, was to just walk right across as if it were empty. The barrage of motorists would zip effortlessly around like the water in a river around a stone. It’s a kind of order, a symbiotic disharmony that was remarkable to witness.

This is an extract from Andy Hill’s excellent travel novel ‘Mystic Fool’. It follows the adventures of a young man as he travels around South East Asia. It makes for an entertaining read that mixes humorous drink-fuelled debauchery with a spiritual journey as he learns about fascinating local cultures and himself.

You can find the book here on Amazon and it is available in paperback or on kindle.


This post was published in April 2013.


Backpacking in Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon: Moto-City

Motorbikes in Vietnam

NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old. Some info may no longer be accurate. Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for a more up-to-date summary of budget travel in SEA.

Vietnam endured a troubled 20th Centrury in which it was first ruled by the French, before their final expulsion left the country split in two. A horrific civil war ensued which saw millions die. The country was finally united as a Socialist state in 1975 and has been ever since. Vietnam today is a fast growing nation of some 90 million people enjoying increasing economical and political power in the South East Asian region. Nowhere are the vast changes more evident than Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) which is a great place to experience a modern and vibrant Asian city while also delving into the countries traumatic past.

Saigon & The Vietnam War

Reunification Palace tank in SaigonThe war began in 1955 with US forces becoming heavily involved throughout the 1960’s as they attempted to prevent the Communists in the North taking control of the entire country. Based in Saigon, the US and South Vietnamese forces fought a long guerrilla war in the region with the Viet Cong (a Communist group in the south). After suffering and inflicting heavy casualties, US troops withdrew in 1973. After the eventual fall of Saigon in April 1975, the city changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the man who formed the Communist party. Vietnam remains a Socialist state to this day and visits to any of Vietnam’s war Museums and memorials will make it clear the administration has changed little over the past 35 years.

Reunification Palace

Once known as the Independence Palace (above), this was where the US and South Vietnamese leaders were based during the War. On 30th April 1975, the Communist forces stormed the palace bringing an end to the 19 year conflict. Quite deliberately, nothing has been changed inside the Palace since 1975 so it remains in something of a time warp. Only the gates outside that were destroyed have been replaced and it is now open to visitors and makes for a fascinating couple of hours.

War Remnants Museum

war museum SaigonThis museum houses some shocking photos of severely maimed people and those who have been left with or often born with serious disfigurements as a result of weapons and gases used during the war. Outside you will find captured US tanks and airplanes from the era. Some people do find the museum very upsetting but it does demonstrate the tragedies that took place during the Vietnam War. Unquestionably the US forces committed some atrocities in the region, however the museum gives a very one-sided and biased account of the events that took place.

Cu Chi Tunnels

If you find yourself backpacking in Ho Chi Minh City or nearby then half or full day tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels are a must-do. They are 40km out of town but can be organised by any of the agencies in Pham Ngu Lao. The tunnels were dug during the period of French occupation before being expanded during the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam). They provided the Cu Chi people with a strategic advantage. You may even get the chance to fire weapons here in the town which moved underground in the face of a heavy bombing campaign.

Check out our Vietnam backpacking Route for more on this incredible country!


HCMC today: The City of Motorbikes

motorbikes in SaigonToday Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling metropolis, home to some 7 million people. Almost the only way to get around is by motorbike. The traffic is completely bonkers and just trying to cross the road can be a terrifying process as there is almost never a gap in the traffic. Hop on a moto-taxi or if you’re especially brave hire out a bike and try to navigate your way away around Vietnam’s biggest city.

When backpacking in Vietnam it is impossible to escape the war but it is now a distant memory for most and American visitors are very unlikely to receive any hassle about it. Most Vietnamese are naturally friendly people and with a very young population this country is moving on up and developing at quite a rate. The city is made up of many numbered districts, each of which has their own feel. District 1, in the centre of the city is known as the French Quarter for example and this is reflected in the architecture. It is well worth hopping on a bike and heading out into some of the suburbs which are generally very safe for a true flavour of what life is like for the residents of this busy city.

 

Pham Ngu Lao: Saigon’s Backpacker Ghetto

Pham Ngu LaoThis is very much backpacker central in Ho Chi Minh City. It consists of two main roads and many little side streets connecting them. Here you will find an enormous choice of world cuisine with meals costing as little as US$2-3 (For up-to-date prices see our Vietnam backpacking budget). There are loads of budget accommodation options, laundrettes, bars and basically everything else that a backpacker might need. You won’t be able to walk 10 metres without being shouted at by one of the moto drivers which congregate in the area looking for foreign business. This can be an advantage as you will never have to wait to get a lift to where you’re going but also can get quite annoying after a while.

The bars in Pham Ngu Lao are good fun and tend to be cheaper and better than the ones in the rest of Central Saigon which charge Western Prices and attract an unpleasant mix of dirty old Westerners and teenage Vietnamese prostitutes.

 


This article was published in July 2011. 


 

Backpacking Budget for Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia Backpacking Budget

This page aims to give you a rough idea of what a typical shoestring backpacking budget for Southeast Asia might be.

southeast asia

(Map of Southeast Asia from wikitravel, can be re-used under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Daily Travel Costs in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is one of the cheapest parts of the world to travel in and your money really can go a long way! Here’s an idea of shoestring travel costs in South East Asian countries. Click on the links for more detailed info on each country including a shoestring & more comfortable backpacker budget as well as sample prices for thing like buses, beds and beers:

$20/day : Cambodia, LaosVietnam

$25/day : Thailand, Malaysia, IndonesiaMyanmar

$30/day : The Philippines

$45/day : Singapore

(The US Dollar is the reserve currency in most countries and often accepted)

These figures are all based on staying in cheap hostels and eating/drinking in budget or local restaurants and bars. It allows for a bit of partying but if you’re going out getting drunk almost every night you will end up spending more than this!

There are big regional variations in some countries particularly Malaysia and Indonesia. Away from Java and Bali, Indonesia is as cheap as anywhere in the region but the large amount of travelling needed to get around and the island nature of the country makes it a bit more expensive to travel around. Mainland Malaysia although much richer and more developed is cheaper than Malaysian Borneo for the traveller due to the poor infrastructure in Borneo which makes life more complicated and more expensive for getting around.

Monthly Backpacking Budget for Southeast Asia

A realistic shoestring monthly backpacking budget for Southeast Asia, allowing for a few connecting flights in the region but not your main flight to/from SE Asia is therefore around:

1 month – £660, €760, $800

2 months – £1320, €1520, $1600

3 months – £1980, €2280, $2400

4 months – £2640, €3040, $3200

5 months – £3300, €3800, $4000

6 months – £3960, €4560, $4800

(Exchange rates are correct only as of January 2017. Use Dollars as a guide & convert to your currency on current exchange rates if in doubt.)

This is still designed as a shoestring budget and if you don’t have experience of travelling on the cheap you might want to allow for a little more. If you wish to go to the Philippines or parts of Indonesia that will require extra flights, you might want to increase it a little bit too. Everywhere else is accessible by land or short ferries and getting around in the region is typically very cheap. Think $1-2/hour of travel if you take the cheapest available option. If you’re just visiting Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and/or Vietnam then you can get by on a bit less if you’re smart but these countries have a big backpacker party scene which can eat away into any travel budget.

Remember there are still going to be quite a few extra expenses on top of this in terms of sorting out flights to/from the region, vaccinations and travel insurance. The latter can be quite costly but is important. We recommend World Nomads for excellent travel insurance packages for backpackers.


More on Budget Travel in SE Asia

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for an overview of budget travel in the region.


The Cost of Travel in Other Regions

South America | Central America | Europe


How much did travel in Southeast Asia cost you?

If you have travelled recently in the region then please use the comments section below to share with us your experiences of backpacking costs in SE Asia. Budgets really do vary considerably amongst travellers here so there will never be a definitive right figure for each country but the more people who comment, the easier it is for us to keep this page as accurate as possible. Thanks!


 This page was last updated in January 2017.


Popular Backpacking Route in Southeast Asia

asia/oceania routes

southeast asia | thailandmyanmar | vietnam | indonesia | india | australia


Backpacking Route in Southeast Asia

Backpacking around South East Asia is ever popular and it’s not hard to see why. It’s very cheap, home to unique and varied cultures, fantastic weather and scenery but with such a thriving backpacker scene, home comforts are never hard to find. Perhaps it has lost some of the mysticism it had back in the day when traveller numbers were still relatively small but there is still undeniably a certain magic about this part of the world.

The route on this page aims to give you a basic idea of what a typical backpacker itinerary in Southeast Asia looks like. It’s not the definitive answer to travelling around the region so don’t treat it as such but hopefully it will help shape your plans for travelling around this wonderful part of the world.


TIME NEEDED – 3-4 MONTHS

Could just about be squeezed into two months but would be a rush. If you’re not limited on time you could easily spend six months travelling in Southeast Asia.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £2500 €2850 $3000

Figures are based on prices and exchange rates as of January 2017. For more specific info see backpacking budget for Southeast Asia.

These figures don’t include cost of flights to/from region or other pre-trip expenses such as getting travel insurance. They allow for a bit of partying and the odd organised tour/trip in the day-time but if you are planning on doing lots of that then you will spend more!

This is a realistic shoestring budget for Southeast Asia and it’s possible to get by on less if you stick to local food rather than tourist options. However on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail, temptation lies at almost every corner and it’d be easy to blow this budget if you aren’t great on self-discipline! If it’s your first time travelling then you’d be wise to budget for more.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR SOUTHEAST ASIA

Most nationalities do not require a visa for Thailand (30 days) or Vietnam (15 days) but will need to get a visa on arrival in Laos and Cambodia, the cost of which depends on where you’re from. You don’t need to do anything in advance, just show up at the border with your passport and some US Dollars.

Use our visa check tool to confirm which countries you will need a visa for.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

We recommend World Nomads who specialise in providing cover for backpacking trips.


FUNKY GUIDES – BACKPACKERS GUIDE TO SOUTHEAST ASIA 2017-2018

Ebook – £2.99 | €3.49 | $3.79

Paperback – £4.99 | €5.49 (+ VAT) | $5.99


Southeast Asia Backpacking Route

The route begins in the traveller hub of Bangkok before heading into mystical Northern Thailand and then crossing through lazy, chilled-out Laos. Next stop is Vietnam, a rapidly developing country with a fascinating history before looping back around into the crazy kingdom of Cambodia. Back in Thailand and returning to Bangkok for the trip to the beach paradise of Southern Thailand. After a few weeks of island hopping, the route takes in the length of Malaysia before finishing off in the exciting city state of Singapore.


Thailand

Bangkok – The Thai Capital is in many ways the best place to start your South East Asian trip. For starters it’s a major airline hub so it is very easy to get to, and flights are more reasonably priced than ones to other South East Asian cities which often pass through Bangkok anyway. It is the most Westernised city in the region so the culture shock is less than if you landed straight into Vietnam or Laos. It offers you a chance to stock up on anything you may need for your trip, with prices much cheaper than back home but still with great choice. Bangkok is very much base camp for travellers in Southeast Asia. Love it or loathe it, chances are you’ll return at some point on your trip.

As for the city well it’s the sort of place that divides opinion. It’s certainly something of a backpacking Mecca centred around the famous Khao San Road (below), possibly the most international street in the world. It is a huge place with many different districts and lots of sights to see. Then there’s the seedy side of Bangkok and its infamous sex industry, which is almost unavoidable and probably what the city is most known for around the world.

backpacking route in Southeast Asia


MFT RECOMMENDS – The Aris Hostel, Bangkok 

Just 100m from Khao San Road, the perfect place to begin your SE Asian adventure.


Ayutthaya – Ancient city and former capital of Siam. Ayutthaya is effectively an island in the middle of three rivers. History buffs will love it and for everyone else it makes for a nice stop on the way to the North of Thailand.

Phitsanulok – Not a on the regular hit-list for people backpacking in Thailand, but it is somewhere to break up the journey between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Explore the nearby Sukhothai Historical Park and visit some of the temples and museums in town.

Chiang Mai –
The Northern city of Chiang Mai is an intellectual kind of place with an alternative vibe and many travellers prefer it to Bangkok. It’s a good spot to study traditional Thai practices such as massage and meditation. It is also the best place to base yourself for exploring or trekking into the jungle and ethnic minority villages near the city.

Chiang Mai is also a good place for joining up with our backpacking route for Myanmar.

Chiang Khong – Right on the border with Laos, it has a real traveller vibe to it with people heading in both directions. It is in the Golden Triangle, a famous opium growing region which covers areas of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Chiang Khong is also a market town and attracts local hill tribes such as the White Hmongs. Explore the mountainous region, visit some of the other villages and learn about the opium trade which has been cut out in Thailand but still thrives over the nearby Lao and Burmese borders.

Border Crossing from Thailand to Laos:
Chiang Khong and Houay Xai are right next to each other so it’s fairly straightforward and you can purchase a 30 day Laos tourist visa for around $30-40 at the border.


Laos

Houay Xai – For a border town, Houay Xai is very pleasant and it may be worth hanging around for a day or so to adapt to the chilled out Lao lifestyle and enjoy sitting on the banks of the Mekong or consider visiting the nearby Bokeo Nature Reserve. It’s a decent spot to psyche yourself up for the long journey to Luang Prabang. (Backpacking in Laos isn’t as easy or anywhere near as comfortable as in Thailand thanks to dodgy roads and a basic to non-existent transport system).

Luang Prabang – French and Indochinese culture met here and resulted in an enchanting city, one of the highlights of Laos. The Old Quarter on the banks of the river is home to an array of temples and museums that are worth visiting. The night market is another big draw and there are plenty of companies offering trekking, biking and kayaking opportunities.

Vang Vieng (below) – This is another hugely popular backpacking destination in South East Asia. Hop on a rubber tube and make your way between the various bars along the river. This is the main attraction here but there’s plenty of other adventurous stuff you can do around the ramshackle town of Vang Vieng, which has a real chilled out backpacker vibe. The tubing is not as crazy or dangerous as it once was thanks to a government crackdown but injuries and deaths are not uncommon.

Update on state of tubing in Vang Vieng (November 2015)

tubing in laos

Vientiane – A capital city it may be but don’t let that deceive you. Vientiane is about as friendly and laid back a place as you’ll find anywhere. Set on the Mekong River, this French influenced town is pleasant and picturesque and the perfect place to chill out for a few days.

Tha Khaek – A small town with a large market selling all sorts of weird stuff including unorthodox dishes like snake and squirrel frogs. Its main use for travellers is as a base for exploring the Phou Hin Boon National Park. Don’t miss the giant Konglor Cave, which is basically a river beneath the surface that can be navigated on boat trips. You can also visit the Tham Nong Pafa Cave discovered as recently as 2004 and home to 200 mysterious Buddha statues.

Savannakhet – Second biggest city in Laos, but again it is very chilled out, with a combo of French and traditional Lao feel to the city. Stuff to do here includes a visit to the Dinosaur Museum which exhibits various dinosaur remains found in the area. There’s also a museum about the problem of unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War that still litter the Eastern side of the province. The city also hosts many different festivals throughout the year which you may be lucky enough to catch.

Border Crossing from Laos to Vietnam:
Buses are fairly high quality with air-con and run from Savannakhet to Dong Ha in Vietnam and take around 8 hours. Enquire in town for bus times. Depending on how long you wish to stay in the country, you may need to arrange your Vietnam visa in advance, which is probably best done at the Vietnamese Embassy in Vientiane.


Vietnam

see our full Vietnam backpacking route here!

Dong Ha – The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is very different to Laos and it will take a little time to adjust to the increased pace of life here. The main sight near Dong Ha where the buses from Savannakhet arrive is the former de-militarised zone (DMZ) which used to separate North and South Vietnam. You won’t want to stay in Dong Ha more than a day, if that and many travellers head straight to Hue.

Hue – Ancient city on a musty coloured river with dragon boats. Lots of Vietnam War sites nearby and a pretty decent traveller scene. Good place to try Vietnamese food. It rains a lot.

Hoi An (below) – This riverside town is pretty damn cool. It’s the place to buy tailor-made clothes of all varieties and then prance around like a prize nutter in your new bright purple suit. The beach is a short moto-taxi ride away and is one of the finest in the country. There are also some surprisingly cool bars here catering to a variety of music tastes. It made our Top 10 New Backpacking Hotspots a few years back.

Hoi An Boats


Nha Trang –
Nha Trang has a fairly seedy traveller area and a dirty beach but there are a few positives. A peaceful temple near the bus station is home to a giant white Buddha. There’s also a decent beach club that serves cheap cocktails and stays open till much later than anywhere you’re likely to find further north. Some decent water sports on offer here too.

Dalat – 1500m above sea level, Dalat has distinctly different feel to it to the rest of the main places to visit in South East Asia. With a temperate climate that makes nights chilly, it comes as a refreshing change and with lakes, forests and waterfalls that surround the town, it is a paradise for fans of the great outdoors. Hiking and cycling opportunities aplenty here and there’s a few villages nearby home to ethnic minority groups.

Mui Ne – The nearby sand dunes are good fun if you can stand the heat. There is one road, it’s very long and runs parallel to the 20km or so long beach which is largely deserted. Good place to unwind but not much going on.

saigon crazy trafficHo Chi Minh City (Saigon) –
It is the biggest city in the country and has by some considerable margin the largest backpacker scene in Vietnam. Hit the Pham Ngu Lao traveller area and you will find numerous cheap places to eat, sleep and drink. The area is busy until late and has cuisines from literally all over the world. The moto drivers here will compete for your business non-stop so it’s easy to get anywhere else in town. Lots of sights relating to the war here in this ever growing and somewhat crazy city. The traffic is mental!

More about Saigon here!

Border Crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia:
Buses from Saigon to Phnom Penh are cheap and regular taking around 6 hours. You will have to get off at the border and most bus companies seem to rather annoyingly take your passports off you on the bus and charge $25 to sort out the Cambodian visa as opposed to the official $20. If you refuse and demand to sort it yourself, you risk being left at the border, while your belongings hurtle towards Phnom Penh!


Cambodia

Phnom Penh – On the surface Phnom Penh is a pleasant, aesthetically pleasing and surprisingly peaceful capital city with lots of monks. Dig a little deeper and it’s a lawless, poverty stricken place where just about anything goes. Welcome to Cambodia.

Backpackers here depending on who you speak to get up to just about anything from blowing up cows with rocket launchers to attending cock fighting matches and getting off their faces on ridiculously easily available drugs. If none of that really sounds like you, then you can spend some time reflecting and trying to understand the horrors that took place here all too recently during the days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge by visiting the Killing Fields and a former prison where unimaginable horrors took place. There’s also some stunning temples and palaces which could grace any of the finest cities on the planet. Inequality is everywhere in Cambodia and Phnom Penh demonstrates it better than anywhere.

Check out our 5 Funky Things to do in Phnom Penh!

Sihanoukville –
 24 hour bars and unspoiled beaches are the order of the day here. It’s a bit like some of the Thai beach destinations would have been like 20 years ago before they became commercialised. Much like Phnom Penh there’s a majorly psychedelic backpacker scene.

Battambang – Travelling to Battambang from Sihanoukville is likely to involve going back to Phnom Penh and changing buses such is the limited transport network in the country. The city is full of statues and interesting Wats and has plenty of river based activities to entertain travellers. Once you’re done hop on a boat north to Siem Reap. It may be worth checking the estimated length of the journey as it depends on water levels and can take up to 12 hours, in which case you may well prefer the less scenic bus route.

Siem Reap
(for Temples of Angkor Wat) –
Siem Reap has grown from nothing into a thriving little town thanks to its proximity to the country’s main pride and joy, the magnificent Temples of Angkor Wat, an essential stop for anyone backpacking in Cambodia. If you’re a fairly well travelled person you’ve probably been to some ancient ruin that’s in all the guidebooks and been left thoroughly disappointed at the crappy little pile of rocks that you’ve payed to come and see. Angkor Wat however is in a different league with hundreds of impressive ruins spread out over a large area of jungle, it’s a pretty amazing place and you’d have to be very hard to please not to be impressed by the scale of it. In Siem Reap itself there are few sights but some decent bars and plenty of great food.

temples of angkor wat


For more on Cambodia see our Backpacker’s Guide to Cambodia (old article but some handy tips).

Border Crossing from Cambodia to Thailand: Take the bus from Siem Reap to Poipet, a Cambodian border town which is a total hellhole. Your main objective ought to be to cross the border as quickly as possible while trying not to get scammed. The Thai side isn’t as bad but you are likely to have your luggage sniffed by dogs either at the border or once onboard your onward bus which will probably be stopped by police at some point early on in the journey. They are looking for drugs and penalties are severe if caught. Once you’ve got through immigration, take a tuk-tuk to the bus terminal in Aranya Prathet from where there are regular buses to Bangkok taking 4 hours or so.


Thailand

Bangkok – Kick back on the KhaoSan Road or hop straight on a night train south depending on how much you enjoyed the city first time around. Having completed the big loop around the North of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia it’s time to hop on a night train and head for the beach paradise of Southern Thailand.

Ko Samui- A large and very westernised island that tends to attract more mainstream tourism than people travelling in South East Asia on a budget. Hat Chaweng and Hat Lamai are party central for the tourist masses but there are plenty of quieter spots to explore with a vast choice of beaches to choose from and you’ll probably have to pass through here to get the boat to Ko Pha-Ngan.

Ko Pha Ngan fire displaysKo Phangan (right) – This island is probably the most famous backpacking destination in the world. A tropical paradise it certainly is and the options are endless when it comes to finding a beach to spend the day on. There are no major developments here so accommodation is basic and dirt cheap with plenty of traditional beach bungalows still available. Hat Rin is the place to party and home of the famous full moon parties which attract thousands at that time of the month. The other beaches are considerably quieter and great places to relax and enjoy your days in peace.

Ko Tao – Express boats travel the 45km between Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao taking around two hours. This is the place to come to delve into the ocean and experience diving or snorkelling in beautiful clear waters with lots of marine life. It almost goes without saying that this is also another great island to soak up the sun and laze around on the beach all day. Hat Sai Ri’s bars are the centre of the drinking action, but Ko Tao’s nightlife is nowhere near as lively as that on Ko Pha-Ngan or Ko Samui.

Krabi – Back on the Thai mainland and now the Andaman Coast, hit the popular beaches of Ao Nang, Tang Sei and Rai Leh. Crash out in the cheap guesthouse or bungalows on one of the beaches. There’s also more opportunities for the active traveller here so if you’re bored of lazing around all day, try your hand at rock climbing, a popular activity on Hat Ton Sai and Hat Rai Leh (Railay Beach).

Ko Phi Phi – Ever popular with backpackers in Thailand, this is where the movie ‘The Beach’ was filmed (below). The main action, and again a very lively party scene, is on the larger island though and you will have to stay on it (Phi Phi Don). It’s a bit pricier than some of the other Thai beach destinations and isn’t exactly a secret paradise any more but it’s still beautiful despite being badly affected by the 2004 tsunami and a recent large influx of Chinese tourists.

ko phi phi


Ko Tarutao National Marine Park – Over 50 little islands in the far south-west of the country. So far it has managed not to become at all commercialised or overrun by foreigners and isn’t regularly visited by peeps backpacking in Thailand. You can rent out a tent on one of the few accessible islands and enjoy a day or two in unspoilt natural surroundings.

Border Crossing from Thailand to Malaysia:
Boats travel between Satun, Thailand and Pulau Langkawi in Malaysia taking 1 hour 30 mins and costing around 300 Baht. Violence sometimes flares up in the largely Muslim provinces in the far south of Thailand so if in doubt it’s best to head straight to Malaysia.


Malaysia

Penang – A small island off the West Coast of Malaysia that is well worth visiting. Hit Georgetown, for a taste of British colonialism and experience the town’s famous markets and religious sites of various faiths. Elsewhere on the island there are some decent beaches and plenty of quaint little fishing villages.

Ipoh – There’s lots of nice sights in Ipoh, even the train station is something of an architectural masterpiece. It is a mysterious kind of place, home to haunted castles, secret passages, weird statues and various caves. You can also go trekking in the surrounding jungle, visit nearby hot-springs, enjoy a day at the water park or for the adventurous try your hand at caving and white-water rafting.

Taman Negara Park BridgeTaman Negara National Park –
It can be a bit of a pain to get to but is well worth the effort. You don’t really need a guide so you can wander around the jungle terrain at your own leisure. There are some beautifully clear lakes to swim as well as some spectacular water cascades and a 500m long suspension bridge (right) which cuts through the jungle canopies. Longer treks deeper into the jungle can be arranged as can mountain climbing and 4WD safaris.

Kuala Lumpur –
The Malaysian capital is a developed modern city. There’s some excellent shopping and lively nightlife here in the Golden Triangle home of the Petronas Twin Towers, two of the tallest buildings in the world. It is considerably more expensive than most places on the route but still very cheap by Western standards.

Malacca – Another one of these World Heritage Sites, Malacca is considered one of the backpacking highlights in Malaysia. It’s a rather old city having being founded over 600 years ago but there’s still plenty of buzz about Malacca today. There are plenty of interesting and centuries old streets and squares to kick back in, and there’s a good choice of local dishes and drinks to try.

Read about the cost of travel in Malaysia.

Border Crossing from Malaysia to Singapore:
Heading to Singapore, one way or another you’ll need to get to the town of Johor Bahru which is connected to Singapore by a 1km long causeway. There are frequent buses from Johor Bahru’s bus station north of the city and Queen Street Station in Singapore. They all stop at both immigration checkpoints where you will need to get off with your luggage and then re-board once you’re through passport control.


Singapore

singapore skyline

Check out these 5 funky things to do in Singapore!

Singapore – The glamorous city state of Singapore is full of flashy skyscrapers and is a complete contrast to most of South East Asia. The city is is very multi-cultural and has lots of fascinating districts to explore and foods to taste. The law here is famously strict so behaviour that is considered perfectly acceptable in Cambodia and Laos could be punished by the death penalty so don’t take any chances. Even chewing gum is illegal here!

As far as budget travel in South East Asia goes, Singapore is firmly on the expensive side of the scale. Beer here is probably ten times the price it is in other parts of the region and although not everything is extortionate, it’s a good idea to ensure you’ve not totally blown your budget by the time you get here.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Betel Box Backpackers, Singapore 

A cheap backpackers joint in Singapore with probably the best value beds in an otherwise pricey town. Cool staff.


Singapore has probably the best airport in the world and is very well connected to locations all over the world so is the perfect place to end your trip and fly home or onwards to a different part of the world. Alternatively you could make the short sea crossing to Indonesia and continue your travels there.

Many travellers then take a flight down under from Singapore and you might find some more inspiration in our backpacking route for Australia.


Budget Accommodation in Southeast Asia

Advanced booking isn’t really necessary in the majority of places on this route but it’s a good idea for your first destination (probably Bangkok) as you’re likely to be tired from a long flight. Also a good idea during festivals and certainly in or around the full moon on Koh Phangan.


What did we miss out from the Itinerary?

Northern Vietnam especially Hanoi and Halong Bay are well worth visiting and perhaps the most notable exclusions from our route. The problem is they are farily inaccessible from Laos by road. The trip is very long and bumpy so if you do fancy it, your best bet is probably to follow the route to Vientiane and then fly to Hanoi. Check out our backpacking route for Vietnam which follows the Re-Unification Express trainline from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, where you can rejoin this route.

Indonesia is a huge place and could justify 6 months travelling in its own right with the possibility of continuing onto Australia and New Zealand. Check out our suggested backpacking route in Indonesia if you’re interested. The Philippines is also a huge collection of islands and is less popular with travellers, possibly because it is off the South East Asian mainland and parts of it have a somewhat dangerous reputation.

Daytrips to Burma can be arranged from the North of Thailand and longer visits are becoming increasingly popular. For some inspiration have a read of our 3 week backpacking route for Myanmar. If you do decide and are able to visit then you will find a fascinating country with as much to see as any of the others in the region.


Pics courtesy of jjcb (singapore), flip.01 (malaysia national park), bruno (Ko Pha Ngan), JonasPhoto (tubing in Laos) and Argenberg (Ko Phi Phi) on flickr
.


Backpackers Guide to southeast Asia

For a more complete overview of budget travel across the region, get our full 2017-2018 Backpacker’s Guide to Southeast Asia. It includes a similar route to this plus itineraries for Indonesia, Myanmar & the Philippines. You’ll also find more on vaccinations, visa rules and border crossings for all countries as well as the best festivals, activities, full moon parties and historical sites plus the answers to some FAQ’s we’ve received from first time travellers in Southeast Asia.


This article was last updated in January 2017.


Backpacking Route for Vietnam

 asia/oceania routes

southeast asia | thailand | myanmar | vietnam | indonesia | india | australia


Backpacking Route for Vietnam

The Re-Unification express

vietnam backpacking routeThis is not an official term but it is used to describe the train line which runs between the two major cities. The trip from Hanoi in North Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City in the South is 1725km long, taking roughly 30 hours and passes some breathtaking scenery along the way.

Of course few people do the trip in one journey as there is so much to see in between the two terminals. This train-line runs close to or through all the major stops on the Vietnam backpacker trail. The journey is pretty comfortable with air-con and sleeper compartments available on night trains. It is also brilliant value potentially costing as little as US$30 (latest prices and more great info on trains in Vietnam). If you take some night trains this may push the cost up to around US$40-50 depending on whether you take the slightly higher quality SE trains or not (It’s even cheaper for the locals).


TIME NEEDED – 3 WEEKS

Could be done in 2 weeks but might feel a little rushed.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £370 €425 $450

(roughly 10 million Vietnamese Dong as of January 2017. US Dollar is accepted in many places)

Read more on the cost of travel in Vietnam.

Obviously this does not include the cost of flights to/from Vietnam or any visa/vaccination/travel insurance expenses, which in total could dwarf this figure if you’re travelling from far away. You’ll get more value for money in terms of your pre-trip expenses if you combine this with one of our other itineraries in the region (see top of page).


VISA REQUIREMENTS

Visitors from other ASEAN countries and many European countries including the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Russia and Italy can now visit Vietnam visa-free for a limited amount of time (normally 15 days). However most international visitors still require a visa to enter the country. A Vietnam visa for US citizens is essential and should be arranged well in advance of your trip.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

Highly advisable in Vietnam and all Southeast Asian Countries. Read who we think offers the best travel insurance for backpackers.


FUNKY GUIDES – BACKPACKERS GUIDE TO SOUTHEAST ASIA 2017-2018

Ebook – £2.99 | €3.49 | $3.79

Paperback – £4.99 | €5.49 (+ VAT) | $5.99


Vietnam Backpacking Route


Hanoi

hanoi junction

The country’s capital city, home to the Vietnamese government and resting place of the great leader, Ho Chi Minh himself. This colonial city is home to many lakes and a beautiful old quarter where most backpackers tend to congregate. It is also the closest point on the route to the amazing Ha long Bay, Vietnam’s most famous sight. Take a 2-3 hour bus to Haiphong and get a boat to the bay from there.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Hanoi Traveller Hostel 

In the historic Old Town near Hoan Kiem Lake, has received outstanding reviews from travellers in the Vietnamese capital over many years. It’s also very cheap with beds going at US$5/night.


journey: 2 hours 20 mins

Ninh Binh

Unremarkable but ridiculously friendly town. Be prepared for lots of locals, especially children coming to say hello to you in the street. It is a short moto or cycle to the caves at Tam Coc, which are the main reason travellers come to Ninh Binh.

journey: 7 hours 40 mins, passing through Thanh Hoa and Vinh which have little going on really but may be a nice stop if you fancy seeing a completely tourist-free town.

Dong Hoi

Many travellers choose to skip Dong Hui also and do the night train from Ninh Binh to Hue but if you do stop here, you can visit the quite stunning 55km long Phong Nha Cave.

journey: 3 hours 15 mins

Hue

The city is popular with travellers who tend to hit a small section of town near the wide Perfume River. The old citadel isn’t particularly amazing but is the main site in this city which seems to get the worst of Vietnam’s wet climate. It regularly rains here for days on end but there are some excellent traditional Vietnamese restaurants and lively Western bars to stay dry in. Central Vietnam is also where a lot of the most fierce fighting in the War took place. There are plenty of sights relating to this nearby which you may find fascinating or otherwise, depending on your interest levels in the Vietnam conflict, known as the American War in these parts.

journey: 2 hours 30 mins and the most spectacular part of the entire trip

Danang (for Hoi An)

Hoi An Travel Destination

Danang is a big city but has few sights. For most travellers it simply serves as a gateway to nearby Hoi An (above), around a 20 minute taxi or moto ride from Danang Station (shouldn’t cost more than $3-4). Hoi An is the place for tailor-made clothes and boasts a beautiful riverside setting. It is also close to one of the nicest beaches in the country and makes it into our Top 10 New Backpacking Hotspots.

journey: 6 hours passing through Quang Ngai, a non-touristy town where very little English is spoken

Dieu Tri (for Qui Nhon)

Qui Nhon is more popular with local tourists than backpackers but it has a few beautiful deserted beaches just out of town. You can also visit the Cham Temples in the areas surrounding this lively port town.

journey: 3 hours 30 mins

Nha Trang

kitesurfers in vietnamVietnam’s biggest seaside destination. The beach here is actually quite dirty but it is long and has plenty of water sport options including kite-surfing. The nightlife is lively here with a couple of bars such as Bar Why Not? and an excellent one on the beach open until 3am. Some travellers find it a little bit seedy but there’s a beautiful temple near the train station if you want a slightly more cultural experience. You can also do the trip to the mountain town of Dalat from here although it is quite a long journey on winding roads.

journey: 5 hours

Muong Man (for Mui Ne)

Mui Ne isn’t really a town, more like a long coastal road about 20km or so long with many hostels and restaurants dotted around it. The beach is quiet and very relaxing, while the hot sand dunes are perhaps what the area is most famous for.

journey: 3 hours

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

palace in saigonWhen backpacking through Vietnam, most travellers head here either first or last. It is the biggest and by a distance, most westernised city in the country. Saigon has a large backpacker scene and many interesting sights, much of which relate to the Vietnam War and the USA’s involvement. More detail here on things to do in HCMC.

The city is also the base for seeing the far south of the country which enjoys a hot climate and is a bit more chilled out than much of this fabulously crazy country.

Obviously you could also do the journey the opposite way around and journey times and prices are almost exactly the same if you start in HCMC and head North to Hanoi.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Saigon Inncrowd 

A solid option in HCMC. Very well located with plenty of cheap restaurants nearby.



Budget Accommodation in Vietnam in General

Hostelling hasn’t really taken off as rapidly in Vietnam as it has in its neighbours but that is changing fast with the number of backpackers visiting the country ever increasing. Hostels can now be found pretty easily in most spots on this route but the cost of budget hotels is so low, there’s often no real need to be sweating it out in crowded dorms. You can sometimes get a private room in a decent hotel often with a swimming pool and good facilities for as little as $10 and in the big cities you can find dirt cheap budget rooms for half that although solo travellers may still prefer the more sociable places.


Extending Your Trip

In truth very few backpackers, head all the way to Southeast Asia and then only visit Vietnam, even though it is arguably the most interesting country to visit. Options for extending your trip are plentiful.

Parts of this route feature in our mainland Southeast Asia Route, which also takes in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore. You can easily squeeze this full Vietnam route in, with taking a flight from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi perhaps the best option and then just following the route from Ho Chi Minh City into Cambodia.

If you’re looking for something a bit different to the well-trodden backpacker trail in SE Asia, take a look at our Myanmar route or our Indonesia Route. If you need help linking them into one trip please use the comments section below and let us know any questions you may have.

Of course in Vietnam, there are cool places that are not on or near the trainline, you may wish to visit. Highlights include the mountain towns of Dalat and Sapa, which you can reach by a different train from Hanoi that heads towards China.

vietnam in sand


This page was last updated in January 2017.