Editor’s note:English/Japanese Liam Langan, 24, has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for half a year. In this piece, he discusses how much it costs to be a tourist in the Southeast Asian country, following a discussion on what should be known about Vietnam in terms of tourism.
A lot has been said about tourism in Vietnam -- from how it’s one of the 10 cheapest places to travel to in Asia to how ‘cheap’ tourism no longer seems to be a part of the Vietnamese traveling experience. With all the back and forth discussion on Vietnam’s burgeoning tourism industry, and the benefits and drawbacks of tourism proliferation across the country, it can be difficult for a prospective traveler to set realistic expectations for their visit.
|Visitors take a boat tour on Nhieu Loc - Thi Nghe Canal in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre News
Though I’ve only been in Saigon for over half a year now, so by no means am I an expert, I have in that time come to some personal understanding about various expenses. First and foremost, regarding the debate on whether Vietnam is a cheap or expensive destination, there’s really no one-size-fits-all answer. Ultimately, how much damage you inflict on your wallet depends on your style of travel. To get my point across, I’ll give you two examples of this. The first has to do with the cost of food.
Prior to moving to Vietnam, one thing I knew was that food would be cheap. Feasting on a globally renowned cuisine without breaking the bank is one of the country’s biggest draws. Still, while the dream of dining in Vietnam is very much alive, there are a few factors people need to understand before they come over believing everything will be as cheap as chips.
For starters, and this should come as no surprise -- where you eat makes all the difference. Vietnamese street food is renowned across the globe. Anthony Bourdain raved about it, foodies giggled over it, and Netflix has made episodes about it, so there’s really no shortage of love for this kind of Vietnamese dining.
|A file photo shows foreign tourists buying 'banh mi' at a street stall in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre
When one thinks of Vietnamese street food, most picture a stall pitched up on the sidewalk where a lone woman serves up bowls of noodles to customers on plastic stools. The food is always delicious, the atmosphere always immersive, and what’s more? You’re getting it all for cheap. I’ve personally never paid over VND70,000 (US$2.98) for street food, and for those reading this who live here, 70,000 dong will almost definitely seem too pricey to begin with.
So then you might be thinking: if street food is so cheap surely everything else is too, right? And that’s you’re wrong.
If on your travels you decide you’re getting tired of street food (are you crazy?), and that you’re missing a taste of home in the form of a Western meal, you’re going to have to pay much more. For one, a Western meal usually means a restaurant setting with a staff of waiters and cooks. The ingredients also might not be local. Finally, rather than slurping up a bowl of pho in ten minutes, you might want some appetizers and a drink to go with your main course – Voila, there goes your money.
On a side note, while I did say a Western meal, you can pay a hefty fee for Asian cuisines and heck, even Vietnamese! When my father came to town for a visit, we experienced both sides of this.
One lunch, we ate at my local com tam eatery where two plates of the dish along with soup and sides amounted to about VND100,000 ($4.26).
On a separate evening, we visited Anan Saigon, one of the most popular restaurants in Saigon which serves traditional Vietnamese street food elevated for a fine dining atmosphere. The Chef’s Tasting Menu was $100 per person, and we also shared a bottle of wine as well as a few other drinks. The total cost? My father didn’t let me see the tab but it was probably around VND6 million ($300).
|Banh xeo tacos, a famous dish at Anan Saigon. Photo: Gia Tien / Tuoi Tre
Like I said, it all depends on where you go.
Now, for my next example of prices in Vietnam, I’ll be focusing on travel. Transport, accommodation, and entertainment are a few areas that run the gamut in terms of price.
Last November I took a day trip with my brother to Vung Tau. To get there, we took a car for VND400,000 ($17) each, round-trip.
Once we arrived in Vung Tau, all we had to pay was a few thousand dong for deck chairs and an umbrella, two coconut water cracked by a lady right on the shore, and a meal at a seafood restaurant. It was too long ago to recall the exact price but I’ll make an educated guess and say it was around VND1 million ($42.6).
While I don’t remember the exact price, what I do remember is that we ordered more than our fill, washing it all down with several bottles of beer and all in all, it was a pleasant trip. This would be an example of budget traveling. Furthermore, if we had opted to stay the night, I know for a fact we wouldn’t have chosen any high-end resort, so the notion of how ‘cheap’ traveling is no longer available in Vietnam is untrue.
Alternatively, in February, my father and I took a trip to Phu Quoc. While it’s possible to take a bus and ferry, we opted for a flight. The round-trip ticket cost a total of VND3.6 million ($150). We booked a resort and though I don’t actually know what the price for our one-night stay came to, the difference between this trip from the one with my brother was that I was with my father. I say this to once more get the point across that what you end up paying on your travels is entirely up to you -- and in this case, who you’re with. If I’d gone to Phu Quoc with my brother, friend, or solo, there’d be no way I’d be staying in a resort. I’m at a position where a bunk bed in a hostel – of which there are plenty in Vietnam – will suffice.
|Boats are seen at a fishing village in Duong To Commune, Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, southern Vietnam. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre News
Once in Phu Quoc, we didn’t spend much money. Most of our time was spent relaxing on the beach. For our meals, we ate at the night market which, though touristy, was less expensive than the restaurant at the resort.
Now, if you decide to come to Vietnam and are looking to make your way around the country, there are several ways to do this. Of course, the most expensive is flying, but what you sacrifice in money will be made up for in time. For budget travelers, something like a transit car or sleeper bus will be the ideal way to get around. While you’re spending more time on the road, your wallet will be happier for it. As a tip, take a sleeper bus that sets off in the evening so you can get a decent night’s sleep and wake up at your destination. All at a budget price!
I’m sure by now you have a better understanding of what to expect.
In Vietnam, as in many parts of the world, you get what you pay for. But I believe in Vietnam, more so than other countries in the world, sometimes you’ll be fortunate enough to find yourself getting more than what you paid for. What I mean by this is there have been several occasions where I've stopped for a bite at a street food vendor and after paying for the meal, they gave me a cup of trà tắc (kumquat tea), some bananas, or candy for free. Where I come from in Tokyo, this would be unheard of. You get what you pay for and that’s that. This abundance of humanity is why I consider myself lucky to be living here and why you need to come over to experience it for yourself.