Vietnam The Republic of Vietnam: An ultra-exotic location where everything costs less. Budget Travel Wednesday, Mar 10, 2004, 12:00 AM Budget Travel LLC, 2016



The Republic of Vietnam: An ultra-exotic location where everything costs less.

In just a decade since opening its doors to the world, Vietnam has evolved from a Cold War backwater to one of Asia's most sought-after destinations. From business-seeking blue-suiters to penny-pinching backpackers to vacationing couples of all ages, more and more Americans are discovering that this adventure mecca ranks among the cheapest-and at the same time, most compelling - places on earth. It was always a low-cost country for the traveler, but with the lingering economic downturn in Asia, it has now become a dramatic bargain. The Vietnamese currency, the dong, withstood the initial brunt of the crisis that wreaked havoc on the Thai baht, Indonesian rupiah, and Korean won, but it has since been twice devalued, giving the U.S. dollar even more buying power.

Some bargain examples

Those intrepid pioneers, the backpackers, first began trickling into Vietnam in the late 1980s. They initially complained about overpriced accommodations. But with an improved tourist infrastructure and the 1994 lifting of the U.S. economic embargo came a sharp increase in new hotels, forcing room rates to swiftly decline. Today there is an abundant range of places to stay (some would call it a glut), whether you rough it in a few-dollars-a-day guesthouse, opt for hot showers and air conditioning for about $20/night per double room, or splurge on a really opulent hotel, many of which today offer topnotch accommodation for under $90. And Vietnam dishes up a banquet of low-cost culinary delights: fresh-baked baguettes for a dime, tasty spring rolls for 40¢, or a potent glass of Vietnamese drip coffee to awaken the senses for a quarter. Hot bowls of pho, Vietnam's ubiquitous beef noodle soup, are found everywhere and anywhere for about 35¢ a serving and go great washed down with a liter of bia hoi, local draft beer, for another 25¢. Domestic transport options can be found to suit any budget. Die-hard shoe-string travelers with the endurance to withstand the joys and jeopardy of Vietnam's public buses can move around the country for next to nothing. At the other extreme, chauffeured car charters for about $40 a day offer maximum comfort and flexibility. While self-drive rental cars are not yet available, adventurous souls will find low-cost motorbike rentals for about $8 a day (the Mekong Delta and rugged northwest are two popular areas for two-wheel touring). We'll be detailing all of these opportunities below.

What you'll see

The Vietnamese mosaic spans a 1,500-mile, S-shaped coastline along the Indochina peninsula, from the plush green paddies of the Mekong Delta to the breathtaking seascape of Halong Bay. Along the way are countless attractions -- exquisite temples and pagodas, bustling markets and white sand beaches. But perhaps the greatest allure is the people. From frolicsome children perched on water buffaloes to reserved women in conical hats and graceful ao dai (tunic tops over long pants), Vietnam is brimming with friendly faces. The cities are a sea of motor scooters, zigzagging between cyclos (pedicabs) loaded with produce, livestock, and human cargo. In striking contrast, colorful hill tribes in remote regions make up just some of the 54 distinct ethnic groups. Numerous highland minority groups, known as montagnards by the French, still live and dress today as they have for centuries.

Getting around

Exceedingly popular among independent travelers are Vietnam's "Open Tours" -- a unique concept offering a simple, safe, and comfortable way of getting around the country for peanuts. The tours are in fact flexible on-again, off-again private buses that can be used to reach points along the 800-mile passage between Saigon and Hanoi. Fierce competition among local tour operators has driven prices down, and tickets can be snapped up for pennies a mile. Individual legs such as Saigon-Dalat ($6), Dalat-Nha Trang ($8), and Nha Trang-Hoi An ($11) can be purchased as you go along, or you choose longer routes like Saigon-Hue ($28) or Hue-Hanoi ($19). With at least two weeks to spend, you can fly into Saigon or Hanoi and enjoy an Open Tour overland journey north or south, departing out of the other city. Open Tour tickets can be purchased in the Pham Ngu Lao area (the backpackers' "ghetto") of Saigon at either the Kim Cafe (272 De Tham Street, tel. 8/836-9859) or at the Sinh Cafe (248 De Tham Street, tel. 8/836-7338). In Hanoi, look for Love Planet (25 Hang Bac Street, tel. 4/828-4864), or the Sinh Cafe (52 Hang Bac Street, tel. 4/926-0038). Pickup spots for the buses themselves are in front of the cafes and at various destinations (such as Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Dalat, and others) along the route.

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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