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.
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
Nearly every visitor goes at some point to Ho Chi Minh City, still known to many by its former name, Saigon. The 300-year-old former capital of the south has an unmistakable edge to it, an unshackled air of cosmopolitan hustle and bustle. For about $1 an hour, one-passenger cyclos can be hired to tour the city, face-first into a heart-stopping maze of traffic. For the faint of heart, meter cabs can be hired to most parts of the city for under $3, or you can pick up a dollar-a-day rent-a-cycle to pedal to the cathedrals, museums, and exquisite temples and pagodas in Cholon, Saigon's very own Chinatown.
For rock-bottom everything, head for the famous Pham Ngu Lao area. This backpackers' district of hotels, guesthouses, cafes, restaurants, shops, and tour operators has become a bargain hunter's paradise and offers a wide enough range of options that you need not sacrifice comfort for a cheap place to lay your head. Pham Ngu Lao is in the heart of District 1 -- easily found and immediately exciting, something on the order of Khao Sarn Road in Bangkok; despite the ever-present touts from cyclo drivers, counterfeit book sellers, and Juicy Fruit-peddling street children, it has evolved into "backpackers central" with the best prices in town for accommodations and tours. It's mainly on De Tham Street, between Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien streets, and the cheap hotels are all along these three thoroughfares and in the small alleys that crisscross them. Rooms at budget-end hotels, about 80 percent of the 100 or so lodgings in the area, cost an average of $7-$15. Rooms in the $7-$8 range are with fan only, but $10-$15 will get you air conditioning. There is also a growing number of nicer, slightly upmarket hotels that charge $15-$40; these offer amenities such as air conditioning, bathtubs, and satellite TV.
You'll want to consider the family-style Guesthouse 127 (127 Cong Quyen Street; tel. 8/836-8761, fax 8/836-0658), a slightly aging, 15-room hotel of the typical concrete variety, which makes up in character what it lacks in decor. For $7-$20 a night (depending on the room), lovable owner Madam Cuc will put you up and feed you home-cooked meals that -- amazingly -- are included in the price.
For luxuries like satellite TV and minibars, the shipshape Hanh Hoa Hotel (237 Pham Ngu Lao Street; tel. 8/836-0245; fax 8/836-1482) charges just $25 for deluxe rooms; and while the hotel is small (13 rooms), its units are large. Alternate choices nearby include the friendly Mini Hotel Cam (40/31 Bui Vien Street, tel. 8/836-7622), sitting dead center along a solid strip of about 20 tall and narrow concrete "mini-hotels." This 15-room, clean, quiet, five-story hotel costs $7/night with fan, or $10-$15 with air conditioning.
An upmarket choice is the plush Giant Dragon Hotel (173 Pham Ngu Lao Street; tel. 8/836-4759, fax 8/836-7279), a shiny, neon-lit place with 34 well-appointed rooms for $15-$25/night. All have air conditioning and satellite TV. Nearby are excellent restaurants such as Zen (175/6 Pham Ngu Lao Street), where for under $2 you can fill up on fresh vegetarian spring rolls and the best guacamole this side of Mexico. The oddest sight: the famed Cu Chi tunnels, a vast underground network of secret passageways utilized by the Vietcong against French and American forces.
Agencies like Kim Cafe or Sinh Cafe (see "Getting Around") in Saigon charge as little as $4 for a full-day excursion (add a $4 entry to the tunnels), including a stop at Tay Ninh for noontime mass at the striking Cao Dai Temple. The religion is a unique and colorful blend of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam.
The Mekong Delta
One excursion not to be missed is a journey into the Mekong Delta, the "rice basket" of Vietnam. Boating through the narrow canals offers an up-close glimpse of life on the Mekong River and its countless tributaries. Visit incredible "floating markets," snake farms, and quaint rural villages, or stop to chat about Buddhism with the friendly monks at one of the delta's abundant Khmer-style temples and pagodas. Nominal food costs aside, all-inclusive two-day/one-night programs cost as little as $18 per person, while more extensive three- and four-day trips cost from $27 and $50 respectively. Delta tours can be booked at one of countless travel agencies in Saigon (about 30 or so in the Pham Ngu Lao area alone; see above).
North from Ho Chi Minh City, many head for the cool mountain climate of Dalat. Prized as the "Jewel of the Central Highlands," Dalat boasts the outdoor beauty of the Adirondacks, with all the honeymoon kitsch of the Poconos or Niagara Falls. Visit the bizarre Valley of Love to catch Vietnamese cowboys decked out in chaps and spurs, or pay the 30¢ admission to visit the other-worldly Hang Nga Guesthouse & Art Gallery (3 Huynh Thuc Khang Street, tel. 63/822070). The architecture at this Disneyesque attraction features a giant wire spider's web in the courtyard and one building in the shape of an immense concrete giraffe! At the tranquil Lam Ty Ni Pagoda, share a cup of tea with Vien Thuc, an eccentric Zen monk who draws visitors from all corners of the globe. Possibly Vietnam's most prolific artist, his provocative "instant paintings" sell for a mere $2. Dalat has a treasure trove of hotels in the $5-$10 range and plenty of charming villas in the $20-$50 range from its days as a French hill station. A delightful family-run inn, the Hotel Chau Au Europa (76 Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, tel. 63/822870, fax 63/824488), offers comfy and charming doubles for $25-$35; it's close to the center of town but tucked away so you can sleep peacefully at night. For the bottom end of the budget hotels, try the 12-room Highland Hotel (90 Phan Dinh Phung Street, tel. 63/823738), a nondescript concrete building whose basic rooms are $4-$6 for singles, $7-$8 for twins. Rooms can also be booked at the bizarre Hang Nga Guesthouse (described above), whose funky little twin units rent for $29-$60 and are charming in their own way. But as the Hang Nga doubles as a tourist attraction, it lacks privacy. Dalat can be reached by the Open Tour buses discussed earlier, by private car, public bus, motorbike, or even bicycle; there is no train service. It takes about six hours to drive.
Hoi An, Hue, and points north
The charming, historic town of Hoi An is a place to linger amid quiet streets, a sixteenth-century Japanese covered bridge, and well-preserved examples of Chinese and French architecture. Incredibly, this little town has close to 100 expert tailor shops that can fit you in hours for anything from a silk kimono to a Chinese smoking jacket -- and for less than the material alone would cost in Hong Kong. Hoi An's local delicacy is cao lau, a delicious noodle dish prepared with fresh vegetables and sliced pork. Most local eateries serve it, but for ambiance, the soft-lit Yellow River Restaurant (38 Tran Phu Street, tel. 510/861053) cannot be beat. Another gem is the Faifoo Restaurant (104 Tran Phu Street, tel. 510/861548), which serves savory cao lau as part of a laudable $3 full-course dinner. After dark, stop in at the excellent Tam Tam Cafe & Bar (110 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, tel. 510/862212) for a game of billiards in a restored tea warehouse. The delightful 12-room Vinh Hung Hotel (143 Tran Phu Street, tel. 510/861621, fax 510/861893), an atmospheric old Chinese trading house, has standard rooms for $20, or courtly suites furnished with classic Chinese antiques for $45. Or try the brand new and quite snazzy 24-room Pho Hoi 2 Hotel (Cam Nam Bridge, tel. 510/862628, fax 510/862626), which offers comfortable fan rooms from $8, or $18-$35 with air conditioning (ask for a river-view room). Stop by Danang to see the superb Cham Museum (entry $2), or travel out to the Marble Mountains on the way to China Beach, immortalized by the TV series. Not far from the extravagant Furama Resort ($160-$500 a night!), the Non Nuoc Seaside Resort (tel. 511/836215, fax 511/836335), right on the beach, is an excellent value at $10-$15, or $27 with sea views. North from Danang, over breathtaking Hai Van Pass, is the ancient capital of Hue, where an impressive complex of monuments is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A $3 boat trip along the scenic Perfume River will take you to the magnificent tombs of Vietnam's former emperors ($5 entry fee each). Military buffs will appreciate a day's sojourn from Hue out to the Vietnam War-era Demilitarized Zone, where $25 buys a full-day tour of the battlefields and relics.
Hotels in Hue
The popular Thai Binh is down a quiet street (10/9 Nguyen Tri Phuong; tel. 54/828058, fax 54/832867); it offers basic twins in a concrete structure for about $10-$15, or larger rooms with bathtubs for $20-$25. There are nice little balconies on each of the five stories to sit and eat or sip a coffee. Or try The Guesthouse (5 Le Loi Street, tel. 54/822155, fax 54/828816), a classic old French colonial villa right on the banks of the Perfume River. The grounds feature well-kept gardens, and rooms start at $25.
Hanoi and the north
Vietnam's capital and political center, Hanoi ranks among the most pleasant cities in Asia. It boasts a distinctly Parisian ambiance, yet along the 36 ancient streets of the picturesque Old Quarter you'll find a Chinese-flavored charm. After seeing the lakes, parks, museums, and impressive architecture, stop to visit one of Vietnam's best free tourist attractions, the embalmed body of Vietnam's beloved "Uncle Ho" at the massive Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Don't leave town without taking in a performance of Hanoi's extraordinary water puppets ($2) or sampling the delectable cha ca fish cakes at acclaimed local eatery Cha Ca La Vong. Guesthouse/cafe/tour operators like TF Handspan (116 Hang Bac Street, tel. 4/828-1996, fax 4/825-7171) and the Queen Cafe (65 Hang Bac Street, tel. 4/826-0860, fax 4/826-0300) offer lodging for less than $10, and are also excellent places to book day trips to the Perfume Pagoda ($17), a remarkable complex of Buddhist temples on the outskirts of Hanoi. One of the city's most unique lodgings is the Ho Tay Villas (West Lake, tel. 8/047-772, fax 8/823-2126), housed in an enormous former Communist party guesthouse about three miles north of downtown. Rates of $35-$40 are a relative bargain for the experience. More central is the 32-room Dong Xuan Hotel in the Old Quarter (26 Cao Thang Street, tel. 4/828-4474, fax 4/824-6475), popular with the backpacker set. Fan-equipped rooms cost just $4-$6; they're $7 with air conditioning. Nearby, the Van Xuan Hotel (15 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, tel. 4/824-4743, fax 4/824-6475), also gets a steady stream of budget travelers. Basic doubles with air conditioning cost $10, and those with more space and a private balcony cost $15-$25. Cafes in Hanoi also offer tours to UNESCO-protected Halong Bay, one of the world's most spectacular natural monuments. Two- and three-day all-inclusive packages to tour the 3,000-plus islands and grottoes are attractive, costing from $24 and $38 respectively -- prices that are hard, if not impossible, to beat on your own. Vietnam offers so much for so little. Where else can you surf the net at cyber cafes for 6 per minute, find exquisite lacquerware boxes for $1, or stumble upon world-class paintings by undiscovered artists for less than $50? Those lucky enough to visit revitalized Vietnam will find it all, while discovering a vast and varied blend of traditional culture, strikingly beautiful landscapes, and some of the world's most hospitable hosts.
VISAS: Embassy of Vietnam, 1233 20th St. NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20036 (tel. 202/861-0737, fax 202/861-1297); 30-day tourist visas cost $65. Phone Numbers: Country code 84; city codes have two, three, or four numbers; local phone numbers have six or seven digits. Thus, to call Ho Chi Minh City (city code 8), dial 011-84-8 and seven digits. When calling from one city to another within Vietnam, dial O + city code + number.
AIRFARE: Round-trip excursion: New York to Ho Chi Minh from $804. Los Angeles to Ho Chi Minh from $714.