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How much does it cost to eat, sleep and travel through Vietnam? What can you expect for your money?
For an updated outlook on 2014 prices, please read our below post on what to expect when traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Vietnam Trip report
Our trip was 21 days; 3 days in Cambodia and the rest in Vietnam. During the trip we visited 8 cities: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Siem Reap (Cambodia), Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa, Hue, Hoi An, and Phu Quoc.
The weather was temperate to hot, with a peak of around 95 to 98 degrees in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, and low to mid 70s in Hanoi and Sapa.
We experienced virtually no rain, except for a few drops at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi (perhaps 2 minutes), and a light drizzle in Hue (15 minutes). The weather was disappointingly cloudy on most days. While not a big problem in the South, this impacted our photos in Halong Bay, Hanoi, Hue, and Sapa. In the car ride from Hue to Hoi An, we learned that the mountain pass just north of DaNang is the demarcation of cool, cloudy weather from the South China Sea, and sunny, clear weather. It was a very interesting stop, and offers a commanding view of DaDang in the south, one that the US Military exploited and their watchtowers are still there today.
For our hotel accommodations, we booked all but 3 nights on Agoda.com. Those 3 nights were our trip to Sapa, 2 of which were on the sleeper train, and the 3rd was in an old hotel that was included in the tour package. We found the quality of the rooms in Vietnam and Cambodia to generally be a full star lower than advertised (i.e. a 5-star was the equivalent of a U.S 4-star, etc.). The rooms are much smaller than expected, though clean and with good wi-fi and flat screen televisions. The bathrooms varied in size and amenities, and were generally below expectations. Also interesting is that we did not have a sheet the entire time. Every single hotel had a white duvet, but no top sheet. The average bed size was queen with the smallest being a double, and the largest a “double double”. Staff performance was helpful, with some extremely nice hotel attendants (the Life Heritage cruise and the Rising Dragon hotel in Hanoi were the best ever), but virtually every hotel suffered for lack of English skills.
While Agoda is convenient, and the major player in hotels in Asia, their low prices come at a cost; the aforementioned overrating of stars and reviews, and manipulated photos that make rooms appear much larger than they are. Another confusing aspect is that many of these “boutique” hotels are related: for example, the Rising Dragon in Hanoi has at least 6 locations. All are converted, narrow old buildings with about 4 rooms per floor and rising 7 to 9 floors in height. Some of these interior rooms either don’t have a window, or have a window looking into the hallway, both of which are unacceptable. Make sure you get an “outside” room away from the elevator. Also ask for 2 key cards, as all hotels need a key card to run electricity. When you leave the room, you’ll want to have an extra card to keep the A/C running, or return to a hot stuffy room, or uncharged devices. Another note is that the hotels will try to keep your passport at the front desk. Just tell them to make a copy and give you the passports back.
We splurged on 3 cities, staying in “5 star” properties in Halong Bay, Hoi An and Phu Quoc for a total of 7 nights at around $225 per night. The other nights were in 2-3 star hotels with an average price per night of around $35-$40. There is not much in between, and I believe these price points offer the most value. All hotels offered a thorough breakfast of Vietnamese, Eastern and Western cuisine. If you are into the gym, you’ll only find these in the big resorts and 5 star chains.
Vietnamese sights were very cheap to visit, normally less than $2 per person. They are slightly higher around Hue and Hoi An at $4-5 per person. Some sights were free. Angkor Wat is a about $20 per day per person. Getting around is cheap and easy. Just make sure the taxi has the meter on, and the prices will be $1-$2 (more when going to/from the airport). Food is reasonably cheap, healthy and delicious but more expensive than we thought it’d be (compared to other Asian countries we’ve visited). For a basic meal, expect to pay $5-10 per person. In high end restaurants, meals peak at around $20-30 per person. In all cases the food is at least half of what it would cost in the United States. For alcohol, there is very cheap Vietnam wine that we did not like (around a $1 per glass and $5 per bottle). Their beer is good and runs about .50 to 1 dollar per can, but are all slightly different versions of lager. “Beer Hoi” or fresh beer with no preservatives designed to be drunk that day is extremely cheap at around .25 per glass and is delicious. Imported beer such as Heineken was only around $2 per can. Imported wine was expensive, at $5-10 dollars per glass. Cocktails at dive bars and cheap hotels are around $3-$5 and are $5-$12 dollars at high end restaurants and hotels. Unless eating at small street food vendors, expect to pay 10% VAT and 5% service on top of every bill. As we’re used to paying around 5% tax and tipping 20% back home, this is not a big deal.
Vietnam can be problematic and inefficient for buying things. Outside of nicer shops, hotels and restaurants the prices are negotiable. Occasionally you’ll see a sign with some prices on it, but most times it seems they are quoting random prices. Years ago, Vietnam had a 2 tier pricing structure: 1 for citizens and 1 for foreigners that was 4-10 times more expensive. While the government officially abandoned this in the nineties, it is still very much in practice. If a price seems excessive, you’ll need to negotiate, and you must do it before the good or service is provided. Otherwise you’re stuck paying whatever they say. We’ve experienced this in Latin America and other Asian countries, and while the vendors are not as aggressive as India or as emotional as the Middle East, they are very greedy in Indochina.
On this trip we experienced a few health issues that required at least 5 trips to the pharmacy. Walking continuously for 2 days in the heat of Angkor Wat gave me a mean set of heel blisters that required a cream. My wife also got prickly sun rash on her face and body around this time, experienced nausea (possibly food induced) as well as sinus allergies. Except for one time where we were overcharged by about $5, a pharmacy stop is relatively cheap. Expect to pay around $2 per course of antibiotics, a batch of Advil, generic skin creams, etc.
For purchases, the Vietnamese dong is the currency but dollars are widely accepted. $1 is equal to approximately 21,000 dong, depending on who is doing the conversion. Mastercard is accepted more widely than Visa, and American Express is almost never accepted. Some hotels and restaurants will add 2% to the bill for using a credit card, which is worth it for the convenience and has the best exchange rate. One thing to watch out for are the mandatory ATM fees and low withdrawal amounts. The ATMs only dispense dong in Vietnam, but dispense dollars in Cambodia. For example, many ATMs in Vietnam will not dispense more than 2 million dong at a time, which is less than $100 US dollars. The bank ATM will then add a $3-$5 service charge. There is no limit on how much cash you can bring into the country, so by bringing $1000 USD to Vietnam when you arrive, you’ll save nearly $50. Dollars can be exchanged for dong at any hotel at a very favorable rate.
In Cambodia, the ATMs will dispense around $250 at a time and charge only $5 per transaction. $1 is equal to $4 real, and Cambodians prefer dollars over their own currency. Credit cards are not often accepted around Siem Reap, except in higher end restaurants and hotels. You can spend dollars and receive a mixture of currencies in change. I even received a US $2 bill in change at one establishment.
In summation on prices, we ended up 26% over our original, very conservative budget. This was attributed to a few things. The first was airfare and hotels. While we were pretty much spot on (only around 5% over budget), we booked flights and rooms only a few days in advance. We wanted flexibility in our itinerary to stay around in cities we liked. Had we booked everything before leaving the US, we could have saved a few hundred dollars. Where we really went over budget was in the daily spending. As mentioned before, sights are relatively cheap to visit. But drinking and eating can quickly get out of hand, as Vietnam is a culinary wonderland with hundreds of great places in each city. The cultural norm is to visit 3 or more places each evening, having a small taste and a drink and moving on to the next place. While this is a ton of fun, it inevitably costs more.
On the whole though, I really can’t complain. One thing I’ve learned from traveling is that whatever your initial conservative estimate is, add 20 percent. After doing this, and accounting for booking air and hotel as we went, we were pretty much right on budget. Our flights to and from Vietnam/Washington, DC were purchased with mileage points, so it came out to be an overall inexpensive trip for the amount of fun and experiences we had.
Both countries are relatively easy for foreigners to adapt to and are extremely safe, especially Vietnam. All signs are written in English characters and the people are very friendly. There was no culture shock and we never felt like outsiders. While people don’t speak great English, they are helpful. We speak no Vietnamese or Cambodian, and the only phrase we learned was “Thank You”. So no worries about not understanding the language, you can just show up and roll with it.
Regarding the night life, while varied and interesting, Vietnamese nightlife does not feel that wild. Unlike Bangkok or other big cities, things wrap up pretty early. Alternatively, little Siem Reap rocks until the early morning hours around “pub street”. Obviously Saigon is the best Vietnamese city for partying, while Sapa, Phu Quoc and Hoi An basically shut down after 10PM.
Of the cities on our itinerary, the only one that truly disappointed was Hue. The Imperial Citadel was small and is under serious renovations, making it feel incomplete. The Perfume River was nice and the flowering trees did give it a nice smell. But there is little to do there. The city itself has a few backpacker bars and hotels, but has nothing of interest. The local market is filthy and overpriced for foreigners. On our roadtrip to Hoi An, we stopped at the Imperial Tombs southwest of Hue, and these were by far the most interesting and beautiful attraction. We recommend not staying the night in Hue and only doing a quick pass through. If not for the tombs, we’d avoid it entirely. Much of the guidebooks make it seem like Hue and Hoi An is an inevitable pairing of cities: this is simply not true. The car transfer is 3-4 hours apart and almost as expensive as a plane ticket. Hoi An actually has a much closer and newer airport at DaNang, which is a city on the move. We were really impressed by its growth, with modern sky scrapers, bridges, brand new entertainment and sports complexes, and sea side location. If you have a day in the itinerary, skip Hue and go to DaNanag, you’ll be happy that you did.
Some other ruminations on cities, in Hanoi try to get out of the Old Quarter and see the French quarter or some of the further suburbs. The Old Quarter is a lot of fun, but each street is basically a repeat of the last: small hotels, street vendors, restaurants, beer hoi, etc. Its unrefined and a little dirty from all the car and motorbike smoke. The water puppet theater is worth a visit, but at the end of a long day will put you to sleep. Also, if you’re 6 foot tall or over, try to get in the front row. Otherwise your knees will be cramped for an hour.
When visiting Ho Chi Minh City, don’t stay in the dirty backpacker district around Ben Tanh market. For the same price, you can stay near the Opera House, and be closer to the river, shopping, better restaurants, and most of the city sights. The market is still only a 10-15 minute walk away or a $1 taxi ride. Trust me, you will be so happy that you did not stay around the frustrating market. The famous market is chocked full of goods, but most are imported Chinese junk and low quality, or knockoffs of brand names. The touts will assure you that everything is the highest quality, but its not. The t-shirts are much cheaper and better quality in Cambodia. Honestly, I can’t recommend buying anything in the market here. If you must buy some souvenirs and don’t like haggling, the government sells the same stuff around the main entrance, along the outer ring for a fixed price. It may be 10% higher than the best price you could negotiate deeper inside the market, but you’ll save the time of visiting 5 stalls and bargaining with vendors.
The mountain city of Sapa is beautiful, and a welcome breath of cool air compared to other steamy cities of Vietnam. If you have 6 weeks or more to travel, we recommend staying for a few days. However, if you are moving through the country on a quick pace, 1 full day is enough. Most tours include an overnight stay in Sapa, but this is unnecessary because the trains to/from Hanoi only run at night. You can easily leave Hanoi on the night train, arrive at 5AM, do an all day tour exploring the hill side and villages. Tours wrap up around 4, giving you enough time to transfer back to the train station and take the 8 or 9PM train back to Hanoi. Trust me, there is nothing to do in Sapa but relax. The second day of the “tour” was a leisurely walk around looking at the same sites we saw the prior day. We would have liked to get a day back to spend in Hoi An or Danang. Even better, if you book the trip through your hotel in Hanoi, you can leave your luggage at the hotel and just take an overnight bag on the train.
Some highlights of the trip in no particular order are:
Ho Chi Minh. The city has so much to do and see and will grow on you quickly.
Hoi An. The most charming, laid back and wonderful city. Great culinary prowess, small and easy to navigate.
Halong Bay. Majestic, contemplative and an essential part of any journey to Vietnam. Try to go in the clear months, as the late winter and spring can be cloudy.
Sapa. Another must-see. Cool and green, perched high in the mountains. Very friendly ethnic hill tribes, and beautiful photo opportunities. Make sure to stop by the tranquil lake in town.
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We at TravelExploit.com have been lucky enough to encounter some of ancient engineering’s finest achievements. Intricately cut, carved and created buildings on 6 continents (there are none on Antarctica that we’ve heard about). While the list has some notable exceptions that we’ve yet to visit, it highlights the best of what the world has to offer, and sights that surely will leave a traveler breathless.
To make the list, these sites were rated based on several factors:
- Age. The older the better.
- The “wow” effect. Either enormously large, tall or deep, and/or in a magnificent location
- Degree of difficulty. Massive stones, perfectly cut lines, amazing detail and ornament.
- The reveal. When approaching, there is anticipation before the presentation
- Culture and civilization. What does the site tell us about the people who lived there?
With no further introduction we will begin the list of the Top 5 Wonders of the World.
#1. Egyptian Pyramids, Temples at Luxor, Valley of the Kings
Wow effect: *****
Degree of difficulty: *****
The Reveal: **
Culture and Civilization: ****
Ancient Egyptian constructions are an easy choice for number one on this list. There are hundreds, if not thousands of sites that have lasted through the millennia. They have also been studied more than perhaps anyplace else on earth, so there is a great amount of data about the rulers and engineers who imagined and executed the delivery of these timeless structures.
Our trip started in Giza with the Great Pyramids and Sphinx, then to Aswan and Luxor on the Nile. The first thing that stands out is the enormous scale. The biggest rocks imaginable were used to fashion buildings (Pyramids), statues (Colossi of Memnon – especially amazing for their graffiti from tourists, in Ancient Greek! The site has been visited for thousands of years!), towering columns and obelisks. This leads to a perfect score in degree of difficulty, as its still unclear how they were able to move and position such incredibly large stones.
The reveal is the only area where these ruins are less than perfect. However, I believe this was intentional. The rulers of Egypt had immense demonstrable power. They wanted you to see these buildings and immediately feel their magnitude, even at great distance. Imagine living in grass huts or caves nearly five thousand years ago, riding your camel across the desert to a faraway land, and seeing the glimmering tallest buildings in the world in front of you. Even today this is shocking, but back then would have been paralyzing. There is no buildup or anticipation, Egypt is just there. And it has remained so for eternity.
#2 Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
Wow effect: *****
Degree of difficulty: ***
The Reveal: ****
Culture and Civilization: ***
Where Angkor Wat really shines is in its presentation. Its name which translates to “a temple which is a city” explains why so much effort was spent to dazzle and amaze. Where the pyramids were designed to demonstrate power, these temples were created to inspire and conjure feelings and harmonize the soul with balance and beauty. The main temple of Angkor is set inside a glimmering moat, which is the size of a lake. It is the largest religious building on earth but is proportioned in a way that doesn’t make it feel that way; there are intimate corridors and rooms that let an individual experience solitude, even when thousands of tourists are just around the corner.
Some of the other temples in the area are nearly as large, but set back in the forest or jungle. In some ways they feel hidden, only noticeable by their entry gate. When pulled in to explore and passing through the gate, you experience the reveal of the large temple before you. These can be astonishing, either because of their size, overgrowth of nature, amazing carvings, or even crumbling destruction. Vising the many temples is surprising and makes you feel that you’re on a quest.
The only reasons Angkor scores less are due to its relative newness (only 1,000 – 1,300 years old), and the relative straightforwardness of its design. I don’t recall seeing any stones so large that 6 or 8 humans could not lift and stack them. Some appeared small enough that I could lift (think slightly larger cinder blocks). Also, it could be due to the little amount of archaeological investigation that’s been done (this is common in poorer countries). Little seems to be known about the people or the culture or the building methods that were used here. Hopefully in the years to come, more discoveries will be made and shared.
#3 Petra (Jordan)
Wow effect: *****
Degree of difficulty: *
The Reveal: *****
Culture and Civilization: ***
With a name that literally means “stone,” Petra is a vast and sprawling city of temples and buildings carved directly onto mountains. The stone has a rosy hue and is breathtaking at sunrise and sunset. While there were some stone blocks used, the vast majority of the structures were cut right into mountain rock. This includes an auditorium, temples, roads, steps, reservoirs, etc. The buildings tell much about the ancient Nabataeans that lived there, their merchant roots with many shops and store fronts, their Roman and Greek influences from the classical architectural design, and their religion by their altars and high point of sacrifice.
When it comes to amazement, you will surely be overcome by the size of the city. One could walk for 3 days and possibly not see all of the main city and surrounding complexes; the area is enormous. For reveals, Petra is perhaps the greatest of all sites. Winding through the long, tall and narrow siq brings you to the “Treasury,” a sight made famous by Indiana Jones and the last crusade. Walking this route in the morning, coming out of the dark siq, and seeing the sun reflected on the front of the Treasury transports one back in time. Hearing the flute players and merchants, and the footsteps of horses clomping about really makes you believe you are living 2,000 years in the past. In addition, a trip to Jordan offers diving in the Red Sea, wandering in the desert of Wadi Rum, floating in the Dead Sea, as well as easy access to the foundation of Christianity, all just 2-3 hours away.
The only downside for this site is the lack of creativity within these buildings. On the inside, they are nothing more than caves. Square holes cut into the mountain, with the real beauty and difficulty of design a facade.
#4 Tiwanaku/Isla Del Sol/Puma Punku
Wow effect: ****
Degree of difficulty: ****
The Reveal: ***
Culture and Civilization: ****
In many ways, this site could be higher on the list. Highlighting the skill and power of the Tiwanaku race, predecessors of the Inca, these structures blend masonry expertise with an air of mystery. With some assessments dating Tiawanku as 13,000-15,000 years old, carbon dated and generally accepted assessments date this collection of ruins as being built from around 2000 BC up until 500-700 AD, making it the 2nd oldest on this list.
These sites were also built at an incredibly high elevation, and in the case of Isla Del Sol, on a small island in the middle of the world’s highest lake. Even when the lake was more shallow in 2,000 BC, the lake still had depths of over 400 feet separating it from the main land. That means that ancient builders had sophisticated and strong enough boats to traverse such depths (the ancient Nile was nowhere near as deep).
The stones here are massive, with some of the monoliths towering 30 feet tall. The rocks are also cut with amazing detail. The site has great impact and feels old and spiritual. Isla Del Sol is as serene as they come, situated in a glimmering lake over 12,000 feet above sea level. I got a blistering sunburn here on a cool November day due to the lack of atmosphere at this altitude.
We started our tour in the Bolivian city of La Paz. The Tiwanaku site is about an hour from the La Paz airport, and makes a nice trip if you have a few hours between flights or are visiting the city. The only downside is that much of Tiwanaku is buried underground, due to its age. Some say that only 10% of it has been excavated, which is saddening. Even though the country is poor, more foreign funds should go to archaeological endeavors here. The Sun Gate and other rock gateways are aligned with the stars and sun, and thousands of people still flock here on the solstices to watch the sun pass through the gate. Although Bolivia is off the road map for most travelers, I strongly encourage you to consider adding it to your itinerary when visiting Peru or the surrounding areas.
#5 Taj Mahal/Chand Baori Step Well
Wow effect: *****
Degree of difficulty: ***
The Reveal: *****
Culture and Civilization: ****
As you may have noticed, we’ve taken the liberty of combining sites built from different eras on this list. As TravelExploit is mainly concerned with destination travel, we’ve combined sites from a common destination that you would likely see as part of a single tour. These two sites in Northern India are incredibly beautiful and astonishing. The Taj Mahal is one of the most famous sites in the world. It is romantic, gorgeous, and perhaps the finest example of Mughal architecture. When touring Rajistan (Northern India) you will inevitably come across many buildings with similar design and embellishments. However, none have the profound impact of the Taj Mahal, with its white marble glistening in the early morning light. Constructed in the 1600’s, the building is the youngest on the list. Even though it is of enormous scale and employed some of the region’s finest craftsmen, it loses points for belonging to the modern era. The Muslim world was skilled in math and for making elaborate blueprints, not to mention its use of elephants to move heavy objects, something most cultures did not have available.
Its reveal, while walking through the entrance gate is perhaps 2nd only to Petra. You know you’ve reached an amazing place and its gravitas will surely have you pause and absorb the moment. The beautiful and intricate carvings, as well as inlaid jewels makes is wonderful to experience. There are also surrounding buildings that are amazing in their own right. This building is a must see for anyone going to India.
A few hours down the road is the Chand Baori Step Well. It wasn’t on our itinerary, and our tour guide made a quick surprise stop for us to see it. With no introduction or explanation, this site earns points for a jaw dropping “wow” effect. There is not much of a reveal, as you enter a poor primitive city. There were no ticket stalls, maps or brochures. You just walk past the locals and find a massive 100 foot deep hole in the ground. The 3500 steps in pyramid substructures remind you on an M.C. Escher drawing. While probably not that difficult to fashion, Chand Baori earns points for its scale and ambition, as well as ingenuity for capturing water and escaping the blistering heat in the region.
That concludes our list of the Top 5 Wonders of the World. There are a few notable exceptions from this list that we have visited but chose to exclude. Ancient Rome and Greece have some of the finest engineering achievements in the world, although are in various states of decay. Perhaps because they were so advanced as a society, they do not feel that primitive. Walking through Rome and admiring the Coliseum did not transport me back in time like I hoped it would. The buildings on this list are far more awe inspiring. We have also toured China and experienced the Great Wall of China, Terracotta Soldiers, and other masterpieces. While extremely impressive, and very old, these sites did not possess the spirituality and wonderment of the 5 sites on our list.
We hope that you are able to visit these places in the near future. Please feel free to share your list of favorite ancient buildings below.
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TravelExploit is releasing 3 new Latin American travel websites, available in Spanish and English. The sites will showcase our significant and deep experience in the Latin American region: VAGABUNDITO.COM, VIAJERITOS.COM, and GUIANDOMUNDOS.COM. Stay tuned.
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In addition to being the Cheif Editor of TravelExploit.com, I am also a Project Manager. I manage people, budgets, technology, change, and sometimes even travel. I’ve realized that the tools and techniques I use to plan, control and execute business projects readily apply to planning trips and should be used in order to maximize your budget and enjoyment while traveling.
I want to illustrate my point by defining a project: Read the rest of this entry »
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At TravelExploit.com, we pride ourselves on our global network of travel experts and correspondents. We’ve picked our experts brains on the latest travel trends, hottest destinations, and the tools and technology to improve your travel planning. In the upcoming months, you will find Podcast and mp3 versions of our global interviews as well. So please check back and let me know if you have any questions you would like answered.
Our first set of interviewees are travel experts from Australia, Russia and the United States. Each brings a unique perspective on travel not only in their own country, but in the world as a whole. I’d like to introduce our panel, beginning (alphabetically) with Gleb from Russia, Nusair from the United States, and Tim from Australia.
TravelExploit.com: Tell us about yourself, how you got into travel, and why you love it?
Gleb: I am from Russia, St. Petersburg. It’s the most popular touristic spot in Russia, Read the rest of this entry »
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Many times in the articles on this website you will see the word “cheap”, especially when it applies to airfares. I want to point out, however, that “cheap” is not necessarily always a good thing. There are many situations, with tour guides, hotels, and yes, sometimes even airlines, where being cheap will end up costing you big in the end. Therefore it is important to know when it’s a good idea to spend more in order to get the most out of your vacation. Being cheap is an art.
I want to first start with my definition of cheap: Maximizing value by getting the lowest price for commodities. Notice that I said “commodities” and not all goods and services. The reason being is that commodities are the same no matter who sells them. For instance, American lager beer, like Budweiser, Coors and Miller are all mass-produced commodities that have nearly the same taste and quality. If someone offers you a $20 pitcher of Budweiser or a $15 pitcher of Miller, you’d most likely buy the Miller. I see airlines the same way. They all offer near identical service, so why pay more? Read the rest of this entry »