10 Must-Read Guidelines to Backpacking in South Vietnam with only $150
What? $150SGD and below? Yes, you read that right. Not just Ho Chi Minh, but you can afford to visit Mui Ne, and the Mekong River – Cai Be Floating Market, all below $150 SGD. And that is the beauty of backpacking in Vietnam. Alternatively, you can combine it with an extra $40 to take a 12-hour bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where you can visit the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat, and carry on towards Bangkok, Thailand on a 23-hour bus ride!
Before you decide to go there, you must have the mindset that you are not going there as a luxury-style tourist looking to stay in 3/4/5 star hotels, with your own bed and a warm bath, and set out everyday to do shopping in mega malls and such. Frankly speaking if you are looking for that sort of shoppers’ tourism, Bangkok will be a much better choice compared to Vietnam.
However! In terms of scenery, relaxation and backpacking, Vietnam is indeed a good place to start. This guide is also written from the perspective of a backpacker who has spent a total of $148SGD over the span of 5 days. You may see some quotations in terms of USD, because it is also the official currency that the locals accept over there. I will also spare you the descriptive details of the trip because only when you’re there you will truly experience what it’s like.
1. Backpacking Hostels in Pha Mu Lao, District 1
The term “pha mu lao” is well-known among the locals as the backpacker’s district, which is, where all the backpackers live and hang around. It’s also known as District 1. You should be looking at hostels and dormitories which charge as low as 6USD. I still could get this price even during New Year’s Eve. Depending on whether you feel like hanging out and making new friends, you can choose the private rooms at 10USD, or the 6-in-1 dormitories for 6USD!
Of course, you could top up this amount to get access to hot water and larger rooms, but you would not be able to survive with $200 if you’re going for all the luxury options.
My personal recommendation is called “Budget Hostel”. You can look up this hostel in Agoda. The service is great and the price was also 6USD per night only.
2. Public Transport – Trust only Vinasun and Mailinh
When you first touchdown at Saigon International Airport, you will notice there are hordes of taxi drivers waiting outside the arrival gates and offering to fetch you to the heart of Ho Chi Minh, District 1, Pha Mu Lao a.k.a. Backpacker’s District, for “cheapest” price of 300,000 – 400,000 dong. This is a scam. The ‘cheapest’ price is often more than twice of what you are supposed to pay.
Look out for only 2 legitimate taxi companies. Vinasun (white taxis) and Mailinh (Green taxis). These 2 taxi brands operate strictly on meter-based charges and it should cost you only 130,000 dong to reach District 1 where most of the backpacker hostels and hotels are heavily concentrated in. Alternatively, you can catch the airport shuttle bus which arrives at 30-minute intervals, and you only pay 6,000 dong (S$0.33)!
In fact, if you are planning to travel anywhere else in Vietnam, only these 2 taxi companies can be trusted. Do not bother bargaining with any other cab drivers who aren’t under these 2 companies.
If you have already decided to backpack, why not put your game mode on and start to talk to fellow backpackers hanging around and ask if you could share a cab to go to District 1 together! 130,000 / 4 = 30,000+ each, which is equivalent to 2SGD
3. Cho Ben Thanh – The Marketplace and Night Market
Ask any hostel receptionist or tour operator and they will direct you to “Ben Thanh”, which is the most famous marketplace in District 1. It’s very possible to get lost here despite the small area, due to the hundreds of cramped, packed retail shops, making it look like a maze. Many shopowners will be shouting out good deals and prices, and if you stop and stare long enough, your arm might just get grabbed and they will start to plead with you to buy their items. At night, the indoor market area will be closed, but you can get to see the colourful night market just right outside Ben Thanh at night, which will look similar to our ‘pasar malams’.
My personal advice? Check the quality first before deciding whether to buy. Strictly avoid bags and slippers as these items break easily for some reason. The shirts, belts and pants are still reliable, depending on the quality of the material (it is essential you feel it and try it first before agreeing anything with the shopowner)
Depending on the way you talk and how you dress, they can get a sense of how ‘rich’ you are, and that’s where the negotiations begin. For a good rule of thumb, the plain shirts should be lower than 5SGD, and pants should be lower than 10SGD. If you can’t bargain for that price, it’s better to walk away. Either way, if you are backpacking in Vietnam, shopping should not be on your priority list.
There’s also a lot of food stalls set up at Ben Thanh market. I would prefer to buy from the streets and alleys of District 1 rather than here, because most of the prices are set at 50,000 dong, which is essentially 3SGD. Paying 3SGD for a bowl of noodles or rice is exactly the same as paying for hawker food back in Singapore. Why would you do that?
In short, tourist trap.
4. Food and Meals (Less than 2SGD)
Do not settle for anything above 30,000 dong while you’re looking for meals. Pha Mu Lao is essentially a tourist-concentrated districts, and all the shops who are at the frontlines and main street of Bui Vien will surely charge you at least 50,000 for a bowl of noodles or rice. Try to be a little more adventurous and wander the backalleys and hidden streets in that area, and you can find great-tasting, delicious meals which are priced at 20,000 dong. Throw in eggs and extra meat for 5,000 dong and you will have a wonderful time. Are you compromising taste in return for saving more dong? No. Because in a backpacker’s dictionary, street food is the best food.
You will also notice fruit juice stalls and pushcarts. Please try the fruit juices there while you’re at it because it is amazing. The juices are highly concentrated, they do not add ice, and you can feel alot of fruity bits inside your smoothie.
5. Reunification Palace, War History Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh Park
These places are the ‘must-see’ in Ho Chi Minh, or at least, that’s what people will tell you to do when you’re there. The entrance fees are all less than 50,000 dong (3SGD), and visiting these areas can pretty much burn off 1 day while you’re getting entertained by the history of Vietnam and looking at what this country has gone through.
The best part is, all of these places are within reasonable walking distance and you do not have to flag a cab just to go to these areas. Be sure to take a tourist map before you set off so that you can navigate yourself there. Usually motorcyclists will be looking out for blur-sheep tourists who appear lost and offer to fetch you at exorbitant prices.
*I highly discourage you from going to visit the Cu Chi Tunnel tours. It’s fake, too touristy and generally I felt that I wasted S$15 over that tour day.
6. Travel down to Mui Ne, the beautiful canyons of Vietnam
Hop on a 7USD one-way bus ride to Mui Ne, where the amazing desert dunes and canyons of Vietnam can be found at. You could generally speak to any tour operator along Pha Mu Lao street and they will sell you sleeper bus tickets to Mui Ne. The bus departs from 7:30am and will arrive at approximately 1:30pm. The sleeper buses aren’t that bad as you get a full reclining chair to yourself in the bus.
Once you reach Mui Ne, there will be a tour package that starts at 2pm. A jeep will arrive and pick you up, and you only have to pay 6USD for the driver to take you around to all the hotspots of Mui Ne.
It will start with the Fairy Stream, which is a sand mountain with amazing rock formations above a running stream. I can confirm that photos do this place injustice, because it looks so much more amazing in real life. You can find other forum posters on Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor agreeing with this statement.
Followed by the famous fishing fleets and village of Mui Ne.
And lastly, the sand dunes of Vietnam that everyone has to see.
It will end off with the driver rushing you down to the Red Dunes in order to enjoy the sunset there. Some local children will be selling you sledboards to slide down the high angle dunes there for some fun!
All of these for just 5USD. The beaches of Mui Ne will be filled with crowds of kitesurfers in the day time so be sure to catch them!
7. Rent a Bike. Travel to the Mekong River
Renting a bike in Ho Chi Minh, or Vietnam in general, is not for the faint-hearted. There are hordes and hundreds of motorcycles on the street at any given point of time, and there is no strict traffic rule to control the flow. The white divider lines on the roads don’t really matter and you will notice motorcycles swerving in and out. This is an experience you take at your own risk. You can feel the adrenaline rushing through you as you ride down the streets.
It would cost you 6USD per day and you can simply grab a bike from your hostel in Pha Mu Lao. A full tank of gas will set you back only 4USD. That said, it costs you a total of 10USD for a full-tank bike and you can ride all you want around Ho Chi Minh and its outskirts. I will recommend going to the Mekong River and Cai Be Floating market, which is a 3-hour ride down towards the direction of Cambodia.
If not for biking, you can opt for the tour option which will cost you roughly 15SGD, which will include 2-way transport, lunch, a boat ride and a personal sampan ride down the streams and canals of the Mekong.
8. Tipping Culture
Locals in Vietnam do not tip, but this is more or less expected of you if you are a tourist. Vietnamese locals make an average of $200-$300 a month, and even those are considered to be a good standard. If you had a tour guide follow you around for the whole day (Mui Ne or Mekong) and providing you great service, smiles and entertainment, it wouldn’t hurt to tip a couple of dollars, as long as it doesn’t hurt your budget. If you also discovered a wonderful street food stall that you patronize very frequently and you like the cook a lot, then it also wouldn’t hurt to tip a few extra dollars! (For example, I did tip the elderly lady that rowed our boat across the village canal at the Mekong River, because I could tell she was really tired but still trying her best)
Do avoid massage parlours along the main streets of Pha Mu Lao and Bui Vien. In all honest opinions I feel that Thailand offers greater massages and the ones I tried in District 1 was just substandard. Moreover, you are extremely obligated to tip at least 4USD once your massage is complete, on top of the 8USD that they charge you. I once tried to leave without tipping and I got stopped by my masseur who was pleading for tips and just wouldn’t let me out the door. That’s 12USD for a massage, and that will completely blow your backpacking budget.
9. Bars, Nightclubs at Bui Vien Street
Bui Vien street, which you have probably seen a few times in this article, is a street just behind Pha Mu Lao and all the bars, clubs and nightspots are generally concentrated around this area. You will find so many foreign tourists (like yourself) seated along this street and having fun at night. Saigon beers go for 15,000 dong (S$0.80) on this street, and even if you went up to the expensive rooftop bars the maximum you could go is 35,000 dong (S$2.00). This is a party street at night where you will encounter drunkards and people just having fun all over! It’s even better if you could have made a few friends at your dormitory and have a good time here.
However, do avoid the bars that purposely places skimpy-clothed women outside who tries to lure you in a seductive manner. These are the dodgy places that will not let you leave unless you tip the women generously.
10. Backpacking Safety in Vietnam
Be wary of motorcycle fetchers. These are not legitimate, and you do not know anything about their background. Back to point number 1, trust only Vinasun and Mailinh.
Always take your passport with you. The locks which are sold in hostels are so small that it could be easily broken by reasonable force. You can also entrust your passport with the hostel receptionist if they are willing to lock it up for you at their counter.
Always sling your bag in front of you. There are cases whereby thieves will use blades and sharp objects to cut your bag from behind and the contents will spill out.
If you get into a traffic accident, and only slightly injured, get up and leave the area immediately. Do not try to demand compensation because your chances are very slim and if you stay there long enough, it might even end up with you taking the blame. If you cannot speak Vietnamese you are always at a disadvantage.
Harden your heart if you do not want to keep getting bullied via excessive tipping and over-charging. There were cases where my cab meter clearly showed 80,000 dong, and when I gave the driver a 100,000 dong note, he just took it and did not give any change back.
Defensive riding style when renting a moped/bike. Drivers in Vietnam generally do not care about blind spots and can turn any moment. Overtaking cars is like asking for a death wish.
It is best to make friends with fellow backpackers and hang out as a group. If you are keen on travelling solo, do not look blur, lost or disoriented.
**Calculations for your $200 Budget.
Accomodation: 6USD (S$7.50) x 4 nights = S$30
Food: S$3 x 3 meals / day x 5 = S$45 (round up to S$10) (inclusive of drinks worth S$0.80)
Mui Ne: S$7 Tour Fee + S$18 Return sleeper bus trip +S$12 (1 night hotel stay) = S$37
Mekong River: S$15 Tour Fee inclusive of transport and lunch = S$15
Cab Transport Budget for Airport: S$1 (I suggest taking the public bus that arrives every 30 minutes, for only $0.30)
Bar Beers: S$1 x 5 nights = S$5
Street Food and Snacks: S$3 x 5 days = S$15
Grand Total: $148 (excluding shopping, does not include bike rental)
*You may end up spending more money on food, and also shopping, which will add up to S$200. Or, you know, if you really wanted to try some Vietnamese massage, you could add $20 there.
Highly recommend to top up S$30 if you want to visit Da Lat, as known as the Vietnam Alps, coined by the French who once lived there.
Jackie Loh Writer The Influencer Media