Economic backpacking for Vietnam (My first-hand experience)
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
This is my honest first-hand experience of visiting Vietnam. From getting Visa, to landing on land, to currency conversion, to renting a cab, to arriving at the rental, to exploring streets, to getting local transport, to travel to places, to getting back on the return flight - I shall have it all covered. I figured that writing this blog won’t be a one-sitting task, so I'll take my time and try to be as real as possible to make it a worthwhile read.
A little bit about me
First thing first, let me give you a little idea about myself. I am a solo backpacker from India and I like backpacking and leaving for the places that excite me. Sometimes, it’s spontaneous whereas sometimes it comes after hours of planning and precise time management. When I decided to visit Vietnam, it wasn’t instant. Vietnam always topped my bucket list because of The Ha Long Bay, though reservations I made were impromptu,
I was on a tight budget. I am known to make plans on the go so I started checking the flight rates on various websites and found the best rates on https://www.makemytrip.com/. They have pretty good deals for flights, hotel booking, holiday packages, visas, cabs, trains, and whatnot. MakeMyTrip also announces the no-cost EMI feature which allows you to book flights, hotels and travel packages on EMI without an interest. This is really good if you are low on budget and want to pay in instalments for your big trip. Along the same lines, I booked my tickets with no-cost EMI for 3 months. You can learn more about it here: https://www.makemytrip.com/blog/no-cost-emi-on-ticket-bookings-on-makemytrip
I wanted to explore the north of Vietnam so I booked tickets to Noi Bai International Airport, Hanoi. You may book to other international airports as well, like Ho Chi Minh and Na Dinh.
Okay, this is an important and detailed one. When you apply visa for Vietnam, you have plenty of options while applying and there are plenty of websites that you can apply to. I found this website really useful as I’ve used it twice (Once for myself and the second time for my friends) and they delivered my visa application within a single day via e-mail. When you are travelling to Vietnam, there is a high chance that your country is eligible to get your visa on arrival. You can still check the list of countries which are entitled to visas on arrival here. In order to apply for Visa, you can do it through this website. Make sure to avoid applying separate applications in case you are travelling in a group as they will offer you a discount on a group application - don't apply separately unless you're travelling solo.
Another important aspect of travelling that you should keep in mind is the pricing of your VISA. It is broken down into 3 parts:
Application Fees (Before arriving), Standard USD 12/person.
Miscellaneous Fees (Before arriving), USD 0 - USD 50
Stamping Fees (After arriving or Before arriving), Standard USD 25/person
Everyone has to pay the Application fees and stamping fee, as they are standard. Application fees will be paid at the time of application. Option to choose special services like airport fast track (Which fastens the stamping process at the airport so that one doesn't have to wait in long queues and wait for the stamping process) are offered. One of their representatives will be standing at the airport holding a banner with the traveller's name on it and will help them with the application process. One doesn’t have to do anything, but sit and wait for 4 to 5 minutes. I opted for it because this was my first international trip and I wanted to make this experience as easy as possible for me. This comes under miscellaneous fees and is totally optional. The third type of fee is the stamping fee which is a standard USD 25 which is to be paid for VISA stamping. You have an option to pay it in advance while applying for VISA and it is totally worth it. I opted for it because I wanted to make this trip as cashless as possible.
Note: In case your visa application gets rejected (Which is extremely rare), you will get a refund of stamping fees and miscellaneous fees (If paid in advance). That'll be good to go.
To know about the detailed pricing and other featured and facilities, check here.
The Vietnam currency is the Vietnamese Dongs (VND) and it starts with 1.000 VND (3.09 INR and 0.043 USD) currency note. The biggest currency is 500.000 VND (1542.97 INR and 21.51 USD). You can check the latest currency value on google. The first taxi we booked from the airport to our hotel cost us around 250.000 VND (~771 INR and 10 USD) which was pretty much okay because the distance was around 30 Km. Initially, we did not use any online cab service and instead booked Hanoi Airport Taxi. Being aware of the taxi scams all over Vietnam, we were pretty much cautious about the prices. Though 250.000 VND sound too much considering the transportation price we usually pay in India. Later we explored various transportation mediums and the price was almost similar so we were happy that we didn’t fall victim to the Taxi scam.
Currency conversion is a crucial part when one is moving across countries and has to figure out converting the local currency into the foreign currency. Thanks to GoNiyo Forex Card. One has the option to use their local bank account as a forex card but has to pay massive conversion fees in order to withdraw money from different countries. The following charges will be applicable:
Bank Conversion fee charges: A currency conversion fee is a charge levied by the credit or debit card payment processor or ATM network to convert one currency to another as part of a financial transaction. A foreign transaction fee is a charge levied by your credit or debit card issuer or ATM network on the same transaction. Niyo Global does not charge you anything for currency conversion. Additionally Niyo Global follows standard conversion rates provided by Visa. You can check the current rates here.
Forex Markup: This varies from 3–3.5% of the transaction. Cross currency markup charge- When the transaction currency is different from loaded on the card (for instance, if you have loaded the card with dollars and have to make a transaction in euros), you may be charged a ‘cross-currency markup’ of 3–3.5 % on such transactions. Niyo Global does not charge you anything for Forex Markup. It does that for free. You just have to load your local currency and it will automatically be converted to the currency of the country that you are visiting. Without any fees.
Transaction Fees: This is something that Niyo has no control over. This depends upon the bank that you are withdrawing money from. The good thing is the Transaction fee is always a flat fee. It will not charge you based on the amount you are withdrawing but the number of times you are withdrawing. I tried withdrawing money from almost 10 ATMs across Vietnam. Only 2–3 ATMs charged me extra money, which was only around 48.612 VND(150 INR and 3USD) per transaction.
I would highly recommend you go for this forex card by applying on its website. I got it delivered to me in one day with complete KYC.
Note: I was not carrying a USD or VND currency with me when I landed in Vietnam. I totally relied upon Niyo Global and it stood good to my expectations. Highly Recommended.
If you are still considering taking cash currency, try to avoid currency conversions at airports because conversion rates are really high there. If you are not able to get VND currency, then carry USD with you and you can do the conversion outside the airport. Most Vietnamese accept USD as the second currency. But try to avoid it. Try to use the local currency and get conversion from where you are getting the best conversion rates. You can check out bookmyforex.com for currency exchange.
Stay & Accommodation
Being a backpacker, I almost never pre-plan the trips - I research everything in detail and figure out it all on the go rather than explicit prolonged planning. Making an itinerary doesn't help as plans barely succeed, in my opinion. I like to live the moment as it presents itself. This was my first time in Vietnam so I had no idea how it will greet me. So, I was keeping my itinerary precisely “One day at a time”. I booked my day 1 stay at a hostel in Hanoi Old Quarter. I prefer to stay in a hostel rather than a private room or a luxury suite. Why? Because I like to socialize when I travel. I like to meet new people and it also saves a lot of bucks, A LOT. One major reason why staying at a hostel is the best place for a solo backpacker is that there is very little time that one might wanna spend at the hostel but there will be plenty of roaming around the streets and wandering around the new city that one is visiting. Also, getting to meet a lot of people coming from all around the world with different languages, customs, traditions, and values moulds one's thought process for the better.
I found this really great hostel named Republik Backpackers Hostel in the old quarter of Hanoi. You can check their website here. You can check their google reviews here which are from all over the world. I did my reservations through Booking.com and you can book them from here. The host and staff are really cool and friendly. The food is really good with free breakfast + unlimited beer (Terms). It costed me around 126.625 VND (~391 INR or 6 USD) per day.
It’s easy to find good accommodation pretty much everywhere in Vietnam and they are really really economic.
Note: Make your booking (at least for a day) before you leave India. Booking.com allows you to book without paying. People at the check-in counter at the airport might ask you about the itinerary and you must be confident enough to let them know that you have it all planned out.
Vietnamese is the most common language in Vietnam. The number of people who speak or understand English are close to none. You must get your hands on google translator. It can be downloaded for both android as well as iOS. Make sure to download the offline converter library for English and Vietnamese before you land in Vietnam because of internet connectivity. You probably don't want your communications in a foreign country to be hampered by the bad internet connection.
When you probably don't want to fall victim to taxi scams, getting from place to place safely is of the biggest significance. Don’t get into any cab without asking for the final price to reach the destination. Taxi drivers will come to pick up your luggage and try to put it into the taxi. Don’t rush into anything. Take your time. Use a translator to make everything clear before getting in the taxi.
You can simplify your life by using Grab. The app can be downloaded for both android and iOS. It really simplifies day-to-day transfers within the city. When travelling solo, one can book motorbikes which are a much more economical way of transport. Apart from cabs and motorbikes, one can also order food online through Grab. The thing I liked the most about Grab was that it allowed me to add my Forex Card as a payment method and I went cashless for my transfers as well. Grab does also have a call and chat interface just like Uber which allows calling the cab driver or texting the Cab driver within the app (In case you don't have a local sim and only rely on data packs). The messages sent within the app are translated as well between you and the driver, isn't that awesome?
The closest bus stop to Hanoi Old Quarter is My Dinh Bus Station. From here, local buses to nearby places like Ha Long, Hai Phong, Ninh Binh, and Sapa (Depending on the itinerary) can be found.
The only thing I didn’t like about Vietnam is the food. Being a vegetarian it was tough for me to find good vegetarian food in Vietnam. The food is mostly seafood and cheap. Fish, Prawns, Shrimp, Crabs, Pork, Beef, Chicken, Meat - you name it and it will be on your plate. The only vegetable food I could find was was rice with raw spinach soup. I also found plenty of other vegetarian shops, but it was way later in the trip. It’s not that there's no vegetarian food in Vietnam, you'll just have to look really hard to find it.
Must try the local beer. The most common local beer is Ha Noi, Saigon and Ha long. They are also cheap and costs around 15.000 -17.000 VND.
Protip: Use google maps. ;)
When you visit Ha long, you might want to explore the area on a cruise. You can ask your hotel staff to arrange a cruise for you. Otherwise, you can check others' experiences on Airbnb. Check this one. The Ha long experience is breathtaking - you must go for it if you plan to go to Vietnam.
While on the Cruise, You will experience spectacular views of Ha Long bay from shallow of the ocean, and rising sky-high limestone islands. Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site. Read more about it here. You will have the Kayaking Experience on monkey island and get the 360 degrees view of Ha Long Bay from Titop Island.
All in all, my Vietnam experience was great. Adding the other small but equally crucial things that I may have skipped in the detailed blog:
I absolutely loved how nice, helpful and punctual people in Vietnam are. If you expect a bus at 9:30, it will be there exactly at 9:30. You'll have to make sure that there are no delays to your upcoming plans. I had a good experience engaging with Vietnamese people. Would suggest you keep smiling and saying Thank yous along the way and people will gladly be ready to help you.
I didn’t see traffic police on the streets but I saw punctual people always having their helmets on and driving safely. No rash driving. I felt good, I felt safe.
Women in Vietnam are empowered and most of them are self-employed. I witnessed most of the women on the streets working to make a living. Though most could be seen running small businesses. I noticed that women are leading both big and small ventures. Cheers to that.
I didn’t see a beggar on the streets of Vietnam. There were vendors, there were sellers trying to make a living - but no beggars on the streets.
Open Street Bars and Public Smoking
I frequently noticed the open street bars during my trip to Vietnam, which lasted for over a week. There, drinking is far too prevalent, and department shops sell beer and alcohol. Vietnam has regulations forbidding both public drinking and smoking, but they are not adequately enforced, therefore it is not uncommon for people to do both there, unlike in India.
Beware of Scams
Despite being so pleasant and perfect, scams abound in Vietnam. Not to generalise, but there are certainly plenty.
Verify that you are booking the appropriate cab. Prices should be sufficiently negotiated with the sellers, particularly in tourist areas. They'll attempt to sell the items 4X the actual price. Count your currency properly before paying anyone. E.g. 500.000 and 50.000 looks almost the same. The currency seems almost similar. Be sure you don’t pay the high denomination instead of the lower one. Also, people will snatch money off your hands before you even know it or have the time to count it. Be smart. Beware of taxi frauds. Book the right taxi. Trust your instincts. Use Grab as much as possible. It’s safe and reliable.
Hope this will help you plan your next backpacking trip to Vietnam. If you have anything else to ask, let me know.
Happy Travelling :)