Travelling on a budget can be difficult, but it is not impossible. In January of this year, I took a 9 day trip to Vietnam and had the time of my life, spending under $500 while I was there. With only 9 days at my disposal, I made the decision to visit fewer places, and explore them well. I find this gives you a much better experience of a country, than moving to a new city every two days. I chose Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) as my base. I spent a total of 5 days there, 3 days in the nearby beach town of Mui Ne, and took a one-day trip up the Mekong Delta. Here's my money saving advice based on this experience.
Prioritize your entertainment
For me, it was important that I got to attend a cooking class in Vietnam. I actually did two cooking classes; one costing $42 and the other $39. Already spending $81 off the bat, I knew I was going to have to be creative in cutting costs when it came to other forms of entertainment, and would have to forego other activities like cocktails in the famous Bitexco Tower. The point is, if there is an expensive activity you really want to do – it is not impossible to work it into your budget, you'll just have to creatively cut costs elsewhere.
Aside from the cooking classes, I spent just under $30 on entertainment and sight-seeing for this trip. The main way I was able to do this was by booking tours with a wonderful organization called Saigon Free Walking Tours, where young Vietnamese tourism students take you on various sightseeing trips. There are some costs involved, but these are minimal. Most tours require you to pay between $3 -$5 as a contribution for motorbike gas, and you are expected to pay your own entrance to museums. I did 4 out of the 6 tours offered by Saigon Free Walking Tours, and had wonderful experiences each time. It also helps to have a local there for haggling should you want to buy something along the way!
Get the most out of your accommodations
First of all, if you're on a budget trip, definitely opt for a shared room in a hostel since this is usually the cheapest option. I was going to be staying in Ho Chi Minh City for 6 out of 9 nights, so I scoured the internet for hostels with good reviews. For $10 a night, I stayed at the Saigon Inn in Ward 1. This included breakfast, and I am not talking about the "here's some bread, peanut butter and jelly, make your own sandwich" kind of breakfast I have been offered before while staying at a hostel. Here, you are presented with a menu of 39 full breakfast options, and as much fresh fruit you can possibly eat (or stuff in your purse). With breakfast already taken care of, I budgeted just $10 a day for my other meals and ate like a queen!
The second way you can get the most out of your hostel is by choosing one in a location close to your points of interest. This may seem obvious, but so often people are blinded by the price that they don't consider how much taxis will cost to get them from their hostel to the tourist sites. Staying in a central location, the only time I ever used taxis was to and from the airport. Making it a point to walk instead of taking a taxi or a tuk tuk not only saves you money, but it allows for you to explore the city in a really organic way.
After 5 days in HCMC (well, one was spent in the Mekong Delta), I headed 4 hours out of HCMC to the coastal town of Mui Ne. Travelling on local buses, I spent just $20 round trip. I stayed 3 nights at a beach resort, paying a total of $5 for my accommodation. LongSong Mui Ne offers tents on the beach, equipped with full bedding for $2 a night. I was lucky to be staying there on a night where they had tents priced at $1 as part of a promotion.
Be money savvy
The chief reason you are likely to get ripped off in a foreign country is that you are not familiar with the currency and its purchasing power. With the USD comparatively strong to the Vietnamese Dong, you can easily overpay for goods and services without even realising it! The best way to safeguard against this is to do a bit of research beforehand. Ask the manager of your hostel how much it should cost you to get there from the airport. Keep this set amount aside in an envelope. Taxis at the airport will try to quote you an outrageous sum, but when I told the taxi driver that the local hostel owner said it would cost at most VND 200 000, (and that I therefore only had the amount of money available) he was happy to let me pay the 'local rate'.
When it comes to buying souvenirs and gifts, my suggestion would be to shop around. There is nothing worse than spending your money on something, only to see it selling for less two shops down the road! If you are going to be shopping in the famous Ben Thahn market, you are bound to see a lot of repetition when it comes to items –do not be afraid to shop around and haggle for a lower price. Shop owners will often mark-up their prices by more than 50%, and they are expecting you to negotiate.
Trip total: $430 for accommodations, dining, local travel, and shopping. Chuyên đi an toan!