Whether you choose to live like royalty or scrimp on a shoestring in Vietnam, you’re going to have a memorable trip.

Once you’ve covered the cost of getting here, you can explore for less than US$40 a day, staying in dorms and eating pho (noodle soup) and banh mi (baguette sandwiches), or go all-out for heritage hotels, adventure tours and banquet dining.

Either way, you’ll get your fill of fabulous food, colorful cities, complex cultures and landscapes plucked straight from a medieval woodcut, in one of Asia’s most captivating corners.

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The important thing to remember is that how much you spend is largely within your own control. If you’re happy with a dorm bed, bus travel and street food dinners, the basic costs of living in Vietnam will not make a massive dent in your wallet.

However, if you crave creature comforts, organized activities and top-end dining – or hire a car and driver to get around – your costs will climb steeply. Here are our top tips for exploring Vietnam on a budget.

Time your trip right

Vietnam gets a soaking from the southwest monsoon from May to September and the northeast monsoon from October to April, making this a highly seasonal destination. Flight and accommodation prices soar when the weather is good, and drop when the skies open, but the climate varies as you move around the country – you can usually find somewhere to explore even at the height of the rainy season.

Flight prices peak during July and August, coinciding with the warmest weather on the central coast. There’s another peak from December to March when many visitors head to Phu Quoc island and the hiking trails of the northwest. Watch for more price spikes associated with local holidays such as Reunification Day on 30 April, International Workers’ Day on 1 May and the Tet lunar new year celebrations in January or February, when it can feel like the whole country is on the move.

Fly into Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) rather than Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) has the biggest and busiest airport in the country, so flying here is often cheaper than flying into Hanoi in the north, with lots of competition between airlines. However, remember that living costs in HCMC tend to be higher than in Hanoi. Any money you save can quickly be eaten up if you loiter too long in the former Saigon, so plan your itinerary accordingly.

A winding switchback road in the lush green Ha Giang province in Vietnam
Arrive in Vietnam via an overland route through one of its neighbors © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Come into Vietnam the back way

You don’t need to fly directly to Vietnam – the country has easy land border crossings with Laos, Cambodia and China. There are often cheap flight deals to smaller Chinese cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen, with connections to northern Vietnam by bus or train via Nanning, crossing the border at Lang Son.

If you’d rather come in from the south, consider flying into Thailand and traveling overland across Laos or Cambodia – the route from Bangkok to Phnom Penh and on to HCMC is a backpacker favorite.

Don’t linger too long in major cities

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are significantly more expensive than other parts of the country, so use your sightseeing time strategically – prioritizing essential sights and street food – then move on to calmer corners that won’t put such a squeeze on your budget.

Of course, one reason Vietnam’s twin megacities are so expensive is the sheer variety of things to see, do, and eat. If you can resist the temptation to take in everything, it’s still possible to enjoy Hanoi and HCMC on a modest budget.

Take the "open tour" bus

You won’t get a lot of cultural immersion on an "open tour" tourist bus, but taking the road more traveled can save you time – and time, as every traveler knows, is money. Fares tend to be higher than for ordinary buses, but you’ll know exactly what you are getting and you won’t have to bargain to pay the correct fare.

Services start and finish in town rather than at the bus stand, saving you a taxi fare at either end of the trip, and many long-distance routes run overnight, saving you the price of a hotel room. You’ll also cut out the minor stops that can slow long-distance bus travel to a crawl.

A man watching TV on a long distance sleeper bus in Asia
Save money on accommodation by booking a flat berth and traveling overnight © Robert Podlaski / Shutterstock

Travel overnight

Budget flights can be very affordable in Vietnam, but you’ll have to balance any money you save against the carbon cost. A better way to save is to travel overnight. For longer trips, such as the journey from Hanoi or HCMC to Hoi An or Nha Trang, take a sleeper bus or train and save the cost of a night’s accommodation, without eating into your valuable daylight sightseeing time. Reclining seats and fully flat berths are available on both trains and buses.

Make the most of hostels

Hostels were once rare in Vietnam, but these days, they’re popping up everywhere, including sleek flashpacker hangouts such as Hanoi’s Nexy Hostel and HCMC’s Hideout Hostel. You’ll even find hostels with on-site bars, restaurants and swimming pools. Some hostels offer private rooms as well as dorms, but if you crave your own space, you may find cheaper private rooms at ordinary budget hotels.

Homestay in the hills

There are plenty of hotels in Vietnam’s emerald hills, but you can save a few dong, and have a more authentic experience into the bargain, by staying in village homestays. In the Mekong Delta, the Central Highlands, the Cham Islands and away from the crowds in quieter corners of the northwest such as Mai Chau, Ba Be and Moc Chau, you can get a simple but comfortable room and a deep immersion into local life for a modest price, often with blistering home cooking as part of the package.

Eat on the street

Street food is the lifeblood of Asia and Vietnam is no exception. For a price you’ll hardly feel in your hip pocket, you can feast on everything from pho soup, banh mi sandwiches, banh xeo pancakes, bun cha (grilled pork with vermicelli noodles), to the tongue-twirling flavors of banana flower salad and bo la lot – skewers of beef grilled in betel leaves.

At lunchtime and in the evening, street eateries set out plastic tables and chairs on the pavement, so you’ll have somewhere to perch while you munch – night markets and busy transport hubs offer the richest pickings.

Young asian couple sightseeing in a local market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Save money by shopping at markets and street food stalls © Klaud9 / Getty Images

Order on the app

Another cheap way to eat is to order lunch or dinner on a local food app. Deliveries generally cost less than eat-in dining at the same restaurants, and meals arrive as fast as your motorcycle delivery rider can make it through the traffic. Using the Grab Food, Shopee and BAEMIN apps (amongst others), you can pay using your phone and pick up at the door to your hotel or hostel. Just set the app language to English and ask the receptionist for recommendations of the best dishes to order and the best places to order them from.

Watch out for "optional" extras

Some swankier-looking restaurants and hotels in Vietnam will shower you with extras – tissues, bottled water, moist towels, peanuts – but don’t assume that all these items are complimentary. Often, they’ll be added to your bill, at a premium price. Check first, to avoid a surprise later.

Find cheaper adventures

Vietnam is one giant playground for adventurers, but organized tours and adventure activities can eat up your travel funds. For cheaper thrills and spills, bring your own snorkeling gear, use public ferries rather than boat tours, and rent a bike, motorcycle or scooter to explore under your steam rather than taking a tour.

If you’re here to hike, seek out trekking routes that you can follow without joining an organized hike, such as the trails on Cat Ba Island or walks to the minority villages near Bac Ha in the far northwest. Many homestays can arrange an inexpensive guide for local exploring – it’s usually cheaper than booking an agency tour and it funnels money directly into the local economy.

Prioritize the free sights

Entry fees to Vietnam’s excellent museums – which often take an unflinchingly honest look at the history of the American War – are not excessive, but many of the country’s fascinating pagodas, temples and cathedrals are completely free to visit, and there’s no charge for checking out Vietnam’s striking colonial-era architecture from outside.

For temples, take your pick from the heirloom monuments of Hanoi, Hue and HCMC or modern marvels such as Chua Bai Dinh near Ninh Binh. For relics of French colonial rule, concentrate on HCMC, Dalat and Hanoi. Markets are always free, so get your fill of brilliant bazaars such as Ben Than Market in HCMC and Dong Xuan Market in Hanoi.

Hone your bargaining skills

Some travelers complain about being overcharged in Vietnam but bargaining is normal here – it's okay to bring your best haggling game. Remember to treat it as a game, not something to get angry about – if you think the price is too high, come back with a lower counteroffer and see how the seller responds. With a bit of give and take, you should reach a price that is mutually acceptable.

Before taking public transport or hailing a taxi or rickshaw, ask your hotel or guesthouse about the price to get a sense of what you should be paying. Never let the haggling process become confrontational – everyone has a right to make a living, and you may be arguing over a tiny sum of money that makes a bigger difference to the vendor than to you.

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Save on downtown transport

Metered taxis in Vietnam are very affordable by global standards. Unfortunately, some drivers in tourist areas refuse to use the meter, and we hear regular stories of meters being rigged to ramp up fares. If you take cabs, rides booked through the Grab app tend to be cheaper than taxis hailed in the street.

Even if you’re paying the right fare, costs for taxi travel can quickly mount up, so save money by exploring on foot, renting a bicycle, or taking local buses (just watch out for pickpockets on crowded buses at busy times).

Drink bia hoi

A big night out in the hip bars of Hanoi or HCMC can take a big bite out of your travel budget, as well as leaving you with a monster hangover. Choose an evening on the bia hoi – Vietnam’s gently alcoholic, homemade draft beer – and you may be able to avoid both of these inconveniences.

Costing significantly less than bottled beer, this agreeable brew is normally quaffed at plastic stools on street corners, often with some light eats to keep the conversation flowing. Track it down everywhere from Dien Bien Phu to Cat Ba Island, but particularly in Hanoi.

Daily costs in Vietnam

  • Hostel dorm bed: US$5-10
  • Basic room for two: US$10–20
  • Village homestay: US$5–20
  • Room at a beach resort: from US$80
  • A local bus ticket: from US$1
  • A cup of ca phe (drip coffee): US$0.70
  • A banh mi sandwich: from US$0.70
  • A sit-down dinner for two: US$15
  • A bottle of beer in a bar: US$1
  • A glass of bia hoi (local beer): from US$0.30
  • Average daily cost: US$40–70

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