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It’s pretty common knowledge that Vietnam is a cheap country; it frequently shows up on lists of 10 countries you can visit for under $500 and is a well-known backpacker destination. But Vietnam is growing economically and prices are rising rapidly. For backpackers this has mostly affected the price of food and drink. I recently read a blog post that commented how a beer in a busy backpacker’s bar now costs 45,000vnd (over $2). To a first-time traveller this is going to seem pretty cheap (as indeed it is) but this is a massive increase in price on a beer in the same bar only 3 years ago and more expensive than neighbouring Cambodia or Laos. If you are in the middle of a RTW trip, every dollar counts, right? If you are paying $5 for a room, do you really want to pay almost half of that on one beer? Of course you don’t! So here’s my guide on how to keep Saigon cheap.
1. Don’t always drink at the biggest, busiest bar
In the backpacker district (mainly the roads Pham Ngu Lao, Bui Vien and De Tham) there are 3 large bars, all featured on prominent corners of the three aforementioned roads. They are all over 3 stories high, adorned with bright lights – or a large snorting bull for one of them – and play the loudest music. All three scream “Come here for a good time!” and if you happen to have missed them, then no doubt somebody will approach you on the street with the promise of ‘buy one get one free’ drink offers. Don’t be fooled, all of these bars are owned by the same people and they know how to make money. If you drink in these bars then your money will disappear pretty quickly. Check out the smaller bars that line the streets in between and you will find that you get a lot more for your money.
Even better: try a Bia Hoi where you can try locally brewed beer for a fraction of the price. Bia Hoi are often recognisable by the small plastic chairs and tables set outside on the street.
2. Find the expat rag (or an expat) and look for events with a free bar
One of the best things about Saigon is the expat scene so look for a copy of ‘The Word’ or ‘AsiaLife’ magazines which can be found in the bars in Pham Ngu Lao. In here you will find any special events that are going on in the city. If a bar is having an anniversary celebration, or a new restaurant is opening then you can often find a buffet and free drinks. We once drank free wine all night at the opening of a new gym! If you are planning to do this, then you should probably dress up a little so you don’t look out of place.
You can find The Word online too! http://www.wordhcmc.com/
3. Check the taxi metre and find the cheapest taxi company
In any country in SE Asia you should always check the fare chart before getting into a taxi (if there isn’t one then do not get into the taxi) so do a bit of maths and work out which one is the cheapest. You’ll be surprised by how much they can vary in price. Never get into a taxi that insists you pay in USD as paying in VND will always be cheaper. Whilst this may only save you a dollar each time, that’s an extra drink at night isn’t it?!
Another useful thing to know about taxis in Saigon is that the rip-off ones will always hang around outside major tourist spots and yell loudly as you walk past. The reputable companies will be those waiting quietly at the back. We only ever used MaiLinh, VinaSun, Vina or Petrolimex taxis.
Of course, if you really want to save money you should ditch the taxi altogether, the majority of Saigon’s sights are in District 1 and can be walked to from the cheap hostels in the backpacker district. If you can cope with the heat, traffic and bad pavements then try walking around the city!
4. Don’t take a XeOm if you are more than one person
If you are travelling alone then a XeOm, or motorcycle taxi, will be cheaper than a standard taxi. Generally they are about half the price of a taxi: this will be even cheaper if you have good negotiation skills or find a regular driver. If you are in a group of 2 or more people then it will be cheaper to get a large taxi and split the cost.
5. Buy food in the backpacker area or from street stalls
The cheapest restaurants are to be found on the three roads mentioned earlier or on the street stalls. If you opt for the street stalls then buy from places that seem to be busy, the busier the better and try to avoid meat or seafood that has been out in the sun all day.
6. Don’t buy souvenirs from Ben Thanh market
Ben Thanh market is an iconic feature of Saigon and it is worth a look around but it is much more expensive than the streets around it. You will find the same products much cheaper on the streets along Le Loi and at the Tax Centre just a stone’s throw away. Read my post about Ben Thanh market on Cheapo Air here.
Have you been to Saigon, do you have any tips to share? I’d love to hear them! Please leave a comment below.
Very informative! 🙂
If you’re on a budget in Saigon, avoid the Malls such as Vincom ad pretty much any of the shops and cafes on Dong Khoi! Its the ‘high end’ part of town and the sky high rents paid on there ensure that they’re not the lowest prices in town.
You’re right about Dong Khoi – I rarely ever went there!! Although Jaspa’s ‘Buy one get one free’ pizza was used very often!!!
Awesome post Elaine 🙂 Thanks for this… I’ll be sharing it around starting tomorrow.
These are great tips. My experience on taxis was only take a taxi that was owned and operated by one of the notable hotels (this is especially true in Hanoi). Most of the fares should be negotiated up front, as many of the meters are driver-operated (he’ll click the meter with his foot and you’ll be amazed at how quickly the fare rises). Also, if you’re going to have anything stronger than beer, be sure to get it in a *nice* place like a good restaurant or hotel, the bootleg, knockoff liquor market is huge there, and a number of watering holes sell “top shelf” spirits of dubious origin and authenticity.
Yes, taxis in Vietnam can be a bit of a minefield. The ones named in the blog are very trustworthy but there are rip-off’s that are very similar: VinaSum instead of VinaSun and ML instead of MaiLinh – they even copy the colour, design and logo so you have to be really careful. Unfortunately many things in the country are bootleg; the most dangerous one we came across was suncream. It looked exactly like a bottle of Nivea Factor 50 so my friend used it when he went Kitesurfing but it was not suncream and offered him absolutely no protection at all – he was red and blistered for weeks!
Great post Elaine. I’d also mention the taxi’s at the airport as they are a sure way of parting with significant amounts of money as soon as you arrive.
If you are arriving at the International Airport, come out of arrivals and turn left. Wave off the hoards of men offering you a taxi for the “bargain price” of about 700,000 VND and go to the taxi queue at the far left of the concourse. Only get in the recommended taxi’s (Mai Linh, Vinasun, Vina or Petrolimex) – their representatives are usually there to help. A taxi to down town or backpackers areas should cost no more than about 200,000 VND at the time of writing.
I’ve had friends who have been pleased that they got a taxi at the airport and only paid $50 for the whole trip “and that included the rush hour surcharge”!! There is no rush hour surcharge and the whole trip should cost less than $10. I didn’t dare tell them that though…
Thanks for the comment, Bee – the airport doesn’t really give a visitor the best introduction to Vietnam, does it? In Vietnam, it is true that the louder a taxi driver shouts at you and the more he hassles you, the more likely it is that he will rip-you off. I have never been in a reputable taxi in Vietnam where the driver has yelled at me to get my business. 200,000vnd to get from airport to Pham Ngu Lao these days? Wow! That just shows how much prices have increased even in a year!!!
I wish you’d written this about a month ago before we were in Saigon! We did have trouble scouting out the cheaper options. Vietnam didn’t, in general, appear to be a particularly cheap country. The old economy is driving prices up at a crazy rate!
Sorry! Yes it is surprising how much prices have gone up since I first lived there. Initially, I could go into a very nice restaurant and get a good meal for around 100,000vnd (about $5), food in the backpacker region would rarely cost more than 30,000vnd ($1.50). Within a year those prices had doubled.
In ‘Go2’, the bar I mentioned in the post, you could once buy a bottle of Vodka for 200,000vnd ($10) which then rose to 1,000,000 (almost $50). Again, this was within a year or two.
Great tips! We are definitely thrifty when we travel and these tips can really be applied to any city!
True! I’m pleased you found them helpful 🙂
Fantastic tips! Looking forward to putting these to use when we finally make it to Saigon.
I am so glad that I found this. I’m going to Saigon in a couple of weeks, and I was already not looking forward to the journey from the airport to District 1. This has helped in that regard. Also, funny how fast prices tend to raise huh? Guess I should be tweaking my Vietnam budget now. Very informative post. Thanks!
I’ve been in Ho Chi Minh on a no-frills budget for 2 months now, and I can totally recommend going by bus! It’s super-cheap, and if you take some time to understand the system, it’s really easy and proficient. One fare is 4000 Dong, and will usually get you anywhere in the city, assuming you start out at Pham Ngu Lao, which is a 5 minute walk from Ben Thanh Bus Station, where you can also get an extensive bus map for free (inside a small cabin that looks like a newspaper stand, right on the opposite side of the Ben Thanh Market roundabout, on the Le Loi Exit side, where people are crowding ….). Try to have small change in hand, both coins and bills will do. And make sure to check when the last bus will go, some only go until 18.00 or something, it says on the bus stop signs and on the back of the map.
Lotte Mart is always an option if you need to buy something, a 24 box of BGI Bia runs at roughly 170k Dong, and a nourishing and tasty 3 Mien Soup is only 2900 Dong (if you have the facilities to boil water).
Since it’s also really hard to find replacements for your broken tools, I was really happy to have found the tool market on Yersin Street 142 (10 minutes from Ben Thanh) … bring nerves of steel, though, and just imagine yourself to be in Blade Runner when you do business with the shopkeepers (next door, you can also find backpacks, nylon kits, and repair tools for your travel kit).
Once you venture there, you’ll also want to check out 104 Yersin, DanSinh Market, if you like haggling and bartering.
One thing I found almost impossible to find here is Bubble Wrap; after literally DAYS of searching, I found it 53D Nguyen Du, which is 2 minutes from the post office and Notre Dame. They also sell all sorts of cardboard, boxes, styrofoam and such (prices are comparatively high, though).
On a sidenote, I like the outlying regions much better than the tourist center, people are a lot friendlier, more helpful, and authentic there, and they breathe much more of the spirit which I expected to find here. People might touch or pinch you there, though; it’s considered to bring good luck to touch a round-eye. 😀
And hey! Support the Cyclo!
I commend you for braving the Saigon bus system, it always looked like a bit of a death trap to me 🙂 I can see that using public transport would save quite a bit of cash though! I can’t wait to come back and visit Saigon once they get the metro system running, although I will wait a year or two to give them time to iron out all the kinks (like what happens in rainy season!)
Thanks for dropping by!