Travelling doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, you can maximize your stay in any Southeast Asian (SEA) country for days with a budget of P15,000 – P20,000 (US$ 300-500). Due to some people who are asking me to write some “tips” about my trip to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) or HCM for brevity, Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia, I organized the things that I learned from my first backpacking experience alone. Hopefully the following information will enable you to save money while enjoying your vacation:
I. AIR FARE To start off your trip, you have to book you flight. Budget airlines like Cebu Pacific and Air Asia can help you save money. The all-year round discounted round-trip fare can be as low as P7,000-P8,000 (US$200). Piso fares (as in 1 Peso) can cost around P5,000 for your round-trip tickets.
#BackpackerTip: If you want to book a piso fare flight, usually, both Cebu Pacific and Air Asia commences the the offer every end of the month.
There are numerous hotels and transient inns in both HCM and Siem Reap. If you want to save discounts in your hotel, you can have a prior book through agoda.com or booking.com, these websites also offer discounts and promos. On the other hand, if you prefer to look for one while you’re already in the aforementioned cities you have to go to the following locations to get an affordable hotel:
A) Ho Chi Minh City – Pam Ngu Lao Street is the famous backpackers area around the metropolis. If you’r travelling on a budget, there are transient/dormitory-type hotels in this areas which costs at US$5-6. Private hotel rooms in the city costs from US$20-$50/night so it really depends on how you will budget your money. I stayed in Thuy Tien Hotel which had six double beds which can accommodate 12 people. It is located in the latter part of Pham Ngu Lao if you came from the direction of Ben Thanh Market. During my one night stay there, I was with one American Backpacker. The same hotel has private rooms which costs around US$20.
Signboard in Thuy Tien Hotel.
Transients like these will compel you to communicate with your roommate which will also help you make friends with your fellow backpackers. However, your safety and privacy is very much uncertain since the room is being shared by various people. I will really not suggest this type of hotel for ladies who are travelling alone, however, if you’re travelling in bulk, this is can be a fun experience.
#BackpackerTip: Generally, establishments in the city (including hotels) close at midnight save for some convenience stores and a few drinking hubs. So make sure to full your tummy before heading back to the hotel.
During my second night, I stayed in Time Door Hotel in Le Thanh Ton Street, its a couple of blocks away from Bhenh Thanh Market, HCM’s main shopping area. The room rate costs around 500,000-600,000 Vietnamese Dong or VD for brevity. (Note: I’ll discuss the currency later on) It roughly costs around US$ 25.
View from Time Door Hotel’s Room.
On my last night in Vietnam, I stayed in Hoang Dung hotel. It’s located in one of the alleys in Pham Ngu Lao Street. The room rate only costs around 300,000 VD. There are various hotels on HCM that will suit your budget and taste. Just make sure that you will check in around Pham Ngu Lao or Bhenh Tanh Area since most places like money changer, shopping spots, food/drinking hubs are in this area.
#BackPackerTip: Some hotels and shopping establishments in HCM try to offer you a lower rate once you attempt to leave.
B) Siem Reap’s Pub Street – is the backpackers area of Siem Reap Cambodia although the street in itself has no hotels. The accommodations are still within the area. Room rates are almost the same with HCM. I haven’t encountered a dormitory-type of hotel though. The average fees range from US$20-50.
The facade of Damnak Riverside Guesthouse.
I stayed in Damnak Riverside Guesthouse which costs US$25 with three beds in it which is suited for three pax. There’s also a bath tub and a swimming pool in the hotel plus free breakfast. All in all, it was worth it. I
II. CURRENCY AND ITS USAGE
1) Vietnamese Dong – roughly US$ 1 = VD 21,000 Don’t change your money in the airport. During my trip, I exchanged US$100 in NAIA 3 (Philippine Airport) which was only converted to VD 18,000 per US$1. To give you an idea, a chupa chups lollipop costs VD 1,500.
#BackpackerTip: Some locals will attempt to get your money once you are paying. They will tell you that they will help you in computing the payment. So save some Vietnamese Dong away from your pocket which you can pay directly. This will help you secure your finances.
2) Cambodian Riel – roughly US$1 = KHR (Cambodian Riel) 4,000 Most if not all establishments in Siem Reap receive and prefer US Dollars as payment. For instance, when you tour the famous temples, they only accept dollar payments and not Riel so save US Dollars as much as possible. It will also help you if you have some Riel with you since some locals use it for payment. For example, if a water costs $1.5 then you paid $5 they will give you change of both a dollar and riel.
Strolling around can be good to your health and pocket but sometimes the scorching heat of the sun and busy streets will require you to use another mode of transportation.
A) Ho Chi Minh is a very busy city. However, rather than automobiles, the city is filled with motorcycles. So if you know how to use one, you can rent motorbikes around Pham Ngu Lao street. However, I am not certain with the price range.
Taxis – if you want to use a cab, choose Vinasun or Mai Linh taxis, they use meters with identification cards of the drivers. In case they will ask for more or any mishap occurs, you can report them to their employers.
Bus – the standard rates for bus (as far as I know, regardless of the length of your travel) costs VD 5,000-6000. You just have to check the routes in the bus terminal or in maps which can be purchased throughout the city.
Pedicab/Bicycle taxi – I have a very bad experience with this one. They will try to lure you by offering a cheap price to travel around the city. Please don’t try it anymore. My driver, named Flower, said that it will only cost VD 15,000 but it turned out that he was asking for a whooping VD 1, 500, 000 Million or $US25. Mind you, they will ask for payment in each hour that you ride the vehicle. I highly discourage you to entertain their offers.
This is a sample of the pedicab/bicycle taxi that I’m referring to. I wasn’t able to take a picture of my driver.
Motorbikes for ride – You can also hitch a motorbike which is also cheap. I tried it once. From Pham Ngu Lao Street to Vincom Center Mall, roughly one kilometer of travel, the fee will cost you VD 20,000. Not bad! But you have to give the payment early on to avoid exorbitant prices.
B) Siem Reap has no mobile taxis. The common mode of transportation for backpackers are tuk tuk taxis (in the Philippines, it’s like tricycles). the fees vary from one place to another. For example, from Mekong Bus Terminal to Pub Street, the fee costs $4. If you will traverse the temples with the aid of a tuk tuk, it will cost $15-$30 depending on the locations that you want to see. I have a reliable tuk tuk driver that recommend if you want to. You can just PM me since I forgot his calling card at home. Bicycles for rent – I saw a couple of backpackers who used bicycle to transport around the city. However, I haven’t tried personally so I can’t recommend or attest to any fact about it.
A) In HCM, based on my observation, the local food place is interesting. Vietnamese people are fond of noodles so I guess it’s a must-try in the city. I actually tried two restaurants (which are, by the way, located side by side on the right side of Ben Thanh Market) namely: Pho 2000 and Pho 24. Both of these food establishments offer reasonable price and good food. Pho is a Vietnamese term for their noodle soup.
If you’re a Filipino, whose taste buds are not into adventure, there’s a Jollibee (local Filipino fast food chain) in Ho Chi Minh which will cater to you. Mcdonald’s is also present at the edge of Pham Ngu Lao. By the way, they offer pork hamburger which I also tried. KFC is also present in the city. While a local food chain named Lotteria can also be an alternative for you.
At night time, there’s a chain of cheap food stalls surrounding Ben Thanh market. It opens once the night market commences. Although I’m not sure if it’s open everyday. We went there on a Sunday evening and there was a swarm of people enjoying their dinner.
#BackpackerTip: Former US President Bill Clinton dined at Pho 2000.
B) Cambodia, by contrast, offers more exotic cuisine. They have various insect delicacies that are available on the street. Also, around pub street, the famous happy pizza (since it has marijuana in it) flocks tourists in the area. However, I wasn’t able to try any of these due to time constraint. In addition, marijuana is prohibited in the Philippines so I didn’t dare to try it.
The lunch that I had in Cambodia, after visiting Angkor Wat; it costs US$5.
VI. THINGS TO DO
A) If you like history, war facts and culture HCM will definitely satisfy your nerdy yearnings. Personally, I went to the Modern Art Museum, Ho Chi Minh Museum, Saigon Notre Dam Basilica, Independence Palace, Saigon Central Post Office and Cu Chi Tunnel. The first five destinations that I’ve mentioned are inside the city so you can check everything in just a day. However, I wasn’t able to go to the War Remnants Museum, which I think, is a must-visit destination too. Cu Chi Tunnel, on the other hand, requires about 2-3 hours of bus ride from HCM. The Modern Art Museum is just a street away from Ben Thanh Market. It has beautiful building and art galleries inside. The entrance fee costs around VD 10,000. A cheap way to titillate your artistic side.
At the modern Art Museum.
Ho Chi Minh Museum is a couple of streets away from Vincom Center Mall. It has a cafeteria inside in case you want to dine. They also charge VD 10,000/pax as entrance fee.
Notre Dam Basilica showcases the western influence to Vietnam. It’s one of the few structures which are devoted to the followers of Christianity since Vietnam is predominantly a Buddhist country. It’s a beautiful structure inside the city.
Adjacent to the Basilica is the Saigon Central Post Office, which happened to be designed by French Architect Gustav Eiffel (yes, the man behind Eiffel Tower) so I think it’s res ipsa loquitur.
As for the Independence Palace, it will take you a 5-10 minute walk from Notre Dam Basilica. A fee of VD 10,000 is also required. This place was once the dwelling of the former French Governor who ruled Vietnam. The place is rich with historical facts about the evolution of Vietnam as a nation. It’s also worth it to go here.
Lastly, the historic Cu Chi Tunnel serves as mute witness of the US-Vietnam war (1950s-70s). The war strategies and actual place where the Vietnamese people used against the Americans can be visited and experienced in the Cu Chi Complex. I booked a trip in a travel agency in Pham Ngu Lao which included a half-day tour with a matching tour guide. There’s also a firing range in Cu chi which you can try for a fee. At the end of the errand, a boiled sweet potato snack and hot tea will be given to all visitors.
#BackpackerTip: Hotels and some travel agencies arrange trips to common tourist spots. Most of them are highly credible and organized so might as well book it there to save you time and money.
B. For Siem Reap, your trip will not be complete if you will not visit the world’s largest religious monument and UNESCO world heritage site – Angkor Wat. a tour in various ruins will also complete your trip here like Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Phrom (where the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie was filmed). Various nature trips and adventures are also available. You can book a trip in travel agents along pub street, too!
A) As I discussed earlier, the Ben Thanh Market is converted into a night market (ala tiangge in Filipino context) at around 7:00PM. There are several stalls which sell clothes and different souvenirs. For shopaholics, this place can be a haven. There are a lot of goods that you can choose from. Aside from the night market, the ideal place to purchase goods is no less than the Saigon Square. It’s like the counterpart of 168 Mall in the Philippines. There are a lot of items (mostly clothes) that you can choose from. The price are utterly cheap too.
B) In Siem Reap, you can buy goods around pub street. Like HCM, they have a night market which opens at around 6:00 PM. You can buy a lot of goods here too.
#BackpackerTip: In order to save money, you can ask for discount (or tawad in Filipino). another technique that I learned: when they gave you the price either ask for the half of it or leave, most probably they will give in especially if you are the first customer for the night. It worked for both HCM and Siem Reap! Be cautious though since vendors tend to heckle (yes, my arm was literally grabbed) once you refrain from buying. In addition, if you have Caucasian features, they tend to bill you higher which is weird.
VIII. TRAVELLING FROM HCM TO PNOM PENH (CAMBODIA’S CAPITAL) OR SIEM REAP (WHERE ANGKOR WAT IS LOCATED)
I booked a trip from the travel agent of Hoang Dung Hotel. You can either sail in a boat or traverse via bus to go to Cambodia. The former includes a tour so if you just want to go to Cambodia, I suggest you take the latter. There are various bus companies that offer transportation to Cambodia, according to travel agents (I asked several of them), the best is Mekong Bus so I decided to follow their suggestion. Although the rate of Mekong is a bit higher, I think it’s worth it. The discrepancy between Mekong and other bus companies is between 2-3 dollars. In Vietnamese Dong, it’s around 500,000. According to the travel agent and based on my experience, Mekong will took less time in stop overs. It was indeed true. There will only be three breaks so use your time efficiently. There’s a toilet inside the bus so if you feel like urinating, vomiting or even defecating, you can do so. We left the city at around 7:00AM (Note: If you will go straight to Siem Reap there’s only one trip which will leave at 6:45 AM). The trip from HCM to the borderline of Vietnam and Cambodia will take around three hours. According to the signage in Cambodia, it’s 80 kilometers. There, expect 1-2 hours of waiting since the passports of passengers (and for some nationalities, visa) will be checked. Also, some locals are exchanging money in the waiting area. I highly discourage you to do this unless you have a lot of reserved money. Then we had our lunch in a small restaurant in Cambodia. At approximately 12:00 NN we left the restaurant and went straight to Pnom Penh.
Snack in the bus ride. There will be two snacks if you will go to Siem Reap. One in the morning, the other will be given after you leave Pnom Penh.
We arrived in Cambodia’s Capital at around 5:00 PM. All the passengers who are bound to Siem Reap were just transferred to another bus and we immediately left the city. The bumpy ride will commence after Pnom Penh. Since it’s almost night time, it’s a bit creepy because there are no street lights in some rural areas of Cambodia. In addition, the roads are still in the process of improvement. Our last stop before reaching our destination was at around 7:00PM in a Cambodian province wherein most of the passengers had their supper. In sum, I arrived in Siem Reap at 10:30PM. Mekong Bus has affiliate tuk tuk drivers which will provide you reasonable rates to pub street or your respective hotels. It took me 16 hours from HCM, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia. At this rate, according to our tour guide, it’s already fast. Since one of the parts that you have to hurdle when you will travel to these cities is the Mekong River. The tour guide said that during festivities, it will take 6 hours before a bus can transfer through boat. fortunately, we didn’t experience that.
IX. BACKPACKING EXPERIENCE TESTIMONY Backpacking is indeed a great way to discover other cultures and places. I really suggest that we should all do it. It will help us open our minds to different perspectives and experiences. Above all, it doesn’t have to be pricey and stressful. As St. Augustine of Hippo puts it:
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
Hopefully, you will backpacking soon, too! Better yet, let’s travel together. See you in my next trip!