What do you do when you save a bunch of money and retire at 33? Spend months at a time traveling the world of course!
This summer we spent eight weeks exploring the temples, palaces, and waterways of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand in Southeast Asia.
In today’s article, we cover the first segment of the trip where we visited two cities in Vietnam. After a looooong flight from the East Coast of the USA, we landed in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, where we stayed for eight nights. Then we visited Can Tho, Vietnam in the Mekong River Delta region for a three night stay. After leaving the Mekong Delta, we headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia (with a short one night pit stop in Ho Chi Minh City en route).
How to spend eight days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City (also known as HCMC and Saigon) was our first main stop during our eight week trip through Southeast Asia. Our first priority was to recover from the jet lag that comes with shifting the clock eleven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. We were fortunate to arrive in Ho Chi Minh City in the evening so we adjusted to the new time zone rather quickly.
After taking a full day of rest upon arrival, we spent the next week seeing much of the city including some urban parks, the waterfront, the War Remnants Museum, the Independence Palace, several temples and markets, and the zoo.
Video of the crazy traffic:
Saigon Zoo And Botanical Garden
The reviews of the city’s zoo were somewhat negative so we almost skipped it. As it turns out, it was a compact but interesting zoo! It’s only a couple of dollars for admission so it’s worth a look even if you end up disliking it. The collection of tropical reptiles was worth the admission fee alone.
And we got to see several elephants and giraffes up close!
War Remnants Museum
In the War Remnants Museum we got a good sense of how the Vietnamese government wants its people to view the Vietnam War. It was heavily anti-American and one sided. I don’t know if the South Vietnamese people hold the same view of America’s role in the war as the official record presented by the government in this museum.
Regardless, the propaganda-like nature of the museum was a great exhibit of the current political climate in Vietnam. I got the feeling it was best to not ask too many pointed questions. I also avoided posting anything negative about Vietnam while in the country as they have locked up their own countrymen for being critical of the government.
Temples, Markets, and Malls
The temples and markets of Vietnam are a must-see for every tourist. We found the temples to be much smaller and a different style than the temples we subsequently toured in Cambodia and Thailand.
We visited the Dan Sinh Market in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The main draws to this market are the Vietnam War relics for sale. Many items appeared to be cheap Chinese-made reproductions but other items looked like the real deal.
After walking around all morning, the Vincom Center shopping mall was a nice relief from the heat. The main feature that impressed me was the sheer scale of the vertical atrium in this mall. All of our malls in Raleigh are only two or three stories tall.
After spending eight days in Ho Chi Minh City, we headed toward Can Tho in the Mekong River Delta region in the south of Vietnam. It’s only three or four hours from Ho Chi Minh City. The route to Can Tho is mostly rural and traverses the Mekong Delta for an hour or two.
While passing through the countryside, we saw a ton of rice fields with small family cemeteries scattered between the fields where the earth was built up.
Can Tho feels very different than Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a lot smaller and less busy. We stayed in the middle of Can Tho and it was nowhere near as crazy as Ho Chi Minh City.
Can Tho – River Boat Tour and Floating Market
We took a five hour tour along the Can Tho river and the canals and tributaries that feed into the main river. We got in touch with a tour guide through our Airbnb host and she arranged a private boat tour for us for total of USD$35.00 (800,000 Vietnamese dong).
After waking up extremely early, we walked the five minutes to the dock where we met the boat lady at 5:30 in the morning and set out for a day of adventuring along the river. The boat lady spoke basically zero English but knew the tour route well.
The main attraction on the tour is the Cai Rang floating market about four miles upriver from the main pier in Can Tho.
During the river tour we stopped at a rice noodle factory and a fruit garden.
Video of our boat tour in Can Tho:
Sightseeing in Can Tho
There were some museums related to local history and the Vietnam War but we skipped those since we had a fill of that in Ho Chi Minh City.
Instead, we took the kids to play at the Jump Arena at the mall! Admission fees were a few dollars per kid for one hour of jumping. The kids liked it so much we came back a second time.
Us adults sat outside watching the kids burn some energy. They were exercising so hard that we got really thirsty just watching them, so we consumed a series of $1 Vietnamese iced coffees while we waited.
In the evening we walked down to the Ninh Kieu bridge and strolled along the promenade by the river.
While visiting the Ninh Kieu waterfront area, a group of twenty local English students approached us to practice their English. I didn’t want to disclose my very early retirement in this nominally Communist country so I simply said “I work in finance” when questioned about my job in America.
Managing a passive index fund portfolio counts as “finance” right?
Bonus: Hong Kong (all-day layover between USA and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam)
On our flight from Raleigh to Ho Chi Minh City, we scheduled an eleven hour layover in Hong Kong. We arrived in Hong Kong around 5 am and proceeded to the immigration lines to obtain our free transit visa to visit the city for the day.
After clearing immigration to get into Hong Kong, we boarded the Airport Express train to downtown.
After arriving at the main Hong Kong Station downtown, we walked a short distance to the waterfront. Once there, we boarded the Star Ferry to cross Victoria Harbor into Tsim Sha Tsui in the Kowloon district and explored on foot for a bit.
As the temperature rose and the travel fatigue set in, we called it a day and headed back to the Hong Kong Airport and the comforts of the airport’s Priority Pass lounge.
We visited on a Monday approximately one week after the summer 2019 protests started. We didn’t see any evidence of the protests at the time, although the travel situation has deteriorated significantly since then.
In the following sections I’ll talk about where we stayed, what we ate, and how we got around town and between cities. Lastly, since this is a personal finance blog, I’ll go over the costs of our trip.
Lodging for 11 nights in Vietnam with Airbnb
8 nights in Ho Chi Minh City
We stayed in a fairly luxurious high rise building in Ho Chi Minh City for $390 for 8 nights, or USD$49 per night. Quite a good value for this small but well laid out two bedroom, two bath apartment with a great view of the city.
The apartment included a full kitchen and a clothes washer, plus air conditioning in the living room and the two bedrooms.
3 nights in Can Tho, Mekong Delta Region, Vietnam
We booked what was categorized as a “tiny house” in Can Tho, Vietnam for $112 for three nights, or $37 per night. It was located in the back alley of downtown with neighbors very close to us on all four sides.
The house wasn’t as tiny as we feared. We spent a lot of time on the river and waterfront and hanging out at the mall across from the alleyway so the limited interior space wasn’t an issue.
It must have been recently remodeled as it was in great shape inside and furnished in a fun modern style.
The only thing that made this Airbnb smaller than all the other Airbnbs that we rented while in Asia was the lack of a living room. Our Airbnb was still much larger and more comfortable than two hotel rooms would have been.
The main downside to this Airbnb was the proximity to neighbors. I didn’t notice it but Mrs. Root of Good said her appetite for her morning coffee diminished greatly when the neighbors hocked and coughed and spit out the resulting phlegm to clear their throats. Such is life in the back alleys of Can Tho, Vietnam.
The main downside was simultaneously a huge upside. It was pretty cool to see how the locals lived in these cramped alleyways with every day life unfolding before us. Hocking phlegm aside, we saw parents taking care of babies, old men stretched out on the cool tile floor to beat the summer heat, and women squatting by their laundry tubs doing their best to get the wash clean. Teenagers were stooped over their laptops doing homework or playing games while the older folks watched Vietnamese music videos on large flat panel TVs.
Around meal time we could spectate what the home chefs were cooking and then watch as the families gathered together to eat. It’s a very different way of life with a lot less privacy than we take for granted in the United States. Although I imagine it makes you a lot more familiar with your neighbors!
Here we are walking through the alleyway to our Airbnb:
Don’t forget to use my $40 off referral link off your first Airbnb stay if you end up booking any of these places (or anywhere listed on Airbnb for that matter!).
We also booked two hotel rooms in Ho Chi Minh for a very short 1 night stay since we had to transit through HCM to get from Can Tho to Phnom Penh, Cambodia by bus. Instead of traveling for 10+ hours in one day, we decided to make it a two day trip with a short stopover in HCM. The hotel was almost free using some Expedia Rewards points I obtained from booking cruises through Expedia.
Food in Vietnam
Here’s the honest truth: food in Vietnam was a mixed bag. We enjoyed some really good meals yet others were just okay. I don’t think we had a good idea of what the food would be like, but the one aspect that stood out the most was the lack of bold flavors and spiciness.
Several times after eating a meal we would comment “that was good but not as good as what we have at home”. I felt like the low cost of the food was often reflected in lower quality of the ingredients.
Don’t get me wrong – the food was definitely good. But we didn’t have a lot of meals that were mind-blowing – the kind that makes you want to come back to visit a country a second time because you can’t get the same thing at home. I did appreciate the novelty of spending a buck or two on a freshly prepared hot meal and enjoying it in a sidewalk eatery along the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City.
Mrs. Root of Good and her Southeast Asian family cook a lot of this stuff at home, so that definitely reduced our “wow” factor. But for those that don’t cook this type of food at home frequently, I bet it will be delicious!
Getting To/From/Around Vietnam
We booked flights from Raleigh to Ho Chi Minh City using American Airlines Aadvantage points that we obtained primarily through credit card sign up bonuses. The one way flights to Vietnam were 37,500 points plus $20 in tax per person including the free all-day layover in Hong Kong.
If you want to score free travel from credit cards, there are several cards currently offering 50,000 points or more. These points can be redeemed for $500 cash or $500+ in free flights or hotel stays. Compare current travel credit card deals.
Grab is Southeast Asia’s version of Uber. It’s incredibly simple to book a ride through their app.
The Grab app lets you pay using a credit card if you have a local telephone number for verification purposes. Otherwise you can pay using cash. We used the Grab app almost daily to get around town.
We spent approximately $75 on the Grab rides. Most rides into the tourist center of town about 1 or 2 miles away were USD$2 while longer rides across town to the airport and bus station were around USD$5.
It was hot and humid throughout our time in Vietnam so we took Grabs even for distances slightly less than a mile. It was kind of silly but better than being soaked with sweat as soon as we arrive at our first destination during a day of sightseeing.
The economics of having five of us sharing a ride meant that city buses would cost about the same as a single Grab fare divided by five. As a result we didn’t ride any local buses while in Vietnam.
In Hong Kong, we took the Airport Express train for $59 round trip for the whole family.
While in Vietnam, we booked round trip tickets “luxury” limousine van tickets from Ho Chi Minh to Can Tho for $36 each way. Luxury was a bit of an overstatement but the van was nice enough. “Run down luxury with crappy station facilities” would be a more accurate description. At least the van was nicer than the first class bus available at just a couple dollars less per ticket than our “luxury” van.
We booked another “luxury” van from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for $73 (plus $5 in mandatory
bribes Expedited Processing Fees at the border crossing location).
We walked some but not like we usually do while exploring overseas. Insane traffic plus high heat and humidity made strolling along the sidewalk a necessary but mildly unpleasant experience (unlike in cooler climates like Mexico City and Berlin).
We had wifi included in the rent in both Airbnb apartments. The internet throughout our stay in Vietnam was very fast.
For cell phone service, we were fortunate to be loaned two unlimited data and voice SIM chips by our Airbnb host in Ho Chi Minh City. These provided fast 4G service while we were in Ho Chi Minh City.
We took them out of our phones the night before we left and ended up losing them somehow (operating theory: our daughter inattentively swept them up with a broom when she was tidying up). I let the Airbnb host know and she asked us to leave 200,000 Vietnamese dong (about USD$4 per lost SIM chip) on the counter to cover their cost.
As we were leaving the Ho Chi Minh Airbnb, we unpaused our Google Fi service to use for the remainder of our stay in Vietnam. Google Fi worked flawlessly in Vietnam and for the rest of our eight week trip throughout Southeast Asia.
Google Fi is my go-to phone service for overseas travel. I use a different low cost provider (Freedompop) while in the US, but use Google Fi when traveling overseas. It costs $20 per month for unlimited voice and texting plus $0.01 per megabyte of data.
I was a little concerned that we would consume a ton of data and run up the bill. However, during our entire stay, we used only 300 megabytes of mobile data which costs USD$3.00. This represents the occasional search for directions or restaurant review lookup and tons of Grab ride requests. I kept the cell data turned off other than when we specifically needed it.
The best feature of Google Fi for the occasional world traveler is the ability to pause and resume service as often as you would like. I believe they bill by the minute only for time you actually have service activated. So if you only activate service for a day or so (and pause service after that), then you’ll only pay about a dollar for the connection plus a penny per megabyte of data consumed. I leave my Google Fi service paused when I’m back in the US. I even paused service while in Asia, such as the first week in Vietnam when we had the local SIM chips provided for free.
If you want to save $20 off a new Google Fi account, then feel free to use my referral link (and I get a $20 credit too).
Costs for 12 Days in Vietnam
We didn’t track every penny we spent in great detail, but after some forensic accounting I pulled together this cost summary using the transaction data from Personal Capital. In total we spent around $1,485 for our 12 days in Vietnam (plus 187,500 American Airlines Aadvantage points).
Lodging includes the Ho Chi Minh Airbnb for 8 nights for $390, plus the 3 nights in an Airbnb in Can Tho for $112. We also spent a night in Ho Chi Minh City while en route to Phnom, Penh Cambodia that was mostly free using Expedia Rewards points plus $8 in cash.
Food totaled approximately $325 for 12 days which averages to $27 per day. The food category includes restaurants, groceries, snacks, and drinks. We generally ate at simple restaurants with meals ranging from USD$1 to $5 per person. Drinks included tons of boba teas and iced coffees that were usually USD$0.50-1. Groceries were mostly fresh fruits and snacks.
The $100 expense for plane tickets represents the tax on the American Airlines/Cathay Pacific flights from Raleigh to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Bus and train tickets include the Airport Express train in Hong Kong, round trip Ho Chi Minh-Can Tho van tickets, and one way Ho Chi Minh-Phnom Penh van tickets.
Taxi/Grab expense of $75 represents what we spent on local transportation. Most rides into the tourist area were USD$2 while longer rides across town to the airport and bus station were around USD$5.
Admission fees and tours were approximately $150. This is a rough guess. Most admission fees were USD$1-3 and kids were usually discounted or free. The biggest expenses in this category were two visits to the Can Tho Jump Arena trampoline entertainment facility and the $35 boat tour in Can Tho.
Miscellaneous expenses include a few souvenirs, some random non-grocery stuff we had to buy at the store, and $8 for two replacement Vietnamese SIM cards.
Rounding out the spending is the Vietnam e-visa fees. These were $25 per person plus a ~$1 processing fee per person. We obtained these directly through the Vietnam Embassy’s official web site without any additional intermediary fees. It took a few days of processing but it was fairly simple to obtain them online.
Summary of costs for 12 days in Vietnam:
|Food (groceries, restaurants, drinks)
|Plane Tickets (+187,500 points)
|Visa Fees for Vietnam x5
Thoughts on Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho, Vietnam
This summer’s big trip to Southeast Asia came about like many of our other big trips.
“Hey let’s visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia and spend some time in Thailand!”
Okay. Where else do we go while we’re 9,000+ miles from home on the other side of the world? Vietnam seemed a logical choice given its proximity to Cambodia.
Vietnam was really an add-on destination piggybacking on our “main” destinations of Cambodia and Thailand. I didn’t know what to expect from Vietnam. Before planning our travels in Vietnam, my knowledge of the country was limited to Vietnam War-era trivia so the War Remnants Museum and other Vietnam War historic sites appealed to me. As we spent time traveling the country, my perception of Vietnam as merely a former war zone slowly transformed into acknowledgement of Vietnam as a modern developing nation full of people for whom the war was now a distant memory (or no memory at all for those under age 40-50).
I’m glad we chose to include Vietnam in our Southeast Asia trip. It has a different feel than Cambodia and Thailand. The food is different and the scenery is different from its agriculture to the buildings to the temples.
In comparison terms, Thailand is a mostly developed nation with some rough edges. Cambodia is like the wild wild west outside the capital city.
Vietnam sits somewhere in between Thailand and Cambodia. Although it’s still a nominally communist nation, you would never know it other than the occasional hammer and sickle symbolism. Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling metropolis with the most hectic traffic I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Markets offer anything you want from all over the world (or from just down the street). Everyone seems to be chasing the almighty dollar (or the Vietnamese dong in this case).
I love it. Money is the Root of Good, after all.
Vietnam is a big country. From north to south it’s more than 1,000 miles long. It takes more than 30 hours to drive from the capital of Hanoi in the north to the financial capital of Ho Chi Minh City in the south. We only saw a tiny slice of Vietnam in 12 days – only Ho Chi Minh City and one city in the Delta region. There is so much more to see and do in Vietnam that was beyond the scope of our vacation this summer. Please approach my trip report with a fair amount of skepticism as I’ve admittedly only scratched the surface of Vietnam.
I always reflect back on a place and ask myself “would I go back?”. I think the answer is definitely yes but probably not to Ho Chi Minh City or Can Tho. Both places are nice enough to visit and have plenty to see and do while there. The food was average to good but not universally great. The people were generally very nice. The prices were very low in Vietnam which certainly appeals to my frugal nature. However there isn’t anything that really clicked where it felt like I have to go back to either place in Vietnam.
Maybe it was the persistent heat and humidity? Maybe it was the language barrier?
If we find ourselves in that part of the world again, I’d like to visit other parts of Vietnam like Hanoi and Halong Bay (in the north) and Da Nang (in the center of Vietnam). It’s such a diverse country for tourism. The scenery varies from the flat delta region to languid rivers to busy cityscapes to terraced hillsides to aquamarine bays opening to the ocean.
And that, my friends, is our brief trip through the southern part of Vietnam! After we left Vietnam, we spent two weeks in Cambodia in the capital of Phnom Penh and in Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat). Stay tuned for the trip report on Cambodia!
What are your thoughts on Vietnam? Have you ever been? Do you want to go now that you know more about it?
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