A $300 5-Day Backpacking Trip To Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Welcome to Away Game, a Refinery29 series where we tag along as real millennial women embark on trips around the world and track their travel expenses down to the last cent. Here, we offer a detailed, intimate account of when, where, and how our peers spend their vacation days and disposable income: all the meals, adventures, indulgences, setbacks, and surprises.
This week's travel diary: A 22-year-old recent college grad who is backpacking through Asia before starting her career at a financial services firm.
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Age: 22
Occupation: Just finished college in December ‘17, will start full-time job with financial services firm in August ‘18
Salary: Currently $0, but I got a $20K signing bonus (~$12K post tax)
Hometown: Washington, DC
Trip Location: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Annual # Of Vacation Days: N/A
Trip Length (How long is your trip?): 5 days in Ho Chi Minh City, but spending two months backpacking Asia.
Travel Companion(s): My friend A. who I met while studying abroad in Spain. I also made friends with people in my hostels and hung out with them.
Taipei to Ho Chi Minh City: $104.22
Flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang: $16.10
Total: 120.32
S. Phuot Coffee Hostel: 6-bed female dorm with free breakfast, 1 night is $6.15
Ngoc Thao Guesthouse (with free breakfast):
Double Room: 3 Nights, $54 split between me and my friend A.
4-bed mixed gender dorm: 1 night is $7
Total: $40.15
Pre-Vacation Spending
Online Fee For Visa-On-Arrival Papers: $17

Day One

1 a.m. — I land at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. As much as I love the cheap flights from budget airlines, the inconvenient arrival times are a pain in the butt. After getting off the plane, I make my way to the immigration gate. I prepare my travel documents for my visa-on-arrival and drop them off along with my passport at the visa counter, and after a short wait of around 25 minutes, my name is called and I pay the $25 visa-on-arrival fee. $25
2 a.m. — By the time I finally make it through immigration and customs, I am exhausted. Since I’m only traveling with my old college backpack, I thankfully don’t have to go to baggage claim. I withdraw cash from the airport ATM with my amazing Charles Schwab debit card, which doesn’t charge ATM fees. Then, I hop into a cab to my hostel. The cab driver is typing in the address to his online maps app WHILE driving, which makes me more than a little nervous. $3
2:30 a.m. — The cab driver drops me off outside my hostel, S. Phuot Coffee, and I ring the doorbell. The front desk receptionist opens the door, and after I check in, he gives me a free water bottle, room key, and a free breakfast voucher for the morning. He then shows me to an all-female dorm with four bunk-beds. I head to the shared bathroom to quickly brush my teeth and wash my face. Then I climb up to my top bunk bed and promptly pass out.
9:30 a.m. — Rise and shine! I had actually set my alarm for 10 a.m. so that I could get some more sleep, but the noise of other people in the room shuffling around wakes me up. So I hop out of bed, clean myself up in the bathroom, and then pack my backpack.
9:45 a.m. — In the hostel room, two women from Germany who are traveling together apologize for making noise in the morning, and I quickly say it’s no problem. I’m glad I’m awake so I can take advantage of my time in this new city. Since our hostel provides FREE breakfast in the coffee shop next door, we agree to go together.
10 a.m. — At the coffee shop, we hand in our free breakfast vouchers, the waitress gives us a menu, and we place our orders. Since it was a free breakfast, I’m not expecting anything substantial, but the waitress brings me this huge plate of stir-fried meat mixed with vegetables, along with a French baguette. She also gives us complimentary green teas. It was truly a great first meal in Vietnam! While we munch on our food, we talk about our travel plans. It turns out this is the first full day in Vietnam for both of us! We had all coincidentally booked our current hostel because it was close to the airport, but we want to stay in the main backpackers district for the following nights. Since I already had a hostel booked in the backpacker district, I told them that they could share my Uber and then start their hostel search in the area.
10:45 a.m. — The two women from Germany and I grab our bags from the room and check out. Then I call an Uber to take us to my hostel in the backpackers district, which I pay for. During the 37-minute ride, we continue chatting and learning more about each other. I discover that they just graduated high school and are taking a gap year before starting university. $3.52
11:20 a.m. — We arrive at Ngoc Thao Guesthouse. I go to check-in and pay for my room, while they go to find a place to stay. The receptionist shows me to my room, which is a private room with two beds on the fifth floor. Did I mention that there were no elevators? While climbing the stairs, I am very glad I made the decision to pack light.
11:45 a.m. — After comparison shopping accommodations, the women from last night's hostel return to Ngoc Thao and decide to book bunk beds in the dorm room. I’m so excited I’ll get to see more of them!
12:45 p.m. — After the we all finish unpacking and settling in, we explore the city together with no agenda. We walk past a local market with produce, meat and fish. Since it was over 80 degrees, the whole place reeks of fish guts. At one point, I almost stepped on a giant fish in the middle of the walkway. Like my foot was 2 inches away from impaling it. Not going to lie — it was kind of traumatizing.
1 p.m. — After leaving the market, we stumble across a small park with lotus blossoms in the pond, and I buy a bahn mi sandwich and fresh mango juice from a street vendor. The women from Germany only buy juice since they are vegetarian, and we eat in the park. $2.62
2 p.m. — After eating, we decide to walk twenty minutes to the Bitexco Financial Tower. Walking in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City is terrifying. The drivers don’t follow the traffic laws, and red lights are treated as a friendly suggestion. Crossing the street is like playing a game of Frogger, and I always say a quick prayer before stepping into the street.
2:20 p.m. — At the Bitexco ticket office, we discover that tickets to the observation sky deck costs around $8. As we are debating whether we want to pay, one women I'm with remembers reading in her travel guide that there’s a cafe and bar in the Bitexco office that’s one floor below the sky deck. So we decide to go there instead, since there’s no entrance fee. At the cafe, we are seated right by the window overlooking the city. It’s breathtaking, and you can see the jumble of buildings that seem as if they were placed randomly. I order a passion fruit smoothie. $7.80
4:45 p.m. — We Uber back to the hostel, since none of us feel like braving the traffic so soon again. One of the girls pays.
5:00 p.m. — My friend A. from Singapore, who I met while studying abroad in Spain, is waiting for me at the Ngoc Thao Guesthouse. The women from Germany go back to their dorm room to rest, and A. and I go out to buy bahn mi and catch up over Vietnamese coffee. I’m so excited to talk to A. and find out what she’s been up to, since I haven’t seen her in over half a year. $4
7 p.m. — A. and I walk to a nearby pho place she read about on a food blog, and I am sadly too stuffed to eat more food. She orders pho, while I sip on a fresh coconut. $1.09
8:30 p.m. — We wander around the city a bit, before heading back to the hostel. We then get ready for bed to sleep early. Tragically, I don’t fall asleep until around 3 a.m. because the caffeine from the Vietnamese coffee has made me both tired, awake, and jittery at the same time. I lie awake in bed with my heart-racing, irrationally paranoid that I might die in Vietnam. I make a vow to never drink coffee again.
Daily Total: $47.03

Day Two

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
9 a.m. — After eating our free banana pancake breakfast at our hostel, my friends from yesterday, A., and I go on a walking tour of Ho Chi Minh City with a university student named Bo as our tour guide. Bo takes us around the city, explaining the historical significance of different landmarks. One of my favorite stops is at this small photo gallery featuring works by Réhahn. In exchange for writing a TripAdvisor review, the gallery attendant lets us pick a free postcard.
10 a.m. — The tour continues. Bo takes us to a Cong Caphe, and hip coffee shop with VietCong memorabilia and decor. I order a mung bean coconut smoothie ($2.86), and we talk with Bo about what his life is like in Vietnam as a college student. When the bill comes, we split the cost of Bo’s tea. $3.15
11:30 a.m. — Bo takes us to the Reunification Palace. He tells us that tour guides aren’t allowed, so he will wait outside for us. We pay the entrance fee, and spend half an hour exploring the palace. $1.32
12 p.m. — We meet up with Bo again outside of the palace, and he takes us to Bến Thành Market, which is filled with vendors trying to get you to purchase their wares. The market is filled with colorful scarves and fabrics, along with lots of food. The tour ends, and we each tip Bo $2. The women from Germany and I say goodbye, since they have to catch a train to somewhere else in Vietnam. $3.32
12:20 p.m. — A. and I go to a local lunch spot, and each order dry noodles and a coconut. After eating, we head out and realize three minutes later that we forgot to pay. Oops...So we dash back to pay for our food, and the waitstaff didn’t even notice that we left in the first place. $2
1:30 p.m. — A. and I walk twenty minutes to the War Remnants Museum, which commemorates the Vietnam-America war. As an American, it is both interesting and disturbing to learn about the war from the Vietnamese perspective. The phrase “American Aggression” occurs over 100 times in the museum. The exhibit on Agent Orange is so powerful. In the room, I first stumble across horrific photos of disfigured victims, with a display of a dead fetus. But then, I walk into a colorful room of children’s artwork in response to Agent Orange. One drawing shows “normal” children playing with children that have defects from Agent Orange. In the room, there are Agent Orange victims playing music, and I try really hard not to start crying.
4 p.m. — After leaving the museum, we walk to a convenience store to buy two rolls of toilet paper ($.30), since our room didn’t come with any, and a bar of soap ($.50) that I can use to scrub my clothes with. I pay, and then joke that A. needs to give me 15 cents to cover her share of the toilet paper, or our friendship is over. $.80
6 p.m. — A. and I grab dinner at a restaurant right outside our hostel, and I order a classic beef pho and a fresh fruit juice. I love how cheap food is in Vietnam!! $2.85
8 p.m. — A. and I decide to check out the popular bar scene in District 1, so we walk over from the restaurant. The road with all the bars is extremely noisy and crowded, but we finally find a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant/bar, and I order a Tiger beer. A. and I talk about our post-college plans. Since A. is a graduating this semester, she is aggressively searching for jobs. $.88
10 p.m. — We head back to our hostel and get ready for bed. Thankfully, I fall asleep with ease today.
Daily Total: $14.32

Day Three

9 a.m. — After eating the same free banana pancake breakfast, A. and I meet our tour guide outside of our hostel for the Củ Chi Tunnels Tour we booked. The tour cost $10 in total, $5 for the entrance fee and $5 for the tour company. A. and I get onto the mini bus, where we meet the ten or so other people on our tour. It will take us 2 hours to get to the tunnels. $10
10 a.m. — At our bathroom rest stop, I buy a fresh guava strawberry juice. The rest stop is at an art workshop that employs Agent Orange victims who use eggshells to make art. While studying the Vietnam War (which is called the American War in Vietnam, for obvious reasons), I never realized the lasting impact that Agent Orange and Napalm chemical warfare had on the Vietnamese people even to this day. $1.32
11 a.m. — We arrive at the Củ Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong soldiers hid during the war with America. We learn that the Viet Cong used really clever ways of guerrilla warfare, with bamboo traps, and that they built ventilation systems into the tunnels. We get down on our hands and knees and climb through the tunnels. It’s extremely cramped and uncomfortable, and the guide was saying that before the tunnels were a tourist attraction, there were sometimes poisonous spiders and snakes living in them. It’s unbelievable that people lived in these tunnels for weeks at a time. After climbing through the tunnels, the guide gives us tapioca root to eat, which was one of the main food sources for the Viet Cong soldiers. It's bland, but I hate wasting food, so I finish it.
1 p.m. — Our tour group heads back on the mini-bus and we begin the 2 hour drive back to Ho Chi Minh City. The tour guide says that tourists often ask if Vietnamese dislike Americans because of the war, and he says that most Vietnamese don’t harbor any resentment because they know the war was a result of politicians' decisions, and not the general American public.
3 p.m. — We arrive in the city, and A. and I eat a late lunch of pho and a coconut ($3). We randomly walk around the city, and come across this pink cathedral that reminds me of the Barbie Dream House. I later look up the cathedral and learn that it’s called the Tân Định Church. We also stop a Cong Caphe again, and I order a $1.90 coconut drink. $4.90
4:30 p.m. — It’s massage time! A. and I find a massage parlor offering a good deal, and we both get an hour long massage with hot stones. I’m uncontrollably ticklish, but I want to overcome it. We are told to strip down to our underwear and lie down on the beds. When the masseuse massages my arms and legs, I can’t stop giggling. I’m such an embarrassing person. $10.79
6:30 p.m. - We head to dinner and enjoy spring rolls and an egg omelet wrapped in vegetables. I'm confused about how to eat it, since the ingredients are in different bowls, so I ask another diner. $4.40
8 p.m. - Since A. is leaving the next day, I treat her to facials. We select the hour-long facial, and it feels really good having someone massage my face with cold, slippery lotions. This is my first facial ever, since getting a facial done in the USA is extremely pricey. $16
10 p.m. - A. and I are grandmas, so we head to bed early.
Daily Total: $47.41

Day Four

8 a.m. — After yet another free banana pancake breakfast, A. and I say goodbye and she heads to the airport. I move my backpack from our private room to the dorm bed, since I have one more day in the city and A. has left. I have one more full day in Vietnam, so I plan to explore on my own.
10 a.m. — I Uber ($0.88) to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and pay $1.32 for the entrance ticket. The museum was not touristy or crowded, which was a nice change of pace. There are different exhibits on Vietnam’s nature, history, and modern day industry with charts that reminded me of business graphs I had to analyze for my business consulting case interviews. $2.02
1 p.m. — For lunch, I walk to this restaurant, Secret Garden, that I read about online. It is a rooftop restaurant on the fifth floor of a little building in a residential alleyway. The restaurant is super cute, with colorful lanterns and flowers everywhere. After trekking up the stairs, I truly feel like I’ve earned the meal, so I splurge. I order shrimp wrapped in pork with sesame seeds, which is AMAZING. I have a food-gasm, it is sooo good! I also order fried squid which is decent, but kind of hard to chew. The green mango juice is refreshing, and I love that they didn’t add any sugar. This is by far my most expensive meal in Vietnam, especially since I ate alone and couldn’t share it with anyone, but it was so worth it. $10.79
3 p.m — After walking in the heat, I need to lower my body temperature, so I walk into Cong Caphe which has air conditioning, and order a mung bean and coconut drink ($2.86). I walk to Bến Thành Market for the second time, and window shop to see what all the vendors are buying. I buy a coconut for $0.88. $3.74
5 p.m. — I head back to the hostel to take a break from the busy city, and befriend a guy who is traveling from England. He tells me that he quit his job in order to travel, and his former employer also happens to be the same company I’m going to be working for after I finish traveling in August. Such a small world!
7 p.m. - The guy from England and I grab dinner together at this hole-in-the wall diner recommended by the receptionist at our hostel. It’s one of those places where all the food is behind a glass cover, and you point at what you want. I get rice, shrimp, pork, and veggies that I don’t know the names for. When we go to pay at the end, the cashier says it’s $3.08, and we are both a little surprised because that’s double what similar places charge. However, after he pays, the cashier waved my money away, and that’s when we understand that the $3.08 was the total charge. So I pay for my half of the meal. $1.54
8 p.m. We wander around the city, and he’s trying to find a convenient store that will help him add money to his phone SIM card, so I join him for the journey. Sadly, he is unsuccessful.
10 p.m. After showering and getting cleaned up, I chill in the dorm room chatting with my friend from England, and two people from China who are also staying in our dorm, before falling asleep.
Daily Total: $18.09

Day 5

9 a.m. - I wake up, get cleaned up, and pack my backpack before heading down for my final free banana pancake breakfast. I’m going to miss it so much! I return my keys to the reception desk, and chat with my dinner companion from last night and the receptionist. She tells us about how she has been working at the hostel for 3+ years so that she can save up money to send her children to Australia for a better education. It was such an inspiring story, and she was an incredibly genuine and kind woman.
10:30 a.m. — I Uber to the airport and prepare to fly to my next stop in my backpacking adventures, Da Nang and Hội An! Ho Chi Minh City, see ya next time! $3.74
Daily Total: $3.74
How much did you spend on the 2-month backpacking trip overall?
My total spend was $5,272.85 for a a little over two months, and I went to Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, and China. I did Thailand and China with my mom, so the $5,272 includes me paying for her flights, food, accommodations, etc. as well. My best estimate is that without paying for her stuff, I spent around $3,800.
How did you prepare for this trip?
Trip Advisor, Googling itineraries for Ho Chi Minh City, Booking.com, and Fodor’s Travel Guide: Vietnam.
When did you book your flights? Do you think you got a good deal?
Taipei to Ho Chi Minh City: I booked two weeks earlier. I think I could have gotten a better deal had I booked earlier, but I’m still very satisfied with how much I paid.
Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nan: I booked six days earlier. Can’t complain about the cost...it’s equivalent to four Starbucks Frappuccinos.
What was the best meal you ate?
My meal at Secret Garden was my favorite meal in Ho Chi Minh City. The restaurant is on a rooftop with colorful lanterns and flowers everywhere. The servers were friendly and attentive. The food was divine — I ordered fresh green mango juice. Shrimp wrapped in pork and sesame seeds, and fried squid. I paid a little over $10 for my meal.
What advice would you give someone who is traveling to the same location?
Stay hydrated. It can be unbearably hot in Ho Chi Minh City, so be sure to always carry a water bottle with you and drink water constantly. If you feel yourself start to get light-headed, go into an air-conditioned coffee shop immediately.
When you cross a busy street, stick your arm straight out with your palm facing the traffic and walk SLOWLY across. Trying to sprint across the road while dodging cars and motorcycles is a pretty surefire way to die.
Would you stay at the same hostels again?
Yes! The people that worked at Ngoc Thao Guesthouse, which is where I spent most of my trip, were so genuinely kind and helpful. They provided me with directions and advice.
Also, the hostel offers free drinking water in the reception area. This doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but in 85-degree weather, it’s a life-saver to be able to pop into the hostel and fill up your water bottle.
The rooms are pretty bare-bones, but very clean. For $7 per night for a dorm room and $18 per night for a double room, Ngoc Thao is a great value.
Where were you located in the specific city and would you recommend staying in that part of town?
I was primarily located in the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City in District 1 and I would highly recommend staying in that area. It’s walkable to almost all the tourist attractions, including Bến Thành Market, the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, and more. Also, there are so many cheap eats and food vendors, as well as bars and clubs.
Is there anything you wished you had time to do, but didn’t?
I would have liked to visit the Mekong Floating Markets, which can be done as a day trip, but ran out of time. I had to decide between the Củ Chi Tunnels and the Floating Market, and picked the tunnels, since figured I’d be able to see floating markets in other countries, whereas the Củ Chi Tunnels are unique to Vietnam.
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