Born With a Suitcase is specifically aimed at enabling ordinary families to travel on a budget which means going to your destination fully independent. An organised tour will cost you double the price and you won’t have complete control over where you go and what you do. An independent trip is fully customisable however, the planning process can be daunting, not to mention arduous, yet hugely rewarding and exciting.
Gone are the days where as a twenty something back packer I’d turn up in a strange country on a whim with no mobile phone or internet at my disposal, and with not even the first night’s accommodation booked after a long haul flight. With every kind of detail available now, knowledge is power over your limited budget so there is no excuse for not conducting prior research of your destination. Sure, I still miss the days of completely winging it but when travelling with a family and for such a short period it’s just not an efficient way to travel. For the lazy travellers out there I have already prepared a plan for a two week trip to Vietnam and along with my other associated blogs on Vietnam so you can replicate what we did on our family holiday.
Being a West Australian, I’ve been to nearly all of the South East Asian countries and unequivocally I can say Vietnam is my favourite. From its surreal landscape of limestone karsts jutting out in Halong Bay, enjoyed from a traditional Chinese junk to the challenges of crossing a Hanoi road with swarms of motorbikes coming at you in biblical proportions. The wonderful array of sumptuous food to the delightful charm of the locals, along with an alternative historical perspective of the Vietnam War will have you spellbound and busy planning your next trip there. It’s such an easy country to travel in especially when taking your family along and really is a must go destination for the budget conscious.
So you’ve decided on going to Vietnam…that means you will be leaving in approximately 18-12 months. It may sound silly, but if you want to spend less and see more, then you will need to start planning and researching now. Following is a chronological guide to completing your perfect trip to Vietnam.
18-12 Months Prior to Departure
- Buy yourself a Lonely Planet Guide. An electronic copy is cheaper, not to mention much lighter. If you subscribe to their website then you will have access to their regular $9.99 specials on e-guides. They have been the vanguard of budget travel for decades and I have been their disciple since a backpacker in my early twenties. It will the best investment you make to save money on the road and the best place to research places you wish to visit and start building an itinerary as this may impact which cities you are going to fly in and out of as well as planning any internals flights. Internal flights are cheap and will definitely save you a lot of time when you have a tight 2 week itinerary including travel time. In our case, we flew into Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), travelled our way north and flew out of Hanoi.
- Decide on the time of year to visit. The Australian summer break (January) is the perfect time to visit. However, we run our own business and this is the busiest time of year for us so we had no option but to go in the worst time of year (July) which is not for the feint hearted. I have been to a lot of tropical countries before and I live near Perth so we are used to the heat, but the heat combined with the associated humidity was very oppressive. It is meant to be the rainy season but we didn’t encounter much rain at all. If you want to have your holiday of lazing around the pool and watching movies in your room during the day and then going out only at night, then going in July is entirely possible but not recommended.
- Arrange passports if you haven’t already got one as you’ll need these when booking your fare. We all needed new ones and I even took our own photos to save on costs.
- Book your international airfare using frequent flyer points or start subscribing with every airline that flies out of your nearest international airport so you get regular updates on special deals they maybe offering. Start learning what is a cheap fare and what is expensive. To save you a bit of time, budget airlines will always be cheaper when they have their regular sales. I ended up booking a fare 9 months prior to the July School holidays. Refer to my post 5 reasons to Book a Budget Airline. However, be mindful when going with a budget airline as your flight can be bumped if there aren’t enough people on that flight. In other words, they will put you on a later flight. You either have to suck it up or they will offer a refund. So it’s prudent not to be booking non refundable accommodation for the first night or two at your transit or final destination.
- Book any internal flights straight after your international flight as booking 9 months in advance will save money. For instance, we flew from HCMC to Danang with Vietnam Airlines and it was quicker and cheaper than getting an overnight sleeper train at just under $50 each.
- Plan how you are going to access your hard earned dula while you are away or cut through all the research and take my advice on my post on Money.
6 Months Prior to Departure
If travelling in a holiday season (European and American summer and Winter Australian school holidays) like we did it’s a good idea to book any oraganised tours in advance. Whilst I usually dislike organised tours, in some cases it’s necessary.
For instance, a trip to Ha Long Bay is extremely difficult if turning up at the port and trying to find a boat that will take you on a cruise. Most are pre organised from Hanoi or from Ha Long City. There are hundreds of companies vying for your hard earned dollar but just remember you get what you pay for. It pays to do a lot of research before you go as this will be the most expensive part of the trip if you wish to go there which is still highly recommended. We went upmarket and sailed on the Treasure Junk organised through Handspan. If you want to spoil yourself then this is not negotiable. Whilst it was more expensive than I would normally pay, it is worth every cent as it was an absolute luxury and a definite highlight of the trip. We were able to pay a 50% deposit securely online and I paid the balance in cash (to avoid credit card surcharges) before departure.
The next tour I booked wasn’t absolutely necessary but I wanted a carefree experience and did not want to be bothered with arranging trekking permits, getting maps and figuring out a route myself so I also prearranged this. There are also hundreds of companies offering treks and home stays and after a lot of homework I decided on a company that gives back to the local community rather than going with a huge company where the local Hill Tribes don’t benefit. I chose Sapa O’Chau and cannot speak more highly of them. They support the high school education of ethnic minorities in Sapa and enable the ethnic minority trekking guides to have a sustainable career. I booked over the internet and paid in full at the office in Hanoi before the tour with cash to save on the credit card surcharge. They also arranged the booking of the overnight sleeper to Lao Cai (near Sa Pa) and the transfers to Sa Pa once there.
After settling on an itinerary, your next job is to start booking accommodation as it can be significantly cheaper to do this through an online hotel booking site such as booking.com at least 6 months in advance. This is where you make Trip Advisor your best friend to make sure you’re not booking a roach infested place in a dingy alley way. Many places will offer a significantly reduced non-refundable price. So this will be your choice of whether you can handle the budget blow out if things don’t go to plan. I went non-refundable most of the time and everything went to plan. Just about every hotel in Vietnam will offer breakfast as part of the price. Now I constantly talk about budget holidays but on this occasion, it was our 15th wedding anniversary so I decided to splurge here and could have definitely chosen cheaper places to stay at around $50 a night for four of us. However, on both evenings I booked into The Hotel Majestic Saigon, a 5 star hotel on the river and in central HCMC. It was used by the press at the height of the Vietnam War and I fell in love with it’s old world nostalgic ambiance the minute I found it on booking.com. Luckily their were also glowing reports on Trip Advisor. I think you would be hard pressed to find a luxurious five star hotel anywhere for the price of around $150 per room including the most magnificent breakfast spread I’ve ever experienced. The rate is very much dependent on the time of year you book. As mentioned we could only go during Vietnam’s hottest season so naturally a lot of hotel rates were cheaper, but they can also be cheaper at other times of the year so study, study, study! Print out all bookings and show the address and map to your taxi driver. This will assist in avoiding possible scams where the driver may try to tell you the hotel is either closed or changed its name and they take you to a different less reputable place where they earn a commission. We didn’t have any issues and played it safe by trusting only two taxi companies, Vinasun and Ma Linh.
3 Months Prior to Departure
- You can arrange for a visa from the Vietnamese Embassy but it is much easier and cheaper to do a Visa on Arrival application online through a reputable company such as the one I used at My Vietnam Visa.
- The overnight sleepers on the Reunification Express are gargantuan, robust Russian trains that run north and south through Vietnam, are very popular so pre book tickets. We booked the Da Dang – Hanoi sector through a trusted company online at Vietnam Impressive as they only charged a nominal handling fee and we the tickets were waiting for us upon checking into our hotel in HCMC.
- Organise recommended immunisations of Hepatitis A & Typhoid. Getting the shots at a subsidised cost of $150 each for a family of four was really eating into our budget. After a very careful risk analysis and research I found there really is no problem with these diseases in popular tourist destinations on our itinerary. It didn’t mean that we could let our guard down on what we ate and drank. However, I would definitely recommend the immunisations if you are going to be more adventurous.
- Arrange travel insurance. If you can’t afford travel insurance then you can’t afford to travel. Whilst it’s not nice to think that anything will go wrong on your holiday, it does happen (as described here on my Insurance page) and this is not an area I am prepared to skimp on. However, after buying a policy through my preferred travel insurance company World Nomads, I later realised that my credit card company offered it as part of the annual fees. Check with your credit card company before you go read the fine print, taking note of what conditions you need to meet in order to activate the insurance.
6 Weeks Prior to Departure
Organise any other details for activities you wish to do. We had a great personal interest in wanting to see the Cu Chi Tunnels near HCMC as my husband’s father went to the Vietnam War and was sent down these tunnels with a pistol and a piece of rope tied to his leg. To the Vietnamese this war is known as the American War. There are a many companies offering tours to the tunnels and none of them particularly impressed me with their prices or their departure times of around 9am which coincides with the arrival of hordes of other tourists. I investigated a private car with a driver. With the four of us, it was more cost effective to do it this way and we could dictate the time we left and how much time we had the driver for, thereby able to do other things if we had time. I ended up booking online 6 weeks before departure with VN Rent A Car. (It is currently impossible to rent a car without a driver in Vietnam and if you see what you have to put up on the roads then it’s just as well). This company were very professional with all their communication and any questions I had. The driver arrived promptly and on time. The driver’s English was limited but everything went to plan.
For a family of four a two week holiday cost us about AUD$4500 and we did splurge quite a bit here and there but it can easily be a lot cheaper if you set your mind to it. Despite this blog specifically relating to Vietnam, the same formula can be used for any well planned budget holiday. Although having said that it won’t necessarily be cheap if you have to travel half way around the world to get there but I have some useful tips in my post How We Afford to Travel.
Perhaps you do not have the time to plan a trip or simply wish for someone else to take care of everything for you, then consider a small group tour with G Adventures. They promote sustainable and responsible tourism and have some great tours including Vietnam and surrounding countries to suit any style of traveller. Start planning your dream trip now!