NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2019:
We are, now, going back to some of the best locations in S.E.Asia. We start in my, personal, favourite: Vietnam …
The currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (or the ‘VND’). I will refer to them as V$s. At the time of writing, the wholesale exchange rates were:
|Published Wholesale Rate||V$23,234||V$25,623||V$29,840|
|Effective Exchange Rate||V$22,556||V$24,875||V$28,9269|
You will not get these wholesale rates (read the ‘Money” section, below); expect to lose 3%. I lost 2.92%.
Over time, these exchange rates will change. Please check the current rates.
My last visit to Hanoi was in January 2016:
I flew to Hanoi from Kathmandu, Nepal via Kuala Lumpur. I flew on Malindo. The one-way price was US$307. It was an over-night flight.
I used Vietnam-Visa to apply for a 3 month Multi-Entry Tourist Visa. The price of their normal ‘3 day’ service was US$55. For this service, you get a ‘Visa Approval Letter’ that looks like this:
This is just an Approval Letter, I still had to pay US$50 for my 3-month passport Stamping Fee.
Vietnam Follow up with useful information and guidance to help you through the process:
- Print out your visa approval letter;
- Download the Vietnamese visa application form, fill out the form (if you can, glue one passport photo on it; if you can’t, don’t worry, they will stable it on at the VOA counter);
- Prepare a US$50 in cash (per person) Stamping Fee to pay upon arrival at the Vietnam airport to get your visa stamped onto your passport;
- Bring all above documents along with your original passport and one more separated passport photo (which was, actually, not needed) with you to the Vietnam International Airport
- Upon reaching the Landing Visa / VOA counter, please show these documents to the Immigration Officer.
I downloaded the ‘Visa Application Form’. I filled it in and printed it out before I left Nepal. I had my passport photo ready.
HANOI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT:
I landed in Hanoi at noon and made my way to the Visa On Arrival (VOA) counter in front of Immigration.
There was a small queue and I was at the counter within 5 minutes. I handed over my documents.
You, then, wait to be processed. I waited about 20 minutes. When done, they display your photo and name on a big TV screen and announce your name over an intercom. You go to a second section of the counter, pay your US$50 Stamping Fee, and collect your Passport. They want payment in US$s. I had a US$100 note and they were happy to give me change.
GETTING MONEY / ATMs:
Most people need to get some money. I advise you NOT to use the Money Exchanges at the airport; they provide poor rates of exchange. Exit Customs into the Arrivals Hall and turn left. You will find 3 ATMs inside on the far wall of the building.
RECOMMENDATION: You will need change. Do not ask for an amount that is divisible by 500,000 (see the ‘Money’ section, below) … you might find that you only get VND500,000 notes! Always ask for 50,000 less to ensure that the ATM dispenses some smaller notes.
AGRIBANK: I prefer to use Agribank. I have experimented with a number of different ATMs and I have found that Agribank offer the cheapest fee. At the airport Agribank ATM, you can take out V$3m per transaction for a fee of V$22k. I asked for V$2,950,000. I got an excellent result … The ATM dispensed the whole amount in V$100,000 and V$50,000 notes.
GETTING A MOBILE SIMCARD:
You are best to get your new Vietnam SIMCard at the airport. You can trust that the store is ‘official’ and that you won’t be over-charged. Also, at the airport, the various companies compete to sign up first-time-users. This, usually, means that they have a Promotional Package available.
VIETTEL: I chose Viettel again. They had 3 packages available. For US$11, I could get a new SIM with a 30-day plan containing 15GB data, some talk time and some SMSs. I chose the US$13 28-Day plan that offered a 4G SIMcard and 28GB of data (no calls, no SMS).
GETTING TO CITY CENTRE:
Again, Vietnam Visa provided good information. They sent me the, following, information about Transport Options to the City Centre:
- Your choices are public bus, airport shuttle bus (coach), taxi, and GRAB;
- The Public bus is the cheapest option, it costs V$35k (to take the right bus, you should ask the staff at the airport information booth, they will help you find the right one to get nearest to your target address);
- Metered taxis are available outside the international terminal, you can consider some reliable and popular taxi brands such as Mai Linh, Taxi Group, Vinasun, Noi Bai Airport Taxi, Airport Taxi, etc. Taxi fare is charged according to taxi meter and it usually costs around V$150,000 – V$500,000 (US$10 – US$25);
- Airport shuttle bus (coach) is another cheaper way to travel from the airport to city centre. At Noi Bai airport, the 16 – 45 seat buses are run by separate airlines (Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar and VietjetAir) but the ticket price is the same: V$40,000 (US$2);
- The final option is GRAB, a transportation booking platform like UBER, it is usually cheaper than taking a taxi. However, GRAB is not allowed to pick-up passengers at the arrival hall, so you have to go outside the airport to get one. The fair also depends on traffic status and demand.
BUSMAP: I suggest that, before you land, you download the BUSMAP App. The app is free. BUSMAP tells you all of the Hanoi Bus Routes. You can also enter your starting location and target destination and it will tell you which bus to catch and where the Bus Stops are. Using BUSMAP, I already knew that an 86 bus would take me from Station B (in front of International Arrivals) to a Bus Stop 200 metres from my Apartment. I went to Station B and was on a bus within 15 minutes.
This bus goes backwards and forwards to the International Airport all day. Each passenger is paying V$35k yet they never seem to be able to change a V$500k note. The small notes that I took out from the ATM came in very handy.
Hanoi is located in the central area of the Red River Delta and it is the capital of Vietnam. It covers an area of 3,330 square kilometres (1,285 square miles). Hanoi has an estimated population of 7.7 million (as of 2018) and it is the second largest city in Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The metropolitan area encompasses nine additional neighbouring provinces that have an estimated population of 16 million.
In 1873, Hanoi was conquered by the French, and from 1883 to 1945, the city was the administrative centre of French Indochina. The French colonisation left a lasting impact on the city’s architecture that is still visible to this day.
Hanoi has experienced a rapid construction boom recently. After public outcry in opposition to the redevelopment of culturally significant areas, the national government was persuaded to implement a low-rise policy around Hoàn Kiem Lake and around the Ba Đình District.
Hanoi is Vietnam’s most visited city (15th in the Asia Pacific), with 4.8 million overnight international visitors in 2018. Hanoi is sometimes dubbed the “Paris of the East” for its French influences, its tree-fringed boulevards, more than two dozen lakes, and thousands of French colonial-era buildings.
The tourist destinations in Hanoi are generally grouped into two main areas: the Old Quarter and the French Quarter(s). The “Old Quarter” is in the northern half of Hoàn Kiem District with small street blocks, alleys, and a traditional Vietnamese atmosphere.
Two areas are generally called the “French Quarters”: the governmental area in Ba Đình District and the south of Hoàn Kiem District. Both areas have distinctive French Colonial style villas and broad tree-lined avenues.
Since 2014, Hanoi has consistently been voted in the World’s top ten destinations by TripAdvisor. It ranked 8th in 2014, 4th in 2015, and 8th in 2016. Hanoi is one of the most affordable international destinations.
LONG TERM RENTAL SITES:
I looked at several sites including ‘expat’ sites. In the areas that I was interested in, the rates were more than our GRANDPAcking budget of no more than US$600 per month.
These sites target Foreigners who don’t know any better. The expat sites, in particular, are full of expats trying to rent out accommodation at ‘western rates’. It is better that you come to Hanoi and find somewhere once you are here.
NORMAL HOTEL SEARCH SITES:
I found better prices on the Normal Search Sites. This is what apartments GRANDPAckers can expect to find at short notice from mid November for a 1 month / 28 day rental:
PLEASE NOTE: HOTELS usually display prices INCLUSIVE of TAXES. But many search sites (like HOTELS) don’t provide a ‘private bathroom’ filter, so be careful with some of the cheap hotels and make sure that you read the room details. HOTELS competes with BOOKING by selling their hotel allocations well in advance. They do so by offering discounts. At short notice, they tend to have few options left.
AIRBnB / HOLIDAY RENTALS:
PLEASE NOTE: Other sites (such as Homeaway, FlipKey and VRBO are also worth a look). However, these types of accommodation options are not very popular in Vietnam.
GRANDPAckers will easily find accommodation within our price range of upto US$600 per month. Start looking well in advance to get the best prices on HOTELS. Look on BOOKING for last minute deals.
Alternatively, book yourself into an hotel short term and look around once you are here. The only problem with that is that it is hard to find an apartment that you can move into within a few days … you, usually, have to wait a little bit longer.
I started looking in the modern, up-market, Vinhomes / Time City area. I kept an eye on prices for a few weeks … but the prices did not come down. I couldn’t get anything for under US$350 per week … I decided to look north around the Old Quarter area.
I used HOTELS.COM to book a One Bedroom Apartment in the OYO 342 Westlake Lotus Apartments. It was located near Westlake (Ho Tay) in the Tay Ho District. I paid US$385 for 28 nights (HOTELS only allow you to book up to a maximum of 28 nights). This was said to be 60% off the rack-rate. I assume that they used the highest ‘Peak Season’ rate that they could find (e.g. Christmas Day). I am a member of their Reward Program where, for every 10 nights booked, you get 1 night of the same value in a future hotel. So, effectively, I got a 2.8 night credit which brought the real cost down to US$344 (or US$12.25 per night).
I was on the 4th floor (the building has a lift) with a small balcony with a view of the lake. Everything in the apartment was new. The kitchen was sparsely equipped but I had no intention of cooking at home anyway (eating out is so varied and cheap!). My kitchen had a hotplate, a microwave, and an electric kettle … it just didn’t have many pots, pans, plates, and cutlery items.
I had a modern Cable TV with many English speaking channels and access to YouTube. I had a (new) Heat Pump in the Lounge Area and in the Bedroom. The bathroom had a hot rainfall shower. The wifi was excellent. In the basement there were 2 washer-dryers that were available to guests free of charge.
I wasn’t sure about the Tay Ho District location when I booked. I knew that I didn’t want to be in the noisy and touristic Old Quarter but I did want to be able to walk there if I wanted to. Tay Ho was too far away to walk. But, with public buses only costing V$7k per trip, I wasn’t too worried.
PLEASE NOTE: The Westlake Lotus Apartments are not at the location indicated on many of the Hotel Search sites. They are located at 84 Phố Yên Phụ, Yên Phụ, Tây Hồ, Hà Nội 10000, Vietnam.
PLEASE ALSO NOTE: The Westlake Lotus Apartments state that you get Daily Housekeeping, you do not. For long term rentals, Housekeeping is done once each week.
My friend back in New Zealand has a son who lived in Hanoi for several years. He said that my Apartment was not as good a deal as it looks. I got a fair price, but once you are in Hanoi there are better deals to be found.
WHERE TO STAY:
NOTE: The Time City area is relatively expensive … you will be lucky to get a GRANDPAcking Standard apartment for under US$1,200 per month. In the other areas listed, below, you can get something for less than half that price.
NOTE: Expats tend to keep away from the Old Quarter (the main Tourist Area).
THE AU CO STREET, TAY HO DISTRICT:
THE NGOC VA STREET, TAY HO DISTRICT:
AROUND TAY HO LAKE (WESTLAKE):
Many families with school age children live around the United Nations International School on the north western side of Westlake.
Tay Ho District seems to be a good place to start. Focus around Quang An if you want to easily meet other expats.
Have a look yourself:
EAT & DRINK:
Obviously, you find nicer places too … but, there are very few ‘up-market’ restaurants.
One of my favourite Breakfast / Brunch spots was down on the lakeside where I had a meal for V$35k and a glass of cold tea for V$5k. You sit at a little plastic table on a little plastic stool.
V$35k will buy you a Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner in a local cafe. Add V$10k-V$12k if you want a fruit juice or 330ml beer. Budget an average of V$45k-V$50k (US$2) total per meal per person.
The Hanoi Metro System is still under construction. The main means of transport are motorbikes, buses, taxis, and a rising number of cars. In recent decades, motorbikes have overtaken bicycles as the main form of transportation. Cars however are probably the most notable change in the past decade as many Vietnamese people purchase the vehicles for the first time. The increased number of cars are the main cause of gridlock as roads and infrastructure in the older parts of Hanoi were not designed to accommodate them.
On 4th July 2017, the Hanoi government voted to ban motorbikes entirely by 2030, in order to reduce pollution, congestion, and encourage the expansion and use of public transport.
The Hanoi roads are chaotic and there are often no pedestrian pavements for you to walk on… and, when there are, they are usually ‘blocked’ by street stalls, shops spilling onto the streets, and parked motorbikes. You end up walking on the road with the busy traffic anyway.
You have to take constant care when walking around and look in every direction at every junction. I always walked on the left side of the road so that I could see on-coming traffic… but that isn’t always the case because (in South East Asia) it is common for traffic to drive up a street the wrong way if it gets them to where they want to go faster (or means that they don’t have to stop).
SUGGESTION: Get in the habit of walking on the left side of the road so that you can see on-coming traffic.
Public Transport is cheap. A bus trip is a flat rate V$7k.
SUGGESTION:Download the BUSMAP APP. This provides you with all bus routes, real-time wait times, and trip times. You can also enter your start and end locations and it will tell you which bus to catch, where the Bus Stops are, and any walking distances involved.
To go further afield (to, say, a shopping mall for a day out) you may want to catch a taxi. As always, agree prices up front; taxi drivers in Hanoi are notorious for ripping off Tourists.
One group of Tourists that I met (from NZ) jumped in a taxi to go 4kms to a shopping mall. The going rate should be about VND10k / km. The taxi meter started at VND10k (as it should) but at 1km it kicked up to VND300k. The taxi driver had set the meter at VND300k / km. They told the taxi driver to stop so that they could get out. They, obviously, refused to pay and a heated argument ensued. They did not pay.
Download the GRAB App. This is a cheaper (and safer?) way to get around Hanoi. You can catch either a Motobike Taxi (Moto) or a proper Taxi. A GRAB Moto is, usually, half the price of a GRAB Taxi. There is little difference in price between a normal taxi on a meter and a GRAB taxi. The main difference is that is that you cannot trust a normal taxi to use the metre but you can trust that GRAB will charge you a fair price.
As an example, I caught a GRAB Moto from Time City to Tay Ho (about 8kms) at 9:30pm. The price was V$43k (US$2). The GRAB Taxi was quoted at V$100k (US$4).
Most ATMs in Vietnam are limited to dispensing a maximum of 40 notes.
You will find that the ‘local bank ATMs’ are limited to V$2m per withdrawal… which means that you lose a significant percentage in fees on every transaction. To keep your ‘cost of travel money’ to a minimum, you need to choose the right ATM.
Vietnam has a ‘change eating monster’ that goes around all of the houses at night and eats up all of the change. To ensure that you get small notes from the ATM, ALWAYS ask for an amount that is NOT DIVISIBLE by 500,000 (e.g. ask for V$2,950,000 NOT V$3,000,000). If the withdrawal amount is divisible by 500,000 you may find yourself only having V$500,000 notes! If you only have V$500,000 notes, you will struggle to get them changed.
RULE OF THUMB: Always try and get change whenever you can. If your bill is V$30k+ give them a V$100k note. If your bill is V$200k+ give them a V$500k note. The rule is: give them a note 2.5x bigger than the bill … they will always find the change.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT ATM:
Different banks charge different fees. Some are a lot better than others. Some charge you a fee without even telling you how much it is! Remember, you will still, probably, have your Home Bank charging you a ‘Foreign ATM Transaction fee’ on top of the ATM owner’s charge. My Home Bank charges me NZ$5 (US$3) per transaction. Here are some bank comparisons:
- HSBC: I asked for the maximum V$7.9m. They wanted a fee of V$178k. After my Home Bank Foreign ATM Fee the best Effective Exchange Rate I could get was 96.90%;
- ACB: I asked for the maximum V$2.9m. They paid out without stating their fee. After my Home Bank Foreign ATM Fee the actual Effective Exchange Rate I got was 95.87%;
- SEABANK: I asked for the maximum V$3m. They wanted a fee of V$49k. After my Home Bank Foreign ATM Fee the best Effective Exchange Rate I could get was 96.05%;
AGRIBANK: I always use Agribank. They only charge V$22k for a $V3m withdrawal. After my Home Bank Foreign ATM Fee, I get an Effective Exchange Rate of 97.12%.
RECOMMENDATION: Do NOT use ATMs that don’t tell you what fee is being charged. They, usually, don’t tell you because they are charging you too much!
INTERNET / WIFI:
Vietnam is, generally, very good for internet access with almost all Accommodation, Restaurants, Cafes, and Bars offering decent and reliable Free WiFi. Obviously, some are better than others.
However, sometimes, their wifi is so slow that you appreciate being able to ‘fall back on’ your own mobile data plan operating at a decent speed.
Don’t trust your ‘budget’ hotel to provide good wifi in our GRANDPAcking price range.
RECOMMENDATION: Get a Viettel SIMcard.
HEALTH & SAFETY:
I got online and bought a 1-year WorldNomads Backpacker Policy for US$565. I don’t need all of the ‘bells and whistles’ that go with the more expensive policies. I, fundamentally, just need Medical and Personal Indemnity Insurance. Read more here.
Hanoi is known for its ‘drive-by snatchings’. Don’t display or carry anything that can be easily ‘snatched’ out of your hands or off of your person.
This includes things like necklaces which can be ripped from your neck and handbags or laptop bags that can be ripped from your shoulders.
In particular, do not stand on the side of the road with your smartphone in hand (checking google maps, etc). If you have to, always step far away from passing motorbikes.
RULE OF THUMB: If you don’t need it, don’t carry it’.
DRUGS / MARIJUANA / SMOKING:
The expats in Hanoi seem to have no problem getting hold of Marijuana. In many ‘pubs’ the expats openly ‘skin up’ and pass their joints around. The locals and owners don’t seem to care.
There are a lot of smokers here (more so than you will find in Western Europe) – not a surprise when a branded pack of 20 costs as little as V$25k and a Vietnamese pack of 20 less than V$15. Smoking is common in bars and restaurants.
Other than the chance of drive-by thefts and pick-pockets, Hanoi seems reasonably safe. You don’t feel uncomfortable walking home late at night / early in the morning. But, caution is always advised. As usual, don’t make yourself an easy target.
WHEN TO GO
The city experiences the typical climate of northern Vietnam, with four distinct seasons:
- Summer (May to August) is hot and humid with abundant rainfall;
- Fall / Autumn (September to November) is not as hot and has less rainfall;
- Winter (December to January) is dry and cool and is, usually, cloudy and foggy; and
- Spring (February to March) sees temperatures rise and the skies clear.
Read About – GRANDPAcking Costs if you don’t know how to interpret my figures.
My costs are broken down into:
- Cost of Existence: The basic costs of just being there;
- Cost of Living: The additional costs that make being there fun.
COST OF EXISTENCE (COE):
Effective Exchange Rate: I managed to keep my cost of money below 3%. I did this by using my Credit Card to pay for my accommodation and by using AGRIBANK ATMs. My effective exchange rate would have been even better if I had not used a ACB ATM to withdraw V$3m at a fee of 4.25%.
I EXISTED to GRANDPAcking standard. My accommodation was V$319k / US$14 per night.
I spent V$304k / US$13 on Public transport (a mix of Public Buses, GRAB Motos, and GRAB Cars).
I purchased a Viettel SIMcard for V$300k / US$13 and a 28-Day Data Plan that included 28GB of data. One month top ups ranged from 3GBs for V$70k to V$300k for unlimited data.
I have allocated 28 days of my 3-Month Visa costs. At just over US$1 per day this totaled V$750k / US$33.
I have allocated 28 days of my 1-Year Travel Insurance costs. At just over US$1.50 per day this totaled V$1m / US$46.
I spent an average of V$129k / US$6 per day on meals and water.
My COE worked out to be about V$514k / US$23 per day. This was 45% of my daily budget.
COST OF LIVING (COL):
I LIVED to GRANDPAcking standard.
Drinks / Partying: V$961k / US$43. This averaged just over US$1.50 per day.
Personal Care: V$169k / US$7.
Entertainment / Shopping: V$777k / US$34.
In / Out Costs: I spent V$70k / US$3 on Public Transport to / from the airport.
Medical: V$0 / US$0.
My total COL was about V$582k / US$26 per day. This was 51% of my daily budget.
COSTS FOR 2 GRANDPAckers:
Again, costs are broken down into Cost Of Existence (COE) and Cost Of Living (COL).
COST OF EXISTENCE (COE):
Accommodation: I have booked you into something similar to the Westlake Lotus Apartments at the heavily discounted rate of V$319k / US$14 per night excluding Breakfast.
Transportation: I have budgeted a weekly return Public Bus trip to somewhere within Hanoi.
Communications & Fees: I have budgeted a V$250k / US$11 Viettel SIMcard with a 30 day Data-Talk-SMS Package. I have apportioned 1 month of your 3-Month Tourist visas. I have apportioned 1 month of your 12-Month Travel Insurance Plans.
Food & Water: Your budget averages about V$292k / US$13 per day for 2 people. This is to eat all of your meals in Cheap Restaurants. This includes water purchased in 5 Gallon bottles.
Your COE is about V$703k / US$31 per day. This is 61% of your daily budget.
COST OF LIVING (COL):
This leaves you about V$447k / US$20 per day to LIVE on. This should be plenty.
Hanoi is a popular ‘Digital Nomad’ location … at these costs, it is easy to see why.
GRANDPAckers who enjoy city living could easily find themselves enjoying what Hanoi has to offer.
Could you afford to retire here on a GRANDPAcking budget? YES. Would you want to? YES.