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Boomers Sample Budget Travel in Vietnam

03/26/09 0 Comments

Variety, Value and Beauty Entice Adventurous Travelers

The poor dollar seems to take a beating wherever it goes. Many Americans are letting their European cousins visit them this year. Others are dusting off their campers. But there is good news. In Vietnam, the dollar’s value has stayed steady over the last year. In fact, with an exchange rate of around 16,000 dong to the dollar, a $100 bill can make you an instant millionaire. The even better news is that it is an economical place to travel.

Vietnam as a travel destination was discovered by the young back packer set at least 15 years ago. They found a country with beautiful beaches, deltas laden with boats, motorcycle-packed streets, interesting ethnic mountain tribes, hand-tailored silk suits, and ruins from an advanced civilization hundreds of years old. Halong Bay took their breath away and Saigon’s night life beat most anything in the United States. Hotels and food were cheap and the Vietnamese people welcoming. It was like Europe in the early 1970s.

The older traveler has now caught on and Vietnam is experiencing a surge in tourism. Tour groups and even cruise lines have added Vietnam to their itineraries. The French have embraced their former colony and are coming in large numbers. Older Americans, however, first had to be convinced that they would be well received by the Vietnamese. Since 70 percent of the Vietnamese population is under 30 years of age, most Vietnamese only know of the “American War” from their history books. We’re treated as any other tourist, which means they want us to enjoy ourselves and come back.

On this visit, what I noticed was the number of older independent travelers who were venturing out of the luxury hotels and were really taking advantage of the low cost of travel here. The budget hotels in the “backpack” areas of Saigon and Hanoi are no longer just for the young. Hotel rates in these locations ranged from $12 to $25 per night. This buys you a clean room with a private bath, a small, stocked refrigerator, air conditioning and a television with CNN and BBC stations. Some even throw in a continental breakfast and if you’re really lucky, that includes the wonderful Vietnamese drip coffee.

All travelers enjoy the low cost of the food. The Vietnamese traditional soup, Pho, is as varied as Italy’s pasta, and is served all day long on the streets and in many restaurants for under $3. We got hooked on Bun Thit Nuong, a grilled meat salad with a rice vinaigrette dressing which cost a whopping four dollars. International food is now available in the larger tourist areas where a pizza and a glass of Australian Shiraz can be had for $6.

Even the high-end travel scale in Vietnam is reasonable. On my last evening in Ho Chi Minh City, I treated my traveling companions to a nice night out and was determined to spend $100 on the three of us. After drinks at the Saigon-Saigon bar on top of the elegant Caravelle Hotel, we enjoyed a meal at the Temple Club, a renovated former Chinese temple, where we retired to their drawing room for dessert and coffee. It was only with a large tip that I was able to spend the last of my $100.

Being an older independent traveler doesn’t mean you have to buy every ticket and book every hotel yourself. Vietnam is loaded with travel agencies. I counted 10 in one block of Hanoi. They have a variety of day or multi-day tours to explore the Mekong Delta, Halong Bay, Hoi Ann or the ethnic tribes in the mountains of Sapa. An overnight stay on a wooden junk boat in Halong (including food) can cost between $35 and $150, depending on the elegance of the boat. These tours can be booked after you arrive.

Tour guides may be hired for each destination for $15 to $30 per day. The other nice choice is to custom-build your holiday through a consolidator. We found an operator recommended by responsibletravel.com who helped with hotels, transportation and occasional guides, all on the economic level we requested. Even with their 25 percent cost added on, it was still reasonable and saved a lot of time.

With baby boomers retiring and having time for an extended vacation, Vietnam offers both variety and value. A little investigation, determination, and adventurous spirit will land you in a beautiful country where your dollar goes a long way.

For further information: SinhCafe Travel Agencies—long time reputable company with many locations, visit www.sinhcafe.com.
For recommendations of local travel agents, www.responsibletravel.com.
For very personalized service, contact Ninh through www.haivenu-vietnam.com.

Mary Walker Clark writes a twice monthly travel column for the Paris News. A resident of Paris, Texas, she can be reached at marywalkerclark@hotmail.com.