Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips

Lodgings in Vietnam will generally be much more expensive than Thailand and other Asian tourist destinations - largely because the Vietnamese government sees fit to charge you up to ten times the local price. Don't expect your room to in any way reflect the elevated price tag...

In places where the government has the monopoly (like Cuc Phuong National Park) the lodgings will be exorbitant and appalling. Cuc Phuong charged me $12 a night for a room the size of a full-size bed (with a wooden cot in it), no electricity, a foul toilet in the next building (no running water and certainly no hot water), and great gaping cracks in the thin plywood walls (in the middle of winter - the temperature was near zero at night). And no blankets.

New government regulations now limit where foreigners can stay to "appropriate" hotels. The only real effect of this rule is to give the government hotels the foreign monopoly, further inflating prices and lowering service standards. It also means that you may well show up at an empty hotel and be told that you can't have a room.

Areas along the tourist trail usually have many government and private hotels and therefore provide better service and cheaper rates. Capitalism works.

Vietnamese entrepreneurs are just starting to learn the value of the return customer/word of mouth advertising. This means that service is starting to replace the wring-every-last-Dong-out-of-'em-before-they-leave attitude that has prevailed for years. Government facilities are unfortunately not buying into this trendy new attitude.

The Hotel Stamp is getting more and more important for when you leave Vietnam/apply for an extension (which is itself becoming extremely hard to get). Only official hotels have a hotel stamp and they charge official prices for you to stay there (in part because they have to give half their foreign revenue to the government over and above a substantial "foreign licensing" fee). If you want the stamp but not the overnight then offer one of the desk staff a few dollars to borrow their stamp.

Very few rules and regulations apply when you get off the beaten track - flophouses will take you (no questions asked) for the local price of 30-50 cents...you probably won't have to give them your passport...they've never heard of a Hotel Stamp... and they don't ever expect to see you again (they didn't expect to see you in the first place). Unfortunately rural ignorance is replaced by rural police, who will often be twice as arbitrary and several times as ingenious when it comes to making up reasons to fine you.

It is almost impossible to find lodgings during Tet. Book in advance and sit tight through the holiday or you may be spending some nights out on the street.

When you book a room, go check it out. Make sure the toilet flushes, the water is running (and not mud brown), the air conditioner works (wait for it to actually start blowing cold air) and the water heater in the bathroom heats water. Flick light switches (try not to electrocute yourself). Arguing with the receptionist after they have your money or your passport is quite useless. As I learned the hard way...

You are generally not charged extra for an extra person in the room. You will probably be charged extra for a second bed, even if you're not using it. To avoid confusion (and surcharges) over the various interpretations of "single", "twin", and "double", go have a look at the room to be sure you're getting what you want.

The cheaper the room, the higher the floor (with no elevators). Be prepared to hike up 10 flights of stairs (your bathroom may still be on the ground floor).

"After 35 days on the road in an almost continual icy downpour, damned if I wasn't going to have a hot shower. When the Hanoi guesthouse owner regretfully informed me that my room's water heater was broken, I set to work immediately. The problem was simple - a missing fuse in the fuse box, and quickly remedied with a twisted foil chewing gum wrapper. Like a fool I gaily told the manager of my success as I swept past in search of a bottle of hair conditioner. I returned to discover that the lock on my door had been forced and my repairs permanently disabled with the help of a crowbar and a pair of pliers."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam


  • Mosquitoes: Of all the nasties that can nibble your toes at night or leave slug-trails across your breakfast baguettes, none are as deadly as mosquitoes. Use a mosquito net. Always carry a few safety pins with you to patch holes.

  • Roaches: They grow as large as plums and they fly. They sound a bit like mini B52 bombers so at least you can hear them coming (unless they're already inside, waiting for the lights to go out).

  • Bedbugs: If the wall beside your bed has dried bloodstains on it, assume the mattress has bedbugs. The stains are how former occupants dealt with the bugs.

  • Rats: If you leave food in your room then you are courting rats. A friend of mine had huge holes gnawed in his leather camera case overnight. I've had the tops taken off of Q tips and the sticky edges off envelopes. They're not always that bad, but if you see rat signs (like droppings), protect your gear.

  • Thieves: One of the easiest ways to get at your stuff is to steal it out of your room while you're sightseeing. Don't expect the hotel staff to feel responsible and don't expect the police to be any help in recovering what you've lost. As a matter of fact, both may be getting a piece of the action. Bring your own lock and cable. Lock your door or at least your closet. Take easy-to-carry valuables with you. Don't bother locking your backpack shut (or your suitcase). The thief will just take the whole thing.

  • Carbon Monoxide: I feel rather stupid even telling this story, but here goes. I was up in the northern mountains recovering from a flu. It was freezing. My blankets were damp. I was aching and thoroughly sick of being cold. I went downstairs and solicited a metal bowl of coals from the kitchen fire. I then closed the window to preserve warmth. At two in the morning I woke up because I had to go to the bathroom. I was punch-drunk and could barely find the door. I also developed an instant, splitting headache. I was just barely coherent enough to push the coals out of the room and swing the door back and forth to circulate some air before staggering back into bed. I nearly died that night.

  • Paperwork: Most hotels will want your passport as security against you possibly stealing the rusty bathroom mirror or the sink. In a few places you are required to hand over your passport and visa, which will then find its way to the police. Always try to hand over a photocopy. Argue if you have to (politely). If you must, give them the passport. Once it is out of your hands there is a chance that it will get lost. I have waited entire days for the person who knew where my passport was to show up for work. In rural flophouses just say no to the demand for your passport - they want it only as security. Pay the 30 cents up front and keep your papers.



Top of the line hotel
a la New World
($800 per night):
The entryways are layered with doormen and the marbled bathrooms are filled with cut flowers. I was only inside long enough to bribe the receptionist for a hotel stamp, so I can't tell you much more.

Government hotels:
expensive, primitive, terrible service, and often the only show in town. Grit your teeth and remember, government officials have to get rich too.

Private hotels
(also known as mini-hotels):
These are often extra rooms in a private home (or they may be the only rooms in a private home with the family sleeping on cots in the kitchen). They range from large, well-kept, air-conditioned houses to warren-like holes, depending on the price. The owners are generally friendly and helpful and usually charge less than their government counterparts. If you arrive late and they have no room they will often be willing to throw down a mattress and charge you a dorm fee for the night.

Although the government has experimented with foreign dorm rooms (you are not allowed to stay in Vietnamese dorm hotels), it seems that they will soon be made illegal.

Dirt cheap and dirty. They should cost you no more than 50 cents (and will look remarkably like the government hotels that charge you $10). For this you will get 2-4 cot-like beds, an equal number of grease-swollen mattress, no sheets, a thermos of warm water, a cracked dish of moldy tea leaves, a lock you shouldn't trust, access to an (overflowing) communal toilet somewhere on the grounds, and no shower. (in case you can't read between the lines, no towels, no curtains, no carpets, no lampshades (maybe a bulb that maybe works) and none of those little bottles of complimentary shampoo and body lotion). If you really need to wash you can probably get a rusty bucket of water that you douse yourself with in the middle of the floor. Theft is rampant. Truck driver clients leave at 4 am, after gunning their engines and shouting at the top of their lungs for an hour or two. If you're walking past a door and it opens unexpectedly, duck. The occupant could be emptying a bed pan. Expect roaches, rats, bedbugs, and other diminutive neighbors.

(Rural) Private huts:
You usually end up in these unexpectedly, like when your motorbike breaks down. They'll put you up in anything from the tire shop out back to the master bedroom. I always carry a hammock with me so that I cause minimal disruption. I also leave behind a token payment (a few dollars) which is always gratefully received. The toilet may be the river's edge and the river may be the shower - and the place to wash vegetables. Everyone will be friendly and everyone will stare at you all the time.

Sugarcane field:
This happens when you break down in the absence of huts. Rats love sugarcane and rats are nocturnal - and curious.

Watch out for mines. It's very unlikely that you'll step on one that the entire population has missed for the last twenty years, but I'd hate to be wrong about that.