Southeast Asia is one of those destinations where I could probably visit over and over again and never get tired of it. Even if I get ripped off. To me, it has it all: mouth-watering food with unique flavor profiles, authentic traditional culture, world-famous natural wonders, and most importantly, it can accommodate a range of budgets without really sacrificing the experience. Because who likes going to Paris when you can’t even afford a macaron?
What I’m trying to say is, I think you should go! I recently got back from a two-and-a-half-week trip through Vietnam and Laos, and to make my case, I’m sharing exactly how much our trip cost, ways we could have saved, and tips on how to get the most out of a similar trip.
Travel Style and Budget
The first thing you need to know about this trip is that our food budget was IDGAF.
The second thing to know is that our backpacking days are behind us.
And the last thing? It’s really, really hard to not spend money in Southeast Asia. Unlike Hawaii, New Zealand and Iceland who skate by on natural beauty alone, Southeast Asia waves a delectable treat in your face around every corner.
We definitely fell for it.
Speaking of budgets, if yours isn’t limited to spending just $20 a day, but you care about maximizing value, then I’m the faux-travel blogger for you. We were partly inspired by Anthony Bourdain’s passing when we decided to go, so the theme for our trip was ‘what-would-Anthony-Bourdain-do?’
The pace was 80% high-energy, 20% relaxation, but 100% prioritizing local experiences, adventure, and soaking in the culture. And nope, no stone would be left unturned in terms of eating food. Nonexistent budget, be damned!
However, in an affordable destination like Southeast Asia, it would be ridiculously easy to make the whole trip over-the-top for no good reason, so we try to only choose luxury options when we think they’d add real value. For lodging and flights, I’d say our choices were a little more elevated, with 3-5 star hotels and business and first-class seats for the 20+ hour flights.
In terms of points, we travel-hacked the luxury parts of the trip (the flights and one of the hotels), but didn’t use points for the rest, because choosing Southeast Asia as a destination is comparably a great value by itself. We knew we’d be hitting up more expensive locales (cough, Europe) later on in the year, so we decided to save our points for those trips instead. My motto is, “Step over a dime to get that dollar later,” and my choices here reflect that.
Basically, we weren’t nearly as concerned about saving money as we have been on other trips.
Southeast Asia Itinerary (and Tokyo!)
We visited five places in 17 days:
- Hanoi, Vietnam
- Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pakse, Laos
- Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
- Tokyo, Japan
We could have added in more spots, but we wanted to explore each place for at least three nights, which felt about right.
If you look at the map, you’ll notice we entered Vietnam twice, which means we had to pay more for a multi-entry visa. If you’re trying to cut costs, try to enter Vietnam just once so you can get the single-entry visa.
We also originally planned to go to Chiang Mai, but then swapped that for Pakse at the last minute. That decision definitely affected our budget, which you’ll see later.
We thought about squeezing in a beach town, like Phú Quốc or Con Dao Islands, but ultimately decided that a beach didn’t really fit into the theme of our trip. That would have just been us being indulgent 🙂
But on the other hand, Tokyo wasn’t originally on the plan, but it cost almost nothing extra to stop there. My husband had never been to Japan before, so why not?
The Cost Breakdown
We spent $4,972.54 total for two people, including 6 flights:
If you’re looking for how much we spent while we were on the ground, here are average daily costs per person (excluding flights):
I’d say we spent about twice the amount as someone who’s looking to travel on a budget.
A few things to consider:
We went during the high holiday season (December-January), so our lodging costs are easily 50-100% more expensive than they could be.
If you take away the cat sitter expense, our total drops to $4,622.54.
Subtract the $1,000 in non-refundable extra flights, hotels, and points we bought and we’re at $3,622.54.
If we had entered Vietnam just once and didn’t take a cab to our local airport, now we’re down to $3,522.54.
You get the picture. There are definitely ways we could have spent way less, so don’t see the huge number and immediately get scared away.
*Some affiliate links below*
Pre-Trip Expenses = $699
Visas—you need some! For Vietnam and Laos. You can get both on arrival at the airport, which took us about 15-30 minutes of extra time. For Vietnam you’ll need an “approval letter” in hand in order to get a visa on arrival. There are a ton of sketchy websites for this—we got ours here. The approval letter cost us $23.25 and the visas cost $50 each. In Laos, the visa was $36 per person.
Normally we rely on our Chase Sapphire credit cards for travel insurance, but considering we wanted to ride motorbikes and there was a chance one of us might need to be medevaced, we level-upped on travel insurance. I got several recommendations from friends, but ultimately chose Travelex, because it was heavier on the medical coverage and less so on baggage costs (we don’t check our bags, so this was less of a concern). Travel insurance cost us $154.
We also spent $350 on a cat sitter. I guess it’s debatable whether or not this should be included in trip costs, but it’s something we had to pay in order to go away on vacation, so it counts in my book.
Flights = $1,505.89
This is a splurge that I paid for with hours of my life via credit card rewards. I found us premium-class award seats on Japan Airlines, with a cheap stopover in Tokyo.
Flight costs on Japan Airlines, per person:
NYC – Hanoi: 70,000 American Airlines points + $19.80 in taxes and fees (business)
Ho Chi Minh City – Tokyo – NYC: 75,000 Alaska Airlines points + $75.81 in taxes and fees (business and first)
I’m stingy about how I use my points, so I’m super happy that we spent less than 300,000 points for two roundtrip business and first-class flights on a non-US airline–what a steal!
The Tokyo – NYC leg was originally business class (65k points), but then I found first-class availability for 10k points more, so I ponied up $473.01 to buy the points and book the seats ASAP. We had enough in other accounts, but it would take four days to transfer. The seats would disappear by then. Spending the money was worth it to me, because the first class option cost a small premium and availability doesn’t come around every day.
If I had bought those same flights in economy, it would have cost $2,468 per ticket. The same business-class flights priced out at least $6,000 each. And I don’t even want to think about how much the first-class leg would cost…
For the flights in between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, we paid out of pocket. The one-way flights originally cost $366.82 each, but then I changed our itinerary from Chiang Mai to Pakse.
The problem was, the flights I already bought to/from Chiang Mai were nonrefundable. So we spent another $204.01 each on new flights.
To soften the blow of sunk costs, I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve annual travel credit and shaved off $300 in flight expenses.
Lodging = $1,600.92
This was definitely an area where we could have saved money if we wanted to. Considering the hotels in Southeast Asia offered a higher-level of service and cost less than what you’d pay in the US, we were game to splurge a little, so our cheapest lodgings were 3-star hotels, instead of backpacker dorms, etc.
What ended up being a great value was that most hotels offered free, full breakfasts–one less meal to pay for separately.
The cheapest hotel we stayed at was the Pakse Hotel, at $65 per night, and the most expensive one was the Park Hyatt Saigon, which was about $400-$500 per night. I also thought the Mekong Riverview hotel was a decent value at $150 per night.
We paid for all hotels out of pocket except for the Park Hyatt Saigon, which cost 15,000 points per night. I knew we’d want to stay here, so I had my husband open up the Chase Hyatt credit card several months beforehand to earn the 40,000 bonus points (expired offer). We transferred the remaining points from my husband’s Chase Sapphire Preferred card. Using this credit card strategy allowed us to upgrade our lodging options and saved us about $1,490 in hotel costs.
Food = $619.61
After visiting several countries where food costs were exorbitant but mediocre, it was so nice to finally indulge in all the food here!
We ate out every.single.time.
Our food costs ranged from $2 to $60 per meal. Which was totally fine with us, because there was no way we could try every item we had on our wish lists. Asian food is my favorite, so yeah, I was not going to turn down $1 banh baos if it was available to me, even if I just ate one five minutes earlier.
Our favorite thing to do was walk the streets and try anything from a street vendor that looked interesting. This is definitely the cheapest way to do Southeast Asia. Most items cost a dollar or less.
Where we fell down on the budget was when we started eating at the fancier hotels in Luang Prabang, which meant we were spending about $27-$40 per meal. Then the trend continued in Ho Chi Minh City when we all of a sudden had cosmopolitan restaurant choices that reminded us of back home. Our breakfast at the hip cafe L’Usine cost $31.76, oops.
People always say that Tokyo is really expensive, but I didn’t find it much more expensive than Ho Chi Minh City in terms of food. Our most expensive meal was $40 at Shin Udon, where we got two udon bowls, three tempura appetizers and a beer, which I thought was a reasonable value. Ramen lunches cost about $10 each. You also have to remember that you don’t have to tip for food service.
The funny thing about ground transportation is that a third of it is from the cab ride to and from our home airport. Then another third spent was spent on transportation in Tokyo. Narita airport is super far, so try to fly in and out of Haneda airport, as it’s much more central.
In Japan we used Suica and Pasmo cards and Tokyo metro passes, because it’s so much easier to swipe and go. Whatever you do, don’t do the single paper tickets. Way more hassle and easier to lose.
In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, if you’re feeling adventurous, use Grab, Southeast Asia’s version of Uber, to get around. You’ll save money if you choose the motorbike option. My 15-minute motorbike ride cost $1, but I know the same ride in a regular cab would have cost $5.
In other places, you can find drivers sitting outside of your hotel, and you can approach any one of them and negotiate a price for them to take you around.
Activities, Etc. = $65.50
We’re pretty independent travelers, so activities is where we usually save money. We did pay $23 for a driver to take us to Kuang Si falls in Luang Prabang, which we thought was well worth it. Considering all the potholes the driver navigated around, this was the right call over our original idea of renting motorbikes.
We also did a tour to the Ninh Binh countryside from Hanoi. I had spent so much time planning this entire trip myself–I couldn’t be bothered to figure out logistics to the countryside. I had a hard time finding a reputable-seeming tour company online, but I kept seeing consistently good reviews for Lily’s Travel Agency, so we went with them. They graciously comped us the tour, but prices would run about $40 each, which includes all transportation and lunch. Our tour guide arrived exactly at the time they said he would, told funny jokes on the bus, and even found me medicine when he noticed I wasn’t feeling well.
And because we pack light, we had to do laundry twice, spending $19.
Shopping = $118.05
This was one of the most shopping-heavy trips ever! I don’t like cheap trinkets that are secretly made in some far-flung country, but ones that are actually local and handcrafted will always catch my eye. I love the idea of having all our dishware be mismatching sets from our travels, so we picked up several bowls from Vietnam. And we fell hard for the woven rattan handiwork that was so prominent in Laos, so we bought some coasters and a bamboo straw.
And Japan. I can’t figure out how to go to Japan without buying something.
It’s becoming a routine where I pick up a Shu Uemura eyelash curler while I’m there. And my favorite store to shop at there is Tokyu Hands, where my husband bought two pens for $25, and I bought shoe cleaning and leather-making supplies. We also spent forever browsing the design-focused store called Spiral in Minato, where I dropped $21.55 on some Swedish bath sponges that I can throw in the wash.
Detailed Trip Costs
Costs for 17 Days in Asia for Two People
Category (Highest to Lowest)
Cost with Credit Card Rewards
Travel to/from airport
Activities + misc.
|Category (Highest to Lowest)||Raw Cost||Cost with Credit Card Rewards|
|Travel to/from airport||$120.72||$120.72|
|Activities + misc.||$65.50||$65.50|
Itinerary Tips + What We Wished We Did
Lastly, I’m including thoughts on where to stay, etc., because it was so hard to find real opinions on this type of stuff while I was researching the trip.
We stayed at the Bonsella Hotel for about $80 per night, and I have zero complaints. The staff were unbelievably nice and accommodating; I was taken aback when they encouraged us to eat more free food at breakfast.
If you can swing it, stay at the iconic Sofitel Hanoi Metropole. It’s a little bit further away from the Old Quarter (where all the action is), but the French colonial decor is to die for.
People also seem to love the La Siesta brand hotels, although I personally couldn’t justify the price increase since I knew we’d be spending most of our time out and about.
Hanoi is small enough where you can explore everything by foot, which I appreciate. Just watch for the motorbikes in the Old Quarter since there aren’t any sidewalks.
- The original sandwich from Banh Mi Pate
- A mango smoothie from Banh Mi 25
- An iced coconut coffee from Cong Ca Phe
- If you’re a pho fan, I consistently saw long lines outside of Pho 10.
- If you like doing your own thing, splurge on booking a private tour to the nearby villages. That way you get to do whatever you want when you want, and avoid the other tourists.
- Visit the Bat Trang ceramics village for unique souvenirs (wished we did this!).
If you want to stay in a super high-end resort (think pools and villas and butlers), you’re gonna be far away from the main town. I say, skip it.
In my opinion, THE place to stay at in Luang Prabang is The Belle Rive, but get on it ASAP, because it’s small and books fast.
We stayed at the Mekong Riverview hotel and loved the colonial details. You don’t need a river-view room–just walk across the street to enjoy it. One thing to note is that it’s on one far end of the peninsula, so walking can be a trek, but they offer free bikes you can use.
The main town is only about a mile long, so you can do it by foot, but I found biking to be the most pleasurable and the quickest.
- Lime-basil shakes from the Viewpoint Cafe.
- The Laotian food platter from Bamboo Tree. We also heard that their sister restaurant Tamarind was great, although it was closed on the day we wanted to try it.
- There are few coffee shops here, so make sure to grab one that’s local. We went to Mekong Coffee twice.
- Kaopiak noodles from the corner stands at the night market
- Stake out a spot to enjoy the sunset. They’re unreal here.
My husband wished we did a boat cruise on the Mekong River and sat back with a Beer Lao.
Help locals practice English at Big Brother Mouse. We sadly found out about this too late.
Go on a quest to find the Weaving Sisters. We tried to find them, but got chased away by some neighborhood dogs.
For $65 per night, the Pakse Hotel had a fantastic breakfast with western, local and made-to-order options.
For a boutique feel, we thought Le Jardin Hotel looked cute, plus it has a pool.
Find a local driver to take you around, or rent a motorbike.
No need for fine dining here. Check out the options at the markets or look for where the locals go.
- Chase waterfalls in the Bolaven Plateau. Visit coffee farms and villages along the way.
- Go to a karaoke bar at night–the kind where you have to sing in front of strangers (I’m serious!)–and make friends with the locals.
- Si Phan Don aka “The 4,000 Islands.” So wish we had time for this.
HO CHI MINH CITY
If you have Chase points, the Park Hyatt Saigon was a good redemption. Usually my complaint about nicer hotels is that they’re insulated and far away from the action, but I thought the Park Hyatt Saigon was nicely situated in District 1, within walking distance to tons of places of interest. The one downside is that there’s no free breakfast, an amenity we loved at cheaper places.
If you’re looking to spend around $100 per night, want to stay in a design-forward place, and get free breakfast, I found two options:
Ho Chi Minh City is about twice the size of New York City—you’re gonna have to cab it.
- Crab noodle soup at Banh Canh Cua 87
- Shrimp fried rice at Bep Me In
- Lemongrass sticks at An An
- Tour the city on a Vespa or motorbike. It’s hard to get a sense of the neighborhoods, so sit back, look around, and take notes of interesting things you see that you’d want to revisit on your own.
- 81 Cafe is super Instagrammable.
- Check out the old apartments that have been converted into hip cafes at 14 Ton That Dam street.
When I first saw the total amount we spent, I thought, ‘Eeek!’ We could have spent much less on lodging, but we couldn’t really avoid traveling in high season because of limited vacation time (and ours are pretty generous!). I also don’t regret dropping the $700 to change the itinerary from Chiang Mai to Pakse–it was definitely the right call for us. And booking the flights to/from Asia on points was a clutch move and 100% worth the time I put into it. Overall I’m pretty satisfied with the final amount, especially as there were so many logistical costs.