By The Way
A quest to find five-star treatment for two-star prices in Thailand and Vietnam
Advice by Natalie B. Compton
Advice by Natalie B. Compton
May 23, 2023 at 11:46 a.m. EDT
There’s a popular refrain Western travelers repeat about Southeast Asia: “The flight’s expensive, but once you get there everything’s cheap.” You can find “White Lotus” luxuries for Holiday Inn prices, they say.
When I moved to Bangkok in 2014, I learned quickly that wasn’t the whole story, and I had a dwindling savings account to prove it. Yes, you could get street food for $1 and massages for less than $10. And you could also blow money eating, drinking and traveling like anywhere else.
But Southeast Asia’s reputation of luxury for less is not necessarily a myth, particularly when comparing it to other popular destinations. In January, average nightly hotel rates were $126 in Bangkok, according to STR, a hospitality data and analytics company, lower than $151 in London, $391 in Hawaii and $145 in Tokyo.
Unlike in those other locales, “in most parts of Thailand, $100 a night is going to get you something really, really nice,” said Robert Sukrachand, a furniture designer who splits his time between Chiang Mai, Thailand, and New York.
Myriad factors contribute to lower prices in the region, such as how far the dollar goes, labor costs and the lower cost of living in most of Southeast Asia compared with the United States. And like many other tourist-heavy destinations, what’s a deal for Western tourists could be out of reach for many locals.
To find deals, Sukrachand says you’ll have to do some research on local favorites and price standards. Having a baseline of what things cost is helpful to get the most value out of your trip. Finding lower prices usually means getting away from the well-trodden tourist paths of Phnom Penh or Penang, and skipping the tuk-tuks closest to the popular temples.
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If you want to save on hotels, look for a boutique property
On a recent trip to Las Vegas, my off-the-Strip hotel room with a Murphy bed cost $185 per night. A month before that, I paid $134 for a motel off the freeway in Iowa. For $10 less than my Iowa rate, I got a suite with a living room and two balconies overlooking a canal at the Siamotif Boutique Hotel in Bangkok.
I followed the advice of Katie Carew, a luxury travel adviser with the Travel Edge Network, who told me local brands offered better deal than international ones. I ended up at Siamotif, a traditional Thai wooden house with seven guest rooms, each with its own name and unique design. Technically, it was a three-star property but had a “superb” rating on Booking.com. Every morning, my complimentary breakfast was made from scratch; a Thai omelet with red curry and chicken one day, nam prik ong with rice and vegetables the next.
When it comes to hotels in Bangkok, it’s a buyers market. The country has an oversupply of traveler accommodations, and the hotel industry is continuing to expand, according to an analysis from Krungsri Thai bank. I could have found less-expensive hotels, even ones in the center of the city or in sleek high-rise buildings with sweeping views. More expensive options can be found closer to tourist hot spots — just like prices rise the closer you get to the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the beach in Waikiki — or with international brands.
“Whether you are in New York City or Switzerland or Vietnam, the highest level hotel is pretty much the same price across the world,” Carew said.
In Vietnam, I wanted to splurge in between overnight train rides from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. I could go all out at Vedanā Lagoon Resort & Spa near Danang, where overwater villas ran just over $200 per night. Instead of faking a honeymoon, I went to their sister property, the Pilgrimage Village Boutique Resort & Spa in Hue. At check-in, staff gave me a little tapioca and banana dessert, a cup of ginger tea and a frozen hand towel. My “Deluxe Double” room — a short walk away from the pool and swim-up bar — was $96 and came with a buffet breakfast, morning tai chi and yoga, and a 30-minute spa voucher.
I did get burned by a few local hotels’ misleading photos and descriptions. In Phuket, my $76-per-night “boutique hotel” turned out to be a dank cement cube with a hard bed — and not in a chic minimalist way. And in Hanoi, my $30 hotel “Superior room” didn’t have a window and was so small I could barely open the door.
Khoa Nguyen, who co-owns the Vietnam travel company In Country Tours with his wife, Michelle, says luxury hotels have been faring better since the pandemic than others. “Many of the two, three, four-star hotels are not up to standard yet,” Nguyen said. “The five-stars are more reliable.”
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Seek out self care where locals go
Wellness is a cornerstone of tourism in Southeast Asia, but it’s not just for tourists. “Massage is not really a luxury in Thailand,” Sukrachand said. “It’s something that people all over the country — even in rural areas — have built into their culture.”
I had afternoon massages in Bangkok and Phuket to help with jet lag and recover from full days of walking. Instead of going to luxury hotels where rates were close to those I’d find at home in D.C., I went with smaller places that catered to both locals and tourists. I paid $5 for a 30-minute foot massage, $8 for an hour-long massage and $55 full-body oil massage at a more upscale spa in a private room.
The further from tourist areas, the better the rates. At a market between a college and a hospital, I got an $18 manicure and pedicure that was so perfect, I had to leave a review.
In Vietnam, I needed a different kind of spa after nearly two weeks of dining out and sweating on the backs of motorbikes in humid cities. To address my acne flare-up, I searched Google Maps for “medical spa” in Hanoi and found a same-day appointment to see a dermatologist. For $21, I had a consultation with the doctor, was given an hour-long treatment from a nurse practitioner who steamed and massaged my face, performed some pore extractions, applied a thick goopy peel-off mask and finished with LED light therapy.
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World-class dining for a midrange bill
I landed in Vietnam ready to eat, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese American writer Dan Dao, who’s based there, noted the only place on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in Vietnam is based in the city.
That restaurant is Anan, where the 1o-course tasting menu costs $100 — a fraction of the $425, 10-course tasting menu at another 50 Best restaurant, SingleThread Farm in California. Still, I opted to order from the a la carte menu. My elaborate gin cocktail, glass bottle of sparkling water, three dishes, tax and service charge totaled $47, by far my most expensive meal of the trip. I offset that by having a $2 banh mi lunch the next day.
While high-end restaurants cater to wealthy locals, international travelers and expats, Vietnam’s street food and mom-and-pop shops are for everyone, even those who can afford nicer restaurants, Dao says. You’ll find the city’s wealthy eating at inexpensive places “because the quality is simply the best for those kinds of dishes,” he said.
Dao says like in the United States, there’s a perception in Vietnam that certain Asian food — like street food — should be cheap, which can be limiting to business owners. But in Vietnam, it can be easier to keep prices down when businesses can operate from home or without a brick-and-mortar shop and “the cost of goods is just lower,” Dao said.
After dinner at Anan, I considered going to award-winning bars like Nhau Nhau or the Alley, where average cocktail prices are $5 to $6; the equivalent in D.C. would be $14. In Bangkok, prices are a little steeper at the city’s top bars and restaurants. “The food and cocktail scene in Bangkok now is as good if not better than New York City,” Sukrachand said, both in terms of design and quality, and for cuisine beyond Thai food.
You can bounce around the city’s best cocktail spots like Tep Bar and Tropic City for $12 a drink. Elaborate tasting menus at the one-Michelin star Nahm cost between $75 and $93; my mom and I saved on the bill a few years ago by going for lunch a la carte. At a beachside restaurant in Phuket, I had an amazing plate of fried clams in sweet chile sauce, a massive yellow crab curry, rice and beer for $22. At the Thai place across the street from my apartment in D.C., curries start at $16.
Private tours aren’t just for wealthy tourists
Sukrachand told me that in Thailand, “some of the best food is some of the least expensive food, but ... without somebody showing you around, you’re not necessarily going to find it.” It was a good reminder to book some food tours on my trip. For $25, I joined a group tour in Hanoi and ate delicious food at seven places that I would have never found on my own. For $65, I booked a half-day private excursion in Hue with Nguyen’s In Country Tours. The extra $40 made the experience feel above my pay grade.
When the wealthy travel, they don’t do it with the masses. They go private — private villas, private guides, private planes. The average traveler can get a taste of that in Southeast Asia.
For $17, my Bangkok hotel offered to arrange a private airport pickup, the kind where the driver waits in the terminal with your name on a sign and has cold water for you in the car. For $23, I took a Muay Thai class in Phuket with private instruction. My private tour in Hue was $65 and included transportation to and from my hotel, plus dining at places where Anthony Bourdain ate. I didn’t feel like a tourist; I felt like a celebrity with a fixer.
All of these cost more than the lowest-priced options, but paying a little more went so much further.