Expect five-star service at two-star prices in Thailand and Vietnam
But Southeast Asia’s history of limited resources is no myth, especially when compared to other popular destinations. In January, average hotel nightly 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 other areas, “in most parts of Thailand, $100 a night will get you a really good deal,” said Robert Sukrachand, a furniture designer who splits his time between Chiang Mai, Thailand, and New York.
There are a number of factors contributing to lower prices in the region, such as the dollar’s strength, labor costs and the lower cost of living in much of Southeast Asia compared to the United States. And like many tourist destinations, the experiences of Western tourists may be alien to the locals.
To find the best deals, Sukrachand says you need to do some research on local tastes and prices. Having a baseline of what things cost is helpful to get the most bang for your buck. Finding the cheapest prices means getting away from the well-traveled tourist routes of Phnom Penh or Penang, and skipping the tuk-tuks near the famous temples.
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On a recent trip to Las Vegas, my no-Line hotel room with a Murphy bed cost $185 per night. A month before this, I paid $134 for a motel off the freeway in Iowa. For $10 less than my Iowa rate, I got a room with a sitting room and two balconies overlooking the canal at the Siamotif Boutique Hotel in Bangkok.
I followed the advice of Katie Carew, senior travel consultant with the Travel Edge Network, who told me that local brands offer better value than international brands. I arrived at Siamotif, a traditional Thai wooden house with seven guest rooms, each with its own name and design. Technically, it was a three-star property but it had a “superior” rating on Booking.com. Every morning, my breakfast was made from scratch; Thai omelette 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 bargain market. The country has a large number of tourist accommodation facilities, and the hotel industry continues to grow, according to an analysis by Krungsri Thai bank. I could have found cheap hotels, even those in the city center or in nice looking tall buildings. More expensive options can be found near tourist hotspots – such as prices rising the closer you get to the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Waikiki beach – or with international brands.
“Whether you’re in New York City or Switzerland or Vietnam, the luxury hotel is the same all over the world,” Carew said.
In Vietnam, I wanted to travel between taking the night train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. I might go to the Vedanā Lagoon Resort & Spa near Danang, where villas run over $200 a night. Instead of making a vacation, I went to their sister resort, Pilgrimage Village Boutique Resort & Spa in Hue. Upon entering, the staff gave me some tapioca and banana snacks, a cup of ginger tea and a dried hand towel. My “Deluxe Double” room – a short walk from the pool and spa – was $96 and came with free breakfast, morning tai chi and yoga, and a 30-minute spa voucher.
I was blown away by the misleading pictures of local hotels and their descriptions. In Phuket, my $76-a-night “boutique” hotel turned out to be a wet cement cube with a hard bed – not by accident. And in Hanoi, my $30 hotel “Superior room” had no window and was so small that I couldn’t open the door.
Khoa Nguyen, who owns the Vietnam tour company Country Tours with his wife, Michelle, says luxury hotels have fared better since the pandemic than others. “Most of the two-, three-, four-star hotels haven’t arrived yet,” Nguyen said. “Five stars are reliable.”
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Quality is the cornerstone of tourism in Southeast Asia, but not only for tourists. “Massage is not very popular in Thailand,” Sukrachand said. “It’s something that people across the country — even in rural areas — have built their culture on.”
I exercised during the day in Bangkok and Phuket to help with jet lag and recover from full days of travel. Instead of going to luxury hotels where the prices were close to what I would get back home in DC, I went with a small place that catered to locals and tourists. I paid $5 for a 30 minute foot massage, $8 for a one hour massage and $55 for a full body oil massage at a high end spa in a private room.
The further away from the tourist areas, the better the prices. In the market between the college and the clinic, I found an $18 manicure and pedicure that was so good, I had to leave a comment.
In Vietnam, I needed another gym after about two weeks of eating and sweating on the back of motorbikes in humid cities. To deal with my acne problem, I searched on Google Maps to find a “medical spa” in Hanoi and got an appointment the same day to see a dermatologist. For $21, I consulted a doctor, was given a one-hour treatment from a therapist who heated and massaged my face, pore-extracted, applied a thick goopy mask and finished with LED light therapy.
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I arrived in Vietnam and planned to eat, especially in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese American writer Dan Dao, who lives there, named the only place in his list of the 50 Best Asian Restaurants in Vietnam while in the city.
That restaurant is Anan, where a 10-course tasting menu costs $100 — a fraction of the $425, 10-course tasting menu at another Top 50 restaurant, SingleThread Farm in California. However, I chose to order from the a la carte menu. My pint of gin, a glass bottle of sparkling water, three plates, tax and service came to $47, my most expensive meal of the trip. I made up for that by having a $2 banh mi lunch the next day.
While high-end restaurants cater to the wealthy, travelers and expats, Vietnam’s street food and mom-and-pop shops are for everyone, even those who can afford fine dining, says Dao. You’ll find the city’s affluent people eating at cheaper places “because the quality is so good for this type of food,” he said.
Mr. Dao says that like in the United States, there is a perception in Vietnam that certain Asian foods – such as street food – should be cheap, which can only be enjoyed by business owners. But in Vietnam, it may be easier to keep prices low when businesses can operate from home or without a brick-and-mortar store and “the cost of goods is very low,” Dao said.
After dinner at Anan, I decided to go to award-winning bars like Nhau Nhau or Alley, where local bar prices are $5 to $6; and the equivalent in DC would be $14. In Bangkok, prices are slightly higher in restaurants and high-end restaurants in the city. “The food and restaurants in Bangkok are now as good if not better than New York City,” said Sukrachand, based on the design and quality, as well as the cuisine that goes beyond Thai food.
You can hop around the city’s best bars like Tep Bar and Tropic City for $12 a drink. Tastings 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 out for lunch a la carte. At a restaurant on the beach in Phuket, I had an amazing plate of stir-fried in a sweet chile sauce, a large yellow crab curry, rice and beer for $22. At the Thai place across the street from my apartment in DC, curries start at $16.
Private tours aren’t just for wealthy tourists
Sukrachand told me that in Thailand, “some of the best food is the cheapest food, but … without someone showing you, you can’t find it.” It was a good reminder to book food tours for my trip. For $25, I joined a group tour of Hanoi and ate delicious food at seven places that I would not have been able to find on my own. For $65, I booked a private half-day tour of Hue with Nguyen’s In Country Tours. The extra $40 made my experience much more than I paid for.
When the rich travel, they don’t do it in droves. They go private – private apartments, private guides, private flights. A traveler can taste that in Southeast Asia.
For $17, my Bangkok hotel offered an airport shuttle service, the kind where the driver waits at the terminal with your name on a sign and gives you cold water in the car. For $23, I took a Muay Thai class in Phuket with special instruction. My private tour of Hue was $65 and included transportation to and from my hotel, plus dinner at Anthony Bourdain’s restaurant. I didn’t feel like a stranger; I felt like a celebrity with a fix.
All of these cost more than the cheaper options, but paying less went a long way.