With the dollar more likely to crumble in the face of foreign currency exchange rates than rise mightily, you may have to fly halfway across the world in order to get your money's worth. For something completely different, beautiful, and mind-bending, the mostly Buddhist socialist republic of Vietnam, and perhaps even its neighbor, Cambodia, are extremely affordable destinations with friendly and curious citizens. Before you go, though, it wouldn't hurt to stock up on malaria pills and apply for a Vietnamese visa -- you'll need that in addition to a valid passport from your country of origin and you can't get in without both. But once you do, the dollar goes a long, long way. According to a representative from the Vietnamese Tourism Board (www.vietnamtourism.com), it's about $2 for a movie ticket, ten measly cents for bus fare, fifty cents for a cup of coffee, fifteen cents for a bottle of Beer Hanoi and $5 for a moderate, three-course dinner for one person, minus tip and alcohol. The exchange rate is approximately $1 equals 15,825 Vietnamese Dong. It sounds almost too good to be true.
Two packages offered by Djoser (tel. 877/356-7376; www.djoserusa.com) depart June 2 & 30 and August 4 & 25 for an 18-day excursion to Vietnam. There's also a 23-day trip that includes Cambodia, where interesting temples and pagodas await. The shoreline of the South China Sea, which you'll see on the way from Saigon to Hanoi, is dotted with unspoiled beaches and crystalline blue water. The trip's rates are $1,975 from New York and $1,925 from Los Angeles and the package include flights, transportation, hotels and a tour guide -- probably a smart idea if it's new to you. The trip begins in Hanoi and ends in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. If you opt for the 23-day trip that includes Cambodia, it costs $2,395 from New York and $2,345 from Los Angeles; you'll continue on past Ho Chi Minh City and depart from Siem Reap, if you're continuing to Cambodia. Breakfast is taken at the hotel and there are more than enough opportunities to try spring rolls, anything fragranced with herbs such as mint and lemongrass, but especially the noodle soup pho, of which there are dozens of varieties. The tour operators suggest bringing malaria pills and "strong" bug repellent for the evenings -- this is a tropical climate, after all. Their philosophy is "Freedom equals happiness," so they allow some time for exploring the verdant hills and rice paddies away from the group; you can also stick to the tour if you feel more comfortable. The guided tour includes stops at, among other places, the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the hill country Sa Pa via Lao Cai -- to take walking trips or visit primitive villages and an Orchard Garden and Thac Bac waterfall.
The California-based Adventure Center (tel. 800/228-8747; www.adventurecenter.com) offers over two dozen Vietnam Adventures, from brief to extensive, but all of them appear native, authentic, and are outfitted with an English-speaking "local leader." For example, the June 6-14 trip and September 12-20 trips to Secluded Sapa, cost a mere $595 and include arrival transfer, private vehicles, rail transportation, sightseeing and entrance fees, four nights in comfortable hotels, two in local guesthouses/village and two nights in overnight rail. Eight breakfasts, three lunches and two dinners are also part of the deal, but airfare, taxes, insurance, and visas are extra. The tour provides urban and bucolic destinations -- historic parks and buildings of Hanoi and mountainous countryside village called Sapa, in northwest Vietnam near the Chinese border. Some claim it is the most picturesque spot in the country. Another tour, called "Cycle Vietnam" is a 17-day excursion from Saigon to Hanoi that starts from $1,675 (that's American dollars). There are four departures -- June 4, July 2 & 30, August 27 -- and each one costs the same price, $1,675. For cyclists who tire, a back-up vehicle is included in your fee -- it isn't a race. Beginning in Ho Chi Minh City the trip goes through the highlands around Bao Loc, famous for waterfalls and tea plantations. Another ride includes the Ngoan Muc Pass, with views of the South China Sea and a section through small villages. The fee includes an English-speaking guide, the use of a mountain bike and spare parts, rail transportation, a private vehicle and all sightseeing fees and arrival transfer. As for accommodations, 11 nights in comfortable hotels, three nights are spent in basic hotels, and one night each in overnight rail and in a local guesthouse or village hut, for a touch of local color. Sixteen breakfasts, seven lunches and one dinner are included and the group is limited to 15 people. There are dozens more trips, including Classic Cambodia, a six-day excursion that includes a trip to revitalized capital Phnom Penh, the Mekong River, and Siem Reap, the latter of which is home to ancient temples. There are many departures -- May 15 & 29, June 12 & 26, July 10 & 31, August 14 & 28 -- all at the same $767 rate, and all of which include five breakfasts, one lunch, and five nights at a comfortable hotel and a flight from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.
This past December, United Airlines made history by offering the first U.S. commercial flight into Ho Chi Mink City since 1975, with a nonstop flight from San Francisco as one of their incentives to West Coast travelers. Now, its packaging arm, United Airlines Vacations (tel. 800/417-9246; www.unitedvacations.com) is offering a "Vietnam Explorer" trip to discover the highlights of the country, with 11 nights accommodation, round-trip airport transfers, tours and daily breakfast. Sightseeing includes a tour of Ho Chi Minh City, with Ben Thanh Market, Notre Dame Cathedral and other attractions. Gradually the tour winds out of the city to Hue, Hanoi and finally, Hong Kong for two days -- be sure not to miss Victoria Park, where in the early morning residents practice Tai Chi among the flowers. The flight details are complex; the prices listed on the United site are for departures from the West Coast and the deal lists prices for the low, shoulder and high seasons at a range of accommodations from standard to deluxe. During the shoulder season, which runs from April 1-June 30 and September 5-October 31, the standard accommodation package runs $1,195; airfare is another $1,385, from select departure points such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi to Hong Kong and Hong Kong back to the U.S. city of origin. For travelers during the high season -- July 1-September 4 and December 9-December 23 -- expect to pay $1440 for standard accommodations and $1,515 in airfare. The bargain-basement special, though is for departures on November 10 or December 1: $1,195 for standard accommodation and an astounding $860 for airfare, for a grand total of $2,055.United makes it easy though, with three different zones listed -- for departures from Atlanta, or Denver, or Miami, tack on an additional $132 to the publicized fare price. Note that the fares do not include taxes, are based on one person, and travel must be completed by March 31.
Friendly Planet Travel (tel. 800/555-5765; www.friendlyplanet.com) offers a spate of deals for Vietnam. A 17-day tour from $1,999 includes Vietnam, Angkor Wat and Bangkok, including airfare, accommodations, transfers and tours. For couples who book by May 31 they will take up to additional $1000 off. Depart from the U.S. and land in Hanoi, where an escort takes you to the Sofitel Plaza Hotel. Destinations include a boat trip in Halong Bay, a visit to the pottery village Bat Trang, a day trip to Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam and a stay at the Morin Hotel. From this point easily tour several other cities, and end up at Ho Chi Minh City where accommodations include the Saigon Equatorial Hotel, scarcely ten years old. Visit the remnants of the Vietnam War with a tour through the Cu Chi Tunnels, used by former Communist guerillas. Day trips to the fertile Mekong Delta, a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia to the temples of Angkor Wat -- one of the "Seven Wonders of the World." Finally, the Bangkok, Thailand portion of the trip involves a boat trip on Tenle Sap Lake, a day on your own in this city of about eight million -- roughly equivalent to that of New York City. Add $195 in taxes; add $100 for flights from New York; add $399 if you're flying and staying solo (all rates are based on double occupancy). Departures include round-trip airfare from Los Angeles via Korean Air, 30 meals, 14 breakfasts, 9 lunches and 7 dinners, deluxe and first class hotels with private baths, and an English-speaking tour guide. For the July 11 departure, with a return on July 27, the price is $2,499; take off $200 for trips booked by May 31. The discounts are even deeper if you travel in the fall: depart on October 17 and return November 2 and pay $1,999 if booked by May 31.
Now that you've got the deals, talk with fellow Frommer's readers on our Vietnam Message Boards today.