Seek five-star treatment at two-star prices in Thailand and Vietnam
But Southeast Asia’s reputation for affordable luxury isn’t necessarily a myth, especially when compared to other popular destinations. According to hotel data and analytics firm STR, the average nightly room rate at a Bangkok hotel was $126 in January, down from $151 in London, $391 in Hawaii and $145 in Tokyo.
Unlike elsewhere, “$100 a night in most parts of Thailand gets you really, really good stuff,” says furniture designer Robert Sukrachand, who commutes frequently to and from Thailand. Mai and New York.
There are a number of factors driving down prices in the region, such as how far the U.S. dollar has gone, labor costs and the lower cost of living in much of Southeast Asia compared to the U.S. As with many other tourist-heavy destinations, what’s a bargain for Western tourists can be out of reach for many locals.
To find deals, you’ll have to do some research on local favorites and price norms, says Sukrachand. Knowing a baseline of how things cost can help you get the most value from your travels. Finding lower prices often means veering off the beaten tourist trails of Phnom Penh or Penang, and skipping the tuk-tuks closest to popular temples.
Dos and Don’ts About Obtaining a US Passport in 2023
If you want to save money on hotels, look for boutique hotels
On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I spent $185 a night in a hotel room with a Murphy bed. The month before that, I had rented a motel off a freeway in Iowa for $134. I got a suite with a living room and two balconies overlooking the canal at the Siamotif Boutique Hotel in Bangkok for $10 less than what I paid in Iowa.
I took the advice of Katie Carew, a luxury travel consultant with Travel Edge Network, who told me that local brands offer better prices than international brands. I ended up at Siamotif, a traditional Thai wooden house with seven rooms, each with its own name and unique design. Technically this is a 3 star hotel but has an “excellent” rating on Booking.com. Every morning, my free breakfast was made from scratch; one day it was a Thai omelet with red curry and chicken, and the next day it was rice and vegetables.
When it comes to hotels in Bangkok, it’s a buyer’s market. According to an analysis by Krungsri Thai Bank, the country has an oversupply of traveler accommodation and the hotel industry is continuing to expand. I could have found a cheaper hotel, even one in the city center or in a trendy high rise with a great view. It’s possible to find pricier options closer to tourist hotspots — just as prices go up the closer you get to the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the beaches of Waikiki — or international brands.
“Whether you’re in New York City, Switzerland or Vietnam, the prices for the highest tier hotels around the world are pretty much the same,” Carew said.
In Vietnam, I wanted to splurge between overnight trains from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. I could go all out at the Vedanā Lagoon Resort & Spa near Da Nang, where overwater villas cost just over $200 a night. Instead of pretending to be on a honeymoon, I went to their sister property, the Pilgrimage Village Boutique Resort & Spa in Hue. When I checked in, the staff gave me a tapioca and banana dessert, a cup of ginger tea and a chilled hand towel. My “Deluxe Double Room” — a short walk from the pool and swim-up bar — cost $96 and included a breakfast buffet, morning tai chi and yoga, and a 30-minute spa voucher.
I did get bothered by some of the misleading photos and descriptions of local hotels. In Phuket, my $76-a-night “boutique hotel” turned out to be a damp concrete cube with a hard bed — and not in a chicly minimalist way. In Hanoi, my $30 hotel “superior room” had no windows and was so small I could barely open the door.
Khoa Nguyen, who co-owns Vietnam tour company In Country Tours with his wife Michelle, said luxury hotels have fared better than others since the pandemic. “Many two-star, three-star and four-star hotels are not up to par,” Nguyen said. “Five-star hotel is more reliable.”
What I learned on my two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia
Seek self-care where the 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 across the country — even in rural areas — have baked into their culture.”
I’ve had afternoon massages in Bangkok and Phuket to help with jet lag and recovery from a long day of walking. Instead of going to luxury hotels that are priced close to my home in DC, I opted for smaller places that cater 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 in a more upscale spa in a private room.
The farther you are from the tourist area, the better the price. In the market between a college and a hospital, I got a $18 manicure and pedicure that was so perfect I had to leave a review.
After nearly two weeks of eating out in Vietnam, I needed a different kind of spa treatment Sweating on a motorcycle in a humid city. To deal with my acne flare-ups, I googled “medical spas” in Hanoi and found a same-day dermatologist appointment. For $21, I had a doctor’s consultation, an hour-long treatment with a licensed nurse, a face steam and massage, some pore extractions, a thick sticky peel-off mask, and finally a LED light therapy.
How Chefs Can Find Restaurants When Traveling
Moderately priced world-class dining
I land in Vietnam ready to eat, especially in Ho Chi Minh City. Dan Dao, a Vietnamese-American writer based there, notes that the only place on Vietnam’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants is in the city.
That restaurant is Anan, where a 1-course tasting menu costs $100—a fraction of the $425 10-course tasting menu at SingleThread Farm, another Top 50 restaurant. Nevertheless, I opted for the a la carte menu. My elaborate gin cocktail, carafe soda, three course meal, tax and service came to $47, by far the most expensive meal of my trip. I had a $2 banh mi lunch the next day to offset that.
While high-end restaurants cater to wealthy locals, international tourists and expats, Vietnam’s street food and mom-and-pop restaurants cater to everyone, even those who can afford better restaurants, Dao said. You’ll find the city’s wealthy eating out at cheap places, “because the quality of the dishes is the best,” he said.
Just like in the U.S., Vietnamese believe that certain Asian foods — like street food — should be cheap, which can limit business owners, Dao said. But in Vietnam, when businesses can operate from home or without a brick-and-mortar store, it’s easier to lower prices, and “the cost of goods is lower,” Dao said.
After dinner at Anan, I consider going to award-winning bars like Nhau Nhau or The Alley, where cocktails average $5 to $6; Equivalent to $14 in DC. In Bangkok, prices are slightly higher at the city’s top bars and restaurants. “Bangkok’s food and cocktail scene is now as good as New York City’s, if not better,” Sukrachand says, both in terms of design and quality, and in terms of cuisine beyond Thai cuisine.
For $12 a glass, you can hit some of the city’s best cocktail bars like Tep Bar and Tropic City. One-Michelin-star Nahm’s elaborate tasting menus run between $75 and $93; a few years ago, my mom and I saved the bill by ordering lunch. For $22 at a seaside restaurant in Phuket, I ate a delicious plate of fried clams in a sweet chili sauce, a hunk of yellow crab curry, rice and beer. At the Thai restaurant across the street from my DC apartment, curries start at $16.
Private tours aren’t just for wealthy tourists
In Thailand, Sukrachand told me, “some of the best food is some of the cheapest, but…you won’t necessarily find it if you don’t have someone to show you around.” It’s a good Reminder, some food tours can be booked in my travels. For $25, I took a guided tour of Hanoi and ate delicious food at seven places I would never have found on my own. I booked a half day private tour in Hue with Nguyen’s In Country Tours for $65. The extra $40 made the experience feel above my pay grade.
Rich people travel, not with the masses. They go private—private villas, private guides, private jets. Regular travelers can get a taste of it in Southeast Asia.
For $17, my hotel in Bangkok can arrange a private airport transfer with a driver waiting at the terminal with your name on it and cold water in the car. For $23, I took a private Muay Thai lesson in Phuket. My private tour in Hue was $65, including transportation to and from the hotel, and a meal at Anthony Bourdain’s. I don’t feel like a tourist; I feel like a celebrity with a fixer.
All of these are more expensive than the lowest-priced options, but paying a little more goes a long way.