Vietnam should have been the cheapest country in Southeast Asia that we visited. The food, hotels and activities were the same or even cheaper than in Thailand. But getting around, i.e. the transportation, turned out to be quite a bit more expensive. Whereas we found the intercity bus system in Thailand to be efficient and safe, the buses in Vietnam are just fast. Too fast, dangerously so. More on that below, but the gist is that we spent more to get around Vietnam safely, which drove the overall price up a bit. But still, who can complain too much when you can spend just $37 per day for two people to travel around a whole country?
- Lodging: $13/day. We mostly got private rooms in inexpensive, but highly rated, guesthouses. We used hotels.com as much as possible, because they give you a free night for every 10 nights you book. We found the quality of hotels in general in Vietnam to be better, for less money, than in the rest of Southeast Asia. We often found ourselves remarking about how cheap the hotels were for how nice they were. Many hotels even include breakfast for free, so that's something to look for when booking.
- Food: $9/day. Pho (noodle soup) for breakfast. Bahn Mi (sandwiches) for lunch. Fried noodles or soup or Bot Chien (fried tofu) or something even more exotic for dinner. Lots of Vietnamese coffee. We stuck to local food - we didn't want the "full american meals" anyways. Food catered for tourists is always more expensive. Most plates of local dishes cost $1 - $1.50 USD. A fresh fruit shake or coffee costs $0.50 - $1 USD. Compared to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam's food is a bit cheaper and just as tasty!
- Activities: $3/day. We spent our time walking around cities (Ha Noi, Hoi An and Nha Trang in particular are great to wander in), visiting museums (typical entrance fee of $1-2), grabbing a beer (Vietnam has the world's cheapest beer - its not hard in certain cities to find a glass of Bia Hoi for $0.20 USD, and its not half bad either!), and on our week-long cycle tour down Vietnam's Highway 1. Read more about that here, but as far as the costs go, we bought and outfitted bikes for a net after we sold them again of just $97. We did also pay for a relatively more expensive ($10 each) kayak tour in Lan Ha Bay and to see the Citadel in Hue ($7 each). All in all, its easy to see and experience the country on a tight budget!
- Transportation: ($11/day). To get around Vietnam (not including getting to the country in the first place, or leaving after we were done), we mostly took buses for short trips between cities, but flew the longer legs between Ha Noi and Hue, and Dalat and Saigon. You see, we had gotten advice from other travelers about how dangerous the buses in Vietnam are. And after a few first hand experiences, we learned those other folks were not wrong! So we decided to fork out a bit more to have a safer and faster trip on those longer legs. If you're not worried about the long bus trips, you can shave a few dollars off and spend around $8/day on travel within the country.
- Other: ($1/day). Everything else from laundry ($1/kg) to using a public toilet ($0.10).
All told, we cannot recommend Vietnam enough as a budget travel destination, though of course your costs to get there could be the deciding factor on whether its worth it for you. Once in the country, its exceptionally affordable, with great food, nice people, and lots to do!