Right now I live abroad on a tiny island off the coast of Northern Vietnam, and my monthly expenditures total about $662 – for everything.
After spending 4 months straight traveling nonstop throughout Asia (while working full time, mind you!) I needed to recover, recoup, and stay put for a hot second.
That also meant I needed to choose a place where it was easy to get a visa, easy to find affordable accommodation, and easy to save money for future travels later this year.
Vietnam was the 3rd country I’d visited in as many months, but by the time I crossed over into Cambodia from Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta region, I was not ready to leave.
The country was so vast, so varied, so rich and diverse that one month wasn’t enough to begin to scratch the surface of all Vietnam had to offer.
My original plan had been to move on to Thailand as soon as my Cambodian visa expired, but as my days in Siem Reap came to a close, I felt called back to Cat Ba.
Cat Ba is an island off the Northern Coast of Vietnam. Its craggly limestone cliffs are perhaps the most photographed natural phenomenon in the world – I’m actually looking at them out my window as I write this sentence.
Cat Ba Town is a small fishing village on the southern side of the island. In the past decade, it’s been built up ferociously to cater to hordes of Vietnamese tourists who descend upon the island in massive droves each year beginning in June.
But the town itself is anything but touristy. There’s not much to do here, besides take a boat tour of Ha Long Bay, rent a motorbike and explore the surrounding hillsides, or hike up to Canon Fort for breathtaking views of the East China Sea (sorry to my Vietnamese friends – the East Sea.)
Saigon was more exciting, Da Nang had better beaches, and Hoi An positively dripped with charm. Besides, there were so many places I hadn’t yet been to in Vietnam – Da Lat, Sa Pa, Hue, Nah Trang…the list of “don’t miss” places I had missed the first time around was extensive.
So why return to a place I’d already been?
Because in addition to being beautiful in a dark, romantic, even tragic kind of way, and in addition to great weather, and in addition to being home to some of the friendliest locals I’ve encountered on my journey, Cat Ba is friggin’ CHEAP.
And this is coming from someone who just spent a month in Nepal, one of the cheapest countries in the world for budget travelers.
I don’t consider myself a backpacker, and I don’t go out of my way to spend as little as possible. I work as I travel, so I’m not on a fixed income and I can always make more money if need be.
I get private rooms instead of dorm rooms, I mix street food with restaurant fare, and if I can afford it and it’ll save me time, I’m quick to opt for a plane over a bus ticket.
But Cat Ba is so cheap, you automatically become a budget traveler without even trying.
The first time I stayed here, I rented a room at the Alibaba Hotel, which is on the main road facing the harbor. My high-rise, ocean-view room with en suite bathroom and two double beds cost $5/night.
I wondered if I could get it for cheaper. Not because I can’t afford $5/night, but because ever since I met some professional budget travelers in Nepal, I realized what a fun game budget travel can be.
My friends would one up each other constantly, asking “How much is your guest house?” And then, “Oh yeah? Well my guest house is only $2 a night, and I have hot water!”
I knew I planned to stay in Cat Ba long-term (which, in travel terms, is anything longer than a few days’ stay). I wrote to the guest house owner and asked what he could do for me.
Here was his offer:
$3/night during the month of April
$9/night during the “high season” of May and June
He actually apologized to me for tripling the price, explaining that it was very busy during that time, and that “regular” customers would be charged $40/night.
That makes my monthly rent average out to $216/month.
As if that weren’t awesome enough, everything else on Cat Ba is cheap too.
I spend about $12/day on food and drink, and could easily spend less if I chose cheaper restaurants. (alas, I’m a sucker for ambiance. And dynamite spring rolls.)
That brings us to $588 for rent and food. So what other expenses do I have?
- I pay nothing for utilities since those are included in the hotel room (hot water, electricity, WiFi, etc.).
- I pay nothing for transportation because the town is small enough to walk anywhere, or I can hop on a motortaxi for a few thousand dong.
- I spend about $10/month on things like shampoo, soap, and other toiletries.
- I spend 100,000 dong (about $5) per month on a prepaid data plan for my cell phone. This comes in handy when the power goes out and there is no WiFi.
- Visa fees: I paid $130 for a three-month Vietnam visa, which averages out to about $43/month.
- I spend roughly $6/month on laundry
- Oh, and I spent $10 on a Vietnamese make over, so I’ll throw that in there too.
Grand Total: $662
Now, if I had no debt or other bills to pay back home, I could truly live a backpacker lifestyle in Cat Ba.
Unfortunately I have a big fat student loan payment that’s due each month, plus credit card debt and other expenses related to running this site.
But only having to spend $662 to live allows me to focus on writing my book and running this website.
If you’re looking to pay off debt while living a great quality of life in one of the most beautiful places on earth, I can’t recommend Cat Ba enough.
But if you do decide to come here, don’t tell anyone else, ok? I don’t want this place to lose its small town charm and become another Luang Prabang.
1. When looking to live cheap abroad, it's all about location.
2. There are cheap places just about everywhere - Vietnam isn't considered the cheapest place in SE Asia by any means, and yet it's been even cheaper to stay here than in Nepal.
3. Make friends with locals! Many people will give you a discount if you return to their hotel a second time, or if you're staying long-term.
4. Places that are slightly less touristy and difficult to get to will always be cheaper (but not less beautiful!)
Want to dig deeper? Go for it!