Finding value in lodging while road tripping across foreign lands

Nha Trang

Pool at Vien Dong Hotel in Nha Trang, Vietnam

I patiently listened while the receptionist at Madam Cuc Hotel in Saigon rattled through all the amenities of a room with private bath, AC, cable TV, internet, breakfast and dinner. Finally she quoted US$16 night. Did I hear that right—all that and dinner too? I turned to glance at my husband and his slight shrug told me that we should proceed so I asked to see the room. This one might beat all previous records for value, possibly setting a new standard for us.

Bedroom at Vinh Hung II Hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam

Bedroom at Vinh Hung II in Hoi An, Vietnam

Some people like tours, some favor all-inclusive packages and others tend toward cruises. We like to experience a variety of travel styles to spice things up. Sometimes we like to flop down on a beach at a luxury resort, but we also seek adventure, cultural exchange and best of all, road trips. When friends or strangers hear about our adventures roaming around the world we routinely are met with an incredulous look and a shake of the head. “I could never do that,” they’ll say. Or, “Were you on a tour? No? How do you know where to go?”

It’s actually quite simple but there are some requirements:

1)      Bring a guidebook, which has all the information you need to plan where to lay your head at night and quell hunger and thirst. We use Lonely Planet or Rough Guides, but there are many more out there.

2)      Travel light so you can be flexible and maneuverable

3)      Carry an open mind and sense of adventure

Vinh Hung II in Hoi An, Vietnam

Marble bathroom at Vinh Hung II Hotel in Hoi An

When planning a trip to a foreign country that involves multiple stops, such as a road trip in Costa Rica in a rented 4X4, or hops to different towns through south-central Vietnam, we, like many others, book the first night ahead of time. This is often the most expensive lodging we’ll have, but is worth it to assure a smooth start when jet lag, blast furnace temperatures  and culture shock can conspire to affect judgment and shorten tempers. We select a mid-range hotel from the guidebook, check on-line reviews which may or may not be helpful, and book the first night or two. If airport pickup is included all the better.

Finding inexpensive lodging becomes a game for us, and we try to beat previous rates or add amenities. Our preferences include a private bath, clean room, decent bed, TV, breakfast included and, in hot climates, air conditioning and pool. We don’t always get all preferences, especially in larger cities where lodging tends to be more expensive, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

Madam Cuc

Madam Cuc's in Saigon, spare furnishings but clean and comfortable

In Vietnam we started at $50 in Saigon for a room in the lovely Spring Hotel that was a bit worn but clean and comfortable, with private bath, AC, breakfast in a central location. At the Vien Dong Hotel in Nha Trang we paid US$30 for all that plus a large, competition sized pool  in an architecturally uninspired but functional concrete building one block from a beautiful miles-long beach near the center of town. In Hoi An we stayed in a beautifully appointed room at the Vinh Hung II Hotel for US$35, with bath clad entirely in marble, hardwood floors, hand carved furniture and small pool.

In Saigon, where we finished our trip, we put our skills to the test.  By this time we had collected recommendations from fellow travelers we met on a few day tours and didn’t rely on the guidebook as much. When we arrived in Saigon we decided to follow one of the tips we had received along the way. We followed the receptionist at Madam Cuc’s across the street, dodging a sea of motorbikes, walked through a small lobby housing a row of payphones, past a Chinese family eating dinner in their kitchen and up several flights of stairs. The room, one of two in the home of a family, was Spartan but spotlessly clean, as all our rooms were in Vietnam, and we agreed to the price.

Curious about dinner we decided to chance it, planning to supplement if necessary at any one of a number of nearby restaurants or street vendors. The included dinner wouldn’t win any culinary awards but was nourishing and filling, featuring ample freshly cooked pot stickers, a steaming bowl of ramen noodles with cabbage and unlimited bananas, supplemented with a Tiger beer from the cool case (not included).

Adventure doesn’t always involve hacking through jungles or scaling mountains. Sometimes the most rewarding travel involves taking chances and exposing oneself to traveling at a different pace. Travel doesn’t always have to be expensive and some of the best experiences arise from finding the best value.

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