How I Used Miles to Book a Life-Changing Trip to Vietnam, Spending Less Out of Pocket Than My Expenses Back Home
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Alex: When I look back on my favorite trips of all time, I have several that make the list. But there is one trip which stands out in my mind because of the perspective it gave me on life. It was a truly life-changing trip to Vietnam.
I believe that everyone should travel to this country at least once during their life, and I want to show you how you can use points and miles from the best credit cards for travel to start planning it today.
Vietnam is a traveling experience that is unique from other destinations around the world. I’ll show you how I used credit card points to get there, so you can fall in love with this country when you go there yourself.
The Inspiration for This Trip to Vietnam
When I announced my Vietnam trip to friends and family, I basically got the same reaction from everybody: “Why Vietnam”? I didn’t have a good answer for them. A lot of the inspiration for this trip came from an interview I watched with the late Anthony Bourdain who stated that of all the travels he has ever done, no country touched him more than Vietnam.
Apart from Bourdain’s glowing recommendation and my desire to travel to Asia, I didn’t have anything specifically planned to do when I got there. I simply wanted to experience it, and see where the trip brought me.
Planning Your Adventure
Life in Vietnam is simple and the cost of living there is extremely low. You will find that after you get there, your daily travel expenses will most likely be lower than your daily expenses back home.
Flying to Vietnam
By far the majority of your total trip expense will be the airfare getting to Vietnam. While Vietnam sounds incredibly difficult to travel to, you might be surprised how easy it is to get to using miles and points you already have.
When traveling to Vietnam internationally, you will want to fly into the Tan Son Nhat International airport, usually referred to as Ho Chi Minh City airport (SGN). This is the largest airport in Vietnam and is only 4 miles away from District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City which is basically the city center. The airport has 2 main terminals and is surprisingly modern and clean.
Folks using miles or points for travel to Vietnam should consider Singapore Airlines and Korean Air. Those of you looking to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points or United Airlines miles will be able to find great award deals through either airline.
Folks with Delta miles should consider flights with Korean Air because virtually all of Delta’s codeshare flights to Vietnam use this airline. It’s easy to earn Delta miles with American Express Delta cards, or by transferring AMEX Membership Rewards points from cards like The Business Platinum® Card, The Platinum Card, or Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express.
Other airlines to consider:
- Cathay Pacific
- Eva Air
- Japan Airlines
- China Airlines
I used 64,000 Alaska Airlines miles to fly an A380 round-trip on Korean Air in coach. I flew from Seattle to Seoul and then connected on another Korean Air flight from Seoul to Ho Chi Minh City. Despite the long flight and coach seating, Korean Air delivered one of the best long-haul flights I have ever flown.
It’s easy to fly to Vietnam with just one welcome bonus from a card like the Ink Business Preferred. You can earn 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening. This would be enough points to fly round-trip to Vietnam on Singapore Airlines.
Another excellent option for flying to Vietnam is with a limited-time welcome bonus offer (ends August 8, 2018) for The Business Platinum® Card from American Express. You can earn up to 100,000 AMEX Membership Rewards points after meeting tiered spending requirements on this card. Check out our review of this card to see if its right for you.
Getting Around Vietnam
Transportation in Vietnam is primarily done on mopeds. The sea of mopeds and the constant hum of their engines while walking around Ho Chi Minh City will hypnotize you.
But before you think about renting a moped… stop! As a local told me, I would probably die. The chaos of the streets here just make it far too dangerous for a foreigner to rent a moped. However, Ho Chi Minh is actually a very condensed city and is very pedestrian friendly, so there is really no need for anything other than walking.
As I left Ho Chi Minh to explore the country of Vietnam, I was able to hire a private driver for a whole day (12 hours) for the equivalent of just $60 including gas and tip. He waited for me outside of museums, took me to the best lunch spots, and tried to explain certain sights to me in English (of which I understood about 20%).
Food in Vietnam
The food in Vietnam is incredible. As I always recommend, look for places that are teeming with locals, and eat there. Yelp is available in Vietnam and there are English language reviews from expats and other travelers that you can always fall back on. But these will be in the more commercialized spots of town, and part of the experience of Vietnam is giving yourself up to the journey.
You will find no shortage of spots for banh mi sandwiches and pho noodles no matter where you go. I just waited until I felt hungry then I found the nearest place to get a warm meal. I never once left disappointed. Meals at restaurants rarely cost more than ~$6, with many street vendors selling meals for ~$1.
Using your Chase Sapphire Preferred card for dining purchases can earn you 2X Chase Ultimate Rewards points per $1 spent at restaurants, making it a good choice for food in Vietnam.
What to Do in Vietnam?
It’s hard to visit Ho Chi Minh City (previously known as Saigon) without being confronted by the scars it shows of previous conquerings. First by the Japanese, then the French, and then the Americans during the Vietnam war (what locals call “the American War”).
Vietnamese architecture was mostly influenced by the French as they occupied Ho Chi Minh City during its early growth. There are opera houses, bathhouses, and the French post office which look like they were transplanted directly from Paris and plopped in the middle of Asia. The juxtaposition of it all makes for incredible photos.
The French even built a 1:1 replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral in the center of Saigon using 100% materials imported from France. You will walk by this many times while visiting the city today.
A visit to the “War Remnants Museum” might change your perspective on the Vietnamese / American war and the American Exceptionalism we were taught in history class. Seeing the Vietnamese perspective on the war brought me to tears multiple times.
Of all my travels, no experience has ever touched me as much as the Chu Chi Tunnels. About an hour’s drive from Ho Chi Minh City, it was the center of the Vietnam War conflict. The Viet Cong soldiers built an elaborate network of tunnels more than 120 miles long and 3 stories deep to live and survive. Entire cities existed underground during the war in claustrophobic conditions at risk of flood, asphyxiation, and disease. There is an outdoor shooting range here, with era-specific rifles being shot. So the sounds are real as you navigate tunnels and learn how an entire generation of people fought to survive.
Most museums / attractions cost ~$1 to ~$2.
Incredibly affordable, so there is no excuse not to check them out.
Where to Stay in Vietnam?
Hotels in Vietnam are extremely affordable as well. I stayed at a 5-star Sofitel one night for $100, but most nights I spent $60 to $80 for 3.5 to 4-star accommodations. I highly recommend the Rex Hotel because of its historical significance during the war. Its location is smack dab in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, and you can eat at the historic rooftop bar where the famous 5 O’Clock Follies took place by American Generals during the war.
I mostly chose to book hotels through online travel sites where I could pay in US dollars and knew what I was getting before I got there. The more premium hotels like Sofitel and Rex Hotel have English speaking staff and will help you translate deals with locals for excursions like my trip out to Chu Chi Tunnels.
In cases like this, you could use the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card a dedicated Hotels.com link to book and pay for hotels to earn 10X Venture Miles per $1 spent (through January 31, 2020). This could add up to some serious rewards during your trip.
There are a lot of independent hotels in Vietnam, but you can still use Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal to find and book these rooms. Here are some of the chain hotels in Ho Chi Minh City that I’d recommend:
- Park Hyatt Saigon – This stunning hotel is a category 4 Hyatt hotel, and costs 15,000 Hyatt points per night. You could redeem a free night certificate here from the brand new World of Hyatt card (our review of the World of Hyatt card)
- InterContinental Hotel Saigon: Another conveniently located and beautiful hotel that you can find for 35,000 IHG points per night. Folks who have the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card can use their free night voucher here.
- Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon: A Marriott hotel that is just 25,000 Marriott points per night. The welcome bonus from the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus card (our review of the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus) earns you 100,000 Marriott bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months of account opening. This is enough to stay for 4 nights with points and get the 5th award night free with the 5th award night perk (restictions may apply).
Don’t forget to compare the paid cash rate (because it can be quite cheap in Vietnam) to the award night rate and do what makes the most sense. Some nights I found that I was better off earning points, than spending points for hotels.
While I tend to gravitate towards more adventure style vacations, my trip to Vietnam was an incredible cultural experience that I will never forget.
I used 64,000 Alaska Airlines miles to get round-trip coach airfare on Korean Air. Using miles and points to cover your airfare can make a trip to Vietnam an incredibly inexpensive experience. You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Singapore Airlines for great deals to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Delta miles and AMEX Membership Rewards points are useful for getting tickets on Korean Air or other Skyteam partners.
Other great airline options:
- Cathay Pacific
- EVA Air
- Japan Airlines
- China Airlines
Aside from airfare, most other expenses are minimal and will likely cost less than your daily living expenses back home. Expect to average under $10 a day in food and $60 to $80 a day for good accommodations.
You could stay for free using hotel rewards cards:
- Park Hyatt Saigon – You could redeem an annual free night certificate from the brand new World of Hyatt card
- InterContinental Hotel Saigon: Just 35,000 IHG points per night. With the IHG Rewards Club Premier card you can use an annual free night certificate
- Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon: A Marriott hotel that is just 25,000 Marriott points per night. The welcome bonus from the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus card in combination with the 5th award night perk could earn you a full 5 days at this hotel
Vietnam is a favorite trip for many that are brave enough to travel there. You’ll meet the most humble and generous locals you have ever met, chow down on unique dishes, and explore some of the most inspiring stories told through Vietnamese history.
If you have traveled to Vietnam, please share your travel tips and recommendations with our readers in the comments below!
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