Essential knowledge for the adventurous or budget traveller in Vietnam, ‘nhà nghi’ means ‘guest house’ in Vietnamese. However, this form of reasonably-priced accommodation often goes unnoticed by foreign travellers because the signs are almost always in Vietnamese. But, once you commit the word ‘nhà nghỉ’ to memory, you’ll find cheap, comfortable and generally good-quality rooms across the entire nation. Very few places, no matter how remote, are lacking a decent nhà nghỉ. All you have to do to find one is look out for the signs.
In particular, nhà nghỉ are indispensable for those travelling through Vietnam by motorbike, as it means you can take roads less travelled and still be confident of finding a place to sleep at the end of a long day in the saddle. The majority of nhà nghỉ are cosy, family-run places with lots of local character, but some of them have a seedy underside which has (unfairly) tarnished the reputation of nhà nghỉ as a whole. On this page I give a general introduction to nhà nghỉ: what to look out for, what to avoid, what to expect, how much they cost, and some of their quirks. I’ve travelled all over Vietnam and it would not have been possible without the hundreds of nhà nghỉ I’ve stayed in along the way. Familiarize yourself with nhà nghỉ and it’ll open up travel opportunities all over the country.
WHAT ARE NHÀ NGHỈ?
Guest House or Love Hotel?
Mention the word ‘nhà nghỉ’ to most young Vietnamese people and you’ll receive a bashful giggle. Literally translated ‘nhà nghỉ’ is ‘rest house’, but over the years it has become a euphemism for ‘love hotel’. In some urban centres nhà nghỉ rent rooms by the hour to young couples looking for some private romance away from the ever-watchful eyes of their family, or, in some cases, they serve as brothels for drunken businessmen.
Naturally, it’s best to avoid these love hotel-style nhà nghỉ. You can usually tell if a nhà nghỉ is operating as a love hotel, because the room rates will be displayed by the hour rather than by the night. However, this isn’t always the case: Many nhà nghỉ live up to their name as ‘rest houses’ by offering rooms by the hour to weary travellers who want to break their long journey with a nap and a shower during the hottest part of the day, before continuing on their way refreshed in the cooler temperatures of the afternoon. This is a very civilized concept, especially in a country where the majority of people travel by motorbike, totally exposed to the elements. I’ve taken advantage of hourly rates many times in order to have a shower and freshen up after spending the previous night camping in the open.
A good way to determine whether a nhà nghỉ is a genuine guest house or a love hotel is to ask to see the room before agreeing to take it. If the room has a full-length mirror hung horizontally on the wall next to the bed, and there are semi-erotic, Baywatch-esque photographs on the wall, it’s safe to assume that this is a room for activities other than sleeping. However, the vast majority of nhà nghỉ are nothing like this.
The Best Accommodation in Vietnam:
In terms of value for money nhà nghỉ offer some of the best accommodation in Vietnam. I’ve stayed in hundreds of places all over the country, but – aside from a couple of particularly good high-end resorts – nothing is as satisfying to me as finding a great-value local guest house, particularly when it’s in a remote and beautiful part of the country that has yet to see tourist development.
Nhà nghỉ are essentially mini-hotels. Once you start looking out for signs saying ‘Nhà Nghỉ’ you’ll find them everywhere; by the beach, in the mountains and valleys, in big cities and tiny hamlets. They come in many forms: four-storey town houses in city centres, European-style alpine villas in the Central Highlands, wooden homes with thatched roofs in fertile valleys, and dorm-style rooms by the side of national highways.
What’s the difference between a nhà nghỉ and a cheap hotel? Well, not much, but generally the former are small, family-run operations with a more ‘homey’, intimate feel than the latter. Catering to travelling business people, solo travellers, or families breaking the journey from one province to another, nhà nghỉ are generally friendly, welcoming, cheap, and well-equipped: Almost all nhà nghỉ have free access to Wi-Fi (which is more than can be said for some high-end hotels); rooms are usually clean and, in some cases, very spacious; satellite TVs and en suite bathrooms with hot water are the norm, and sometimes there’s even a modest minibar. The Vietnamese have a phrase, đầy đủ tiện nghi, which, roughly translated, means ‘everything you need’, and this is a standard that most nhà nghỉ meet.
That’s not to say that everything is always perfect when staying in a nhà nghỉ. There are some common quirks and inconveniences at many local guest houses: Although there may be several lights and lamps in your room it’s unlikely that more than one will actually work; if the previous guest was a middle-aged Vietnamese businessman then the lingering smell of their cheap cigarettes will be your first impression of the room; remote controls for TVs rarely work and even if they do only three of the advertised 60 channels are available. But these are minor inconveniences and ones that you’d expect to find in any budget accommodation.
Prices vary but a good general indication is 150,000-500,000vnđ ($7-$25) per night, based on a single room with one bed at the lower end of the scale to a family room with two or three beds at the higher end. A bit of polite bargaining is the norm, especially if you arrive late in the evening and are planning of leaving early the next morning; it’s worth trying to shave a dollar of two off the room price. Other bargaining tools include, asking for the price of a room without air-con (fan only) or without hot water or private bathroom. In general nhà nghỉ are excellent-value accommodation.
The Key to Off the Beaten Track Travel:
Nhà nghỉ are everywhere. Even in the farthest-flung northern and southern extremes of the country or along the remote western borders with Laos and Cambodia, you’ll find decent local guest houses. Travellers who know about nhà nghỉ can broaden their horizons when choosing where to travel in Vietnam, especially if you are on a motorbike road trip and really want to get off the beaten track. Save for a few extremely remote areas – notably a stunning section of the Western Ho Chi Minh Road in Quảng Bình Province – if there’s a settlement of any significance then there’ll be a nhà nghỉ waiting for you. Bear in mind that English may be limited, and it is often necessary to do some polite bargaining for the price of your room before you take it.
A friend of mine who loved travelling by motorbike in Vietnam once told me he’d never dared to stay in a nhà nghỉ. I told him that some of the best places I’d stayed in the country were nhà nghỉ, and that I couldn’t see how anyone could really explore Vietnam without the use of them. Nhà nghỉ open the door to much deeper exploration of Vietnam, and give the adventurous traveller greater freedom of movement.
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