• Khách sạn – hotel
  • Nhà nghỉ – motel

If you are a backpacker or digital nomad in Vietnam, a key skill is to discriminate between hotels (khách sạn), and motels (nhà nghỉ) and other lodges of ill-repute (wink wink).

Sometimes, the lodge’s name is a subtle clue about the type of clientele their targetting (e.g. A&EM Villa, see below), but often, you must see the premises to really know what’s going on in the dark.

The livability, quality, and respectability of Khách sạn vs Nhà nghỉ differ widely across regions and cities. In this post, we help you learn the difference between these types of hotels/motels, their pronunciation, and highlight a few key cultural insights about how Vietnamese consider these establishments.

TRAVEL TIP: see our recommendations about hotels in Hanoi, HCMC and Da Nang that are tourist-friendly and affordable (read below).

Pronunciation & Meaning of Khách Sạn (Hotels)

Khách has an up-tone, and sounds like “hack”. Sạn has a short down-tone (angry and halty); it sounds like “sa!”

Basically, khách sạn are normal hotels like you’d expect in any country.

Theoretically, khách sạn are higher quality lodges, with tourist amenities and services for short-term says, such as onsite cooks, motor-bike rental, refrigerators in room, writing desks, upholstered reading chairs, etc.

EXAMPLE: look for the hints that the Phu Nhuan hotel (Ho Chi Minh City) is legit and traveller-friend: spa-services, 3-star rating, proper meal services, promotional images emphasize traveller amenities — all these suggest it is not a seedy place for romantic encounters.

In reality, Vietnam’s true Khách sạn are only those with a star-rating above 3. Two-star or one-star hotels are more likely to be “hotels” in name only, and may be more like a nhà nghỉ. Even flashy, gorgeous-looking “boutique hotels” with exquisite interior decor may be actually a nhà nghỉ in disguise.

Pronunciation & Meaning of Nhà Nghỉ

Nhà has a down-tone and sounds like “nya” with a low-deep voice. Nghỉ has a weird-tone (our term). It sounds like ŋee.

LANGUAGE TIP: Beware the ŋ sound (written as ng) — it is nearly impossible for English-speakers to say correctly, or even hear correctly. We have an entirely post dedicated to trying to pronounce and hear the ŋ sound. Read more here.

In the past, nhà nghỉ were basically cheap motels: bare-bone lodges for short, impromptu stay. They lacked the amenities and services of proper hotels.

However, in big cities, nhà nghỉ slowly morphed into “love-motels” — lodges which mostly cater to couples who need an intimate get-away, rather than provide travel-stays for tourists. Some nhà nghỉ even advertise per-hour rates.

While this may seem seedy and uncouth, just keep in mind that the seediness spans a spectrum: from quasi-brothels, to places used by unmarried adults who need to alone from their parents (with whom they still live). Because living-with-parents is so common in Asian cultures, the nhà nghỉ fill a needed dating-niche that is less-common in American/Canadian culture.

As a backpacker or digital nomad, you may be enticed to stay at a nhà nghỉ because of its cheaper price. Generally, this won’t be a great experience for you: it’s unlikely that you’ll have nighttime solicitiations by unsavory characters (i.e. as commonly happens in neighbouring countries like China), but you’re likely to embarrass yourself to anyone else in Vietnamese society who learns where you are staying.

TRAVEL TIP: If someone is aggressively flirting with you at a Nhà Nghỉ, such as the female proprietress or a female staff, it’s not because you’re so charming and attractive. It’s because it is part of the Nhà Nghỉ business-model.

How to Avoid the Worse Nhà Nghỉ

There are four clues to notice so you can avoid the worst Nhà Nghỉ: i) suggestive online-images of “couple” paraphernalia and furniture; ii) proximity to karaoke-streets, iii) per-hour rates, and iv) romantic and/or sexually-suggestive names. Keep in mind the caveat to do with rural lodges.

In contrast to the list below, real hotels (but not all) will have proper tourist services and affectations, such as the classic wall of clocks from multiple time-zones, or an attached spa and restaurant, an affiliated travel-agent service, etc.

i) Watch-out for motels with suggestive images, furniture and couple’s paraphernalia

Some of the promotional images of being a love-motel, such as rose-petal dappled bed-sheets, or towels arrange as a pair-of-swans.

Other images are bold and not-so-subtle, such as bathtubs filled with milk and rose-petals or rocking-chairs-meant-for-two.

It is best to avoid these types of establishments.

ii) Watch-out for motels close to karaoke-streets

The larger cities will have streets that are just known by locals to be seedier areas for karaoke and associated vices. If you’re not familiar with Vietnamese karaoke, just be aware that karaoke bars are often affiliated with drug-use and prostitution.

Therefore, the nhà nghỉ close to karaoke streets are likewise more-likely to be love-motels and ones to avoid as a tourist.

For example, the street Đ. Trần Duy Hưng and Pho Trung Hòa in Hanoi has a high-concentration of karaoke-bars and associated motels. If you were to ask a local person, they could tell you immediately to avoid all the motels and hotels in that area. Even on Google-maps, an unfamiliar person can discern that the street has a lot of karaoke.

iii) Avoid motels with per-hour rates

Per-hour rates are obviously not meant for tourists and travellers; the rooms are meant for “couples”.

Recently, hotel-booking websites like Agoda and Bookings.com have updated their pricing-models to allow per-hour rates. While this may feel cringy and seedy, it is a blessing for ignorant tourists — you can quickly avoid all the motels which have per-hour rates.

For example, the Blue 29 motel in Hanoi has a 2-hour day-use on Agoda. We’d recommend not staying at this place. Unfortunately, it’s cheap-price means that it will be served at the top of Agoda’s price-sorted recommendations, so beware if you’re a bargain-hunter!

iv) Avoid motels with romantic names

Love-motels are less-likely to have bold raunchy names that can easily be decoded via Google-translate. Instead, you may need consult with a native Vietnamese speaker to get the gist of the name. For example:

  • Mely – refers to the feeling of release
  • A&EM Villa – means “he & she” or “you & I”
  • Blue 29 – blue is often a code-word

Use our contact-us form if you need some help decoding a hotel-name.

Rural Nhà Nghỉ are more like hotels

In smaller towns, there is less of a distinction between hotels, motels and “love-motels”. This is because lodge operators must cater to a wider variety of unsegmented clientele, from actual travel-tourists to privacy-seeking couples.

A rural nhà nghỉ may have family-friendly rooms for longer-term stays, as well as tiny rooms meant for a couple of hours of privacy. You’ll have to judge the establishment by its staff and quality of service, but in general you shouldn’t be as discriminating as in big urban areas.

Our Recommended Places to Stay in Vietnam – Nice & Affordable

If you’re worried about a safe and affordable place to stay in Hanoi, HCMC and/or Da Nang, check out our following recommended places:

  • Hanoi Crocus Homestay (Hanoi): located within walking distance of both the Old-Quarter and Van Mieu (a lovely neighbourhood that isn’t as crazy), the Hanoi Crocus Homestay has a great location to enjoy both the fun of the tourism-centre, but also a bit aways so you can get get some respite from the noise. Plus, it is very affordable at between $20-35 USD/night in Hanoi.
  • Nemo Hotel (Da Nang): we love the service and simple beach-decor at Nemo, located within walking distance of the beach, and right beside the hip-foodie area. Prices are rock-bottom for Da Nang without compromising safety, family-friendliness and nice customer-service. Prices are between $12-20 USD/night in Da Nang.
  • CouCou Homestay (Ho Chi Minh City): down a quiet back-alley street, yet close to the raucous (and fun!) Pham Ngu Lao street. They have dormitory rooms, but also private rooms that are relatively inexpensive for central Saigon. $30-50 USD/night in Saigon.
  • Bong Sen Hotel (Ho Chi Minh City): walkable to all the tourist places, located in District 1 (centre). It was an old historical building with a nice architecture renovated into a hotel. The prices aren’t necessarily cheap when paying full price, so try to get it with an Agoda discount. Prices between $40-100 USD/night in Saigon. Beware copy-cat fake hotels with the same name on Google-Maps.