Vietnam or The Philippines. That’s the big question. They’re both very popular Southeast Asian destinations, but they couldn’t be more different from each other. Yet they’re both an amazing choice for a vacation. But which is best? How do you decide between these two amazing countries?
Well, as always, the answer is ‘it depends’, so we’re going to look at some of the key facts to help you to decide. We’ll also be picking our own winner, so read on for the result. But first a little geography and history (don’t worry – there’s no pop quiz at the end!)
(And if you’re open to a different way of seeing SE Asia, check out our guide for some great ideas!)
Where is Vietnam?
Vietnam, known officially as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a country in South East Asia, sharing borders with China to the north and Cambodia to the west. It covers an area of 127,882 square miles (331,212 km2) and is home to an estimated 97.3 million people (as of 2020). Although Vietnam is officially an atheist country, about 85% of the locals are Buddhist, Taoist or Confucianist. Vietnamese is the official language and over half the population can also speak English, but it’s rare in rural areas.
Vietnam’s capital city is Hanoi, home to 8 million residents, which is just one million short of the commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon. It was renamed in honour of the communist leader Ho Chi Minh (known as ‘Uncle Ho’), who gained Vietnam’s independence from France in 1945.
Where is The Philippines?
The Philippines, or, officially, the Republic of the Philippines, is also a country in Southeast Asia. It’s spread over about 7,640 islands, covering 120,000 square miles (300,000 km2). From the Philippines, a trip to Vietnam would take you about 910 miles (1,460 km) due east, across the South China Sea. Going south would get you to the Philippines’ nearest neighbour Sabah, a part of Malaysia, which is 280 miles (450 km) away. Originally ruled by Spain then the US, the Philippines declared independence from America in 1898.
The capital city is Manila, which is not the largest city. That honour goes to Quezon City (known as ‘QC’), with a population of 3 million – which accounts for just 2.7% of the Philippines’ total population of 110 million. Over 90% of Filipinos are Catholic, and 25% of the population are also original Tagalog – the first native Filipinos. Tagalog is also the name of their official first language, but nearly everyone speaks English. This is lucky, as officials have recorded more than 180 different Filipino languages!
(Fun fact: The quickest way to become a millionaire is to visit Vietnam. Their unit of currency is called a dong – stop sniggering! – and the exchange rate is crazy! £1 is equivalent to just over 30,000 dong. So at today’s rates, you could be a dong millionaire for just £33.29!)
Vietnam vs Philippines, Round 1: The Beaches
Boasting over 2,000 miles of coastline plus a handful of ‘secret’ island destinations, Vietnam has no shortage of beautiful beaches. The Philippines is also no slouch when it comes to famous beach destinations. Here are just a few that we think are worth mentioning.
Mui Ne, Phan Thiet, Vietnam
Mui Ne was once a quiet fishing village, located about 130 miles east of Saigon. But more recently, it’s become 10 miles of full-blown beach resort. There are two main beaches – Ganh Beach and Suoi Nuoc Beach – which are popular with both travellers and locals. Visitors come here for their first try at kitesurfing, or to play amongst the sand dunes.
These are part of a nearby desert known as the White Sand Dunes and Red Sand Dunes – no prizes for guessing the colour of the sand! It’s the only place in Vietnam where hot air ballooning is allowed, so if you’re feeling adventurous this could be a highlight of your trip. Or, if you prefer to stay on the ground, you can take a half-day dunes tour on a 4×4 to see the sun setting over the desert – an awesome sight.
Once the sun’s gone down, point the 4x4s back to town and then head to one of the local restaurants for a freshly-caught fish dinner – we’ve had good reports of the Lacheln Restaurant as one of the best for traditional Vietnamese and fresh seafood. Or if you prefer Italian, there’s the cornily-named Good Morning Vietnam Pizzeria. We’ve never been there, but we’d love a photo if you ever go!
In a country made up of over 7,000 islands, it’s a fair bet that the Philippines boasts plenty of beautiful beaches. In fact, they’re everywhere!
The most famous beach resort in the Philippines is Boracay, an island in Aklan which was infamous for alcohol-fuelled beach parties and full-moon raves. Sadly (or not, depending on your views), the resort was closed in 2018 for problems with ‘over-tourism’. It reopened 6 months later and it’s now an alcohol-free, family-friendly beach with none of the pre-2018 madness.
The notable Boracay beach is White Beach, which lies on the west coast of Boracay island. White Beach is certainly the most popular, but we recommend the nearby Yapak Beach, also called Puka Shell Beach because of the shells that you can find. There are less people here than at White Beach, and the restaurants modelled in the old ‘nipa hut’ style gives the beach a more native feel.
An Bang, Hoi An, Vietnam
Since the popular Cua Dai Beach was spoiled by heavy erosion, An Bang Beach has become the go-to beach in Hoi An, an ancient canal city on the central coast. It’s one of the few stretches that’s (relatively) unspoilt by development, and it’s quite easy to claim a bit of the beach for yourself, although you might need to buy a drink every few hours in lieu of hiring a beach chair. Personally, we don’t consider that to be a problem!
Hoi An is fairly low key and casual, and all the beachfront resorts and bars have a laid-back, hippy feel to them. The old town is a great place to explore for a tasty street food lunch, and then it’s back to the beach to sip a cocktail and watch the sun setting over the nearby Marble Mountain.
Bounty Beach, Malapascua Island, Philippines
Bounty Beach is a typical Philippines beach with long stretches of white sand, palms swaying in the breeze, and hammocks with your name on them! But, apart from the promise of an unspoilt beach day, Bounty is famous as one of the best places to dive with whale sharks!
The Philippines’ proximity to the equator may bring occasional earthquakes and typhoons, but it also means the surrounding waters boast some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. Malapascua Island is one of the top scuba destinations in the Philippines and has an incredible variety of marine life including manta rays, mandarin fish, nudibranchs, and of course whale sharks.
Getting up close and personal with these tremendous beasts, officially the biggest fish in the world, is an incredible experience, and travellers from all over the world flock to this beach just to dive with whale sharks for a few hours.
The cost is quite high, at about £100 per person per day, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event and so it’s probably worth the extra expense. Consider booking a 2-day/1-night package for the ultimate in night-diving, and don’t forget a decent underwater camera!
Our Opinion: With so many beaches at each location, you’re sure to find ‘your beach’, whether it’s on an activity-filled resort or a secluded hideaway. But for sheer variety, we’re giving this one to the Philippines.
Vietnam vs Philippines, Round 2: The Dining Experience
When it comes to food, some countries are famous for being on the cutting edge, mixing different tastes from a melting pot of different cultures. Vietnam goes the opposite way, and prides itself on keeping traditional recipes alive.
The most popular food is Pho, which is Vietnam’s national dish. Pho is a broth of rice noodles, herbs, chillies, and meat – usually beef brisket or chicken. Pho is available everywhere, from up-market restaurants to the makeshift kitchens set up by every grandmother that can find a wooden spoon. It’s incredibly cheap (no more than £1) and quick to prepare, but family recipes with ‘secret’ ingredients are kept very close-guarded.
There are plenty of other traditional Vietnamese recipes which are still being prepared and enjoyed on a daily basis. Here’s a few of the tastiest dishes.
- Banh-Mi: a French/Vietnamese sandwich, made with a toasted baguette filled with a choice of meat and flavoured with a sweet sauce. Great for a quick meal.
- Banh Xeo: A tasty pork-and-shrimp ricepaper crêpe, flavoured with turmeric, mushrooms and beansprouts. The name means ‘sizzling cake’, as it’s notably noisy when being fried!
- Goi Cuon: Spring rolls with thin noodles, sliced pork and shrimp, basil and lettuce, all wrapped in translucent rice paper. Great when you want something fresh that hasn’t been fried or boiled.
- Com Tam: literally translates as ‘broken rice’, served with fried egg, diced green onions, and a variety of meats. Popular as a quick breakfast.
- Bo La Lot: Ground beef seasoned with garlic and fish sauce, then wrapped in betel leaves, char-grilled and served with fresh cilantro and ground peanuts.
It’s difficult to describe Filipino food, because it’s probably unlike anything else you’ve ever tasted before. Melded from the cuisines of over a hundred different ethnic groups, we can only describe it as Austro-Malay-Indo-China-Spanish, with a little bit of something extra thrown in.
The national dish of the Philippines is adobo, which originates from Mexico. Meat – usually pork, but chicken and seafood are also popular – is marinated in a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce and garlic, then simmered until ready (or until the smell gets too good to bear!). There are hundreds of different recipes, but they’re all quite challenging to prepare: too much vinegar and the adobo will turn to paksiw (sour stew); too little and it will taste like nilaga (boiled meat).
Adobo is usually served with steamed rice and a dipping sauce or side dish, which could be chopped tomatoes and onions, diced mangoes or even tamarind blossoms (basically, whatever’s to hand!).
As we’ve already said, the food in the Philippines is almost guaranteed to include tastes you’ve never before experienced. Here are a few more popular Filipino dishes.
- Chicken Sotanghon: It’s the Filipino version of grandma’s chicken soup. Made with chicken, shitake mushrooms, carrots, green onions, noodles and just a touch of spice.
- Leche Flan: A favourite dessert very similar to creme caramel. Made with egg yolks (more than usual), condensed milk, sugar and vanilla extract. Served with a topping of caramel syrup.
- Bibingka: A form of rice cake. Rice is soaked overnight in tapayan jars then ground into a paste with coconut milk, before being cooked in clay pots lined with banana leaves. Served with melted cheese for breakfast, especially at Christmas.
- Kare Kare: A classic Filipino stew, consisting of oxtail, eggplant (aubergine) and Chinese-style vegetables. Served with a rich, thick peanut sauce and a fermented shrimp paste. You’ll know someone’s cooking it when you smell the peanuts!
Our Opinion: The Philippines is known for amazing food, and from what we’ve tasted ourselves, we know that’s true! But we just love Pho, and we love Goi Cuon as well, those little lite-bite bursts of freshness. Every other site we’ve read gives this to the Philippines, but – and it was tough – we award this round to Vietnam.
Vietnam vs Philippines, Round 3: Cost of Living
According to a 2020 survey by Numbeo, whose data is used by The Economist and Time Magazine, the Philippines has a Cost of Living index of 39.2 – meaning that, overall, everything costs 39.2% of the price you’d pay in New York (which has an index of 100). Vietnam is even slightly cheaper, with an index of 38.1.
The difference in indices is tiny, meaning that, overall, the cost of living in each country is about equal. But for travellers and tourists, Vietnam actually works out to be the cheapest. On average, a traveller will spend £42 ($54) per day in the Philippines, but only £30 ($39) per day in Vietnam.
This doesn’t seem like much on a day-by-day basis, but if you’re planning a 14-day vacation it can make a difference of almost £300 ($390) compared with a stay of just one week.
In terms of your daily spend, a decent meal for two costs about £10 per head in both countries, and drinks are crazy cheap: a beer will cost no more than £1 and branded spirits start at £2.
As you’ve seen accommodation is often cheaper in Vietnam compared to the Philippines, which we must also factor into our cost-of-living comparison.
Our Opinion: Technically this is a win for Vietnam, as it’s the cheapest overall. But on a one-week holiday, the difference is hardly noticeable. So we’ve decided that there’s no outright winner here. Sorry, Vietnam.
So, it looks like we’re at a stalemate: Vietnam 1, Philippines 1. Well, we’ve been keeping a category in reserve, so now’s the time to reveal our final head-to-head showdown…
Vietnam vs Philippines, Round 4: Instagram Showstopper
It’s sudden death, so we’ll just focus on one amazing showstopper from each country – the views that you’ll want to Instagram as soon as possible, just for the bragging rights!
It’s hard for us to pick just one outstanding view, as there are just so many. But for the Philippines we’re going to choose the place that most Filipinos regard as the eighth wonder of the world.
Batad Rice Terraces, the Philippines
The Batad is one of a set of five rice terraces located in the Cordillera – the highest mountain range in the Philippines. All 5 of the rice terraces were inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage list – the first ever to be included in the cultural landscape category.
2,000 years ago, the native Ifugao tribe were looking for a way to grow rice: their staple diet. Rice needed flat land to grow on, but all they had were hills. So they carved these terraces into the mountain by hand, and created the amazing vertical farming fields you can see today.
As well as the rice terraces, the mountain was also used to make intricate irrigation systems, which harvested water from the forests on the mountain tops using tubes made from bamboo. This irrigation system is still in use today, unchanged for centuries.
Getting to the Batad rice terraces is quite a trip, as there’s no tourist road that takes you there. The most efficient (and cheapest) way to get there is by night bus, which terminates in Banaue, and then it’s a motorbike ride for about an hour to reach Batad. You should plan on a 2-day round trip, and it might be worth investing in a guide for a day.
The views, as you can see, are simply stunning. It might take a couple of days to get there, but the trip is definitely worth the effort!
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
With towering limestone islands rising majestically from its shimmering turquoise waters, Ha Long Bay is one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam. And it seems that everybody wants to see it on the same day! There are hundreds of tour operators that offer mini-cruise trips to Halong Bay every day, and they’re always full. So although the bay is huge, the constant influx of sightseers can make it a very crowded place.
But we know a secret! Just a few miles from Ha Long Bay is Bai Tu Long Bay, which offers the same amazing scenery, but sees only a fraction of the visitors. You can take your time exploring uncrowded caves and tiny hidden beaches, and feast on succulent fresh seafood when the mood takes you.
According to legend, when Vietnam was first formed they were constantly defending against invaders. To help the defenders, the gods sent a family of dragons to Ha Long (which means ‘descending dragon’). The dragons began spitting out vast jewels and giant rocks of jade, which settled in the water and linked together to form a great wall against the invaders. When the armies had been defeated, the baby dragons moved to the smaller Bai Tu Long Bay, which became their home.
Boat trips to Bai Tu Long Bay leave from the dock at Halong City, but you’ll be heading northeast, in the opposite direction to the tourist crowd. The rock islands are only slightly less tall and more spread out, but still afford the same jaw-dropping views.
Our Opinion: Ha Long Bay and the neighbouring Bai Tu Long Bay are incredible places, naturally formed over millions of years. But the Batad rice terraces were carved out of the rock by hand, and the irrigation put in place is still being used today, which we find quite amazing. The prize for Instagram Showstopper goes to the Batad Rice Terraces in the Philippines.
So….Vietnam vs Philippines: The Winner
Vietnam. Well, we have friends who’ve ended up staying there for far longer than they intended, because they fell in love with the place. The Vietnamese people are warm and welcoming towards foreigners, and travelling around the country to meet new people is easy and cheap (although everything takes a long time to get to!)
Taking a night train to Ho Chi Minh City is an experience you wouldn’t get anywhere else, and there’s plenty of chances to get off the beaten track and do some exploring. If you’ve got a few weeks to spare, you can live very cheaply in Vietnam, and enjoy every minute of it.
But the Philippines, on the other hand, is a much more ‘real’ country, still relatively untarnished by the crowds. The locals are very friendly and respectful of people, and they’ll show this with a welcoming smile whenever you meet them. And they all speak English!
The Philippines is becoming more and more well-known for stunning beaches and beautiful jungles, as well as affordable prices. It has an interesting mix of cultures, which results in amazingly different food. And the people are wonderful, and really go out of their way to make sure you’re enjoying their country.
And that’s why our overall winner is the Philippines.
(But here’s an idea: if you can stretch your vacation to 2 weeks – why not visit both? Or maybe take a mini-tour of SE Asia? We’ve prepared a guide that might give you a few ideas!)
A Final Word
So, that’s our quick comparison of Vietnam and the Philippines. We hope it helps you to decide which to choose, but we know that wherever you go, it will be awesome. If you get any good photos (and, of course, you will!) why not send a few copies to us. It’ll be great to see them!