The Budget Backpacker Guide to Arriving in Port Vila, Vanuatu

Everything I wish I had known before I landed! Vanuatu isn’t a very popular or accessible backpacker destination, but it’s absolutely incredible and well worth the visit.

I didn’t spend enough time to write a full on guide, but I found getting settled was challenging, and finding useful information online almost impossible. I hope this helps any future travellers!

Leaving the Airport

From the airport it’s 150VT on a bus to town. If you’re going to the outer areas it may cost 300VT, but never more. Don’t even negotiate a price in advance, just ask to go to town and give the driver 150VT. “Buses” are usually 12 seater vans.

If you take a taxi, it should cost no more than 1,000VT to town, so I would only opt for this if you’re with some friends or have a lot of luggage.

There is no bus or taxi stand because the airport is so small. If there are no buses or taxis out front, just be patient, one will roll up soon. Buses and taxis are marked with a red “B” or “T” on the license plate.

You may have read that ‘bartering is not the way of life here in Vanuatu’, but that doesn’t apply to transport. Buses and taxis will definitely try to over charge you, but that’s pretty much standard all over the world though isn’t it?

Accommodation

There are a few cheaper spots in the city, it’s not all private bungalows and modern resorts.

Raynold’s Lodge
I stayed at Raynold’s which has simple dorms and a cozy living room, with included breakfast and free wi-fi in the rooms. It’s a 15 minute walk out of town and they were very accommodating when I arrived late at night and left early in the morning. 2,160VT

City Lodge
I didn’t stay here myself, but noticed it right smack in the middle of the city centre (across from the market) on my last day. They also have free wi-fi. 3,000VT

Blue Pango Motel
Pretty far out of the city centre, but close to some beaches. I will admit again that I did not actually stay here myself, but it caught my attention for being significantly cheaper than the other lodges, and I met some people who stayed here and liked it. 1,400VT

Activities

There is a tourism office tucked away just off the main road near the market where you can pick up some free and quite useful guide books. Don’t be surprised if the staff don’t have a lot of information or helpful suggestions, but if you know what you want to do they’re friendly and happy to help you out. Prices for activities don’t vary much and there isn’t any real competition around for comparison anyway. Prices will depend on how many sites you go to see in one package tour.

If you can afford to rent a car I would recommend it for freedom’s sake, but it’s pretty pricey at about 10,000VT per day plus fuel, and there’s often a deposit of 60,000VT or more. Driving is on the right hand (ie. correct) side of the road.

Blue Lagoon
Tours can be booked through the tourism office or your accommodation. I did not find that my accom was ever very helpful with providing tips on how to get around on my own. So as much as I’m not usually a tour person, in Vanuatu, it will save you the headache.

Going by bus is not the wisest choice. It can be done, but you’ll have to wait until 4-4:30pm when the locals get off work and can share the cost (500VT each). You’ll lose daylight and might have trouble getting back.

If you want to go alone it’ll cost 4,000VT or more for a return trip in a private taxi/bus. As with a taxi from the airport, this is only affordable if you’ve got friends or money. It’s a 30 minute drive to the lagoon.

You could try to hitch hike, Vanuatu is very safe (but you should always exercise a reasonable level of caution) and people are happy to pick up hitch hikers, BUT it’s not a guarantee and the roads just aren’t as busy outside of the city so getting back may be difficult.

*The entrance fee recently doubled from 500VT to 1,000VT. Try to avoid going on a day when a cruise ship is in town, and you may have the place all to yourself!

The market
In the centre of town, this is where you definitely want to pick up lunch. It’s cheap, cheerful, and authentic Ni-Vanuatu food. You can also find some nice handmade crafts and carvings to bring home if you’re looking for souvenirs. This is another exception to the rule of no bargaining. The mamas of the market will start high and quickly start offering “discounts” if you seem unsure. You can definitely barter here.

Other activities
I only spent 1 full day in Vila so I didn’t get around to everything, but some other things to do include:
Mele Cascade
Snorkelling/Diving (better spots on other islands)
Underwater post office
Hideaway Island (fire show Friday nights)
Irikiki island
Lololima Falls
Zipline
& more

Most importantly though, leave Vila. The true, cultural, adventurous Vanuatu can’t be found in the big towns, but on the smaller islands and more rural areas.

Leaving Port Vila

There is an Air Vanuatu centre around the corner from the tourist office, one street back from the main road by the market. If you have a ticket in or out of the country with Air Vanuatu, you get a 20% discount on all domestic flights. I think you can also achieve this over the phone, but not if you book online. Flights are almost never full so you should be able to book last minute, but some flights to smaller islands only leave once or twice per week. You can check the current domestic schedule and fares here.

Be sure to grab some cash before you leave! Rural islands do not have ATMs and almost all transactions are done in cash unless you’re staying at a resort (which, let’s face it, you’re not) or buying big ticket items like flights.

Fun/useful facts:

People from Vanuatu are referred to “Ni-Vanuatu” or “Ni-Van” people.

The currency is called Vatu.
100VT = $1.30 NZD or $0.80 USD (June 2019). 

It is a predominantly Christian country.
I had many people ask me about my religion and they were surprised when I said I didn’t have one. Sundays are quiet because everyone goes to church and most shops/restaurants/offices are closed. Though there’s also a high population of Seventh Day Adventists who observe on Saturdays. 

Vanuatu uses the same electricity plugs as New Zealand/Australia.

Languages: English/French/Bislama
Bislama is the local language, which was basically made up in the 1900s when the country was colonized; it’s known as a “pidgin” language. Reading it is actually relatively easy because a lot of English words are used, though are often spelled phonetically. For example: “Plis, yu wanem danis witim mi?” translates to, would you like to dance with me?
Almost everyone in the major centres of tourist areas speak English quite fluently, and if you know French it’s an advantage in some regions.

Tusker is the local beer and shouldn’t cost more than 500VT at a bar, or 250VT from a shop.

Ni-Van people are less fond of beer and very fond of Kava, which they export to other pacific islands. It’s a root plant that is dried, crushed, and mixed with water to make an awful tasting beverage that you chug back to make you feel more relaxed. You may also experience some numbing of your tongue. I drank it a few times and never found it that influential, but would say it’s definitely worth a try. (Try everything once!) It’s not considered a drug and is very socially acceptable – it’s customary to share with a group.

Happy travels!

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