Getting around Vietnam: Transportation Tips
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Though still a little rough around the edges, Vietnam’s transport network is continuing to improve. Most travel takes place on the roads, which are largely of decent quality surface-wise. The vehicles themselves are also pretty good, with air-conditioned coaches ferrying tourists (and an increasing number of locals) up and down Highway 1, a desperately narrow and shockingly busy thoroughfare that runs from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, passing through Hué, Da Nang and Nha Trang en route. Off the main routes the vehicles are less salubrious. Trains run alongside Highway 1, and their sleeper berths are far more comfortable than buses for longer journeys. Lastly, the domestic flight network continues to evolve, and the cheap, comfortable services may save you days’ worth of travel by road or rail. That said, there’s plenty of room for improvement, particularly as regards road transport.
Vietnam’s busy, narrow roads were simply not built for overtaking, yet almost each and every vehicle is either overtaking or being overtaken at any given point – accidents are common.
Vietnam was once famed for bus drivers ripping off foreigners and cramming as many bodies as possible into their vehicles, but this is dying down; most routes now have tickets with fixed prices, and the advent of luxury “open-tour” buses on the main tourist trail saw comfort levels rocket. On the longer stretches, many buses are sleeper-berth for their whole length, though getting 40 winks can be tough – the nature of local roads means that emergency stops are common, and Vietnamese drivers use their horn liberally, which can become grating very quickly on a long journey.
Security remains an important consideration. Never fall asleep with your bag by your side, and never leave belongings unattended.
Flying comes into its own on longer hauls, and can save precious hours or even days off journeys – the two-hour journey between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for instance, compares favourably with the 30 to 40 hours you would spend on the train. Prices are reasonable with Jetstar, and a little more with Vietnam Airlines. Other useful services from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City fly to Hué, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Phu Quoc Island. Note that you’ll need your passport with you when taking internal flights.
The Vietnamese national carrier, Vietnam Airlines, operates a reasonably cheap, efficient and comprehensive network of domestic flights. The company maintains booking offices in all towns and cities with an airport; addresses and phone numbers are listed throughout the Rough Guide to Vietnam.
Given the amazing prices and regular services of the open-tour buses, few travellers opt for the train. However, rail journeys are well worth considering, for several reasons. Firstly, major roads tend to be lined in their entirety with ramshackle cafés, petrol pumps, snack stands and mobile phone shops; from the train, you’ll actually see a bit of the countryside. Secondly, you’ll be involved in far fewer near-collisions with trucks, motorbikes or dogs. Thirdly, you’re almost guaranteed to get talking to a bunch of friendly locals – and perhaps get to join in on the feasts that some of them bring on board.
Vietnam Railways runs a single-track train network comprising more than 2500km of line, stretching from Ho Chi Minh City to the Chinese border. Much of it dates back to the colonial period, though it’s gradually being upgraded. Most of the services are still relatively slow, but travelling by train can be far more pleasant than going by road – though prices on the coastal route can’t compare with buses, you’re away from the busy (and often dangerous) Highway 1, and get to see far more of the countryside. Keep a particularly close eye on your belongings on the trains, and be especially vigilant when the train stops at stations, ensure your money belt is safely tucked under your clothes before going to sleep and that your luggage is safely stowed.
The most popular routes with tourists are the shuttle from Da Nang to Hué (2-3hr), a picturesque sampler of Vietnamese rail travel and the overnighters from Hué to Hanoi (11-16hr) and from Hanoi up to Lao Cai, for Sa Pa (8-9hr).
The country’s main line shadows Highway 1 on its way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, passing through Nha Trang, Da Nang and Hué en route. From Hanoi, three branch lines strike out towards the northern coast and Chinese border. One line traces the Red River northwest to Lao Cai, just an hour by bus from Sa Pa and also the site of a border crossing into China’s Yunnan Province; unfortunately, the rail on the Chinese side is not in use. Another runs north to Dong Dang; this is the route taken by trains linking Hanoi and Beijing. The third branch, a shorter spur, links the capital with Hai Phong.
Five Reunification Express services depart daily from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and vice versa, a journey that takes somewhere between 30 and 40 hours. Most services arrive between 3am and 5am in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
On the northern lines, four trains per day make the run from Hanoi to Hai Phong (2hr 30min) and two to Dong Dang (6hr). There are also four night trains (7–8hr) and a day service (9hr) to Lao Cai.
Trains usually leave on schedule from their departure points, and though delays can stack up further down the line, they’re rarely too severe. Note that the only truly reliable way to learn the schedule is by checking those printed on the station wall.
When it comes to choosing which class to travel in, it’s essential to aim high. At the bottom of the scale is a hard seat, which is just as it sounds, though bearable for shorter journeys; the carriages, however, tend to be filthy and since the windows are caged, views are poor and one can actually feel like an animal. Soft seats offer more comfort, especially in the new air-conditioned carriages, some of which are double-decker; the newer berths, unfortunately, tend to have flatscreen TVs operating at an ear-splitting volume. On overnight journeys, you’d be well advised to invest in a berth of some description, though since the country’s rolling stock is being upgraded it’s not always possible to know exactly what you’re getting. The new hard-berth compartments are now quite comfortable and have six bunks, three either side – the cramped top ones are the cheapest, and the bottom ones the priciest – though some of the old hard-as-nails relics remain in service. Roomier soft-berth compartments, containing only four bunks, are always comfortable.
Note that luxury carriages are attached to regular services on a couple of routes from Hanoi. Those on trains to Hué and Da Nang are operated by Livitrans, and to Lao Cai by an assortment of companies.
All Reunification Express trains now have air-conditioning, as do the overnight Lao Cai trains which have been upgraded with luxury soft-sleeper carriages. All trains are theoretically non-smoking; the rules are obeyed, by and large, in the sleeper rooms, though in hard-seat class, even the guards will be puffing away.
All train carriages have toilets, though again, it’s hard to know what to expect. Most are fine, if a little grubby, though many are squat in nature; the latter are far more likely to be dirty, and to be devoid of paper or running water. Those in the soft sleeper carriages are proper sit-down toilets, and are comparatively clean.
Simple meals are often included in the price of the ticket, but you might want to stock up with goodies of your own. You’ll also have plenty of opportunities to buy snacks when the train pulls into stations – and from carts that ply the aisles.
Booking ahead is wise, and the further ahead the better, especially if you intend travelling at the weekend or a holiday period (when the lower sleeper berths are often sold as six seats, resulting in chaos). Sleeping compartments should be booked at least a day or two before departure, and even further ahead for soft-sleeper berths on the Hanoi–Hué and Hanoi–Lao Cai routes. It’s not possible to buy through tickets and break your journey en route; each journey requires you to buy a separate ticket from the point of departure. Getting tickets is usually pretty painless at the station, though hotels and travel agencies will be able to book for a fee.
Fares vary according to the class of travel and the train you take; as a rule of thumb, the faster the train, the more expensive it is. Prices (which are always quoted in dong) change regularly, so check before booking to get a sense of where they're at.
Most travellers use buses to get around Vietnam but never actually see a bus station. This is because the lion’s share of tourist journeys are made on privately operated services, usually referred to as “open-tour” buses, which usually operate not from stations but the offices of the companies in question. The term comes from the fact that such companies typically sell through-tickets between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, with customers free to stop off for as long as they like at the main points en route – Da Lat, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Da Nang, Hué and Ninh Binh. There are, however, drawbacks to doing this.
Away from these private affairs, national bus services link all major cities in Vietnam, and most minor towns too, though travellers only tend to use them off the open-tour route – open-tour buses have air-conditioning, limited seating and fixed timetables, which instantly gives them the edge over national services. In addition, the fact that they don’t pick up on route makes them faster too, and competition is so fierce that prices are almost as low as the national bus network.
On the whole, open-tour buses are a reasonably comfortable way to get around Vietnam; these buses also call at the occasional tourist sight, such as the Marble Mountains and Lang Co, which can save considerable time and money when compared to doing the same thing independently. Buses are usually quite decent, but don’t expect too much leg-room, or any on-board toilets; some of the more expensive services have them, but the vast majority will pull in every few hours for a combined loo-and-snack break. This tends to be at mediocre and overpriced restaurants; it’s a good idea to arm yourself with snacks before your journey. Another downside to open-tour buses is that you’ll be encouraged to book into the company’s own or affiliated hotels (usually right next to the drop-off point), though there’s nothing to stop you staying elsewhere.
Services tend to run on time, and on longer trips, some take place overnight. Most of the overnight buses are filled with sleeper berths, which sounds nice and comfortable, but these are Vietnamese roads, and Vietnamese drivers – don’t expect to get too much sleep. Also note that some operators are more reliable than others; Mai Linh and Hoang Long have good reputations, though some other operators have very poor standards of service.
Ticket prices vary widely depending upon which company you choose, and (if you’re booking a through-ticket) how many stops you’d like to make en route. You can either make firm bookings at the outset or opt for an open-dated ticket for greater flexibility, in which case you may need to book your onward travel one or two days in advance to be sure of a seat. Alternatively, you can buy separate tickets as you go along, which is recommended. Each main town on the itinerary has an agent (one for each operator) where you can buy tickets and make onward reservations. To avoid being sold a fake ticket or paying over the odds, it’s best to buy direct from the relevant agent rather than from hotels, restaurants or unrelated tour companies.
On the national bus network, the government is slowly upgrading state buses, replacing the rickety old vehicles with air-conditioned models, particularly on the more popular routes. It’s not uncommon to find yourself crammed in amongst the luggage, which could be anything from live pigs in baskets to scores of sacks of rice. Progress can be agonizingly slow as buses stop frequently to pick up passengers or for meal breaks. Among older vehicles, breakdowns are fairly common and can sometimes necessitate a roadside wait of several hours while driver, fare collector and mechanic roll up their sleeves and improvise a repair.
Tickets are best bought at bus stations, where fares are clearly indicated above the ticket windows. Prices are usually also marked on the tickets themselves, though there are still occasional cases of tourists being charged over the odds, particularly in more rural destinations – especially those from the Lao border. For long journeys, buy your ticket a day in advance since many routes are heavily oversubscribed.
Privately owned minibuses compete with public buses on most routes; they sometimes share the local bus station, or simply congregate on the roadside in the centre of a town. You can also flag them down on the road. If anything, they squeeze in even more people per square foot than ordinary buses, and often drive interminably around town, touting for passengers. On the other hand, they do at least run throughout the day, and serve some routes not covered by public services. Such services are ticketless, so try to find what the correct fare should be and agree a price before boarding – having the right change will also come in handy. You may also find yourself dumped at the side of the road before reaching your destination, and having to cram onto the next passing service.
Most major cities have their own local bus networks, though prices and standards vary. Try to ascertain the correct price and have the exact money ready before boarding as fare collectors will often take advantage of your captive position.
A boat-tour around Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s most enjoyable trips, while scheduled ferries sail year-round – weather permitting – to the major islands off Vietnam’s coastline, including Phu Quoc, Cat Ba and Con Dao. In addition, ferry and hydrofoil services run from Hai Phong to Cat Ba, and hydrofoils from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau, and from Ha Long City to Mong Cai and Bai Tu Long. Though they are gradually being replaced by bridges, a few river ferries still haul themselves from bank to bank of the various strands of the Mekong from morning until night.
Self-drive in Vietnam is not yet an option for tourists and other short-term visitors. However, it’s easy to rent a car, jeep or minibus with driver from the same companies, agencies and tourist offices that arrange tours. This can be quite an economical means of transport if you are travelling in a group. Moreover, it means you can plan a trip to your own tastes, rather than having to follow a tour company’s itinerary.
Prices vary wildly so it pays to shop around, but expect to pay in the region of $50+ per day for a car, and $90+ per day for a jeep or other 4WD, depending on the vehicle’s size, age and level of comfort. When negotiating the price, it’s important to clarify exactly who is liable for what. Things to check include who pays for the driver’s accommodation and meals, fuel, road and ferry tolls, parking fees and repairs and what happens in the case of a major breakdown. There should then be some sort of contract to sign showing all the details, including an agreed itinerary, especially if you are renting for more than a day; make sure the driver is given a copy in Vietnamese. In some cases you’ll have to settle up in advance, though, if possible, it’s best if you can arrange to pay roughly half before and the balance at the end.
Motorbike rental is possible in most towns and cities regularly frequented by tourists, and pottering around on one can be an enjoyable and time-efficient method of sightseeing. Lured by the prospect of independent travel at relatively low cost, some tourists cruise the countryside on motorbikes, but inexperienced bikers would do well to think very hard before undertaking any long-distance biking since Vietnam’s roads can be distinctly dangerous.
The appalling road discipline of most Vietnamese drivers means that the risk of an accident is very real, with potentially dire consequences should it happen in a remote area. Well-equipped hospitals are few and far between outside the major centres, and there’ll probably be no ambulance service.
On the other hand, many people ride around with no problems and thoroughly recommend it for both day-trips and touring. The best biking is to be found in the northern mountains, the central highlands and around the Mekong Delta, while the Ho Chi Minh Highway offers pristine tarmac plus wonderful scenery. Some also do the long haul up Highway 1 from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi (or vice versa), a journey of around two weeks, averaging a leisurely 150km per day.
There’s no shortage of motorbikes for rent in Vietnam’s major tourist centres; the average rate is around $7 per day, with discounts for longer periods. You’ll sometimes be asked to pay in advance, sign a rental contract and/or leave some form of ID (a photocopy of your passport should suffice). If you’re renting for a week or so, you may be asked to leave a deposit, often the bike’s value in dollars though it might also be your air ticket or departure card. In the vast majority of cases, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Although it’s technically illegal for non-residents to own a vehicle, there’s a small trade in second hand motorbikes in the two main cities – look at the notice boards in hotels, travellers’ cafés and tour agents for adverts. So far the police have ignored the practice, but check the latest situation before committing yourself. The bike of choice is usually a Minsk 125cc, particularly for the mountains; it’s sturdy, not too expensive, and the easiest to get repaired outside the main cities.
Whether you’re renting or buying, remember to check everything over carefully, especially brakes, lights and horn. Wearing a helmet is now a legal requirement, and most rental outlets have helmets you can borrow, sometimes for a small charge, though they may not be top-quality.
Note that international driving licences are not valid in Vietnam, but you will need your home driving licence and bike registration papers. You also need at least third-party insurance, which is available (with the aforementioned documentation) at Bao Viet insurance offices.
Though road conditions have improved remarkably in recent years, off the main highways they can still be highly erratic, with pristine asphalt followed by stretches of spine-jarring potholes, and plenty of loose gravel on the sides of the road. Repair shops are fairly ubiquitous – ask for sua chua xe may (motorbike repairs) – but you should still carry at least a puncture-repair kit, pump and spare spark plug. Fuel (xang) is cheap and widely available at the roadsides, often from bottles. Finally, try to travel in the company of one or more other bikes in case one of you gets into trouble. And if you want to get off the main highways, it really pays to take a guide.
Cycling is an excellent way of sightseeing around towns, and you shouldn’t have to pay much at all for the privilege, even outside the main tourist centres.
While you can now buy decent Japanese-made bikes in Vietnam, if you decide on a long-distance cycling holiday, you should really bring your own bike with you, not forgetting all the necessary spares and tools. Hardy mountain bikes cope best with the country’s variable surfaces, though tourers and hybrids are fine on the main roads. Bring your own helmet and a good loud bell; a rear-view mirror also comes in handy.
When it all gets too much, or you want to skip between towns, you can always put your bike on the train (though not on all services; check when buying your ticket) for a small fee; take it to the station well ahead of time, where it will be packed and placed in the luggage van. Some open-tour buses will also take bikes – free if it goes in the luggage hold (packed up), otherwise you’ll have to pay for an extra seat.
If you want to see Vietnam from the saddle, there are several companies that offer specialist cycling tours. In addition to a few of the international tour operators, there are local outfits such as Phat Tire.
In a country with a population so adept at making do with limited resources, it isn’t surprising to see the diverse types of local transport. While taxis are increasingly common and a number of cities now boast reasonable bus services, elsewhere you’ll be reliant on a host of two- and three-wheeled vehicles for getting around.
Most common by far are motorbike taxis known as xe om. In the cities you’ll rarely be able to walk twenty yards without being offered a ride; prices go up after dark (as does the possibility of extortion). At all times the rules of bargaining apply: when haggling, ensure you know which currency you are dealing in (five fingers held up, for instance, could mean 5000₫, 50,000₫ or $5), and whether you’re negotiating for a single or return trip, and for one passenger or two; it’s always best to write the figures down. Should a difference of opinion emerge at the end of a ride, having the exact fare ready to press into an argumentative driver’s hand can sometimes resolve matters.
Xe om have almost entirely replaced that quintessential Vietnamese mode of transport, the cyclo. These three-wheeled rickshaws comprising a “bucket” seat attached to the front of a bicycle can carry one person, or two people at a push, and are now only really found in tourist areas (though locals use them just as much as foreigners). Prices vary by area, and there are continuous stories of cyclo drivers charging outrageous sums for their services, so to avoid getting badly ripped off, find out first what a reasonable fare might be from your hotel; if the first driver won’t agree to your offer, simply walk on and try another.
Taxis are now a common sight on the streets of all major cities. The vast majority are metered (with prices in dong) and fares are not expensive. Though standards have been improving with greater competition, some drivers need persuading to use their meters, while others dawdle along as the meter spins suspiciously fast, or take you on an unnecessarily long route. When arriving in a town, beware of drivers who insist the hotel you ask for is closed and want to take you elsewhere; this is usually a commission scam – be firm with your directions. In general, smarter-looking taxis and those waiting outside big hotels tend to be more reliable; the Mai Linh network has by far the best reputation, and you’ll see their green cabs all across the land.
The majority of travellers opt for one-way through tickets with one of the open-tour companies, which enable you to traverse the whole country with just one ticket. However, this course of action is not without its drawbacks: if you lose your ticket, there’s no refund, and if you have the misfortune to choose a bad company, you’ll be saddled with them the whole way. In addition, you’ll be obliged to stick to your company’s daily schedule; buying separate tickets en route will only cost a little more (if anything at all), yet give you far more freedom.
There’s no discernible method to the madness that passes as a traffic system in Vietnam so it’s extremely important that you don’t stray out onto the roads unless you feel a hundred percent confident about doing so. The theory is that you drive on the right, though in practice motorists and cyclists swoop, swerve and dodge wherever they want, using their horn as a surrogate indicator and brake. Unless otherwise stated, the speed limit is 60kph on highways and 40kph or less in towns.
Right of way invariably goes to the biggest vehicle on the road, which means that motorbikes and bicycles are regularly forced off the highway by thundering trucks or buses; note that overtaking vehicles assume you’ll pull over onto the hard shoulder to avoid them. It’s wise to use your horn to its maximum and also to avoid being on the road after dark, since many vehicles either don’t have functioning headlights or simply don’t bother to turn them on.
On the whole the police seem to leave foreign riders well alone, and the best policy at roadside checkpoints is just to drive by slowly. However, if you are involved in an accident and it was deemed to be your fault, the penalties can involve fairly major fines.
When parking your bike, it’s advisable to leave it in a parking compound (gui xe) – the going rate is from 5000đ for a motorbike and 2000đ for a bicycle – or paying someone to keep an eye on it. If not, you run the risk of it being tampered with.