Travel Guide

Getting Around Vietnam by ?

There are quite many flights connecting the two largest cities, Hanoi and HCMC, to major towns such as Da Nang, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Hue, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Phu Quoc. Most of these flights are cheap compared to North American or European standards. For example, a return connecting Hanoi to Da Nang will probably run around $80 US (including all taxes).

Domestic carriers are Vietnam Airlines www.vietnamair.com.vn/wps/portal/vn/welcome, Jetstar Pacific www.jetstar.com/vn/en/index.aspx, Indochina Airlines www.indochinaairlines.vn/?culture=en-US

By train

Although more expensive than buses, trains are undoubtedly the most comfortable way to travel overland in Vietnam. There is one major train line in Vietnam, the 1723-kilometer trunk between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, on which the Reunification Express runs. HCMC to Hanoi is more than 30 hours, and overnight hops between major destinations are usually possible, if not entirely convenient. It’s a good way to see the countryside and meet upper-middle class locals, but unless you are traveling in a sleeper car it is no more comfortable than buses.

AC Soft or hard sleeper is recommended, and purchasing as early as possible is a good idea as popular berths and routes are often bought out by tour companies and travel agents well before the departure time (hence being told the train is sold out at a station ticket window or popular tour company office does not mean there are no tickets available–they’ve simply been bought by another reseller). Booking at the train station itself is generally the safest way, just prepare on a piece of paper the destination, date, time, no. of pax and class. However, unsold tickets can often be bought last minute from people hanging around at the station–a train is rarely sold out for real, as the railway company will add cars when demand is high. Commissions on these tickets will drop away as the departure time draws nearer.

Be cautious when using a travel agent to purchase your train tickets, since there is nothing printed on the ticket saying the class you are booked in. This results in a common scam with private travel agents where you will pay them to book a soft-sleeper ticket, they then book you a cheaper hard-sleeper ticket, and you don’t know you’ve been scammed until you board the train and your berths are in the lower class. By then with the train on the verge of departing it is too late to go back to the scamming agent to demand compensation.

In addition, there are shorter routes from Hanoi leading northwest and northeast, with international crossings into China. One of the most popular of the shorter routes is the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (with bus service from Lao Cai to the tourist destination of Sapa).

Always try to buy your tickets at least 3 days in advance, to avoid disappointment, especially during peak holiday season, during which you should try to book at least a week in advance.

By bus

Long-distance bus services connect most cities in Vietnam. Most depart early in the morning to accommodate traffic and late afternoon rains, or run overnight.

Public Buses travel between the cities’ bus stations. In bigger places, you often have to use local transport to get into the city center from there. Buses are generally in reasonable shape, and you have the chance to interact with locals.

Open Tour buses are run by a multitude of tour companies. They cater especially to tourists, offering ridiculous low rates (Hanoi to HCMC: US$20-25) and door-to-door service to your desired hostel. You can break the journey at any point and continue on a bus of the same company any time later, or simply buy tickets just for the stage you’re willing to cover next. Note that if you’re not planning to make more than 3-4 stops, it might be cheaper to buy separate tickets as you go (ie Hanoi to Hue can be had for as little as US$5). Most hotels and guesthouses can book seats for any connection, although you’re better to shop around at travel agents, as prices will vary on any given ticket/bus company. Going to the bus company office may net you a commission-free fare, but most major bus operators have fixed pricing policies, which can only be circumvented through a travel agent.

Since tour companies charge very little, they do make commission on their stop-offs which are often at souvenir shops, where you do not have to buy; they always have toilets and drinks and water available for purchase. The estimated time for a bus trip will not be accurate and may be an additional couple of hours sometimes, due to the number of stop offs. Collecting the passengers at the start of the journey can also take quite a while too. Always be at least half an hour early to catch the bus. Try not to drink too much water, as rest stops, especially for overnight buses, may be just somewhere where there are a lot of bushes.

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Vietnamese buses are made for Vietnamese people – bigger Westerners will be very uncomfortable, especially on overnight buses. Also, many Vietnamese are not used to riding on long-haul buses, and will sometimes get sick – not very pleasant if you are stuck on an overnight bus with several Vietnamese throwing up behind you.

Even if you are sometimes bus-sick, it is advisable to book a sit at the middle rather than at the front of the bus. First, you will avoid viewing directly the short-sighted risks the driver is taking on the way. Second, you will somewhat escape the loud noise of unceasing honkings (each time the bus passes another vehicle, that is about every 10 seconds).

Although the bus company will usually be happy to collect you at your hotel or guest house, boarding at the company office will guarantee a choice of seats and you’ll avoid getting stuck at the back or unable to sit next to your travelling companions. The offices are generally located in or near the tourist area of town, and a short walk might make your trip that much more pleasant.

A scam that you may encounter is that after arriving at your location, the guides will ask you whether you have booked a hotel. Even though you haven’t, say that you have and prepare the name of a hotel. If you say you have not booked one, they will charter a taxi for you and probably drop you at a hotel which they can collect commission. If you decide not to stay, things may get a little ugly, as they will demand that you pay the taxi fare, which they may quote as several times the actual fare for a ten minute ride.

WARNING – Be very careful of your possessions on the overnight bus, people (including bus employees) have been known to look through passengers bag’s and take expensive items such as ipods and phones and sell them on for profit. If you are travelling with an Ipod DO NOT FALL ASLEEP WITH IT IN YOUR EAR, as the chances are it will be nowhere to be found in the morning. Simply get a padlock for your hangluggage and lock everything up in there before you go to sleep.

By car

International driving licenses are not accepted in Vietnam. The concept of renting a car to drive yourself is almost non-existent, and when Vietnamese speak of renting a car they always mean hiring a car with a driver. (After a short time on local roads with their crazy traffic, you will be glad you left the driving to a professional.) Since few Vietnamese own cars, they have frequent occasion to hire vehicles for family outings, special occasions, etc., and a thriving industry exists to serve that need. Vietnamese can easily charter anything from a small car to a 32-seat bus, for one day or several. Tourists can tap into that market indirectly by way of hotels and tour agents found in every tourist area. Additionally, international car brands have started to surface. Budget Car Rental, one of the largest car rental companies in the world, now offers chauffeur driven services in Vietnam. Hiring a small car for a day trip returning to the point of origin costs around US$60 for eight hours (though the price changes with the cost of gas). (If you shop around and bargain hard for the lowest possible price, you will probably get an older, more beat-up car. If you are paying more than bare minimum, it’s worth asking what sort of car it will be, and holding out for something comfortable.) Few drivers speak any English, so make sure you tell the hotel/agent exactly where you want to go, and have that communicated to the driver.

It’s also possible to hire a car and driver for inter-city travel, at somewhat higher cost. A small car from Saigon to the beach resort of Mui Ne, a 4- or 5-hour trip depending on traffic, costs about US$70, and Dalat to Mui Ne about US$90. Long distance travel by car may be a good choice for several people traveling together, as it provides a flexible schedule and flexible access to remote sites. Keep in mind that long-distance road travel in Vietnam by whatever means (bus or car) is slow, with average speed less than 50 km/hour. Highway 1, the north-south backbone of the country, is a two-lane road with very heavy truck and bus traffic.

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Generally speaking, describing Vietnamese driving habits as atrocious would be an understatement. Road courtesy is non-existent and drivers generally do not check their blind spot or wing mirrors. Vietnamese drivers also tend to use their horn very often to get motorcyclists out of their way. In addition, most roads do not have lane markings and even on those that do, drivers generally ignore the lane markings. As such, driving yourself in Vietnam is not recommended and you should leave your transportation needs in the hands of professionals.

By cycle

Adventurous travelers may wish to see Vietnam by motorcycle or bicycle. Several adventure travel tours provide package tours with equipment. Most of the population gets around on two wheels, so it’s an excellent way to get closer to the people, as well as off the beaten path.

Bicycles can be rented cheaply in many cities, and are often a great way of covering larger distances. Good spots for cycling are Dalat, Hoi An and Hue. On the other hand, attempting to cycle in Hanoi or HCMC is virtually suicide without proper experience of traffic rules (or lack thereof.)

In cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, parking bicycles on the sidewalks is not allowed, and you’ll have to go to a pay parking lot. 2000 dong per bike.

By motorcycle taxi

The xe ôm (literally ‘hugging vehicle’) is a common mode of transport for Vietnamese as well as tourists. They are widely available and reasonably cheap — about 10,000 dong for a 10 minute trip, which should get you anywhere within the city center. Walk the city streets, and every couple of minutes a guy will flag your attention and say “You !! MotoBike?” Longer trips to outlying areas can be negotiated for 20-25,000 dong. Always agree on the fare before starting your trip. As with most things, a tourist will often be quoted an above-market price initially, and you need to be firm. If quoted anything over 10,000 dong for a short trip, remind the driver that you could take an air-con taxi for 15,000 so forget it. Occasionally drivers will demand more than the negotiated price at the end, so it’s best to have exact change handy. Then you can pay the agreed amount and walk away, end of discussion.

By motorcycle

The 110-cc motorbike is the preferred mode of transport for the Vietnamese masses, and the large cities swarm with them. It’s common to see whole families of four cruising along on a single motorbike. In most places where tourists go, you can easily rent your own, with prices ranging from 100,000 to 160,000 dong per day. Desk clerks at small hotels often run a side business renting motorbikes to guests, or have a friend or relative who does. Tour booths can usually do the same. In small towns and beach resorts where traffic is light, it’s a delightful way to get around and see the sights, and much cheaper than taxis if you make several stops or travel any distance. Roads are usually decent, though it’s advisable not to ride too fast and always keep an eye on the road for the occasional pothole.

Riding in the big cities, especially Ho Chi Minh City, is a very different matter, and not advisable unless you are an experienced rider with a very cool head. Traffic is intense and chaotic, with a long list of unwritten rules that don’t resemble traffic laws anywhere else. “Right of way” is a nearly unknown concept. Riding in HCMC is like finding yourself in the middle of a 3-D video game where anything can come at you from any direction, and you only have one life. Expats who brave the traffic at all typically have an apprenticeship of a few weeks or months riding on the back of others’ motorbikes to learn the ways of the traffic, before attempting to ride themselves. Extreme caution is advised for short-term visitors.

Riding long distance in the countryside can also be harrowing depending on the route you take. Major roads between cities tend to be narrow despite being major, and full of tour buses hell-bent on speed, passing slow trucks where maybe they shouldn’t have tried, and leaving not much room at the edge for motorbikes.

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Two main categories of motorbike are available to rent www.offroadvietnam.com/eng/18.php: scooters (automatic transmission); and four-speed motorbikes, the gears of which you shift with your left foot. Rental agents tend to steer foreigners toward scooters if available, on the (plausible) assumption that they don’t know how to ride motorbikes that require shifting gears. Motorcycles of 175cc and above are only legal to ride if you make a connection with a Vietnamese motorcycle club.

Most places you would want to stop have parking attendants who will issue you a numbered tag and watch over your bike. Sometimes these parking operations are overseen by the establishment you are visiting, and sometimes they are free-lance operations set up in places where a lot of people go. You will usually see rows of bikes lined up parked. Depending on circumstance, you might park the bike yourself, or just put it in neutral and let the staff position it. In all but rare cases you keep the key. Parking is sometimes free at restaurants and cafes (look for “giu xe mien phi”). Elsewhere, fees range from 2,000 to 5,000 dong.

Traffic police in the cities pull over lots of locals (often for reasons that are hard to discern), but conventional wisdom has it that they rarely bother foreigners due to the language barrier. Obeying the traffic laws is advisable just to be sure. Licenses (to operate motorbikes) are required, although many people have been known to drive without them. Helmets are also required by law as from the December 15th, 2007, if you don’t have it already, ask your rental agent to provide them.Y ou should also check that your travel insurance covers you for any accidents that occur, particularly if you do not have a motorcycle license in your own country.

By cyclo

While slowly being supplanted by motorbikes, cyclo pedicabs still roam the streets of Vietnam’s cities and towns. They are especially common in scenic smaller, less busy cities like Hue, where it’s pleasant to cruise slowly along taking in the sights. Though the ride will be slow, hot and sometimes dangerous, you’ll generally need to pay more than for a motorbike for the equivalent distance. On the plus side, some drivers (particularly in the South) are very friendly and happy to give you a running commentary on the sights. Cyclo drivers are notoriously mercenary and will always ask for a high price to start with. Sometimes they will also demand more than the agreed price at the end. (Japanese tourists, especially women, are most often targeted with this scam since they are more responsive to the threat that the driver will call the police and make trouble for them if they don’t pay as demanded.) A reasonable price is about 20,000 dong for up to 2 km, and if the driver disagrees, simply walk away. (You won’t get far before that driver or another takes your offer.) Prices for a sight-seeing circuit with intermediate stops are more complex to negotiate and more subject to conflict at the end. If you plan to stop somewhere for any length of time, it’s best to settle up with the driver, make no promises, and start fresh later. To avoid trouble, it’s also best to have exact change for the amount you agreed to pay, so if the driver tries to revise the deal, you can just lay your cash on the seat and leave.

By boat

You will be missing a big part of Vietnamese life if you do not spend some time on a boat.

Tour boats can be chartered for around US$20 for a day’s tour; but beware of safety issues if you charter a boat, make sure the boat is registered for carrying Tourists and has enough lifejackets and other safety equipment on board. Or you can book a tour through a tour company; but be aware that in Vietnam most Tour Agents charge whatever markup they want and therefore the tourist is often paying margins of 30-40%! and the boat owner and operator (of anything from a van to a boat etc.) are paid very little of the total amount!

Ha Long Bay is a famous destination for one- to three-day boat trips among its scenic limestone islands. Problem is that all the boats seem to visit the same places – and with high prices and poor quality boats and service real value is hard to come by! Seafood is about the same price as Europe in some places!

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