Conical hats, exotic rice paddies, and bustling city streets are the usual things that come to mind every time the country of Vietnam is mentioned. This country with its S-shape is uniquely beautiful in its own right.
So, how do you travel to Vietnam?
There are actually several ways to travel to Vietnam which depends on where you will come from as well as how you want to go around with transport.
From jetting among over 20 airports to wild rides on motorbike taxis to pedaling in a cyclo, you will find a gamut of transportation options in the country.
If you plan to travel the country’s length with stops in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, there are several transportation options. What you choose all depends on your budget, time, flexibility and even your own sense and idea of adventure.
If your time is limited, it makes more sense to hop from north to middle then south.
For locations that are more remote such as the Northern Highlands, your best option is to take the train and hire a driver and car.
If you got more patience and time but you’ve got limited cash, it would be more possible to take advantage of the Vietnam’s bus system. But, if you want to go all out and wild, no one is stopping you from hopping on a motorcycle for a full-blown adventure.
Check out this short guide on how to get around and travel Vietnam:
Best Ways for Getting Around Vietnam
Despite being a bit rough on the edges, the transport network of the country is being improved further. Majority of the travels happen on the roads with surfaces that are mostly of decent quality.
The vehicles are pretty good themselves with air-conditioned coaches that ferry tourists and locals alike up and down Highway 1, a rather narrow but quiet busy thoroughfare running from Hanoi up to Ho Chi Minh City and passing through Nha Thrang, Da Nang, and Hué along the way.
The vehicles off the primary routes are not as healthy. Trains running alongside Highway 1 with their sleeper berths offer more comfort for longer journeys compared to buses.
Finally, the country’s domestic flight network is continuously evolving and the comfortable and affordable services might even save you from several days’ worth rail or road travel.
Having said this, there are still lots of rooms for improvement, specifically as far as road transport is concerned.
Plane travel is great for longer hauls, saving you precious hours or days for your journeys.
For example, the 2-hour journey between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is more favorable than the 30 to 40 hours you will other spend travelling by train.
There are other useful services from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi that fly to Phu Quoc Island, Nha Trang, Da Nang, and Hué.
Make sure you always bring your passport when you take internal flights.
Vietnam Airlines, the Vietnamese national carrier, offers reasonably efficient, comprehensive, and cheap network of local flights.
The narrow and busy roads of Vietnam were not really made for overtaking but almost all vehicles overtake or get overtaken at some point, making accidents common.
The country used to be infamous for bus drivers that rip off foreigners and cram as many passengers as possible in their vehicles. However, this is starting to die down now, with most routes having tickets with fixed prices.
The rise of luxury tour buses running the main tourist trail sky-rocketed the comfort levels.
For longer stretches, most buses are sleeper berth for their entire length although it can be tough to sleep.
The local roads’ nature means frequent emergency stops with Vietnamese drivers liberally using their horn that can be a bit annoying during a long trip.
Security is a very crucial thing so don’t sleep with your bags at your side and don’t leave your stuff unattended.
Many travelers are riding buses for getting around the country but they don’t really see any bus station. It is because most of the tourist journeys are being made on the privately run services called open-tour buses that operate from these companies’ offices instead of stations.
Aside from the private bus travels, there are national bus services connecting the major cities of the country as well as most of the minor towns.
However, travelers only use them off the route of the open tour.
Open-tour buses offer a reasonably more comfortable way of getting around the country.
These buses even stop by at the occasional tourist sites like Lang Co and Marble Mountains to help you save more money and time compared to visiting them on your own.
Buses are often decent enough but don’t expect a lot of leg room or toilets on board.
You can find these in more expensive services but most of them stop every few hours or so to let the passengers go to the loo or grab some snacks.
These services usually run right on time and some trips happen overnight, specifically the longer ones.
Most overnight buses have sleeper berths but again, don’t look forward to sleep a lot during the trip. It is also worthy to note that there are some more reliable operators than others, such as Hoang Long and Mai Linh.
Ticket prices can vary depending on your chosen company and the number of stops you wish to make along the way.
You can make a firm booking from the get-go or choose an open-dated ticket if you want more flexibility wherein you have to book the onward travel a day or two ahead of time to ensure that there is an available seat.
You can also purchase separate tickets along the way, which is more recommended.
There is an agent for each operator in every main town included in the itinerary where you can make your onward reservations and buy your tickets.
Make sure you buy directly from designated agent so you don’t get a fake ticket.
The government of Vietnam is starting to upgrade the state buses on the national bus network with the rickety old vehicles being replaced with air-conditioned ones, especially on more popular routes.
It is best to buy your tickets at bus stations so you can clearly see the fares posted above the ticketing windows.
The prices are also indicated on the tickets but sometimes, tourists are charged over the odds, especially in more rural areas like those from Lao border.
Purchase your ticket one day ahead for longer journey because most routes are seriously oversubscribed.
On most routes, minibuses under private ownership are competing with public buses.
They sometimes share local bus stations or gather on the side of the road in the middle of the town.
These can also be flagged down on the road. These minibuses run all day long, serving some routes that public services don’t cover.
Just know that there are no tickets to these services so you have to know the right fare and agree first on a price before you board.
It would also help to have the right change in advance.
Most of the major cities have their very own networks of local buses and standards and prices may vary.
Again, check the right price and always have the exact amount ready before you board.
Considering the regular services and affordable prices of open-tour buses, there are only a few travelers that ride the train.
But there are several reasons why you might want to consider rail journeys. First is that major roads are often lined with mobile phone shops, snack stands, petrol pumps and decrepit cafes.
If you will ride the train, the view outside the window will be better because you can see the countryside.
Also, rail travel means lesser accidents and you can even get the chance to talk to some friendly locals or if you are lucky, you might be invited to join over a meal they bring on board.
The Vietnam Railways runs the single-track train network composed of over 2,500 kilometers of line that stretch from Ho Chi Minh City to the border of China.
Much of this has a history as far back as the colonial era although it is starting to see some upgrades.
Most services might still be slow but train journeys are much more pleasant than those on the road.
Boat and Ferry Travel
A boat tour that will take you around Ha Long bay is among the most enjoyable trips you can ever have in Vietnam while the scheduled ferries can sail throughout the year, depending on the weather, to all the major islands off the coastline of Vietnam such as Con Dao, Cat B, and Phu Quoc.
Aside from this, hydrofoil and ferry services also run to Cat Ba from Hai Phong while hydrofoils run to Vung Tau from Ho Chi Minh City and to Bai Tu Long and Mong Cai from Ha Long City.
Though bridges are starting to gradually replace them, some river ferries are still hauling themselves from one bank to another of the different strands of the Mekong from day to night.
Jeep and Car Travel
Tourists and short-term visitors don’t have the option to self-drive in the country yet.
But, you can always rent a minibus, jeep, or car with driver from the same tourist offices, agencies and companies that arrange the tours.
It is a more practical means of transportation if you will travel with a group.
It also means that the trip can be planned according to your personal preferences instead of sticking with the itinerary of the tour company.
Prices can also vary a lot so make sure you shop around although you can expect to spend more than $50 a day for a car and over $90 a day for jeep or 4WD, which still depends on the level of comfort, age and size of the vehicle.
When you try to negotiate the price, make sure you clarify who will be liable for this or that.
Some other things you need to check include who will pay for the meals and accommodation of the driver, ferry and road tolls, fuel, repairs and parking fees and what will happen if a major breakdown occurs.
There must also be some kind of contract to show all the important details such as an agreed itinerary, particularly if you will rent for over a day.
See to it that the driver also gets a copy written in Vietnamese. There are instances when you need to settle in advance but if possible, it would be better if you can arrange to just pay half the price first and pay the rest afterwards.
Renting a motorbike is possible in most cities and towns that tourists regularly visit and riding one can be a time-efficient and enjoyable way to go sightseeing.
Enticed by the idea of relatively cheaper independent travel, there are even tourists that go as far as the countryside riding motorbikes.
However, those who lack experience might think long and hard first before going on long distance biking because the roads of Vietnam can be a bit risky.
Most people ride on motorbikes without any problem and highly recommend this for touring and day trips alike.
The northern mountains offer the best biking as well as around the Mekong Delta and the central highlands.
On the other hand, Ho Chi Minh City has pristine tarmac combined with picturesque scenery.
There are also some people who go for long haul up Highway 1 coming Ho Chi Minh City all the way to Hanoi and back, a journey that takes about 2 weeks with an average of a leisurely 150 kilometers a day.
There is no such thing a shortage of rental motorbikes in the major tourist centers of Vietnam.
The average price is $7 a day with discounts offered for longer rental periods.
There are times when you will be asked to pay the price in advance, leave your identification and sign a rental contract.
If you will rent for one week or more, you might need to leave a deposit which is usually the value of the bike in dollars.
However, they might also ask you for your departure card or air ticket. This doesn’t pose any problem in most cases.
Even though it is technically illegal to own a vehicle if you are not a resident, the two main cities have a small trade in the second hand motorbikes. You can find ads for these on notice boards in tour agents, traveler’s cafes and hotels.
This practice is ignored by the police so far but be sure to check the situation before you commit yourself. Minsk 125cc is often the bike of choice, especially for the mountains.
It is cheap, sturdy and is also the easiest to repair outside the major cities.
It doesn’t matter if you will buy or rent, just make sure you check things carefully, such as the horn, lights and brakes.
It is now legally required to wear a helmet and many rental outlets offer helmets that you can borrow for a small price at times but don’t expect them to be of high quality.
You also need to know that the international driving licenses are not considered valid in the country yet you need the registration process for the bike as well as your home driving license. Third party insurance is also needed that you can get at the Bao Viet insurance offices.
Despite the remarkable improvements on road conditions for the past few years, they could still get very erratic off the major highways where spine-jarring potholes and lots of loose gravel on the roadside follow the pristine stretch of asphalt.
Repair shops can be found everywhere but it would be recommended to bring with you a puncture-repair kit, spare spark plug and pump.
Fuel is widely available and cheap at the roadsides usually sold from bottles.
You might also want to travel together with other bikes in the event that trouble arises. It will also pay to have a guide if you will be getting off the major highways.
Finally, cycling is a great way to sightsee around towns and there is no need to spend a fortune just to get this privilege even if you are outside the primary tourist centers.
Although decent Japanese-made bicycles can now be purchased in Vietnam, if you want to go on a cycling holiday for long distances, it would be best for you to bring your bike and all the essential tools and spares.
Hardy mountain bikes can cope best with the variable surfaces of the country though hybrids and tourers also do well on main roads.
Always have your own helmet with you and a loud bell. It will also come in handy to have a rear-view mirror.
Travelling in Vietnam doesn’t have to be complicated as long as you know your options and you pick the right one according to your needs, preferences, and budget.