Vietnam has an enormous number of rivers that are at least partly navigable, but the most important by far is the Mekong River and its tributaries. Scenic day trips by boat are possible on rivers in Hoi An, Danang, Hué, Tam Coc and even HCMC, but only in the Mekong Delta are boats used as a practical means of transport.
In some parts of Vietnam, particularly the Mekong Delta, there are frequent ferry crossings. Don’t stand between parked vehicles on the ferry as they can roll and you could wind up as the meat in the sandwich.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
The relative affordability of vehicle hire makes the latter a popular option. Having your own set of wheels gives you maximum flexibility to visit remote regions and stop when and where you please.
The major considerations are safety, the mechanical condition of the vehicle, reliability of the rental agency and your budget. Don’t think about driving a car yourself in Vietnam (a motorbike is challenging enough) and moreover, hire charges for the car include a driver.
Motorbikes can be rented from cafés, hotels, motorbike shops and travel agencies. If you don’t fancy self-drive, there are plenty of local drivers willing to act as a chauffeur and guide for around US$6 to US$10 per day.
Renting a 100cc moped is cheap from around US$5 per day, usually with unlimited mileage. To tackle the mountains of the north, it is best to go with a Minsk. The ‘mule of the mountains’, these sturdy Russian steeds don’t look up to much, but they are designed to get you through, or over, anything. They are available for rent from specialist shops in Hanoi. For the ultimate experience in mountains of the north, consider joining a motorbike tour to discover the secret backroads.
Most places will ask to keep your passport until you return the bike. Try and sign some sort of agreement – preferably in a language you understand – clearly stating what you are renting, how much it costs, the extent of compensation and so on.
If you are travelling in a tourist vehicle with a driver, then it is almost guaranteed to be insured. When it comes to motorbikes, many rental bikes are not insured and you will have to sign a contract agreeing to a valuation for the bike if it is stolen. Make sure you have a strong lock and always leave it in guarded parking where available.
Do not even consider renting a motorbike if you are daft enough to be travelling in Vietnam without insurance. The cost of treating serious injuries can be bankrupting for budget travellers.
Vietnam has an extensive network of dirt-cheap buses that reach the far-flung corners of the country. Until recently, few foreign travellers used them because of safety concerns and overcharging, but the situation has improved dramatically with modern buses and fixed-price ticket offices at most bus stations.
Bus fleets are being upgraded as fast as the roads, so the old French, American and Russian buses from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s are becoming increasingly rare. On most popular routes, modern Korean buses are the flavour of the day. Most of these offer air-con and comfortable seats, but on the flipside most of them are equipped with TVs and dreaded karaoke machines. You can ignore the crazy kung fu videos by closing your eyes (or wearing a blindfold), but you’d need to be deaf to sleep through the karaoke sessions – ear plugs are recommended!
Figuring out the bus system is not always that simple. Many cities have several bus stations, and responsibilities are divided according to the location of the destination (whether it is north or south of the city) and the type of service being offered (local or long distance, express or nonexpress).
Short-distance buses, mostly minibuses, depart when full (ie jam-packed with people and luggage). They often operate throughout the day, but don’t count on many leaving after about 4pm.
Nonexpress buses and minibuses drop off and pick up as many passengers as possible along the route, so try to avoid these. The frequent stops make for a slow journey.
Express buses make a beeline from place to place. This is the deluxe class and you can usually be certain of there being enough space to sit comfortably. Such luxury comes at a price, but it’s very cheap by Western standards.
It is also perfectly feasible (and highly recommended) to kick in with some fellow travellers and charter your own minibus.
If possible, try to travel during daylight hours only. Many drivers refuse to drive after dark because the unlit highways are teeming with bicycles and pedestrians who seem oblivious to the traffic. However, if you like living dangerously, there are some overnight buses.
Be aware that luggage is easily pilfered at toilet stops unless someone is looking after it. Bound to the rooftop, it should be safe from swift hands, but try to keep the bags in sight. A distinct disadvantage of having your gear on top is that it will be exposed to constant dust and sometimes heavy rain. You may want to consider putting your luggage in waterproof liners, if you can.
No matter how honest your fellow passengers might seem, never accept drinks from them, as there is a chance you may be drugged and robbed.
Reservations aren’t required for most of the frequent, popular services between towns and cities, but it doesn’t hurt to purchase the ticket the day before if you’re set on a specific departure time. Most major bus stations now have ticket offices with official prices clearly displayed. Always buy a ticket from the office, as bus drivers are notorious overchargers.
Costs are negligible, though on rural runs foreigners are typically charged anywhere from twice to 10 times the going rate. If you have to battle it out with the bus driver, it is helpful to determine the cost of the ticket for locals before starting negotiations. As a benchmark, a typical 100km ride is between US$2 and US$3.
In backpacker haunts throughout Vietnam, you’ll see lots of signs advertising ‘Open Tour’, ‘Open Date Ticket’ or ‘Open Ticket’. This is a bus service catering mostly to foreign budget travellers, not to Vietnamese. These air-con buses run between HCMC and Hanoi and people can hop on and hop off the bus at any major city along the route.
Competition has driven the price of these tours so low that it would practically only be cheaper if you walked. Sample prices from HCMC are as follows:
Ho Chi Minh City–Mui Ne US$6
In some ways they should raise the cost of the tickets and, by actually making money on the bus fare, allow passengers some freedom of choice on arrival at a destination. Unfortunately, they depend on kickbacks from a very elaborate and well-established network of sister hotels and restaurants along the way, making the whole experience feel like you are part of the herd.
As cheap and popular as it is, the open-tour deal is not the ideal way to experience Vietnam. Once you’ve bought the ticket, you’re stuck with it. It really isolates visitors from Vietnam, as few locals travel this way. Buying shorter point-to-point tickets on the open-tour buses costs a bit more but you achieve more flexibility, including the chance to take a train, rent a motorbike or simply change plans.
If you are set on open-tour tickets, look for them at budget cafés in HCMC and Hanoi. From the original Sinh Café concept a decade ago, there are now lots of companies in on this game. Buses vary in size and standard, so a good rule of thumb is to turn up and check out the bus before committing to a company. Sinh Café still has some of the best buses, closely followed by Hanh Café.
The bus systems in Hanoi and HCMC have improved immeasurably in the past few years. Get your hands on a bus map and it is now possible to navigate the suburbs cheaply and efficiently. Some of the most popular sights in Hanoi and HCMC are accessible by public transport, making for a cheap visit. However, many travellers prefer other fast and economical options, such as meter taxis, cyclos and motorbike taxis.
The 2600km Vietnamese railway system, operated by Vietnam Railways (Duong Sat Viet Nam; 04-747 0308; www.vr.com.vn), runs along the coast between HCMC and Hanoi, and links the capital with Hai Phong and northern towns. While sometimes even slower than buses, trains offer a more relaxing way to get around and more room than the jam-packed buses. The trains are also considered safer than the country’s kamikaze bus fleet.
Vietnam’s railway authority has been rapidly upgrading trains and facilities – with air-con sleeping berths and dining cars available now on express trains – and lowering the price for foreigners. Foreigners and Vietnamese are now charged the same price, a big change from a few years ago when foreigners were charged 400% more.
The quickest train journey between Hanoi and HCMC takes 30 hours. The slowest express train on this route takes 41 hours. There are also local trains that only cover short routes, but these can crawl along at 15km/h, as there is only one track with many passing points and local trains have the lowest priority. Vietnam is planning a massive overhaul of its rail network in the next decade, including the introduction of high-speed trains. Hoorah!
Petty crime is a problem on Vietnamese trains. While there doesn’t seem to be organised pack-napping gangs, such as those in India, thieves have become proficient at grabbing packs through the windows as trains pull out of stations. Always keep your bag nearby and lock or tie it to something, especially at night.
Another hazard is children throwing rocks at the train. Passengers have been severely injured this way and many conductors insist that you keep down the metal window shield. Unfortunately, however, these shields also obstruct the view.
Bicycles and motorbikes must travel in the freight car. Just make sure that the train you are on has a freight car (most have) or your bike will arrive later than you do.
Eating is easy, as there are vendors at every station who board the train and practically stuff food, drinks and cigarettes into your pockets. The food supplied by the railway company, included in the ticket price on some long journeys, isn’t Michelin-starred. It’s a good idea to stock up on your favourite munchies before taking a long trip.
Odd-numbered trains travel south and even-numbered ones travel north. The fastest train service is provided by the Reunification Express, which runs between HCMC and Hanoi, making only a few short stops en route. If you want to stop at some obscure point between the major towns, use one of the slower local trains or catch a bus.
Aside from the main HCMC–Hanoi run, three rail-spur lines link Hanoi with the other parts of northern Vietnam. One runs east to the port city of Hai Phong. A second heads northeast to Lang Son, crosses the border and continues to Nanning, China. A third goes northwest to Lao Cai and on to Kunming, China.
Several Reunification Express trains depart from HCMC’s Saigon station between 9am and 10.30pm every day. In the other direction, there are departures from Hanoi between 5am and 6.40pm daily.
The train schedules change frequently. The timetables for all trains are posted on the Vietnam Railway website and at major stations. Another excellent resource is the Man in Seat Sixty-One (www.seat61.com/vietnam.htm), the top international train website. Most travel agents and some hotels keep a copy of the latest schedule on hand. In HCMC call or visit the Saigon Railways Tourist Service (08-836 7640; 275C Ð Pham Ngu Lao, District 1) in the Pham Ngu Lao area.
It’s important to realise that the train schedule is ‘bare-bones’ during the Tet festival. The Reunification Express is suspended for nine days, beginning four days before Tet and continuing for four days afterwards.
There are four main classes of train travel in Vietnam: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. The latter three are also split into air-con and nonair-con options; presently, air-con is only available on the faster express trains. Since it’s all that many Vietnamese can afford, hard-seat class is usually packed. Hard seat is tolerable for day travel, but overnight it is worse than the bus. Soft-seat carriages have vinyl-covered seats rather than the uncomfortable hard benches.
A hard sleeper has three tiers of beds (six beds per compartment). Because of limited head room and the climb, the upper berth is cheapest, followed by the middle berth and finally the lower berth. There is no door to separate the compartment from the corridor. Soft sleeper has two tiers (four beds per compartment) and all bunks are priced the same. These compartments have a door.
Ticket prices vary depending on the train, and the fastest trains are naturally the most expensive. For all the details on trains from Hanoi to Haiphong, Lao Cai and Lang Son, see the relevant sections.
The supply of train seats is frequently insufficient to meet demand. Reservations for all trips should be made at least one day in advance. For sleeping berths, it is wise to book several days before the date of departure. You’ll need to bring your passport when buying train tickets.
Many travel agencies, hotels and cafés sell train tickets for a small commission, and this can save considerable time and trouble. It’s a good idea to make reservations for onward travel as soon as you arrive in a city.
We are drowning in letters complaining about the quality of bottom-end budget tours being peddled in HCMC and Hanoi. Some are better than others, but remember the old adage that ‘you get what you pay for’. Tour-operator gimmicks like ‘one free beer’ or ‘10 minutes of internet’ are not a promising sign.
Renting a car with a driver and guide gives you the chance to design a tailor-made itinerary for you and your companions. Seeing the country this way is almost like independent travel, except that it’s more comfortable, less time-consuming and allows for stops anywhere, or everywhere, along the way.
The cost varies considerably. At the high end are tours booked through government travel agencies and upmarket tour companies, while budget and midrange companies can usually arrange something just as enjoyable at a cheaper price.
The price typically includes accommodation, a guide, a driver and a car. The cost of the car depends largely on the type of vehicle.
Once you’ve settled on an itinerary, get a copy from the travel agency. If you find that your guide is making it up as they go along, ignoring the agreed itinerary, that piece of paper is your most effective leverage.
A good guide can be your translator and travelling companion, and can usually save you as much money along the way as they cost you. A bad guide can ruin your trip. If possible, you should meet your guide before starting out – make sure that this is someone you can travel with.
Travelling with a freelance guide, you are usually responsible for their travel expenses, but if you pay for a package through a company, any expenses for the guide and driver should be included.
For trips in and around big cities like HCMC and Hanoi, you’ll often find women working as guides. However, it seems relatively few women are employed as guides on long-distance trips.
The following are Vietnam-based travel agencies who offer premium tours throughout Vietnam and Indochina:
Sinhbalo Adventures (08-837 6766; www.sinhbalo.com; 283/20 Ð Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, HCMC)
Specialised motorbike tours through Vietnam are growing in popularity. It is a great way to get off the trail and explore the mountainous regions of the north and centre of the country. Two-wheels can reach the parts that four-wheels sometimes can’t, traversing small trails and traffic-free backroads. A little experience helps, but many of leading companies also offer tuition for first-timers. Mounting a Minsk to take on the peaks of the north is one of Vietnam’s defining moments and should not be missed.
Foreign guides charge considerably more than local Vietnamese guides. Based on a group of four people, you can expect to pay around US$100 per day per person for an all-inclusive tour providing motorbike rental, petrol, guide, food and accommodation. Some of the best companies running trips in the north include the following:
Explore Indochina (0913-524 658; www.exploreindochina.com) Run by Digby, Dan and Thuan, these guys have biked all over the country and can take you to the parts others cannot reach. You can usually find them at Highway 4 , a bar on Pho Hang Tre. Prices are around US$135 per day.
Free Wheelin Tours (04-747 0545; www.freewheelin-tours.com) Run by Fredo (Binh in Vietnamese), who speaks French, English and Vietnamese, this company has its own homestays in the northeast, plus 4WD trips. Prices start from just US$70 per day with a group of four. It’s located opposite Cuong Minsk on Luong Ngoc Quyen.
Voyage Vietnam (04-926 2373; www.voyagevietnam.net) A newer, locally run outfit, this company is quickly earning itself a good reputation. Prices start from around US$60 per day.
The cyclo (xich-lo), from the French cyclo-pousse, offers cheap and environmentally friendly transportation around Vietnam’s sprawling cities.
Groups of cyclo drivers always hang out near major hotels and markets, and many speak at least broken English. To make sure the driver understands where you want to go, it’s useful to bring a city map. Bargaining is imperative. Settle on a fare before going anywhere or you’re likely to get stiffed.
As a basic rule, short rides around town should cost about 10, 000d. For a longer ride or a night ride, expect to pay double that or more. It pays to have the exact change when taking a cyclo, as drivers may claim they don’t have change. Cyclos are cheaper by time rather than distance. A typical price is US$1 to US$2 per hour.
There have been many stories of travellers being mugged by their cyclo drivers in HCMC so, as a general rule of thumb, hire cyclos only during the day. When leaving a bar late at night, take a meter taxi.
The xe om (zay-ohm) is a motorbike that carries one passenger, like a two-wheeled taxi. Xe means motorbike, and om means hug (or hold), so you get the picture. Getting around by xe om is easy, as long as you don’t have a lot of luggage.
Fares are comparable with those for a cyclo, but negotiate the price beforehand. There are plenty of xe om drivers hanging around street corners, markets, hotels and bus stations. They will find you before you find them…
Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com.vn) has a monopoly on domestic flights, as it owns the only rival, Pacific Airlines (www.pacificairlines.com.vn), which flies the Hanoi–HCMC route and the HCMC–Danang route.
Most travel agents do not charge any more than when you book directly with the airline, as they receive a commission. A passport is required to make a booking on all domestic flights.
Vietnam Airlines has come a long way and many (but not all) branch offices accept credit cards for ticket purchases. The airline has retired its ancient Soviet-built fleet (thank heavens!) and purchased new Western-made aircraft.
A great way to get around Vietnam’s towns and cities is to do as the locals do and ride a bicycle. During rush hours, urban thoroughfares approach gridlock, as rushing streams of cyclists force their way through intersections without the benefit of traffic lights. In the countryside, Westerners on bicycles are often greeted enthusiastically by locals who don’t see many foreigners pedalling around.
Long-distance cycling is popular in Vietnam. Much of the country is flat or only moderately hilly, and the major roads are in good shape. Safety, however, is a considerable concern. Bicycles can be transported around the country on the top of buses or in train baggage compartments.
Decent bikes can be bought at a few speciality shops in Hanoi and HCMC, but it’s better to bring your own if you plan on cycling over long distances. Mountain bikes are preferable, as large potholes or unsealed roads are rough on the rims. Basic cycling safety equipment and authentic spare parts are also in short supply, so bring all this from home. A bell or horn is mandatory – the louder the better.
Hotels and some travel agencies rent bicycles for about US$1 to US$5 per day and it is a great way to explore some of the smaller cities like Hué or Nha Trang. There are innumerable bicycle-repair stands along the side of the roads in every city and town in Vietnam.
Groups of foreign cyclists touring Vietnam are a common sight these days, and there are several tour companies that specialise in bicycling trips.