Getting there & away
There are no ‘suspect’ stamps that will prevent foreigners from visiting Vietnam, but some Vietnamese who live overseas may be given a harder time by immigration and customs than non-Vietnamese visitors. Arranging a visa remains essential before arrival in Vietnam, but these are easy to obtain from embassies worldwide or through Vietnamese travel agents in advance.
Shop around and it is possible to find a good deal to Vietnam. If there are no obvious bargains to Hanoi or HCMC, then consider buying a discounted ticket to Bangkok or Hong Kong and picking up a flight or travelling overland from Thailand on to Vietnam.
Discounted flights are available into Vietnam, but Vietnam Airlines will not allow foreign carriers to sell cheap outbound tickets from Vietnam. A ticket from Bangkok to Hanoi or HCMC costs almost half the price of a Vietnam Airlines’ flight, if it’s purchased in Bangkok. This also means that for anyone planning to purchase a long-haul flight in the region, Vietnam is not the place to do it with Bangkok just a short hop away.
It’s hard to get reservations for flights to/from Vietnam during holidays, especially Tet, which falls between late January and mid-February. If you will be in Vietnam during Tet, make reservations well in advance or you may find yourself marooned in a regional airport along the way. The chaos begins a week before Tet and can last for about two weeks after it.
Be aware that Vietnam is not the only country to celebrate the Lunar New Year, as it falls at the same time as Chinese New Year. Many people hit the road at this time, resulting in overbooked airlines, trains and hotels all over Asia.
There is a river border crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam on the banks of the Mekong. Regular fast boats ply the route between Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Chau Doc in Vietnam, with a change at the Vinh Xuong–Kaam Samnor border. There are also two river boats running all the way to the temples of Angkor at Siem Reap in Cambodia.
It is essential to have a Vietnam visa before rocking up to the border, as they are not issued at land crossings. There are currently twelve international land borders: three each with Cambodia and China and six with Laos. We list the Vietnam side of the border first in the following country coverage. More are set to open during the lifetime of this book, so ask around in Hanoi or HCMC for the latest information.
There are few legal money-changing facilities on the Vietnamese side of these crossings, so be sure to have some small-denomination US dollars handy. The black market is also an option for local currencies – Vietnamese dong, Chinese renminbi, Lao kip and Cambodian riel. Remember that black marketeers have a well-deserved reputation for short-changing and outright theft.
Vietnamese police at the land-border crossings, especially the Lao borders, have a bad reputation for petty extortion. Most travellers find that it’s much easier to exit Vietnam overland than it is to enter. Travellers at the border crossings are occasionally asked for an ‘immigration fee’ of some kind, although this is less common than it used to be.
The Moc Bai–Bavet border is the traditional favourite for a cheap and quick way between HCMC and Phnom Penh. For those willing to take their time, it is much nicer to meander through the Mekong Delta and travel by river between Chau Doc and Phnom Penh. One-month Cambodian visas are issued on arrival at Bavet and Kaam Samnor for US$20, but they are not currently available at Phnom Den. Overcharging is common at Kaam Samnor.
The most popular border crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam is Moc Bai, which connects Vietnam’s Tay Ninh province with Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province. There are several buses daily between Phnom Penh and HCMC (via Moc Bai), usually departing around 8am, taking about six hours and costing as little as US$8.
A more pleasurable alternative to the Moc Bai crossing is the Vinh Xuong–Kaam Samnor border near Chau Doc. This offers the advantage of a leisurely look at the Mekong Delta without the bother of backtracking to HCMC.
There are two companies that offer luxury boat cruises between HCMC and Siem Reap via this border: the international player Pandaw Cruises (www.pandaw.com) and Cambodian company Toum Teav Cruises (www.cfmekong.com). Pandaw is an expensive option favoured by high-end tour companies, while Toum Teav is smaller and is well regarded for the personal service and excellent food.
This border crossing point sees little traffic, as most visitors in Chau Doc tend to use the river crossing direct to Phnom Penh. It’s relatively remote but the roads are in better shape than they used to be, so this crossing may start to see a trickle of travellers or cyclists.
There are currently three border checkpoints where foreigners are permitted to cross between Vietnam and China: Huu Nghi Quan (the Friendship Pass), Lao Cai and Mong Cai. It is necessary to arrange a Chinese visa in advance (US$30 for three months, add US$30 for same-day service) through the embassy in Hanoi (8.30am to 11am for visas).
The Vietnam–China border-crossing hours vary a little but are generally between 7am to 5pm (Vietnam time). Set your watch when you cross the border as the time in China is one hour ahead. Cross-border trade rumbles on all night, but foreigners can only cross during standard hours.
The busiest border crossing between Vietnam and China is located at the Vietnamese town of Dong Dang, 164km northeast of Hanoi. It connects Hanoi with Nanning and is on the overland route to Yuanshou and Hong Kong. Dong Dang is an obscure town, about 18km north of bustling Lang Son.
There is a twice-weekly international train between Beijing and Hanoi, departing on Tuesday and Friday at 6.30pm, that stops at Huu Nghi Quan (Friendship Pass). You can board or get off at numerous stations in China. The entire Hanoi–Beijing run is about 2951km and takes approximately 48 hours, including a three-hour delay (if you are lucky) at the border checkpoint.
Train tickets to China are more expensive in Hanoi, so some travellers prefer to buy a ticket to Dong Dang, cross the border and then buy another ticket on the Chinese side. While this plan involves a motorbike to the border and a bus or taxi on to Pingxiang, it helps avoid the three-hour delay while the international train is given the once over at the border checkpoint.
There’s a 762km railway linking Hanoi with Kunming in China’s Yunnan province. The border town on the Vietnamese side of this border crossing is Lao Cai, 294km from Hanoi. On the Chinese side, the border town is Hekou, 468km south of Kunming.
There are currently no trains on the Chinese side. You will need to leave the train on the Vietnamese side, cross into Hekou and arrange a bus (Y119; 12 hours) from there. There are several train services a day from Hanoi to Lao Cai, so it is easy to combine a stop at Sapa by bus before returning to Lao Cai when crossing this way.
Vietnam’s third (but seldom-used) border crossing to China can be found at Mong Cai in the northeast of the country, opposite the Chinese city of Dongxing. It might be useful for anyone planning to travel between Halong Bay and Hainan Island, but otherwise it is well out of the way.
There are six overland crossings and counting between Laos and Vietnam. Thirty-day Lao visas are now available at the busier borders, but not currently at Nam Xoi, Na Phao and the Attapeu border. We have received scores of letters complaining about immigration and local-transport hassles on the Vietnamese side of these borders. In fact, these border crossings are probably second only to Hanoi hotel scams in the volume of email they generate. Lies about journey times are common: yes, it really does take almost 24 hours to get from Hanoi to Vientiane and not 12. Worse are the devious drivers who stop the bus in the middle of nowhere and renegotiate the price. Transport links on both sides of the border can be very hit and miss, so don’t use the more remote borders unless you have plenty of time, and patience, to play with.
Known as Lao Bao–Dansavanh, this is the most popular border crossing between Laos and Vietnam and is usually the most hassle-free. The border town of Lao Bao is on Hwy 9, 80km west of Dong Ha. Just across the border is the southern Lao province of Savannakhet; the first town you come to is Sepon. There is an international service from Hué to Savannakhet (US$15, nine hours, departing at 6am every second day) that passes through Dong Ha (US$12, 7½ hours, around 8am). Coming in the other direction there are daily buses from Savannakhet at 10pm.
Vietnam’s Hwy 8 hits Laos at the Keo Nua Pass (734m), known as Cau Treo in Vietnamese, Kaew Neua in Lao.
The nearest Vietnamese city of any importance is Vinh, 96km east of the border. On the Lao side it’s about 200km from the border to Tha Khaek. Most people use this border when travelling on the direct buses between Hanoi and Vientiane, but this is no picnic. In fact it’s a set menu from hell. The journey takes about 24 hours and the buses get progressively more dangerous and overcrowded. The bus hardly stops for bathrooms or meals, but stops randomly when the driver fancies a sleep. Invariably the bus arrives at the border at an ungodly hour. Almost everyone ends up wishing they had flown! If you are a sucker for punishment, travel agents and guesthouses in Hanoi and Vientiane can help set you up, literally, for somewhere in the region of US$20 to US$25.
The Nam Can–Nong Haet border links Vinh with Phonsovan and the Plain of Jars. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays it’s possible to catch a bus at 6am from Vinh to Phonsavan (US$12, 11 hours, bookings Mr Lam 038-383 5782).
There is a border at Cha Lo–Na Phao that links Dong Hoi and Tha Khaek, but very few travellers have used it until now. Two buses a week run between these two cities each week.
Arguably the most remote of remote borders is the Na Meo–Nam Xoi which connects Thanh Hoa, a transit town 153km south of Hanoi, with the town of Sam Neua and the famous Pathet Lao caves of Vieng Xai. This involves several changes of transport and a lot of overcharging. Some hardy travellers who have come this way have taken a full four days to get from Luang Prabang to Hanoi.
This is a new crossing that links Kon Tum and Quy Nhon with Attapeu and Pakse. The road and border only opened in mid-2006 and at the time of writing the crossing had still to be given a name. Transport is still sorting itself out but three Vietnamese-run buses link Attapeu and Pleiku (US$10, 12 hours), departing Attapeu at 9am Monday, Wednesday and Friday, coming the other way Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. There are direct buses from Quy Nhon to Pakse (250, 000d, 12 hours, four per week), but Lao visas are not available at this border.
It is possible to cross into Vietnam by bus from Cambodia or Laos. The most popular way from Cambodia is a cheap tourist shuttle via the Bavet–Moc Bai border crossing. From Laos, most travellers take the nightmare bus from Vientiane to Hanoi via the Cau Treo crossing or the easier route from Savannakhet in southern Laos to Hué in central Vietnam via the Lao Bao border crossing.
It is theoretically possible to travel in and out of Vietnam by car or motorbike, but only through borders shared with Cambodia and Laos. However, in reality the bureaucracy makes this a real headache. It is generally easy enough to take a Vietnamese motorbike into Cambodia or Laos, but very difficult in the other direction. It is currently not possible to take any sort of vehicle into China from Vietnam.
Drivers of cars and riders of motorbikes will need the vehicle’s registration papers, liability insurance and an International Driving Permit, in addition to a domestic licence. Most important is a carnet de passage en douane, which is effectively a passport for the vehicle and acts as a temporary waiver of import duty.
Several international trains link China and Vietnam. The most scenic stretch of railway is between Hanoi and Kunming via Lao Cai, but the mammoth journey from Hanoi to Beijing via Lang Son is also a possibility. There are no railway lines linking Vietnam to Cambodia or Laos.
It’s possible to enter Vietnam by train, plane, automobile and other forms of transport. Air is popular for those holidaying in Vietnam, while bus is the most common route for those travelling extensively in the region. Anyone planning on arriving from China should consider the spectacular train ride from Kunming in China’s Yunnan province to Hanoi (although there are currently no trains on the Chinese side: check for updates). Entering from Cambodia, the boat ride down the Mekong River from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc is memorable.
Formalities at Vietnam’s international airports are generally smoother than at land borders, as the volume of traffic is greater. That said, crossing overland from Cambodia and China is now relatively stress-free. Crossing the border between Vietnam and Laos remains somewhat stressful.
Package tours to Vietnam are offered by travel agencies worldwide. Nearly all these tours follow one of a dozen or so set itineraries. Tours come in every shape and size from budget trips to ultimate indulgences. Tours booked outside Vietnam are not bad value when you tally everything up (flights, hotels, transport), but then again it’s a cheap country for travelling.
It’s easy enough to fly into Vietnam and make the travel arrangements after arrival. The main saving through booking before arrival is time, and if time is more precious than money, a pre-booked package tour is probably right for you.
Almost any good travel agency can book you on a standard mad-dash minibus tour around Vietnam. More noteworthy are the adventure tours arranged for people with a particular passion. These include speciality tours for cyclists, trekkers, bird-watchers, war veterans, culture vultures and gourmet travellers.
Griswalds Vietnamese Vacations (02-9564 5040; www.vietnamvacations.com.au) Popular Australian company offering affordable adventures.
Intrepid Travel (1300 360 667; www.intrepidtravel.com.au) Small group tours for all budgets with an environmental, social and cultural edge.
Peregrine (02-9290 2770; www.peregrine.net.au) Small-group and tailor-made tours supporting responsible tourism.
Compagnie des Indes & Orients (01 53 63 33 40; www.compagniesdumonde.com)
Intermedes (01 45 61 90 90; www.intermedes.com)
La Route des Indes (01 42 60 60 90; www.laroutedesindes.com)
Adventure World (09-524 5118; www.adventureworld.co.nz) A wide range of adventure tours covering the country.
Pacific Cycle Tours (03-972 9913; www.bike-nz.com) Mountain bike tours through Vietnam, plus hiking trips to off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Audley Travel (01604-234855; www.audleytravel.com) Popular tailor-made specialist covering all of Vietnam
Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) Well-established high-end company, strong on cultural tours.
Exodus (020-8675 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) Popular adventure company with affordable overland trips.
Hands Up Holidays (0776-501 3631; www.handsupholidays.com) A new company bringing guests close to the people of Vietnam through its responsible holidays with a spot of volunteering.
Mekong Travel (01494-674456; www.mekong-travel.com) Mekong region specialist with in-depth knowledge of Vietnam.
Selective Asia (0845-370 3344; www.selectiveasia.com) New company that cherry-picks the best trips from leading local agents.
Symbiosis (020-7924 5906; www.symbiosis-travel.com) Small bespoke travel company with an emphasis on cycling and diving.
Wild Frontiers (020-7376 3968; www.wildfrontiers.co.uk) Adventure specialist with themed tours like Apocalypse Now.
Asia Transpacific Journeys (800-642 2742; www.asiatranspacific.com) Group tours and tailor-made across the Asia-Pacific region.
Distant Horizons (800-333 1240; www.distant-horizons.com) Educational tours for discerning travellers.
Geographic Expeditions (800-777 8183; www.geoex.com) Well-established high-end adventure travel company.
Global Adrenaline (800-825 1680; www.globaladrenaline.com) Luxury adventures for the experienced traveller.
There are three international airports in Vietnam. Tan Son Nhat airport (SGN; 08-844 6665) serves Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and is Vietnam’s busiest international air hub. Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport (HAN; 04-886 5047) is the destination of choice for those concentrating on northern Vietnam, while a handful of international flights also serve Danang airport (DAD; 0511-830 339), a useful gateway to the charms of central Vietnam.
Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamair.com.vn) Hanoi (04-943 9660) HCMC (08-832 0320) is the state-owned flag carrier, and the majority of flights into and out of Vietnam are joint operations between Vietnam Airlines and foreign airlines.
Vietnam Airlines has a modern fleet of Airbuses and Boeings and the level of service on its international flights is starting to catch up with its bigger rivals. However, on the domestic front, cancellations and late flights are still possible.
Many international flights leaving Hanoi connect through HCMC, but it’s a headache. Passengers have to pay a domestic departure tax, fly to HCMC, claim their bags, check in again, and pay an international departure tax before boarding the international flight.
All phone numbers are in Hanoi (area code 04) unless otherwise stated.
Lufthansa (airline code LH; in HCMC 08-829 8529; www.lufthansa.com; hub Frankfurt)
Vietnam Airlines currently has a monopoly on the Phnom Penh to HCMC route, with several flights a day. There are no direct flights from Phnom Penh to Hanoi, only via HCMC or Vientiane. Vietnam Airlines also offers numerous services daily between Siem Reap and HCMC and a couple of more expensive flights direct to Hanoi. A good agent is Hanuman Tourism (855-23 218356; www.hanumantourism.com; 12 St 310, Phnom Penh).
Vietnam Airlines now offers links from Hanoi to several major cities in China, including Beijing, Guangzhou and Kunming. These routes are shared with Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Yunnan Airlines, respectively. The only direct flights between HCMC and mainland China are to Beijing and Guangzhou.
Reliable travel agents in Hong Kong:
Four Seas Tours (2200 7760; www.fourseastravel.com)
STA Travel (2736 1618; www.statravel.com.hk)
Recommended travel agents in Japan:
No 1 Travel (03-3205 6073; www.no1-travel.com)
STA Travel (03-5391 2922; www.statravel.co.jp)
Singapore Airlines and Vietnam Airlines have daily flights from Singapore to both Hanoi and HCMC. Jetstar Asia and Tiger Airways are cheaper budget carriers and e-tickets can be booked via their websites. For reliable fares from Singapore to Vietnam, contact STA Travel (6737 7188; www.statravel.com.sg).
A good agent for ticketing in Seoul is Joy Travel Service (02-776 9871).
A long-running discount travel agent with a good reputation is Jenny Su Travel (02-2594 7733; email@example.com).
Bangkok is still the most popular gateway to Vietnam. Air France, Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines offer daily connections from Bangkok to Hanoi and HCMC. Air Asia is a cheaper option to both Hanoi and HCMC.
Fares between Australia and Asia are relatively expensive considering the distances involved. Most of the cheaper flights between Australia and Vietnam involve stopovers at Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Singapore, but Qantas and Vietnam Airlines have services linking Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney with either Hanoi or HCMC.
The following are good places to pick up tickets in Australia:
Flight Centre (133 133; www.flightcentre.com.au)
STA Travel (1300 733 035; www.statravel.com.au)
Discount tickets from Canada tend to cost about 10% more than those sold in the USA. For the lowdown on cheap fares, contact Travel Cuts (800-667 2887; www.travelcuts.com), with offices across the country.
Although London is the discount-travel capital of Europe, major airlines and big travel agents usually have offers from all the major cities on the continent.
Recommended agents with branches across France:
Nouvelles Frontières (08 25 00 07 47; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr)
OTU Voyages (www.otu.fr) This agency specialises in student and youth travel.
Voyageurs du Monde (01 40 15 11 15; www.vdm.com)
Reliable agencies in Germany:
Just Travel (089-747 33 30; www.justtravel.de)
STA Travel (0180-545 64 22; www.statravel.de)
Flight Centre (0800 243 544; www.flightcentre.co.nz)
STA Travel (0508 782 872; www.statravel.co.nz)
Flightbookers (087-0010 7000; www.ebookers.com)
North-South Travel (01245-608291; www.northsouthtravel.co.uk) North-South Travel donates part of its profit to projects in the developing world.
STA Travel (087-0160 0599; www.statravel.co.uk)
Trailfinders (084-5050 5891; www.trailfinders.co.uk)
Travel Bag (087-0890 1456; www.travelbag.co.uk)
Discount travel agents in the USA are known as consolidators. San Francisco is the ticket-consolidator capital of America, although some good deals can be found in Los Angeles, New York and other big cities.
Useful online options in the USA: