Long, thin and bookended by two superb cities that form natural points of entry, Vietnam is perhaps one of the easiest countries to plan an itinerary for. Travelers tend to either arrive in Hanoi in the north and work their way down to Ho Chi Minh City, or do the opposite, traveling through the country on a patchwork of buses or via its wonderful train line that hugs the coastline.
The more adventurous point motorbikes in the direction of the country’s lesser-visited interior or hop on a ferry to a faraway, pristine island. Whichever route you plan to take around the country, here’s our guide to getting around Vietnam.
Multiple daily trains travel between HCMC and Hanoi
For first-time visitors looking to tick off some of Vietnam’s most popular cities and towns there’s no better way to navigate the country than by train. The main line weaves along the coast from HCMC to Hanoi stopping almost everywhere you’d want it to.
Trains classified as SE are the smartest and fastest, while those referred to as TN are slower and older. There are four main ticket classes on trains. Increasing in price (and comfort), these are: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. These classes are also usually split into air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned options.
A hard sleeper has three tiers of beds (six beds per compartment), with the upper berth cheapest and the lower berth most expensive. Most soft sleepers have two tiers (four beds per compartment) and all bunks are priced the same. Soft seats are comfortable chairs that recline, usually arranged in rows of four with two chairs on either side of the aisle. Hard seats are essentially wooden benches; expect these carriages to be busy with a fair bit of cigarette smoke. Some trains now have Wi-Fi (though connection speeds, much like Vietnamese trains themselves, are not the fastest).
Fares are affordable and vary depending on route, class, and train type. Multiple trains ply the HCMC to Hanoi line in both directions each day. When it comes to booking, tickets can be bought at railway stations a couple of days in advance of travel, or online 60 to 90 days in advance. When booking online most travelers use Bao Lau, which is both simple and reliable. You can also use the official Vietnam Railways website, but only if you have a Vietnamese credit card.
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 Haiphong (for excursions around Halong Bay); a second heads northeast to Lang Son and continues across the border to Nanning, China; a third runs northwest to Lao Cai, about an hour's drive from top trekking destination, Sapa.
Bus travel is cheap and convenient
Buses offer one of the cheapest ways to get around Vietnam, making them a big hit with budget travelers. They are also highly convenient, with the extensive bus network spanning to the far-flung corners of the country.
You’ll find at least one bus station in every town. These can look chaotic but many now have ticket offices with official prices and departure times clearly displayed. Aim to buy tickets a day in advance to be certain of securing seats. Alternatively tickets can be bought directly through bus companies online, such as Sinh Tourist, or purchased at most hostels or hotels (sometimes with direct pick up).
Buses connecting major towns and cities are predominantly modern affairs, with comfortable reclining seats and even padded flat beds for long trips overnight. On the flip side, most of them are equipped with TVs (ready yourself for hours of perplexing music videos) and some with dreaded karaoke machines. Ear plugs and eye masks are recommended. Out in the sticks, expect uncomfortable local services that drop off and pick up as many passengers as possible along the route.
Additionally, in the country’s popular backpacker haunts you’ll see lots of signs advertising "Open Tour" or "Open Ticket" buses. These services, catering mostly to foreign budget travelers, run between HCMC and Hanoi (as well as some other routes) and allow passengers to hop on and hop off the bus at any major city along the way.
Whichever class of bus you’re on, bus travel in Vietnam is never particularly speedy – plan on just 30mph (50km/h) on major routes, perhaps 43mph (70km/h) on the highway – due to the sheer number of motorbikes, trucks, pedestrians, and random animals competing for space.
Motorbikes are readily available to rent or buy
Traversing the length of Vietnam on two wheels is a lifelong dream for many seasoned bikers. It’s also a relatively cheap and enticing way for foolhardy travelers (usually with far less bike experience) to journey between Vietnam’s two largest cities. Motorbikes are sold by backpackers in hostels in both HCMC and Hanoi, used to travel from one to the other, and then sold on. As a result bikes aren’t always in the best condition.
A more reliable way to get hold of a set of wheels is to hire. Motorbikes are usually hired on a very casual basis. Scooters can be hired from virtually anywhere, including cafes, hotels, and travel agencies. Some places will ask to keep your passport until you return the bike/scooter. Try to sign some sort of agreement, clearly stating what you are hiring, how much it costs, the extent of compensation, and so on. Plenty of local drivers are willing to act as chauffeur and guide for around US$30 per day.
Unfortunately getting a valid licence to ride a motorbike in Vietnam is impossible for many. The rules and bureaucracy involved are frankly mind-boggling. Foreigners are permitted to ride motorbikes in Vietnam with an International Driving Permit (IDP), however, this only covers countries that abide by the 1968 Convention on IDPs. This does include most EU countries, the UK and Switzerland, but not the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Cars for hire with drivers/guides are plentiful
Alternative private transport comes in the form of cars. Self-drive rentals are virtually impossible in Vietnam, which is a blessing given traffic conditions, but cars with drivers are popular and plentiful. Renting a vehicle with a driver-cum-guide is a realistic option even for budget travelers, provided there are enough people to share the cost.
Hanoi, HCMC and the main tourist centers have a wide selection of travel agencies that rent vehicles with drivers for sightseeing trips. For the rough roads of northern Vietnam you’ll definitely need a 4WD.
If you’re traveling in a tourist vehicle with a driver, the car-hire company organizes insurance. If you're using a hired bike, consider carefully that most travel insurance policies will not cover you in the event of an accident if you've not got a driving licence valid for motorbike use. Many travelers wing it, but the risks are clear. The cost of treating serious injuries can be bankrupting for budget travelers. Helmets must be worn on motorbikes at all times.
There are good domestic flight connections
If you’re short on time then domestic flights can be a good way to get from A to B in Vietnam. The country has impressive domestic flight connections, with new routes opening up all the time, and very affordable prices (if you book early). Airlines accept bookings on international credit and debit cards. Note, however, that cancellations are quite common.
It’s safest not to rely on a flight from a small regional airport to make an international connection the same day – travel a day early if you can. Vietnam Airlines is the least likely to cancel flights. Airlines operating domestic routes in Vietnam include Bamboo Airways, Jetstar, and Vietnam Airlines.
While undeniably convenient, planes provide less of a chance to see the rolling scenery of this glorious country up-close. They are also, of course, far more harmful to the environment.
Away from the main highways, cycling is ideal
Bicycles are a great way to get around Vietnam, particularly when you get off the main highways. 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 (usually US$1 to US$2 for a short trip) or even in train baggage compartments if you run out of puff.
Day trips by boat are the best way to see some regions
Vietnam has an enormous number of rivers that are at least partly navigable, but the most important by far is the Mekong and its tributaries. Scenic day trips by boat are possible on rivers in Hoi An, Nha Trang, Danang, Hue, Tam Coc and even HCMC.
There are lovely boat trips by sea too. Cruising the islands of Halong Bay is a must for all visitors to northern Vietnam. In central Vietnam the Cham Islands (accessed from Hoi An) are a good excursion, while in the south, trips to the islands off Nha Trang and around Phu Quoc are recommended. It's possible to reach the Con Dao Islands via boat too.
Accessible transportation in Vietnam is limited
Vietnam is not the easiest of places for travelers with disabilities, despite the fact that many locals are disabled as a result of war injuries. Tactical problems include the chaotic traffic and pavements that are routinely blocked by parked motorbikes and food stalls.
That said, with some careful planning it is possible to have an accessible trip to Vietnam. Find a reliable company to make the travel arrangements and don’t be afraid to double-check things with hotels and restaurants yourself.
Some budget and many mid-range and top-end hotels have lifts. Note that bathroom doorways can be very narrow; if the width of your wheelchair is more than 60cm you may struggle to get inside.
Trains are not really geared for travelers with wheelchairs, but open tour buses are doable. If you can afford to rent a private vehicle with a driver, almost anywhere becomes instantly accessible. As long as you are open to how you get in and out of a boat or up some stairs, anything is possible, as the Vietnamese are always willing to help.
The hazards for blind travelers in Vietnam are acute, with traffic coming at you from all directions. Just getting across the road in cities such as Hanoi and HCMC is tough for everyone, so you’ll definitely need a sighted companion!
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