For most visitors one of the most frustrating aspects of travelling in Vietnam is the perception that they are being ripped off. Here are some guidelines to help you navigate the maze.
Airfares Fares are dependent on when you book and what dates you want to travel. There is no price difference between Vietnamese and foreigners.
Boat fares Ferries and hydrofoils have fixed prices, but expect to pay more for the privilege of being a foreigner on smaller local boats around the Mekong Delta and to places like the Cham Islands.
Bus fares More complicated. If you buy a ticket from the point of departure (ie the bus station), then the price is fixed and very reasonable. However, should you board a bus along the way, there’s a good chance the driver or conductor will overcharge. In remote areas drivers may ask for four, or even 10, times what the locals pay. Local bus prices should be fixed and displayed by the door, but foreigners are sometimes overcharged on routes such as Danang–Hoi An.
Rail fares Fixed, although naturally there are different prices for different classes.
Taxis Mostly metered and very cheap, but very occasionally some taxis have dodgy meters that run fast.
Xe Oms & Cyclos Fares are definitely not fixed and you need to bargain. Hard.
Vietnam has excellent 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.
Jetstar Airways (www.jetstar.com)
VietJet Air (www.vietjetair.com)
Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com.vn)
Bikes 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.
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 to cycle long distances. Basic cycling safety equipment and authentic spare parts are also in short supply. A bell or horn is mandatory – the louder the better.
Hotels and some travel agencies rent bicycles for US$1 to US$3 per day, better-quality models cost from US$6. Cycling is the perfect way to explore smaller cities such as Hoi An, Hue or Nha Trang (unless it’s the rainy season!). There are innumerable bicycle repair stands along the side of the road to get punctures and the like fixed.
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.
Boat trips are also possible on the sea. Cruising the islands of Halong Bay is a must for all visitors to northern Vietnam. In central Vietnam the lovely 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 now possible to reach the Con Dao islands from the Mekong Delta on a fast boat connection, too.
Note many boat trips are seasonal and subject to weather conditions.
Vietnam has an extensive network of buses that reach the far-flung corners of the country. Modern buses, operated by myriad companies, run on all the main highways. Out in the sticks expect uncomfortable local services.
Most travellers never visit a Vietnamese bus station at all, preferring to stick to the convenient, tourist-friendly open-tour bus network.
Whichever class of bus you’re on, bus travel in Vietnam is never speedy – plan on just 50km/h on major routes, perhaps 60km/h on Hwy 1 – due to the sheer number of motorbikes, trucks, pedestrians and random animals competing for space.
Cities can have several bus stations, and responsibilities can be divided according to the location of the destination (whether it is north or south of the city) and the type of service (local or long distance, express or nonexpress).
Bus stations can look chaotic but many now have ticket offices with official prices and departure times clearly displayed.
Some bus companies also have their own private terminals, but these are quite rare.
Modern air-conditioned buses operate between the main cities. You can be certain of an allocated seat and enough space.
Most have comfortable reclining seats, others have padded flat beds for long trips. These sleeper buses can be a good alternative to trains, and costs are comparable.
Deluxe buses are nonsmoking and some even have wi-fi. On the flipside, most of them are equipped with TVs (expect crazy kung fu videos) and some with dreaded karaoke machines. Ear plugs and eye masks are recommended.
Deluxe buses stop at most major cities en route, and for meal breaks.
Mai Linh Express (www.mailinhexpress.vn) This reliable, punctual company operates clean, comfortable deluxe buses across Vietnam. Destinations covered include all main cities along Hwy1 between Hanoi and HCMC, Hanoi to Haiphong, HCMC to Dalat, and cities in the central highlands.
The Sinh Tourist (www.thesinhtourist.vn) An efficient company that has nationwide bus services, including sleepers. You can book ahead online. Look out for special promotional prices.
Short-distance buses depart when full (jam-packed with people and luggage). Don’t count on many leaving after about 4pm.
These buses and minibuses drop off and pick up as many passengers as possible along the route; frequent stops make for a slow journey.
Conductors tend to routinely overcharge foreigners on these local services so they’re not popular with travellers.
In backpacker haunts throughout Vietnam, you’ll see lots of signs advertising ‘Open Tour’ or ‘Open Ticket’. These are bus services catering mostly to foreign budget travellers. The air-conditioned buses run between HCMC and Hanoi (and other routes) and passengers can hop on and hop off the bus at any major city along the route.
Prices are reasonable. Depending on the operator and exact route, HCMC to Hanoi is US$35 to US$70, while HCMC to Hue is around US$25. The more stops you add, the higher the price. Try to book the next leg of your trip at least a day ahead.
Buses usually depart from central places (often hostels popular with travellers), avoiding an extra journey to the bus station. Some open-tour buses also stop at sights along the way (such as the Cham ruins of Po Klong Garai).
The downside is that you're herded together with other backpackers and there's little contact with locals. Additionally, it's harder to get off the main 'banana pancake' trail as open-route buses just tend to run to the most popular places. Some open-tour operators also depend on kickbacks from sister hotels and restaurants along the way. Dodgy drivers also pack bus aisles with locals paying them cash in hand.
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 your plans.
Nevertheless, cheap open-tour tickets are a temptation and many people go for them. Aside from the main north–south journey, the HCMC–Mui Ne–Dalat–Nha Trang route is popular.
If you are set on open-tour tickets, look for them at budget cafes in HCMC and Hanoi. The Sinh Tourist (www.thesinhtourist.vn) has a good reputation, with online seat reservations and comfortable buses.
Reservations & Costs
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. Always buy a ticket from the office, as bus drivers are notorious for overcharging.
On many rural runs foreigners are typically overcharged anywhere from twice to 10 times the going rate. As a benchmark, a typical 100km ride should be between US$2 and US$3.
Car & Motorcycle
Having your own set of wheels gives you maximum flexibility to visit remote regions and stop when and where you please. Car hire always includes a driver. Motorbike hire is good value and this can be self-drive or with a driver.
Foreigners are now permitted to drive in Vietnam with an International Driving Permit (IDP). This must be combined with local insurance for it to be valid. In reality on the ground virtually no car-hire agency will provide a car to a foreign visitor without including a driver. If you do manage to acquire a car without a driver an IDP is technically required.
Even the most isolated communities usually have someone selling petrol by the roadside. Some sellers dilute fuel to make a quick profit – try to fill up from a proper petrol station.
The major considerations are safety, the mechanical condition of the vehicle, the reliability of the rental agency, and your budget.
Car & Minibus
Self-drive rental cars are unavailable 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 travellers, provided there are enough people to share the cost.
Hanoi, HCMC and the main tourist centres 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.
Approximate costs per day are between US$80 and US$120 for a standard car, or between US$120 and US$135 for a 4WD.
Motorbikes 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. Try to sign some sort of agreement, clearly stating what you are hiring, how much it costs, the extent of compensation and so on.
To tackle the mountains of the north, it is best to get a slightly more powerful model such as a road or trail bike. Plenty of local drivers are willing to act as chauffeur and guide for around US$20 to US$30 per day.
The approximate costs per day without a driver are between US$5 and US$8 for a moped or US$20 and up for trail and road bikes.
If you’re travelling in a tourist vehicle with a driver, the car-hire company organises insurance. If you're using a hired bike, the owners should have some insurance. Many rental places will make you sign a contract agreeing to a valuation for the bike if it is stolen. Use guarded parking where available.
If you're considering buying a vehicle, try HSBC (www.hsbc.com.vn) for cover.
Travel insurance is essential if you're planning to travel by motorbike. However, check your policy carefully as some exclude cover for two-wheeled travel. The cost of treating serious injuries can be bankrupting for budget travellers.
Road Conditions & Hazards
Road safety is definitely not one of Vietnam’s strong points. The intercity road network of two-lane highways is dangerous. High-speed, head-on collisions are a sickeningly familiar sight on main roads.
In general, the major highways are paved and reasonably well maintained, but seasonal flooding can be a problem. A big typhoon can create potholes the size of bomb craters. In some remote areas, roads are not surfaced and transform into a sea of mud when the weather turns bad – such roads are best tackled with a 4WD vehicle or motorbike. Mountain roads are particularly dangerous: landslides, falling rocks and runaway vehicles can add an unwelcome edge to your journey.
Vietnam does not have an efficient emergency-rescue system, so if something happens on the road, it could be some time before help arrives and a long way to even the most basic of medical facilities. Locals might help, but in most cases it will be up to you (or your guide) to get you to the hospital or clinic.
Basically, there aren’t many or, arguably, any. Size matters and the biggest vehicle wins by default. Be particularly careful about children on the road. Livestock is also a menace; hit a cow on a motorbike and you’ll both be hamburger meat.
The police almost never bother stopping foreigners on bikes (except around Mui Ne and sometimes in Nha Trang). However, speeding fines are imposed and the police now have speed 'guns'. In any area deemed to be 'urban' (look out for the blue sign with skyscrapers), the limit is just 50km/h. In cities, there is a rule that you cannot turn right on a red light.
Honking at all pedestrians and bicycles (to warn them of your approach) is not road rage but local etiquette.
Legally, a motorbike can carry only two people, but we’ve seen up to six on one vehicle…plus luggage! This law is enforced in major cities, but wildly ignored in rural areas.
Vietnam is awash with Japanese (and Chinese) motorbikes, so it is easy to get spare parts for most bikes. But if you are driving something very obscure, bring substantial spares.
It is compulsory to wear a helmet when riding a motorbike in Vietnam, even when travelling as a passenger. Consider investing in a decent imported helmet if you are planning extensive rides as the local eggshells don’t offer much protection. Better-quality helmets are available in major cities from US$35.
Hiring A Vehicle & Driver
Renting a car with a driver gives you the chance to design a tailor-made tour. Seeing the country this way is almost like independent travel, except that it’s more comfortable, less time-consuming and allows for stops along the way.
Most travel agencies and tour operators can hook you up with a vehicle and driver (most of whom will not speak English). Try to find a driver-guide who can act as a translator and travelling companion and offer all kinds of cultural knowledge, opening up the door to some unique experiences. A bad guide can ruin your trip. Consider the following:
- Try to meet your driver-guide before starting out and make sure that this is someone you can travel with.
- How much English (French or other language) do they speak?
- Drivers usually pay for their own costs, including accommodation and meals, while you pay for the petrol. Check this is the case.
- Settle on an itinerary and get a copy from the travel agency. If you find your guide is making it up as they go along, use it as leverage.
- Make it clear you want to avoid tourist-trap restaurants and shops.
- Tip them if you’ve had a good experience.
Few travellers deal with city buses due to communication issues and the cheapness of taxis, cyclos and xe om. That said, the bus systems in Hanoi and HCMC are not impossible to negotiate – get your hands on a bus map.
The cyclo is a bicycle rickshaw. This cheap mode of transport is steadily dying out, but is still found in some Vietnamese cities.
Groups of cyclo drivers always hang out near major hotels and markets. Bargaining is imperative; settle on a fare before going anywhere. Approximate fares are between 12,000d and 25,0000d for a short ride, between 25,000d and 40,000d for a longer or night ride.
However, do consider that there are some dodgy cyclo operators out there (HCMC has several) who target tourists by outrageously overcharging and there have been reports of threats of violence.
Cyclo tours organised by tour operators and some hotels are sanitised rides around cities.
Taxis with meters, found in most major cities, are very cheap by international standards and a safe way to travel around at night. Average tariffs are about 12,000d to 15,000d per kilometre. However, dodgy taxis with go-fast meters do roam the streets of Hanoi and HCMC; they often hang around bus terminals. Only travel with reputable or recommended companies.
Two nationwide companies with excellent reputations are Mai Linh (www.mailinh.vn) and Vinasun (www.vinasuntaxi.com).
App-based taxis (both car and motorbike) including Uber and Grab are available in several Vietnamese cities including HCMC, Hanoi and Danang.
The xe om (zay-ohm) is a motorbike taxi. Xe means motorbike, 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 around 15,000d for a short hop, or from 20,000d in HCMC or Hanoi. Negotiate the price beforehand. There are plenty of xe om drivers hanging around street corners, hotels and bus stations. They will find you before you find them…
Operated by national carrier, Vietnam Railways (www.vr.com.vn), the Vietnamese railway system is an ageing but pretty dependable service, and offers a relaxing way to get around the nation. Travelling in an air-conditoned sleeping berth sure beats a hairy overnight bus journey along Hwy 1. And, of course, there’s some spectacular scenery to lap up, too.
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: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. These are also split into air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned options. Presently, air-con is only available on the faster express trains. Some SE trains now have wi-fi (though connection speeds, like Vietnamese trains, are not the quickest). Hard-seat class is usually packed and expect plenty of cigarette smoke.
Comfortable, even luxurious, private carriages tagged onto the back of trains offer a classy way of travelling between Lao Cai and Hanoi: those offered by Orient Express Trains (www.orientexpresstrainsapa.com) and Victoria Hotels are renowned and very pricey, but there are many other options including Livitrans (www.livitrans.com).
Livitrans, Violette (http://en.violetexpresstrain.com) and other companies offer luxury carriages between Hanoi and Hue (US$75 to US$85) and Danang (US$85 to US$95), as do several other companies.
A hard sleeper has three tiers of beds (six beds per compartment), with the upper berth cheapest and the lower berth most expensive. Soft sleeper has two tiers (four beds per compartment) and all bunks are priced the same. Fastidious travellers will probably want to bring a sleeping sheet, sleeping bag and/or pillow case with them, although linen is provided.
Ticket prices vary depending on the train; the fastest trains are more expensive.
Children under two are free; those between two and nine years of age pay 50% of the adult fare. There are no discounts on the Hanoi–Lao Cai route.
Bicycles and motorbikes must travel in freight carriages, which will cost around 380,000d for a typical overnight trip.
You can can buy tickets in advance from the Vietnam Railways bookings site (http://dsvn.vn); however, at the time of writing only Vietnamese credit cards were accepted. You can also book online using the travel agency Bao Lau (www.baolau.vn), which has an efficient website, details seat and sleeper-berth availability, and accepts international cards. E-tickets are emailed to you; there's a 40,000d commission per ticket.
You can reserve seats/berths on long trips 60 to 90 days in advance (less on shorter trips). Most of the time you can book train tickets a day or two ahead without a problem, except during peak holiday times. For sleeping berths book a week or more before the date of departure.
Schedules, fares, information and advance bookings are available on Bao Lau's website. Vietnam Impressive (www.vietnamimpressive.com) is another dependable online agent; it charges US$2 per ticket.
Many travel agencies, hotels and cafes will also buy you train tickets for a small commission.
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; a second heads northeast to Lang Son and continues across the border to Nanning, China; a third runs northwest to Lao Cai (for trains on to Kunming, China).
'Fast' trains between Hanoi and HCMC take between 32 and 35 hours.
Petty crime is rare on Vietnamese trains. Thieves occasionally try to grab stuff as trains pull out of stations. Always keep your bag nearby and lock or tie it to something, especially at night.
Several Reunification Express trains depart from Hanoi and HCMC every day. Train schedules change frequently, so check departure times on the Vietnam Railways website (www.vr.com.vn), Bao Lau's website (www.baolau.vn) or www.seat61.com, the international train website.
A bare-bones train schedule operates during the Tet festival, when most trains are suspended for nine days, beginning four days before Tet and continuing for four days afterwards.
Feature: Reunification Express
Construction of the 1726km-long Hanoi–Saigon railway, the Transindochinois, began in 1899 and was completed in 1936. In the late 1930s, the trip from Hanoi to Saigon took 40 hours and 20 minutes at an average speed of 43km/h.
During WWII the Japanese made extensive use of the rail system, resulting in Viet Minh sabotage on the ground and US bombing from the air. After WWII, efforts were made to repair the Transindochinois, major parts of which were either damaged or had become overgrown.
During the Franco–Viet Minh War (1946–54), the Viet Minh again engaged in sabotage against the rail system. At night the Viet Minh made off with rails to create a 300km network of tracks (between Ninh Hoa and Danang) in an area wholly under their control – the French quickly responded with their own sabotage.
In the late 1950s the South, with US funding, reconstructed the track between Saigon and Hue, a distance of 1041km. But between 1961 and 1964 alone, 795 Viet Cong (VC) attacks were launched on the rail system, forcing the abandonment of large sections of track (including the Dalat spur).
By 1960, North Vietnam had repaired 1000km of track, mostly between Hanoi and China. During the US air war against the North, the northern rail network was repeatedly bombed. Even now, clusters of bomb craters can be seen around virtually every rail bridge and train station in the north.
Following reunification in 1975, the government immediately set about re-establishing the Hanoi–Ho Chi Minh City rail link as a symbol of Vietnamese unity. By the time the Reunification Express trains were inaugurated on 31 December 1976, 1334 bridges, 27 tunnels, 158 stations and 1370 shunts (switches) had been repaired.
Today the Reunification Express chugs along only slightly faster than the trains did in the 1930s, at an average of around 55km/h. Chronic under-investment means that it's still mainly a single-track line.
Plans for a massive overhaul of the rail system to create a high-speed network have been shelved, but a gradual upgrade of the network is ongoing and it's hoped that this will raise maximum speeds.
Feature: Metro Progress
Metro lines are under construction in both HCMC and Hanoi, and though both have been delayed services should start in the next few years. The line in HCMC is a Japanese-Vietnamese partnership; Line 1 is scheduled to open in 2020. Eventually, the plan is for there to be three monorails and six underground lines.
China is the financial muscle behind the Hanoi metro, which has been beset by construction troubles. Here eight lines are planned, with a total length of 318 km. Two lines are currently being built, the first is due to open in 2018.
The website www.baolau.vn has a very useful, and generally accurate, Plan Your Trip function that allows you to compare train, plane and bus travel (including costs and schedules) between cities in Vietnam.