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.
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 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.
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: