Getting around Vietnam is now easier than ever with many transport options. Competition among local travel agencies will work to your advantage, and you can find affordable deals to book your plane, bus, and boat tickets or to rent cars or motorbikes.
Vietnam is a long country so It’s a good idea to fly the longer hops along Vietnam’s length: from Ha Noi to Hue, from Da Nang to Nha Trang, and from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City. And fly from the main land to islands of Con Dao or Phu Quoc.
Vietnam Airlines runs the most domestic routes in Vietnam, while budget carrier Jet Star Pacific or Viet Jet Air offer healthy competition on the tourist routes (namely to-and-fros btw. Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, and Nha Trang). Domestic departure tax is included in most fares.
Today, it’s possible to drive to every tourist site and even reach remote areas by car. Most of the roads from town to town are paved well and safe. However, the road conditions to remote areas are unpredictable, especially in the rainy season due to flooding or landslide. In these circumstances you definitely need a local driver to help you. If you’ve got the budget for it, going by car is the best and safest way to see Vietnam.
Self-driving is recommended. There are rules on the road, but to the uninitiated, driving is chaotic. Your international driver’s license holds up — in fact, any piece of paper with English writing will do most of the time — and right-lane driving might look familiar and easy to some, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Turn it over to a driver, available for hire anywhere and for as little as $10 per day. Most hotels will rent wheels for day trips at inflated rates; budget hotels and guesthouses offer the best rates. Budget travelers often pitch in for a rented car between sites (from Hue to Nha Trang, for example), where going by private car means you can set your own schedule and stop at places like Bach Ma National Park, Lang Co Beach, and atop Hai Van Pass.
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. 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 you. For the ultimate experience in mountains of the north, consider joining a motorbike tour to discover the secret back roads.
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.
The Reunification Express runs the entire length of Vietnam’s coastline — from Ho Chi Minh to Ha Noi, with routes out of Ha Noi to the likes of Lao Cai (Sapa), Lang Son, and coastal Hai Phong City. Riding the length of the country takes nearly 30 hours.
The most popular hops are from Ha Noi up to Sapa, where special luxury trains with dining cars cover the route, or from Ha Noi down the coast to the old capital of Hue, and from there to Danang (less popular) or all the way to Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh. Improved road travel is making the train obsolete in most parts, except for the mountainous far north.
There are a number of classes, from third-class hard seat to air-conditioned cushioned seat to sleeper, but in general the more comfortable seats are affordable. Be warned that you need to book trains a few days in advance, especially for weekend travel. Popular trips to Sapa are best organized through a tour company (for a small fee) from home or well in advance when on the ground in Vietnam.
Local buses are either a nightmare or a delight, depending on your expectations. If you’re prepared to be the main character in a piece of bad, chaotic performance, then your appetite will be pleased; if you want grist for the travel journal, you will find it; if you want to get somewhere efficiently and with all of your sensory nerve endings intact, you will be disappointed.
Local buses depart from stations usually a good distance from the town center (it usually requires a ride on the back of a motorbike taxi to get there), and station touts are all over you, pulling you this way and that (this is the best piece of “bad performance art”). Buses leave only when full — and “full” means that everyone is uncomfortable, two to a seat, produce hanging, bags under your feet and, bird flu be damned, chickens in bags and on people’s laps. Just when you think the bus is completely full, when not one more person could possibly squeeze in, the driver pulls to the side of the road and, like a circus clown car, the bus swallows one more body. All buses honk wildly as they navigate the chaotic traffic of Vietnam’s bumpy roads, and all transport travels at a lumbering 50kmph (31 mph).
In the bigger cities and on longer routes, you’ll find regular schedules and bus stations with ticket booths and marked prices, but when you’re out in countryside, you often have to negotiate a price with the driver or bus tout — a frustrating operation when you just want to catch the bus. It is a real visceral adventure, and going by local bus is the best way to meet Vietnamese people and learn the local language, but it can be too overwhelming for some.
The “open tour” ticket is a way to plan your overland travel all the way down the coast of Vietnam; it is a one-way, multistop ticket, and you can catch buses from each town going from Ha Noi, all the way to Ho Chi Minh City. It sounds like a great idea, and folks in the sales offices will regale you with tales of ease and comfort as you explore the length of the Vietnam coast, but don’t be fooled: These are rock-bottom budget tours, and though the buses are usually in pretty good shape and have air-conditioning, it can be a pretty unpleasant cattle-herding situation among lots of complaining backpackers. Buses stop only at big tourist-shopping complexes, and you get little interaction with locals. That said, these tour buses are good for short hops between cities, but I try to mix it up, catching the train where possible (especially on long hauls from Ha Noi to Hue or Da Nang to Nha Trang), and even getting together with fellow travelers and hiring your own car for a day along the coast (not much more costly). Don’t be taken in by the easy “open tour” ticket, as, for just a few bucks extra, you can buy individual journeys from each town as you head south.
Strength with a scenic flat coastline, Vietnam can be a great destination for cyclists. The only really challenge part is the northern mountains, even the Central Highlands are not really all that hilly. Most nearly every town in Vietnam will have some lodgings, so you shouldn’t struggle for a room. Things to pack — a good supply of inner tubes and patch kits — and of course, your bike — but you probably knew that already.
Vietnamese bikes are not of a very high standard, but you can easily hire bike at specialist bike Tour Company or you can also bring your own bike. The country has a pretty good network of secondary roads which are far preferable to cycling on the main road, where cyclists rank just above chickens in the pecking order, you will be expected to yield to all larger vehicles.
This is only really an option in the Mekong Delta, where you can travel in both tourist boats for short haul trips and take freighters for longer trips. The former are comfortable, the latter can sometimes be comfortable, other times less so. Boat transport is slow — figure on two days for a trip from My Tho to Chau Doc on the Cambodian border.
The most popular tourist services are the ferries from Ho Chi Minh to Vung Tau, and the boats from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh (Cambodia). Boat travel generally works out as being more expensive than bus travel over a similar route.