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Get around in Vietnam

Posted by in on 5-20-13

By plane

The trip from Hanoi to HCMC will take about 2 hours by plane.

There are many flights connecting the two largest cities, Hanoi and HCMC, to major towns such as Da Nang, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Hue, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Phu Quoc. In the past most of these flights were cheap compared to OECD member country prices. Now a return between Hanoi and Da Nang will probably run around US$120-150 (including all taxes).

Domestic carriers are Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar Pacific[5], VietJet [6] and Air Mekong[7]. Air Mekong [8] has short flights between small cities.
By train

Although more expensive than buses, trains are undoubtedly the most comfortable way to travel overland in Vietnam. Vietnam Train or [9]

There is one major train line in Vietnam, the 1723-kilometre trunk between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, on which the Reunification Express runs. HCMC to Hanoi is more than 30 hours, but overnight hops between major destinations are usually possible, if not entirely convenient. It’s a good way to see the countryside and meet upper-middle class locals, but unless you are travelling in a sleeper car it is no more comfortable than buses.

Air-conditioned soft or hard sleeper berths are available and purchasing as early as possible is a good idea as popular berths and routes are often bought out by tour companies and travel agents well before the departure time (hence being told the train is sold out at a station ticket window or popular tour company office does not mean there are no tickets available anywhere–they’ve simply been bought by another re-seller). Booking at the train station itself is generally the safest way, just prepare on a piece of paper the destination, date, time, number of passengers and class. However, unsold tickets can often be bought last minute from people hanging around at the station–a train is rarely sold out for real, as the railway company will add cars when demand is high. Commissions on these tickets will drop away as the departure time draws nearer. Tickets can be returned before departure for a 10% fee.

Seat or sleeper type is marked on the ticket in Vietnamese – for example, soft sleeper “NAM MEM DIEU HOA” meaning: NAM sleeper MEM soft DIEU HOA a/c. Other types may be marked as “Cúng” (hard) or “Ngòi” (seat). There is a common scam with private travel agents where you will pay them to book a soft-sleeper ticket, they then book you a cheaper hard-sleeper ticket, and you don’t know you’ve been scammed until you board the train and your berths are in the lower class. By then with the train on the verge of departing it is too late to go back to the scamming agent to demand compensation.

In addition, there are shorter routes from Hanoi leading northwest and northeast, with international crossings into China. One of the most popular of the shorter routes is the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (with bus service from Lao Cai to the tourist destination of Sapa).

Always try to buy your tickets at least 3 days in advance, to avoid disappointment, especially during peak holiday season, during which you should try to book at least a week in advance.
By bus

Long-distance bus services connect most cities in Vietnam. Most depart early in the morning to accommodate traffic and late afternoon rains, or run overnight. It is important to note that average road speeds are typically quite slow, even when travelling between cities. For example a 276 km (172 mi) journey from the Mekong Delta to Ho Chi Minh City by bus will likely take about 8 hours.

Public Buses travel between the cities’ bus stations. In bigger places, you often have to use local transport to get into the city centre from there. Buses are generally in reasonable shape, and you have the chance to interact with locals.

Vietnamese buses are made for Vietnamese people – bigger Westerners will be very uncomfortable, especially on overnight buses. Also, many Vietnamese are not used to riding on long-haul buses, and will sometimes get sick – not very pleasant if you are stuck on an overnight bus with several Vietnamese throwing up behind you.

Even if you are sometimes bus-sick, it is advisable to book a seat at the middle section rather than at the front of the bus. First, you will avoid viewing directly the short-sighted risks the driver is taking on the way. Second, you will somewhat escape the loud noise of unceasing honkings (each time the bus passes another vehicle, that is about every 10 seconds).

The long haul bus lines run from North to South and back on the only main road (QL1). Be aware that if you take a bus going further than your destination, the bus will drop you off at the most convenient crossroads for the driver and not, as you could have expected, at the bus terminal of your destination. For Hué, this crossroad is 13 km from the city centre and for Nha Trang, 10 km. At these crossroads, you’ll find taxis or mototaxis to get you to your hotel.

If you travel with a bicycle, negotiate the extra fee with the driver rather than the ticket counter before buying your ticket. The bicycle fee should be no more than 10% of the ticket price.

A scam that you may encounter is that after arriving at your location, guides will ask you whether you have booked a hotel. Even though you haven’t, say that you have and prepare the name of a hotel. If you say you have not booked one, they will charter a taxi for you and probably drop you at a hotel where they can collect commission. If you decide not to stay, things may get a little ugly, as they will demand that you pay the taxi fare, which they may quote as several times the actual fare for a ten minute ride.

One of the major bus companies is Hoang Long [10]. They have an excellent website in english that provides all rate information as well as locations of bus terminals in all cities they service. You can bypass the travel agents altogether and head straight for bus station since the agent will simply sell you the very same ticket. If you choose to go the lazy route and use the travel agent at least reference the Hoang Long website for what the bus ticket should cost you. Do not give the travel agent a commission of more than a dollar.

Open Tour buses are run by a multitude of tour companies. They cater especially to tourists, offering ridiculous low rates (Hanoi to HCMC: US$20-25) and door-to-door service to your desired hostel. You can break the journey at any point and continue on a bus of the same company any time later, or simply buy tickets just for the stage you’re willing to cover next. If you’re not planning to make more than 3-4 stops, it might be cheaper to buy separate tickets as you go (ie Hanoi to Hue can be as low as US$5). Also the open ticket limits you to using only one company and does not guarantee you a seat on any bus. Most hotels and guest houses can book seats for any connection, although you’re better to shop around at travel agents, as prices will vary on any given ticket/bus company. Going to the bus company office may net you a commission-free fare. C

Although the bus company will usually be happy to collect you at your hotel or guest house, boarding at the company office will guarantee a choice of seats and you’ll avoid getting stuck at the back or unable to sit next to your travelling companions. The offices are generally located in or near the tourist area of town, and a short walk might make your trip that much more pleasant.

Since tour companies charge very little, they do make commission on their stop-offs which are often at souvenir shops, where you do not have to buy; they always have toilets and drinks and water available for purchase. The estimated time for a bus trip will not be accurate and may be an additional couple of hours sometimes, due to the number of stop offs. Collecting the passengers at the start of the journey can also take quite a while too. Always be at least half an hour early to catch the bus. Try not to drink too much water, as rest stops, especially for overnight buses, may be just somewhere where there are a lot of bushes.

WARNING – Be very careful of your possessions on the overnight bus, people (including bus employees) have been known to look through passengers bag’s and take expensive items such as iPods and phones and sell them on for profit. If you are travelling with an iPod DO NOT FALL ASLEEP WITH IT IN YOUR EAR, as the chances are it will be nowhere to be found in the morning. Simply get a padlock for your hand luggage and lock everything up in there before you go to sleep.
By car

International driving licences are not accepted in Vietnam. The concept of renting a car to drive yourself is almost non-existent, and when Vietnamese speak of renting a car[11] they always mean hiring a car with a driver. (After a short time on local roads with their crazy traffic, you will be glad you left the driving to a local.)

Since few Vietnamese own cars, they have frequent occasion to hire vehicles for family outings, special occasions, etc, and a thriving industry exists to serve that need. Vietnamese can easily hire anything from a small car to a 32-seat bus, for one day or several. Tourists can tap into that market indirectly by way of hotels and tour agents found in every tourist area. Additionally, international car brands have started to surface. Budget Car Rental, one of the largest car rental companies in the world, now offers chauffeur driven services in Vietnam. Hiring a small car for a day trip returning to the point of origin costs around US$60 for 8 hours (though the price changes with the cost of fuel.) (If you shop around and bargain hard for the lowest possible price, you will probably get an older, more beat-up car. If you are paying more than bare minimum, it’s worth asking what sort of car it will be, and holding out for something comfortable.) Few drivers speak any English, so make sure you tell the hotel/agent exactly where you want to go, and have that communicated to the driver.

It’s also possible to hire a car and driver for inter-city travel, at somewhat higher cost. A small car from Saigon to the beach resort of Mui Ne, a 4- or 5-hour trip depending on traffic, costs about US$70, and Dalat to Mui Ne about US$90. Long distance travel by car may be a good choice for several people travelling together, as it provides a flexible schedule and flexible access to remote sites. Keep in mind that long-distance road travel in Vietnam by whatever means (bus or car) is slow, with average speeds less than 50 km/hour. Highway 1, the north-south backbone of the country, usually offers but one lane each way for masses of buses, trucks, cars and motorbikes. In the frequent cities, towns and villages, locals often walk, slowly motorbike or push carts within inches of “fast” through traffic. Vietnamese newspapers frequently lament very-high rates of fatal accidents, many along this route.

Generally speaking, describing Vietnamese driving habits as atrocious would be an understatement. Road courtesy is non-existent and drivers generally do not check their blind spot or wing mirrors. Vietnamese drivers also tend to use their horn very often to get motorcyclists out of their way. In addition, most roads do not have lane markings and even on those that do, drivers generally ignore the lane markings. As such, driving yourself in Vietnam is not recommended and you should leave your transportation needs in the hands of a local.
By bicycle

Adventurous travellers may wish to see Vietnam by bicycle. Several adventure travel tours provide package tours with equipment. Most of the population gets around on two wheels, so it’s an excellent way to get closer to the people, as well as off the beaten path.

Bicycles can be rented cheaply in many cities, and are often a great way of covering larger distances. Good spots for cycling are Dalat, Hoi An, Hue and Ninh Binh. On the other hand, attempting to cycle in Hanoi or HCMC is virtually suicide without proper experience of traffic rules (or lack thereof, ‘proper experience’ in this case means understanding that everyone around you could potentially change direction at any moment.)

In cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, parking bicycles on the sidewalks is not allowed, and you’ll have to go to a pay parking lot. 2000 dong per bike.
By motorcycle taxi

The xe ôm (literally ‘hugging vehicle’) is a common mode of transport for Vietnamese as well as tourists. They are widely available and reasonably cheap — about 10,000 dong for a 10 minute trip, which should get you anywhere within the city centre. Walk the city streets, and every couple of minutes a guy will flag your attention and say “You !! MotoBike?” Longer trips to outlying areas can be negotiated for 20,000-25,000 dong. Always agree on the fare before starting your trip. As with most things, a tourist will often be quoted an above-market price initially, and you need to be firm. If quoted anything over 10,000 dong for a short trip, remind the driver that you could take an air-con taxi for 15,000 dong so forget it. Occasionally drivers will demand more than the negotiated price at the end, so it’s best to have exact change handy. Then you can pay the agreed amount and walk away, end of discussion.
By motorcycle

The 110-cc motorbike is the preferred mode of transport for the Vietnamese masses, and the large cities swarm with them. It’s common to see whole families of four cruising along on a single motorbike. In most places where tourists go, you can easily rent your own, with prices ranging from 100,000 to 160,000 dong per day. Before reading on, however, you should be aware that it is illegal for foreigners to ride a motorbike in Vietnam unless they are in possession of a temporary Vietnamese motorcycle licence, which in turn requires you to have a current licence issued by your home country/country of residence or an International Driving Permit.

To convert your licence or International Driving Permit into a temporary Vietnamese licence you must hold a Vietnamese residence permit of at least three months’ validity or a three-month tourist visa. In Hanoi you should apply to the Centre for Automotive Training and Mechanism, 83a Ly Thuong Kiet Street; in HCMC to the Office of Transportation, 63 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1.

You should also be aware that if you ride unlicensed and have an accident in which a third party is injured or killed you could be subject to a term of imprisonment of 10-20 years, as well as paying a large sum in compensation to the victim or the victim’s family. Moreover, even if your travel insurance policy covers you for motorcycling (check the small print as many don’t), if you are injured when riding illegally the insurance company will not recompense you for medical attention, hospitalisation, evacuation to another country for hospitalisation or repatriation, the cost of which can run into tens of thousands of dollars.

Desk clerks at small hotels often run a side business renting motorbikes to guests, or have a friend or relative who does. Tour booths can usually do the same. In small towns and beach resorts where traffic is light, e.g Pho Quoc, it’s a delightful way to get around and see the sights, and much cheaper than taxis if you make several stops or travel any distance. Roads are usually decent, though it’s advisable not to ride too fast and always keep an eye on the road for the occasional pothole.

Riding in the big cities, especially Ho Chi Minh City, is a very different matter, and not advisable unless you are an experienced rider with a very cool head. Traffic is intense and chaotic, with a long list of unwritten rules that don’t resemble traffic laws anywhere else. “Right of way” is a nearly unknown concept. Riding in HCMC is like finding yourself in the middle of a 3-D video game where anything can come at you from any direction, and you only have one life. Expats who brave the traffic at all typically have an apprenticeship of a few weeks or months riding on the back of others’ motorbikes to learn the ways of the traffic, before attempting to ride themselves. Extreme caution is advised for short-term visitors.

Riding long distance in the countryside can also be harrowing depending on the route you take. Major roads between cities tend to be narrow despite being major, and full of tour buses hell-bent on speed, passing slow trucks where maybe they shouldn’t have tried, and leaving not much room at the edge for motorbikes.

Two main categories of motorbike are available to rent: scooters (automatic transmission); and four-speed motorbikes, the gears of which you shift with your left foot. The ubiquitous Honda Super Cub is a common 4-speed bike that has a semi-automatic gearbox ie no clutch so is relatively easy to ride. Other models may be fully manual and therefore you must also operate the clutch using your left hand – this takes a lot of skill and it’s all too easy to over-rev and pull a wheelie or stall the engine – if you end up with such a bike then practice releasing the clutch gently before hitting the roads! Dirt bikes are becoming popular for rent in Hanoi, other cities are not yet ready for these beasts. Rental agents tend to steer foreigners toward scooters if available, on the (plausible) assumption that they don’t know how to ride motorbikes that require shifting gears. Motorcycles of 175cc and above are only legal to ride if you make a connection with a Vietnamese motorcycle club.

Most places you would want to stop have parking attendants who will issue you a numbered tag and watch over your bike. Sometimes these parking operations are overseen by the establishment you are visiting, and sometimes they are free-lance operations set up in places where a lot of people go. You will usually see rows of bikes lined up parked. Depending on circumstance, you might park the bike yourself, or just put it in neutral and let the staff position it. In all but rare cases you keep the key. Parking is sometimes free at restaurants and cafes (look for “giu xe mien phi”). Elsewhere, fees range from 2,000 to 5,000 dong.

Traffic police in the cities pull over lots of locals (often for reasons that are hard to discern), but conventional wisdom has it that they rarely bother foreigners due to the language barrier. Obeying the traffic laws is nevertheless advisable, especially if you have failed to obtain a Vietnamese licence. Cities like Ho Chi Minh have several one way street, and it is too easy to just steer into them unknowingly as there are limited signs warning you. BE SURE that if you break law, the police who are sneaking just at the right spot, will ask you to pull over and will fine you. They will also threaten to confiscate your bike. The quoted price for the fine may be negotiable, and being apologetic and friendly can get you back on road quickly, with a few dollars less in your pockets.

Helmets have also been required by law since December 2007, so if you don’t have one already ask your rental agent to provide you with one.
By cyclo
Cyclo in Hue

While slowly being supplanted by motorbikes, cyclo pedicabs still roam the streets of Vietnam’s cities and towns. They are especially common in scenic smaller, less busy cities like Hue, where it’s pleasant to cruise slowly along taking in the sights. Though the ride will be slow, hot and sometimes dangerous, you’ll generally need to pay more than for a motorbike for the equivalent distance. On the plus side, some drivers (particularly in the South) are very friendly and happy to give you a running commentary on the sights. Cyclo drivers are notoriously mercenary and will always ask for a high price to start with. Sometimes they will also demand more than the agreed price at the end. (Japanese tourists, especially women, are most often targeted with this scam since they are more responsive to the threat that the driver will call the police and make trouble for them if they don’t pay as demanded.) A reasonable price is about 20,000 dong for up to 2 km (1.2 mi), and if the driver disagrees, simply walk away. (You won’t get far before that driver or another takes your offer.) Prices for a sight-seeing circuit with intermediate stops are more complex to negotiate and more subject to conflict at the end. If you plan to stop somewhere for any length of time, it’s best to settle up with the driver, make no promises, and start fresh later. Some drivers start with a very low rate to get you into their cycle and then if required to wait for you or otherwise vary the agreed price, bring out a typed up price list of their “standard rates” which are inflated beyond belief. If even slightly unsure ask the driver show you his list of charges. Then negotiate from that point or walk away. To avoid trouble, it’s also best to have exact change for the amount you agreed to pay, so if the driver tries to revise the deal, you can just lay your cash on the seat and leave.
By boat

You will be missing a big part of Vietnamese life if you do not spend some time on a boat. Do be careful though because many boats, although seaworthy, are not designed to first world standards. An example is the ferry from Phu Quoc to the mainland. This ferry has one tiny entrance for all passengers to board. When full, which it usually is, there are approximately 200 people on board. In the event of an accident, the chance of everyone getting out of the boat fast enough would be very small. The idea of an emergency exit does not exist.

Tour boats can be chartered for around US$20 for a day’s tour; but beware of safety issues if you charter a boat. Make sure the boat is registered for carrying Tourists and has enough life jackets and other safety equipment on board. Or you can book a tour through a tour company; but be aware that in Vietnam most Tour Agents charge whatever markup they want and therefore the tourist is often paying margins of 30-40% and the boat owner and operator (of anything from a van to a boat) are paid very little of the total amount!

Ha Long Bay is a famous destination for 1-3 day boat trips among its scenic limestone islands. Problem is that all the boats seem to visit the same places – and with high prices and poor quality boats and service real value is hard to come by! Many boats have a US$10 corkage fee, and forbid BYO alcohol, with on board alcohol and seafood about the same price as Europe on some boats! If there is rain, mist or low cloud, you may not see much. Try to pick a clear day.

Dozens of small family-operated boats ply the river in Hue taking visitors to the imperial tombs southwest of the city. This journey is long because the boats are slow, taking about 4 hours or so to make the journey in one direction.

Snorkel – fishing – lunch trips are available from Nha Trang, Hoi An, and Phu Quoc to nearby islands. In Central Vietnam, the North East monsoon season limits many sea boat tours during the months Sep-Feb; other parts of Vietnam seem less affected.

A 90-minute hydrofoil boat operates from Saigon to the seaside resort of Vung Tau for about 120,000 dong each way — the fastest way to reach the beach from the city.

River tours are perhaps the most interesting. A day-long boat trip forms the core of almost any tour of the Mekong region.

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