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Getting Around in Vietnam

Most travel takes place on the roads, which are largely of decent quality surface-wise. The vehicles themselves are also pretty good, with air-conditioned coaches ferrying tourists (and an increasing number of locals) up and down Highway 1, a desperately narrow and shockingly busy thoroughfare that runs from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, passing through Hué, Da Nang and Nha Trang en route. Off the main routes the vehicles are less salubrious. Trains run alongside Highway 1, and their sleeper berths are far more comfortable than buses for longer journeys. Lastly, the domestic flight network continues to evolve, and the cheap, comfortable services may save you days’ worth of travel by road or rail. That said, there’s plenty of room for improvement, particularly as regards road transport.

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The cyclo is a bicycle rickshaw. This cheap, environmentally friendly mode of transport is steadily dying out, but is still found in Vietnam’s main cities.

Groups of cyclo drivers always hang out near major hotels and markets, and many speak at least broken English. To make sure the driver understands where you want to go, it’s useful to bring a city map. Bargaining is imperative. Settle on a fare before going anywhere or you’re likely to get stiffed.

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Xe Om

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 comparable with those for a cyclo, but negotiate the price beforehand. There are plenty of xe om drivers hanging around street corners, markets, hotels and bus stations. They will find you before you find them…

Travel by Plane

Flying comes into its own on longer hauls, and can save precious hours or even days off journeys – the two-hour journey between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for instance, compares favourably with the thirty to forty hours you would spend on the train. Prices are reasonable at around 950,000? with Jetstar, and a little more with Vietnam Airlines. Other useful services from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City fly to Hué, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Phu Quoc Island. Note that you’ll need your passport with you when taking internal flights.

The Vietnamese national carrier, Vietnam Airlines, operates a reasonably cheap, efficient and comprehensive network of domestic flights. The company maintains booking offices in all towns and cities with an airport; addresses and phone numbers are listed throughout the Guide.

Competition is keeping prices low on domestic flights; the aforementioned Jetstar now rival Vietnam Airlnes for local coverage, while 2009 startup Air Mekong (w airmekong.com.vn) fly from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to all major airports in the south of the country. Vasco (w vasco.com.vn) also fly from Ho Chi Minh City to Con Dao and Ca Mau, but it’s better to book through their codeshare partner Vietnam Airlines (and actually far better to go with Air Mekong’s superior planes on the Con Dao route).

Travel by Rail

Given the amazing prices and regular services of the open-tour buses, few travellers opt for the train. However, rail journeys are well worth considering, for several reasons. Firstly, major roads tend to be lined in their entirety with ramshackle cafés, petrol pumps, snack stands and mobile phone shops; from the train, you’ll actually see a bit of the countryside. Secondly, you’ll be involved in far fewer near-collisions with trucks, motorbikes or dogs. Thirdly, you’re almost guaranteed to get talking to a bunch of friendly locals – and perhaps get to join in on the feasts that some of them bring on board.

Vietnam Railways (w vr.com.vn) runs a single-track train network comprising more than 2500km of line, stretching from Ho Chi Minh City to the Chinese border. Much of it dates back to the colonial period, though it’s gradually being upgraded. Most of the services are still relatively slow, but travelling by train can be far more pleasant than going by road – though prices on the coastal route can’t compare with buses, you’re away from the busy (and often dangerous) Highway 1, and get to see far more of the countryside. Keep a particularly close eye on your belongings on the trains, and be especially vigilant when the train stops at stations, ensure your money belt is safely tucked under your clothes before going to sleep and that your luggage is safely stowed.

The most popular routes with tourists are the shuttle from Da Nang to Hué (2–3hr), a picturesque sampler of Vietnamese rail travel and the overnighters from Hué to Hanoi (11–16hr) and from Hanoi up to Lao Cai, for Sa Pa (8–9hr).

The country’s main line shadows Highway 1 on its way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, passing through Nha Trang, Da Nang and Hué en route. From Hanoi, three branch lines strike out towards the northern coast and Chinese border. One line traces the Red River northwest to Lao Cai, just an hour by bus from Sa Pa and also the site of a border crossing into China’s Yunnan Province; unfortunately, the rail on the Chinese side is not in use. Another runs north to Dong Dang; this is the route taken by trains linking Hanoi and Beijing. The third branch, a shorter spur, links the capital with Hai Phong.

Five Reunification Express services depart daily from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and vice versa, a journey that takes somewhere between thirty and forty hours. Most services arrive between 3am and 5am in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

On the northern lines, four trains per day make the run from Hanoi to Hai Phong (2hr 30min) and two to Dong Dang (6hr). There are also four night trains (7–8hr) and a day service (9hr) to Lao Cai.

Trains usually leave on schedule from their departure points, and though delays can stack up further down the line, they’re rarely too severe. Note that the only truly reliable way to learn the schedule is by checking those printed on the station wall.

When it comes to choosing which class to travel in, it’s essential to aim high. At the bottom of the scale is a hard seat, which is just as it sounds, though bearable for shorter journeys; the carriages, however, tend to be filthy and since the windows are caged, views are poor and one can actually feel like an animal. Soft seats offer more comfort, especially in the new air-conditioned carriages, some of which are double-decker; the newer berths, unfortunately, tend to have flatscreen TVs operating at an ear-splitting volume. On overnight journeys, you’d be well advised to invest in a berth of some description, though since the country’s rolling stock is being upgraded it’s not always possible to know exactly what you’re getting. The new hard-berth compartments are now quite comfortable and have six bunks, three either side – the cramped top ones are the cheapest, and the bottom ones the priciest – though some of the old hard-as-nails relics remain in service. Roomier soft-berth compartments, containing only four bunks, are always comfortable.

Note that luxury carriages are attached to regular services on a couple of routes from Hanoi. Those on trains to Hué and Da Nang are operated by Livitrans (w livitrans.com), and to Lao Cai by an assortment of companies.

All Reunification Express trains now have air-conditioning, as do the overnight Lao Cai trains which have been upgraded with luxury soft-sleeper carriages. All trains are theoretically non-smoking; the rules are obeyed, by and large, in the sleeper rooms, though in hard-seat class, even the guards will be puffing away.

All train carriages have toilets, though again, it’s hard to know what to expect. Most are fine, if a little grubby, though many are squat in nature; the latter are far more likely to be dirty, and to be devoid of paper or running water. Those in the soft sleeper carriages are proper sit-down toilets, and are comparatively clean.

Simple meals are often included in the price of the ticket, but you might want to stock up with goodies of your own. You’ll also have plenty of opportunities to buy snacks when the train pulls into stations – and from carts that ply the aisles.

Booking ahead is wise, and the further ahead the better, especially if you intend travelling at the weekend or a holiday period (when the lower sleeper berths are often sold as six seats, resulting in chaos). Sleeping compartments should be booked at least a day or two before departure, and even further ahead for soft-sleeper berths on the Hanoi–Hué and Hanoi–Lao Cai routes. It’s not possible to buy through tickets and break your journey en route; each journey requires you to buy a separate ticket from the point of departure. Getting tickets is usually pretty painless at the station, though hotels and travel agencies will be able to book for a fee – sometimes as low as 50,000?, though often much more.

Fares vary according to the class of travel and the train you take; as a rule of thumb, the faster the train, the more expensive it is. Prices (which are always quoted in dong) change regularly, but as an indication of the fare range, on the most expensive services from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City you’ll pay around 1,500,000? for a soft-sleeper berth, and around 1,250,000? for a hard sleeper in the slowest trains; the equivalent fares for Hanoi to Hué are 750,000? and 650,000? respectively. Prices to Lao Cai vary from 80,000? for a hard seat on the day train to over 300,000? for a soft sleeper.

Travel by Bus

Most travellers use buses to get around Vietnam but never actually see a bus station. This is because the lion’s share of tourist journeys are made on privately operated services, usually referred to as “open-tour” buses, which usually operate not from stations but the offices of the companies in question. The term comes from the fact that such companies typically sell through-tickets between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, with customers free to stop off for as long as they like at the main points en route – Da Lat, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Da Nang, Hué and Ninh Binh. There are, however, drawbacks to doing this.

Away from these private affairs, national bus services link all major cities in Vietnam, and most minor towns too, though travellers only tend to use them off the open-tour route – open-tour buses have air-conditioning, limited seating and fixed timetables, which instantly gives them the edge over national services. In addition, the fact that they don’t pick up on route makes them faster too, and competition is so fierce that prices are almost as low as the national bus network.

Open-Tour Buses
On the whole, open-tour buses are a reasonably comfortable way to get around Vietnam; these buses also call at the occasional tourist sight, such as the Marble Mountains and Lang Co, which can save considerable time and money when compared to doing the same thing independently. Buses are usually quite decent, but don’t expect too much leg-room, or any on-board toilets; some of the more expensive services have them, but the vast majority will pull in every few hours for a combined loo-and-snack break. This tends to be at mediocre and overpriced restaurants; it’s a good idea to arm yourself with snacks before your journey. Another downside to open-tour buses is that you’ll be encouraged to book into the company’s own or affiliated hotels (usually right next to the drop-off point), though there’s nothing to stop you staying elsewhere.

Services tend to run on time, and on longer trips, some take place overnight. Most of the overnight buses are filled with sleeper berths, which sounds nice and comfortable, but these are Vietnamese roads, and Vietnamese drivers – don’t expect to get too much sleep. Also note that some operators are more reliable than others; Mai Linh and Hoang Long have good reputations, though some other operators have very poor standards of service.

Ticket prices vary widely depending upon which company you choose, and (if you’re booking a through-ticket) how many stops you’d like to make en route; sample prices are $35 and up from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, $25 from Ho Chi Minh City to Hué, and $5 from Hué to Hoi An. You can either make firm bookings at the outset or opt for an open-dated ticket for greater flexibility, in which case you may need to book your onward travel one or two days in advance to be sure of a seat. Alternatively, you can buy separate tickets as you go along, which is recommended. Each main town on the itinerary has an agent (one for each operator) where you can buy tickets and make onward reservations. To avoid being sold a fake ticket or paying over the odds, it’s best to buy direct from the relevant agent rather than from hotels, restaurants or unrelated tour companies.

Other Buses
On the national bus network, the government is slowly upgrading state buses, replacing the rickety old vehicles with air-conditioned models, particularly on the more popular routes. It’s not uncommon to find yourself crammed in amongst the luggage, which could be anything from live pigs in baskets to scores of sacks of rice. Progress can be agonizingly slow as buses stop frequently to pick up passengers or for meal breaks. Among older vehicles, breakdowns are fairly common and can sometimes necessitate a roadside wait of several hours while driver, fare collector and mechanic roll up their sleeves and improvise a repair.

Tickets are best bought at bus stations, where fares are clearly indicated above the ticket windows. Prices are usually also marked on the tickets themselves, though there are still occasional cases of tourists being charged over the odds, particularly in more rural destinations – especially those from the Lao border. For long journeys, buy your ticket a day in advance since many routes are heavily oversubscribed.

Privately owned minibuses compete with public buses on most routes; they sometimes share the local bus station, or simply congregate on the roadside in the centre of a town. You can also flag them down on the road. If anything, they squeeze in even more people per square foot than ordinary buses, and often drive interminably around town, touting for passengers. On the other hand, they do at least run throughout the day, and serve some routes not covered by public services. Such services are ticketless, so try to find what the correct fare should be and agree a price before boarding – having the right change will also come in handy. You may also find yourself dumped at the side of the road before reaching your destination, and having to cram onto the next passing service.

Most major cities have their own local bus networks, though prices and standards vary. Try to ascertain the correct price and have the exact money ready before boarding as fare collectors will often take advantage of your captive position.

Travel by Ferry and Boat

A boat-tour around Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s most enjoyable trips, while scheduled ferries sail year-round – weather permitting – to the major islands off Vietnam’s coastline, including Phu Quoc, Cat Ba and Con Dao. In addition, ferry and hydrofoil services run from Hai Phong to Cat Ba, and hydrofoils from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau, and from Ha Long City to Mong Cai and Bai Tu Long. Though they are gradually being replaced by bridges, a few river ferries still haul themselves from bank to bank of the various strands of the Mekong from morning until night.

Travel by Car and Jeep

Self-drive in Vietnam is not yet an option for tourists and other short-term visitors. However, it’s easy to rent a car, jeep or minibus with driver from the same companies, agencies and tourist offices that arrange tours. This can be quite an economical means of transport if you are travelling in a group. Moreover, it means you can plan a trip to your own tastes, rather than having to follow a tour company’s itinerary.

Prices vary wildly so it pays to shop around, but expect to pay in the region of $50 per day for a car, and $90 per day for a jeep or other 4WD, depending on the vehicle’s size, age and level of comfort. When negotiating the price, it’s important to clarify exactly who is liable for what. Things to check include who pays for the driver’s accommodation and meals, fuel, road and ferry tolls, parking fees and repairs and what happens in the case of a major breakdown. There should then be some sort of contract to sign showing all the details, including an agreed itinerary, especially if you are renting for more than a day; make sure the driver is given a copy in Vietnamese. In some cases you’ll have to settle up in advance, though, if possible, it’s best if you can arrange to pay roughly half before and the balance at the end.