Compared to its neighboring countries, Vietnam offers a reliable infrastructure in almost all regions. Whether by train, bus, boat or on the back of a water buffalo, you will reach your destination. This guide will help you choose the right means of transportation for your upcoming trip to Vietnam.
For a first approximate estimate of duration and cost of your trip you can use these two great websites to compare various methods of transportation: Baolau and Rome2Rio. Simply enter your point of departure and destination as well as your travel dates. You will now see all available trips with more detailed information and a link to book the tickets online.
For more detailed information read on:
The main connector of the north and the south is the so-called Reunification Express. This 1726 km long railroad connects Ho-Chi-Minh-City with Hanoi. Along the way it stops in most big cities, such as Phan Thiet, Nha Trang, Da Nang and Hue. You can find a detailed schedule at Vietnam-railway.com.
In addition to the North-South Railway, there are some shorter rail routes. They link Hanoi with Ha Long in the east and Sapa in the west.
Most trains offer five different classes:
- Hard Seat
- quite literally hard wooden benches
- usually only equipped with fans
- Soft Seat
- padded and reclining seats, similar to most trains in the western world
- Hard Berth
- a six-berth-cabin with very narrow, hard beds that are way too small for Westerners
- Soft Berth
- a four-berth-cabin with decent beds
- VIP Berth
- 2-berth-cabin, luxurious facilities
- not available one all trains
Naturally the prices vary drastically between the different classes. Hard Seat is the cheapest option by far while the sleeper cabins oftentimes cost twice as much.
On most train rides a Soft Seat should be sufficient. If you are tough it will also do for an overnight trip. I do, however, recommend a sleeper cabin for longer train rides. If you can spare the money that is.
For longer trips, prepare yourself and bring lots of snacks, warm clothes (it gets cold at night!), ear plugs and books or games against boredom. Luckily, free hot water is available on almost all trains. We just brought a bunch of instant noodle soups (the ones in a cup) for a yummy dinner. Every hour or so, there will also be salesladies coming around with snacks and warm food. While we gladly bought some snacks off their trolleys, we didn’t really trust the look of the `proper` food. That’s why it’s better to gear up in advance.
Tip: If you can choose your seats, do not take the ones in the front or back. It might be tempting not to have anyone seated behind or in front of you but you probably won’t find any sleep. Sitting in these seats will strain your ears with the loud noises coming from the connectors between the compartments.
You can buy train tickets at all train stations (oftentimes only in cash) or in advance on Vietnam Railway or on Baolau. Tickets should be purchased two days prior to departure as trains are often fully booked on the day.
Probably the most common way to travel Vietnam is by bus. Wherever you want to go, you’ll find a bus that brings you there. While they naturally take longer to get from A to B than trains, they do have their advantages:
- they are much quieter
- you have more space for laying down (albeit no real space to put your luggage)
- on longer rides the bus will stop at one of the many motorway mess halls where you can get a cheap meal
- you can get off inbetween cities if you tell the driver beforehand
- tickets are cheap!
In Vietnam you have two different options when it comes to busses: Regular busses and Sleeper busses.
The regular busses are…well, pretty regular. Two seats to each side of a small aisle with about 20 rows. The seats can be reclined and are equipped with a small tray table in front of it. The windows can be closed with curtains and there is air-condition and a reading light above the seat.
They are quite comfortable but for any trip that takes longer than one or two hours I would recommend to get on a Sleeper bus.
Sleeper busses do not just drive during the night but usually also during the day. You sit in small couchette-like seats arranged in three rows with two floors each. The seats can be reclined so you can sit in somewhat of an upright position (with your legs still straightened). The big deal, however, is that you can make them almost completely flat which allows for a comfortable nap.
Another plus is that there is a small toilet on board the Sleeper busses. Also (most importantly) you are allowed to eat on these busses whereas on regular busses food is not permitted. We didn’t know that on our first ride in a regular bus and got into quite some trouble with the bus driver…awkward.
The only problem with the Sleeper busses is the luggage space. Your big backpacks and suitcases must be stored in the compartments beneath the bus. But you will probably also have a handbag or small backpack with your valuables with you. If you snatch a bottom floor seat you can put them on the ground in the aisle. On the upper floor seats, however, you can only keep them in the small box where you’re supposed to put your feet or uncomfortably sleep with your backpack on your chest or legs.
One workaround Ben and I found was to board the bus as one of the first and conquer the last row of seats. Due to the mini toilet in the back that row consists of three joint seats without the separating aisle. That way you can enjoy three seats at your disposal, unless the bus is fully booked of course. We would always put our bags on the middle seat and then use them as a small table between us for playing cards.
Beware: Always pay attention to your luggage. We once almost lost our bags due to the bus driver not letting us board although our luggage was already stowed beneath the bus. If there are two of you it’s best when one person puts the bags in the compartment and the other one boards the bus and reserves seats.
There are various companies offering bus rides in the country so you need to compare offers and prices. Personally, I can recommend Futabus, especially when traveling in the south. We traveled with them plenty of times and never had anything to complain about. There are Futabus ticket offices in all bigger cities and the main bus stations but you can also get tickets online.
Many backpackers also chose to get one of the so-called Open Bus Tickets. With these you only pay a one time fee and can then travel a specified route, usually from Hanoi to Ho-Chi-Minh-City (or reversed). Along the way it also stops at a number of smaller cities (usually Ninh Binh, Hue and Nha Trang). While this might be a comfortable and cheap solution for the enthusiastic scheduler I, personally, would advise against it. If you buy single tickets for each trip you will spent only a negligible amount of money more but will be much more flexible in your travel route.
Apart from the Long-haul busses, every bigger town offers local busses that run within the city and its surrounding area. They are a great means of transportation if you need to get around a city but don’t want to use Taxis or Grab. Also, they’re probably the cheapest way to travel besides walking.
For foreign travelers these busses can oftentimes be very confusing so it’s best to ask someone knowledgeable like your hotel reception staff. Let them write down the bus line, direction, name of the station you have to alight and directions to the bus stop where you have to get on the bus. It’s also always a good idea to ask for the estimated duration of the trip. This will help you determining which station to get out at in case the bus doesn’t have displays (which they usually don’t). Another option is to show your destination to the bus driver and ask him to notify you when you have reached it.
While most travelers arrive to Vietnam by plane, not many make use of them while traveling within the country. With 11 international and 12 domestic airports Vietnam offers a good air travel network that allows for cheap traveling, especially with low-cost airlines like VietJet Air or Jetstar Pacific.
A great way to make the most of your time in Vietnam is to go by plane; particularly, if you want to see the whole country instead of focusing on a specific region. Surprisingly, plane tickets can sometimes be cheaper than trains and will also get you to your destination much faster and more comfortable.
One-way flights from Hanoi to Ho-Chi-Minh-City (or reversed) start as low as 40€ (~47US$/36£) and save you more than 30 hours of train travel. Find more information about how to book cheap flights here.
Like in most Asian countries, taking a cab in incredibly cheap. Especially for people with a higher budget or those who simply don’t like public transportation, taxis are a great way to get around within cities. Even if you are on a budget you might still want to consider taking a taxi on the “traveling” days when you need to get from the airport to the hotel or vice versa.
To be safe and not get ripped off, bear in mind the following tips:
- Only ever get in a cab of an approved and trustworthy company like Mai Linh (green taxis) or Vinasun (white taxis).
- Inform yourself beforehand about regularly used taxi scams.
- Look closely at the driver and the car before getting in. As always: if something doesn’t feel right go with your gut. It is usually right.
- Have one person sit in the front seat and demonstratively open up Google Maps or the like. Knowing that you are aware of the best route will discourage the driver to take any unnecessary detours.
- Lots of drivers don’t speak any English so it’s best to be on the safe side and have someone knowledgeable write down your destination address in Vietnamese in advance.
- ALWAYS use a taximeter. No matter how convincingly your driver tries to persuade that a fixed price is cheaper, always insist on the taximeter (Exceptions apply when you go long-distance. In these cases you oftentimes have to negotiate a fixed price beforehand).
- Do not ever ask a taxi driver for directions or let them talk insistently to you when you are obviously lost. There are lots of drivers who are ruthless enough to use your helplessness. While they will probably know the way you need to go, they will also try to convince you to let them drive you there. We once asked a taxi driver for the way and he told us he could bring us because it was too far for walking and would take 40 minutes by car. Even though we persisted that we were just a couple of streets away from our destination, he insisted that this street was “very far” away. Long story short, we ditched him and shortly after found the place, just two streets over.
- Watch the taximeter. If it makes random jumps it was probably tampered with. Inform the driver immediately and if he isn’t understanding, demand to bet let out at once.
- Kindly refuse the taxi drivers offering you a “cheap” ride at airports or train stations. If they have to advertise, they are probably not legitimate. Get a taxi at the designated spots.
- Snap a photo of the license plate and the driver’s license when you get in and do so demonstratively. The driver is less likely to pull any stunts on you when he knows that you could possibly report him.
- Don’t pay the driver before you got out of the car and took all your luggage from the trunk to prevent him from driving off with your bags.
- If you do get scammed don’t hesitate to report the driver.
Grab / Uber
This will be your LIFESAVER in Vietnam. Or at least a big money saver. Finding out about Grab and Uber was probably the single best secret tip we got during our trip. I can’t stress this enough, this will save you sooo much money!
While most people know about Uber, they probably haven’t heard about Grab yet. It works pretty much the same way and is available in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam.
If you don’t know what Uber is: It is a smartphone app that lets its users request a ride from verified Uber drivers (they don’t necessarily have to be taxi drivers though). You can enter your destination address and the app will automatically calculate your fare. If you accept, a driver close by will be notified to pick you up, Within the app you can now see more information about your driver like his name, car type and license plate number. You will automatically pay in advance with a credit card that you must register when signing up for the app.
Simply download one of the two apps available at the App Store and Google Play Store, type in your destination address and wait for your driver to arrive.
The great thing about Grab and Uber is that you know exactly how much you will have to pay. No arguing with the driver, no counterfeited taximeters, no hassle. Your driver already knows where you wanna go, so you needn’t struggle with the language barrier either. You will arrive at your destination absolutely stress free. How wonderful is that?
On top of that there are plenty of options to chose from in the Grab app. Fancy a motorbike taxi or a VIP limousine? They’ve got you covered. Wanna order a regular licensed taxi or only need a dispatch rider? The options are at your fingertips. Simply compare the fares and chose one of the options and you’re good to go.
One of Ben’s and my favourite whenever we travel in Southeast Asia. Especially in rural areas, motorbikes are the single best way to get around, giving you all the freedom to discover the country at your own pace.
You can rent a motorbike in pretty much any town, oftentimes straight from the hostel you are staying in. With a reliable road infrastructure you can easily reach most touristic highlights but can also venture deep into authentic Vietnam when traveling off the beaten path.
While we usually only rented a motorbike for a couple of days to explore the surrounding area, it has become more and more popular among the toughest travelers to do their whole trip on a bike. They strap their bags on the luggage rack and off they go. It is, however, perfectly fine to just rent a bike every now and then for that specific area and use the other means of transport for longer distances.
If there are two of you, it is possible to rent just one bike and have one person sit behind the other one. While this might not be the most comfortable way of traveling it shouldn’t be a problem on shorter rides. We always do this because I’m not as comfortable riding a bike as Ben is; especially in hilly regions.
Renting a Motorbike
Before you rent a bike, however, note the following tips:
- You will obviously need to have a driver’s license, even if the renters usually won’t ask for it. Additionally you should ideally know how to ride a bike beforehand as Vietnam really isn’t the place to learn it.
- Only rent motorbikes at trustworthy shops. Ask for recommendations at your accommodation or check online on Tripadvisor.
- Ask for the total price of rental for your desired amount of days and don’t forget to haggle! A typical bike should never cost your more than 230.000 VND (~10US$/8.5€/8£) for a day and can get as cheap as 110.000 VND (~5US$/4€/3.5£). Let them write down the price on a piece of paper so you have it as a proof if they try to overcharge you after you return the bike.
- Take photos of the bike before you leave, in case they try to charge you for damages that were already there.
- Always ask for helmets. You are legally required to wear a helmet at all times and the renter should provide it. If they don’t have any proper ones, go to another shop.
- Do a quick motorbike test before agreeing to rent. Motorbikewriter.com has published a great Pre-Ride Checklist or you can refer to the T-CLOCS Inspection Checklist.
- Only ever get gas at official gas stations like Petrolimex or at one of the smaller private gas stations where they pump the fuel from big glass cylinders. Do not buy gas from street vendors that sell it in plastic bottles. We did that once and the “full tank” lasted for about 20 minutes.
- Always carry your driver’s license and international driver’s license with you. If the police catches you without it, you will need to pay a high fine.
- As usual: be informed which scams are out there and prepare for them.
Because I LOVED to explore Vietnam on a motorbike I’m probably a bit blinded by it. Nevertheless, be aware that Vietnam is a country with one of the highest rates of accidents and road deaths in the world. You won’t believe the traffic chaos, especially in the big cities like Ho-Chi-Minh-City or Hanoi, until you have seen it with your own two eyes.
That’s why I advise to only ride a motorbike in rural areas, even if you’re an experienced rider. Always wear your helmet, preferably long pants and a shirt, as well as proper shoes. I can’t count how many young travelers we saw during our trip with bandaged legs, head wounds or skinned arms – so drive carefully!
Notwithstanding, I would definitely recommend to everyone to drive a motorbike at least once when in Vietnam. It is a wonderful experience and will make you that much more flexible and independent.
Whew! Another 3000 word encyclopedia… I sure hope this helps you with your travel planning. I remember that I was super confused about all the different train classes, bus schedules and motorbike rental procedures when I visited Vietnam, so hopefully this doesn’t happen to you.
Which method of traveling did you prefer in Vietnam and why? Do you have any other valuable tips for your fellow adventures? Share them in the comments below!