Whether you are visiting for a short city break or trekking in the mountains, discover how best to reach your destination
Arriving by Air
Hanoi’s Noi Bai and HCMC’s Tan Son Nhat are the main airports for long-haul flights into Vietnam, although Danang Airport is expanding rapidly as an international hub. Domestic flights are relatively inexpensive and can cut travel times considerably, with Vietnam Airlines and the budget Jetstar and VietJet Air the main operators. For information on getting to and from the main airports, see the table opposite
♦ Domestic Train Travel
Vietnam Railways’ network stretches from the Chinese border crossings in the north at Lao Cai and Dong Dang to Hanoi. From Hanoi, there are branch lines to Halong and Haiphong, while the Reunification Line runs down the entire east coast to HCMC. Seat types are a hard to seat, soft seat, hard berth (6ppl) and soft berth (4ppl), and all have aircon except the hard seat. You should book tickets at least two days in advance at stations, through travel agencies (for a fee), or online either through the official Vietnam Railways booking site or Baolau, which is easier to use. Luxury carriages are attached to many scheduled trains by independent companies and can be booked through Vietnam Impressive
♦ International Train Travel
Vietnam’s only international train journeys are those to China from Hanoi, with one daily 13-hour train to Nanning, and one twice-weekly 38-hour route to Beijing, via Nanning and Guilin
Long-Distance Bus Travel
♦ Private Buses
Most visitors utilize privately run buses which serve the main tourist routes. These are the most comfortable bus option and many have “sleeper” buses with berths. “Open tour” tickets can be bought for multiple stop-offs on the longer routes, such as Hanoi to HCMC. Private buses run from their company offices, though some also do pickups from hotels. Tickets can be bought directly from bus organizations’ websites such as Mai Linh Express, through transportation sites such as Baolau, or via travel agencies, such as The Sinh Tourist.
♦ National Bus Service and State Buses
Running from town and city bus stations, these once rickety buses are slowly being upgraded to more comfortable vehicles and, although cheaper, is slower than private buses as they make more frequent stops. You’ll probably only use these if traveling off the main tourist trails.
Private minibusses often ply the same routes as state buses, leaving from or near bus stations. Although usually uncomfortably full, they make for an interesting way to experience the real Vietnam. Fares are negotiable, so ask locally as to how much a particular journey should cost.
Boats and Ferries
Scheduled ferries run to Vietnam’s offshore islands such as Phu Quoc (from Ha Tien), Bai Tu Long (from Cai Rong), Cat Ba (from Haiphong) and Con Dao (slow boat from Vung Tau or speedboat from Soc Trang). All can be booked most easily online through Baolau. Offshore ferries can be canceled due to weather conditions.
There are also a few long-distance slow riverboats and fast hydrofoil services in the Mekong Delta. Greenlines runs from HCMC to Vung Tau via Can Gio, and from there to My Tho and Ben Tre, while Lan Anh Cruise runs fast boats from HCMC to Chau Doc, via Can Tho, and then upriver to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. HCMC has a Saigon Waterbus service, which is especially useful during rush hour.
Public transportation in cities is currently limited to buses, taxis, motorbike taxis, and the odd waterbus. Rush-hour congestion is a big problem in the bigger towns and cities and you should factor this in when trying to get to transportation hubs or appointments. If traffic is really bad, and you don’t have much luggage, consider walking or taking a motorbike taxi. One of the easiest ways of getting around towns and cities is by bicycle, which can be rented locally for a few US dollars a day
♦ Local Buses and Minibuses
Although inexpensive, city buses in Vietnam are often quite uncomfortable and crowded, although they are improving rapidly – most cities now run more modern, air-conditioned buses. Minibusses are available for hire for groups/families at affordable rates and can be arranged by most hotels and travel agencies.
Taxis are widely available in all urban areas and are metered. Mai Linh is a nationwide taxi company which also runs motorbike taxis and inter-city bus service. The dominant ride-hailing app in Vietnam for both cars and motorbikes is Grab, though its prices increased considerably after they took over Uber in the region. Consider also downloading one of the free local apps such as TaxiGo, Vivu, T.net, Xelo, or Vato, which offer a less expensive service.
♦ Organized Tours
There are numerous companies in both Hanoi and HCMC offering organized tours. Check with a few tour companies such as Queen Travel in Hanoi or Kim Tran Travel in HCMC for the best deal available. For touring hill tribe areas, it’s best to pick an ethical agency run by locals, such as Sapa Chau, who has an office in Hanoi
Both Hanoi’s and HCMC’s metro systems were still under construction at the time of going to press. Beset by delays, they will open sometime between 2019 and 2021. Check online for the latest information once the metro systems have their websites up and running.
♦ Driving Licences
To drive in Vietnam you need to hold a current Vietnamese driving license. You can convert your home country or international driving license to a Vietnamese one, but this takes at least five days and a considerable amount of bureaucratic hassle (and you will need to have at least three months on your visa).
♦ Car Rental
Since self-driving is not really an option for the majority of foreign visitors, most rent a car, jeep, or minibus with a driver. This can prove particularly economical if traveling in a group and can be arranged via car-hire companies, travel agencies, or local accommodations. Clarify who pays for the driver’s accommodations and meals, fuel, tolls, and parking charges, and especially repairs and major breakdowns
To legally ride a motorbike of more than 50cc in Vietnam, you will need to hold a Vietnamese driving license, though hiring and driving a 50cc scooter or moped is permitted without a license. Make sure that your insurance will cover this under “high-risk activities” and remember your policy won’t pay out if you’re driving illegally, i.e. without a helmet, third-party insurance, a license where one is required, or with two people on the bike. Despite the generally low road speeds, driving a motorbike on Vietnam’s chaotic roads is a risky business, and it’s the highest cause of injury and death for foreigners visiting the country.
If you are self-driving a motorbike, observe and familiarize yourself with the general flow and movement of traffic, usually erratic, for a few days first. Keep an eye out for livestock on the road
For the average tourist, the main consideration is how to cross the street. There are few traffic lights, and those that do exist are often considered to convey an advisory rather than a compulsory message. Watch the locals step out into traffic and follow their lead, first waiting for four-wheeled vehicles to pass, and then walking slowly and steadily through a sea of two-wheelers. Don’t hesitate or stop suddenly as drivers will not be able to predict your movement and you will risk a collision.
The best way to get a feel of the real Vietnam is on a bicycle. The route between Hanoi and HCMC has become the Holy Grail for many cyclists. Highway 1 is congested and is also susceptible to flooding, so the preferred route is Highway 14. The Mekong Delta region offers easy riding on flat roads. Views here are superb, especially at rice harvest time (Feb/Mar, Aug/Sep, and Dec/Jan). In the Central Highlands, mountain cycling is taking off, though there are few dedicated trails at present. The condition of the roads along the southern route can vary; however, the many rivers and bridges on the way provide scenic stopovers.
Volusia organizes customized cycling tours to remote parts of the country, as does Bangkok- based SpiceRoads. However, try to avoid long-distance tours in the northern mountains in December and January as the roads can be slippery and quite dangerous. For cycling in Dalat and the South Central Highlands, try Phat Tire Ventures. Cyclists planning to travel independently should bring their own repair kit – rented bikes can be unreliable. You will also have to be vigilant against theft of your possessions.