Getting around Vietnam

Thursday, 18th Nov 2010 by John Pedler
Categories: Asia Travel Tips

Vietnam isn’t very big but don’t let that fool you. About 85 million people live in a country you could crunch into a third of S.A. and on any given day they all seem to be going somewhere. This can make for hectic traffic conditions. Add to the mix low speed limits and sections of poor road and you soon discover there are very few quick trips. When deciding how to travel it’s important to consider how much time you have and how you want to spend it. The information here is based on my experiences.

Internal flights in Vietnam are relatively cheap and can reduce travel time considerably. This is great for longer hops. All of the major cities and tourist locations have airports but if you’re heading for a minor centre you’ll need to combine air and land segments.


Local busLocal buses are dirt cheap and are handy for getting around town or heading to nearby towns, but are not too good if you’re hauling luggage.

For longer trips, minibuses are excellent value. The distinctive green buses of the Mai Linh company are everywhere and they’ll usually collect you from your hotel.

If you’ve got a lot of luggage then long distance coaches might be the go because they have more storage area. The Phuong Trang company, with its fleet of modern coaches, seems to be a good operator.

You could try a ‘sleeper bus’ but in my experience these two words should never be combined. A sleeper bus is a mobile backpacker dorm, but with shorter, narrower beds. If, like me, you find yourself on the top bunk in the middle row then your night could be long and unpleasant. Vietnamese bus drivers like to get cracking and this involves weaving around slower traffic, dodging farm animals and generally going faster than everybody else. Combine this with sections of bad road and you might be in for quite a ride.

To be fair, the shorter folk snoring either side of me awoke refreshed and ready to go.

Taxi fares are quite reasonable and this is a good way to get around town. Official taxis are metered so make sure it’s the real deal before you head off

Hire Car

Rental minibusIf you’re in a group you could share the cost of hiring a minibus which, in Vietnam, includes a driver. This can be an economical option and provides the convenience of having a vehicle at call. Taxi companies usually have vehicles for longer hauls and you should be able to arrange this at your hotel.

Be sure to establish who covers the driver’s costs, you or the company.

Riding a Motorcycle
Like most dangerous activities this is great fun. Unfortunately foreign licences and International Driving Permits aren’t recognised in Vietnam so you need a local licence to ride legally. This requires a minimum 3 months visa, official translation of your Aussie licence into Vietnamese, photos, forms and about a 2 week wait.

Some say foreigners are rarely challenged when riding but the arresting officer might take a different view, as might the rider’s insurance company in the case of an accident. This website gives the official line from the Australian Embassy and the footage below was shot in rural Vietnam.

An alternative is riding pillion, or xe om, with a local. It’s quite a common practice for zipping around town but it’s also possible to arrange longer trips. Be sure to have the deal clearly negotiated before departure.


Vietnamese bicycleThis is a great way to see the countryside. There are many companies who run long and short term bike tours or you can simply buy a bike and head off. During a stay in Long Xuyen I bought a classic Vietnamese made bicycle for commuting and left it with a local family upon departure.

If you should find yourself in control of any vehicle in Vietnam take great care. Note that larger vehicles generally observe higher speed limits than motorcyles. Whereas the constant beeping from motorcycles is a courteous indication of a bike's whereabouts, that car/truck/bus horn you hear behind you means pull towards the side of the road – now! 

On narrow roads, drivers of large oncoming vehicles will expect you to give way.

There’s also an understanding that you’re constantly scouring the road ahead so don’t be surprised if a bicycle/ motorbike/ buffalo suddenly appears in front of you.

The train runs between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and from Hanoi to Lao Cai (Sapa), Haiphong and Beijing, China. I haven’t travelled by train but have heard good reports, particularly regarding the 4 berth soft sleeper configuration. These tickets sell out first as we discovered when unsuccessfully trying to book the south bound train from Hanoi. This site has some useful information.

Getting around Vietnam is half the adventure. The traffic conditions may seem wild and chaotic but the locals handle it with admirable calm and the best thing to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Update: I have since caught the train between Hanoi and Lao Cai (Sapa). Click here to read the blog.

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