As soon as you step out of the airport and into the city, the sound of buzzing motorbikes, and honking traffic hit your ears. The millions of motorbikes zipping through traffic ignoring the few traffic lights around and narrowly avoiding pedestrians crossing the street is truly a sight to behold. To say the traffic in Saigon and Hanoi (two of the country’s largest cities) is intimidating is an understatement. The streets are chaotic and lively at all hours, and how there aren’t more accidents or pedestrian casualties is beyond me. It’s all part of the charm of Vietnam, and learning to get around is easily manageable once you get the hang of it.
By far one of the easiest and most reliable way to get from point A to point B. Be sure to use VinaSun or MaiLinh when possible as these are the most reputable. As with any city, taxi scams pretty common, so it’s wise to keep a few things in mind when getting in a taxi. A reputable taxi will be: in good condition, have the driver’s ID and number visible, display a fare chart inside the cab, always use a meter, ask for directions if they don’t know where a location is, and take the most direct route, or the route with least congestion. Also be sure to have cash available in Vietnamese Dong as most cabs don’t take credit cards.
Uber is another great way to get around town. Available in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Uber is a sure way to avoid taxi scams and save a little bit of money on a ride. It’s fast, convenient, you know exactly what you’re paying before even getting in the car, and don’t have to worry about paying in cash. There are 4 types of Uber services in Vietnam— Uber MOTO (motorbike / scooter), Uber X (standard car), Uber BLACK (luxury car), and Uber SUV (larger SUV vehicle). The Prices for transport with Uber in Vietnam are almost one third versus Vietnamese taxi services. All can be accessed using the Uber app.
For those that like to live adventurously and enjoy zipping through traffic, motorbike taxi is the way to go. Drivers usually hang out on their parked bikes on street corners, calling out for passengers, so you won’t have trouble finding a ride. They are easily recognized by the orange or yellow vests they wear. There are also on-demand services including Grabbike and EasyRider that operate similar to Uber and offer both full-day guided tours and single trips at affordable rates.
Not all trains in Asia are created equal, and the trains in Vietnam are not like the trains in Thailand. I discovered that the hard way when my husband and I decided to take overnight trains both from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang and from Nha Trang to Hue. The first leg of our journey to Nha Trang was pleasant enough, with the train being clean, well air conditioned, and comfortable; although we were uncertain that it should be dubbed “luxury.” That was until we boarded the second class car to Hue…
When we booked our tickets through a travel agency in Vietnam specializing in train travel and the only berths that remained were in the second class sleeper car. That should have been our first warning. These cars have six sleepers in them, stacked three high and are pretty cramped and stuffy. When we arrived to the train and climbed aboard we first observed the cars were old, dingy and dirty, and it was hard to tell when exactly they were thoroughly cleaned last. Upon finding our berth, we found rock hard beds (hence the name “hard sleepers”) and that one of them had already been slept in. On top of that, the staff refused to change the bed and only gave my husband a clean sheet to make up for it, and, when he lifted up the blankets, a cockroach ran out (!) (yuck). It was the worst, most uncomfortable night’s sleep we had on the trip. The only thing that slightly made up for it were the spectacular mountain and ocean views we were greeted with at sunrise.
Overall, in my opinion, overnight train travel in Vietnam is not worth the time or the money, with Sapa’s luxury trains being the only exception. You can usually find an in-country flight for a similar price and will take a fraction of the time. However, if you’re looking for an authentic local experience, trains are a good option to travel as the locals do. Just be sure to bring food and beverages with you as there are no vendors or food sales, and purchase your tickets well in advance. For additional information including schedules and booking recommendations, check out The Man in Seat 61.
Air travel in Vietnam is affordable, quick, and is one of my favorite ways to cover a lot of ground. There are several airlines that service the country with VietJet, Jet Star, and Vietnam Airlines being the most popular, cost-effective, and reliable. Flights leave regularly throughout the day from Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, and Dalat and service airports throughout the country and beyond.
I haven’t personally used public buses in Vietnam’s large cities, but they appear to be clean and run in most areas throughout the cities.
Tourist buses are another popular way to get from one city to another with routes running North and South between Hanoi and HCMC. Tickets are sold with both “open ticket/open tour” (passengers can hop on and hop off the bus at any major city along the route) and set route options. These are buses service mostly to foreign budget travelers and buses are air conditioned along with “bed” like seats.
Prices are reasonable, and a ticket from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi usually will cost between US$30 and US$75, depending on the operator and route. Be sure to book each leg of your trip at least a day ahead, as buses fill up quickly. Buses usually depart from central locations in the city including bus operator ticket offices and bus stations. I prefer The Sinh Tourist for bus travel due to their good reputation and comfortable buses. However, be aware of travel agency imposters and do your research on their office locations ahead of time.
A note of warning on buses: they take a long time to travel from one place to the next, so plan accordingly. It was about four hours from Hue to Hoi An, and I’ve heard is can can 2-4 days to get from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City!
With over 1200 miles of beautiful and largely untouched coastline, taking a boat trip of some variety is a must to complete your Vietnam experience. We had the pleasure of partaking in three different boat tours, each being a different and unique look into the country. The first was island-hopping in Nha Trang (around $20 USD per person including lunch), the second, a leisurely trip down the Thu Bon River from the My Son ruins to Hoi An (around $30 USD per person including admission to My Son), and the third, an overnight cruise in Halong Bay (around $100 USD per person). Booking these cruises was easily done through our hotel and all included pick up and drop off from our hotel. If you prefer to book ahead of time, an extensive list can be found on Agoda and Viator.
Public transit in Vietnam continues to improve as the country races into the future. In Ho Chi Minh construction is currently underway for a new metro system with the aim of helping alleviate the severe traffic congestion. The network’s first line, connecting Bến Thành Market and Suối Tiên Park in District 9, is scheduled for completion in 2020 and will be a mix of underground and above ground elevated trains.
A slowly disappearing mode of transportation, the cyclo is great for a leisurely ride through the streets. More abundant in smaller cities such as Hoi An and Nha Trang, it makes for another essential Vietnam experience. However, be sure to negotiate prices before the ride. I once had a driver try to charge me 20,000 dong for a 10 minute ride, so don’t let them try to rip you off!
Crossing the street in Vietnam in honestly one of the most terrifying things I’ve done in my life, but I survived, and even mastered it by the end of the trip. Avoiding the intimidation of stepping into traffic on to a busy street as cars and motorbikes zip around you is unavoidable, but with a little courage and practice, you’ll be crossing the street like a local in no time.
While there are traffic lights throughout cities in Vietnam, not very many people actually follow the rules of the road, especially with respect for pedestrians, which is why knowing the proper method of how to cross the street is imperative for your safely.
Crossing the street in Vietnam:
- Watch for some sort of break in traffic or clearing in the street directly in front of you.
- Step into the street and walk at a consistent speed without stopping. Traffic WILL go around you, and if you stop abruptly in front of them or change your pace, you run the risk of getting hit.
While maybe not the wisest, I eventually stopped looking at the speeding bikes coming towards me as my life flashed before my eyes, and instead just looked at the other side of the road.
Transportation and traffic in the country is a complex and chaotic symphony that ebbs and flows at breakneck speed, but still somehow works. It’s all a part of the charm of Southeast Asia.
What have been some of your transportation victories or nightmares? I’d love to read them in the comments below!