Saturday, September 18, 2021

How To Travel Around Vietnam

AsiaVietnamHow To Travel Around Vietnam

By plane

Flights are the fastest way to cross this long country. The flight from Hanoi to HCMC takes only about 2 hours.

Numerous flights connect the two largest cities, Hanoi and HCMC, with major cities such as Da Nang, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Hue, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Phu Quoc. In the past, most of these flights were cheap compared to European or North American flights. However, prices are higher than before, e.g. a round trip between Hanoi and Da Nang costs about 120-150 USD including taxes.

The national carriers are Vietnam Airlines and its subsidiary Vasco, which operate shorter flights, Jetstar Pacific and VietJet.

By train

Although more expensive than the bus, the train is probably the most convenient way to travel by land in Vietnam. There is one main train route in Vietnam, the 1,723 km trunk line between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, on which the Reunification Express runs. The journey time between HCMC and Hanoi is over 30 hours and it is usually possible, if not convenient, to stay overnight between the main destinations. It is a good way to see the countryside and meet the upper middle class people, but unless you travel in a sleeper car, it is no more comfortable than the buses.

It is advisable to use air-conditioned soft or hard berths and to buy as early as possible, as the most popular berths and routes are often bought by travel companies and agents well in advance of departure time (so if you are told at a station counter or in the office of a popular travel company that the train is full, it does not mean that there are no more tickets available – they have simply been bought from another retailer). Booking at the station itself is usually the safest way. Simply prepare on a piece of paper the destination, date, time, number of passengers and class. However, unsold tickets can often be bought at the last minute by people hanging around the station – a train is rarely really full as the train company adds carriages when demand is high. The commissions on these tickets decrease as the departure time approaches. Tickets can be returned before departure for a 10% commission. There is also an official Vietnamese Railways website, which has an English version and accepts payments with international credit cards.

Be careful when buying your train tickets from a travel agent as there is nothing printed on the ticket indicating the class you are booked in. The result is a common scam with private travel agents where you pay them to book a soft sleeper ticket, then they book a cheaper hard sleeper ticket, and you don’t know you’ve been scammed until you get on the train and the sleeper is in lower class. At that point, when the train is about to depart, it is too late to go back to the scammer and ask for compensation.

There are also shorter routes from Hanoi to the northwest and northeast, with international crossings to China. One of the shortest and most popular routes is the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (with a bus connection from Lao Cai to the tourist destination of Sapa).

Always try to buy your tickets at least 3 days in advance to avoid disappointment, especially during the peak holiday season when you should try to book at least 2 weeks in advance.

By bus

Long-distance buses connect most cities in Vietnam. Most leave early in the morning to cope with traffic and rain in the late afternoon, or travel at night. It is important to note that average speeds on the roads are generally quite low, even when travelling between cities. For example, a 276 km trip from the Mekong Delta to Ho Chi Minh City by bus probably takes about 8 hours.

Public buses run between bus stations in the cities. In larger cities, you often have to use local transport to get to the city centre. The buses are generally in good condition and you have the opportunity to interact with the locals.

NOTE
As a foreigner, you may be overcharged on local buses where you pay a driver during the journey. Find out what the correct fare is by looking at the timetable (it is posted somewhere, often next to the entrance door outside the bus; take a photo if you can) or by talking to one of the local passengers. Give the right amount and be prepared to plead your case.

Open Tour buses are operated by a variety of tour companies. They are mainly aimed at tourists and offer ridiculously low fares (from Hanoi to HCMC: 20-25 USD) and door-to-door service to the hostel of your choice. You can interrupt the journey at any time and continue with a bus from the same company or simply buy tickets just for the stopover you want to go to next. If you do not plan more than 3 or 4 stopovers, it may be cheaper to buy separate tickets (e.g. the trip from Hanoi to Hue may cost as little as 5 USD). Most hotels and guesthouses can reserve seats for each connection, but it is best to check with the travel agent as prices vary depending on the bus company and ticket. If you go to the bus company’s office, you may be able to get a commission-free fare, but most major bus companies have a fixed price policy that can only be circumvented by a travel agent.

Since the tour companies charge very little, they get a commission for the stops, which are often in souvenir shops where you don’t have to buy anything. The estimated time for a bus journey is not exact and can sometimes be a few hours over due to the number of stops. Picking up passengers at the beginning of the journey can also take a long time. You should always be at least half an hour early to catch the bus. Try not to drink too much water as the stops, especially on night buses, can be right where there are lots of bushes.

Vietnamese buses are made for Vietnamese – tall Westerners will feel very uncomfortable, especially on the night buses. Also, many Vietnamese are not used to travelling on long-distance buses and sometimes get sick – which is not very pleasant when you are stuck on a night bus with several vomiting Vietnamese behind you.

Even if you sometimes feel sick on the bus, it is advisable to reserve a seat in the middle of the bus and not in the front. Firstly, you don’t see the short-sighted risks the driver takes on the road. Secondly, you escape somewhat from the constant honking (every time the bus passes in front of another vehicle, so about every 10 seconds).

Although the bus company is usually happy to pick you up at your hotel or guest house, boarding at the company’s office ensures that you have a choice of seats and prevents you from being trapped in the back or unable to sit next to your fellow passengers. Offices are usually located in or near the tourist area of the city, and a short walk could make your journey all the more enjoyable.

Long-distance bus companies travel on the single main road (QL1) from north to south and back. Be aware that if you take a bus that goes further than your destination, the bus will drop you off at the most convenient junction for it and not, as you might have expected, at the bus station of your destination. For Hue, this junction is 13 km from the city centre, Nha Trang is 10 km away. At these junctions you will find taxis or motorbike taxis to get to your hotel.

If you are travelling by bicycle, negotiate the supplement with the driver before buying the ticket and not at the ticket counter. The price for the bicycle must not exceed 10% of the ticket price.

One scam you may come across is that tour guides ask you if you have booked a hotel when you arrive on site. Even if you haven’t, say that you have and prepare the name of a hotel. If you say you have not booked a hotel, they will charter a taxi for you and probably drop you off at a hotel where they can collect a commission. If you decide not to stay, things can get a bit messy because they will ask you to pay the taxi fare, which they may quote as several times the actual price for the ten-minute ride.

Be very careful with your belongings on the night bus as there have been cases of people (including bus staff) going through passengers’ bags and taking expensive items such as iPods and phones to sell for profit. If you are travelling with an iPod, do not fall asleep with it in your ear as it will probably be missing in the morning. Just get a padlock for your hand luggage and lock everything in it before you go to sleep.

By car

International driving licences
Since October 2015, international driving licences have been recognised in Vietnam. However, it is practically impossible to rent a car without a driver, and if you do not have a valid motorbike licence in your home country, your licence is not valid to drive a motorbike. Always bring your national driving licence with you.

International driving licences are recognised in Vietnam. However, the concept of renting a car to drive yourself is almost non-existent, and when Vietnamese talk about car rental, they always mean car rental with a driver (after a short time on the local roads with their crazy traffic, you will be glad to have someone else drive you). Since few Vietnamese own a car, they often have the option of renting vehicles for family outings, special occasions, etc.). The Vietnamese can easily rent anything from a small car to a 32-seater bus for a day or more. Tourists can reach this market indirectly through hotels and travel agencies in all tourist areas. In addition, international car brands have started to appear. Budget Car Rental, one of the largest car rental companies in the world, now offers chauffeur-driven rental cars in Vietnam. Renting a small car for a day back to the starting point costs about 60 USD for 8 hours (although the price varies depending on fuel costs). (If you shop around and bargain hard to get the lowest price, you’ll probably get an older, beat-up car. If you’re paying more than you need, ask yourself what kind of car it will be and expect something comfortable). Few drivers speak English, so you should tell the hotel/agent exactly where you want to go and communicate this to the driver.

It is also possible to hire a car and driver for overland travel, but at a slightly higher cost. A small car from Saigon to the resort of Mui Ne, a four- or five-hour drive depending on traffic, costs about 70 USD, and from Dalat to Mui Ne about 90 USD. Long-distance travel by car can be a good choice for many people travelling together, as it offers a flexible schedule and flexible access to remote locations. Remember that long-distance travel in Vietnam, regardless of the mode of transport used (bus or car), is slow, with an average speed of less than 50km/h. Highway 1, the country’s north-south spine, is a two-lane road with heavy truck and bus traffic.

In general, it would be an understatement to describe Vietnamese driving habits as atrocious. Courtesy on the road is non-existent and drivers generally do not check their blind spots or mirrors (many vehicles have even had their side mirrors removed). Vietnamese drivers also tend to honk very often to keep motorcyclists and cyclists away. In addition, most roads are not marked, and even on those that are marked, drivers are generally unaware of the lane markings. It is therefore not advisable to drive yourself in Vietnam and you should leave your transport needs in the hands of locals.

By bike

Adventurous travellers may want to explore Vietnam by bike. Many adventure tours offer package tours with equipment. Most of the population is on two wheels, so it’s a great way to get closer to the people while getting off the beaten track.

Bicycles can be rented cheaply in many cities and are often a great way to cover long distances. Dalat, Hoi An, Hue and Ninh Binh are good places to cycle. On the other hand, trying to cycle in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is practically suicide without any experience of the traffic rules (or lack thereof, ‘proper experience’ in this case means understanding that anyone around you could potentially change direction without signs and at any time).

In cities like HCMC and Hanoi, bicycle parking is not allowed in pedestrian areas and you have to pay 2000 dong per bicycle.

With the motorbike taxi

The xe ôm (literally “cuddly vehicle”), a motorbike taxi, is a common mode of transport for Vietnamese and tourists alike. They are widely available and relatively cheap – about 10,000 dongs for a 10-minute ride that should take you anywhere in the city centre. Stroll the city streets and every two minutes a guy will signal you and say, “You! Motorbike?” Longer trips to remote areas can be negotiated for 20,000-25,000 dong. Always agree on the price before you start your journey.

Motorcyclists rarely speak English. As with most things, a tourist is often quoted a price above the market at the beginning and you have to be firm. If the quoted price is more than 10,000 dongs for a short ride, remind the driver that you can take an air-conditioned taxi for 15,000 dongs, so forget it. Drivers sometimes charge more than the price negotiated at the end, so it is best to have the exact change to hand. You can then pay the agreed amount and leave, end of discussion.

In some cases they will take you wherever they want (tourist attractions or shops you didn’t ask for) and sometimes they will wait for you to come back (even if you don’t want them to wait) and ask you for more money for waiting. Even if you speak some Vietnamese, it’s not helpful because they will still fib to you or pretend not to understand even if they do. Again, be firm and walk away.

With the motorbike

The 110cc motorbike is the preferred mode of transport for the Vietnamese masses, and the big cities are teeming with them. It is common to see whole families of four people riding on a single motorbike. In most places where tourists go, you can easily rent your own vehicle, with prices ranging from 100,000 to 160,000 dongs per day. However, before you read on, be aware that it is illegal for foreigners to ride motorbikes in Vietnam unless they hold a temporary Vietnamese motorbike licence or an international licence with a motorbike licence valid in their home country.

To convert your driving licence or international driving licence into a temporary Vietnamese driving licence, you must be in possession of a Vietnamese residence permit valid for at least three months or a three-month tourist visa. In Hanoi, contact the Training and Automobile Mechanics Centre, 83a Ly Thuong Kiet Street; in HCMC, contact the Transportation Bureau, 63 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1.

You should also be aware that if you are driving without a licence and cause an accident that injures or kills a third party, you could face a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years and the payment of a large sum of money in compensation to the victim or their family. Furthermore, even if your travel insurance covers motorcycling (check the small print as many do not), if you are injured while driving illegally, the insurance company will not compensate you for medical care, hospitalisation, evacuation to another country for hospital treatment or repatriation, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Receptionists in small hotels often run a side business of renting motorbikes to guests or have a friend or relative who does so. Tour kiosks can usually do the same. In small towns and beach resorts with little traffic, such as Pho Quoc, this is a pleasant way to get around and sightsee, and much cheaper than taxis if you make several stops or travel a certain distance. The roads are generally decent, but it is advisable not to drive too fast and always keep an eye on the road for the occasional potholes.

Driving in big cities, especially Ho Chi Minh City, is a different matter altogether and is not advisable unless you are an experienced driver and have a cool head. Traffic is intense and chaotic, with a long list of unwritten rules unlike any other traffic law. The “right of way” is an almost unknown concept. Driving in HCMC is like being in the middle of a 3D video game where anything can happen to you from any direction and you only have one life. Expatriates who brave the traffic usually spend a few weeks or months riding other people’s motorbikes to learn the rules of the road before attempting to ride themselves. Extreme caution is advised for short-term visitors.

Long stretches in the countryside can also be difficult, depending on the route. The main roads between towns are usually narrow, even if they are important, and full of coaches that like to speed, overtake slow trucks where perhaps they shouldn’t have tried, and leave little room for motorbikes at the side.

There are two main categories of motorbikes available for hire: Scooters (automatic transmission) and four-speed motorbikes whose gears are shifted with the left foot. The ubiquitous Honda Super Cub is a common 4-speed motorbike that has a semi-automatic transmission, i.e. no clutch, which makes it relatively easy to ride. Other models can be fully manual so you also need to use the clutch with your left hand – this takes a lot of skill and it’s too easy to over-rev and do a wheelie or stall the engine – if you find yourself with such a bike, practice gently releasing the clutch before hitting the road! Dirt bikes are becoming increasingly popular in Hanoi, but other cities are not yet ready for them. Rental agents tend to refer foreigners to scooters, if available, on the (plausible) assumption that they don’t know how to ride motorbikes that require gears. Motorbikes with an engine capacity of 175 cc and above are only legal if you join a Vietnamese motorbike club.

In most places where you want to stop, the parking attendants will give you a numbered sign and they will look after your bike. Sometimes these parking operations are supervised by the facility you are visiting and sometimes they are independent operations set up in places where many people go. You will usually see rows of bicycles lined up and parked. Depending on the circumstances, you may park the bike yourself or simply remove the key, put it in neutral and let the staff position the bike. In all cases, with rare exceptions, you keep the key. In restaurants and cafés, parking is sometimes free (search for “giu xe mien phi”). Elsewhere, prices vary from 2,000 to 5,000 to 10,000 dongs.

Traffic police in the cities stop many people (often for reasons that are difficult to understand), but it is generally believed that they rarely harass foreigners because of the language barrier. Nevertheless, it is advisable to follow the traffic rules, especially if you have not managed to get a Vietnamese driving licence. In cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, there are several one-way streets that are all too easy to unknowingly drive into due to little signage. Be sure that the police who just sneak in at the right place will ask you to park and fine you if you break the law. They will also threaten to impound your bike. The price of the fine is negotiable, and if you apologise and are friendly, you can quickly get back on the road with a few dollars less in your pocket. You are less likely to be intimidated or harassed.

Since December 2007, helmets have also been compulsory. If you don’t have one yet, ask your landlord to get one. Riding without a helmet increases the attention of the police considerably.

With Cyclo

Although they are slowly being displaced by motorbikes, cyclo-pedicabs still roam the streets of Vietnam’s towns and villages. They are especially common in quaint and less crowded small towns like Hue, where it is pleasant to walk slowly while admiring the scenery. Although the ride is slow, hot and sometimes dangerous, you usually have to pay more than for a motorbike for the same distance.

On the other hand, some drivers (especially in the south) are very friendly and happy to give you a commentary on the sights. Cyclo drivers are notoriously greedy for money and will always ask for a high price at the beginning. (Japanese tourists, especially women, are most often the target of this scam as they are more sensitive to the threat that the driver might call the police and cause them trouble if they do not pay as demanded). A reasonable price is around 20,000 dongs for a maximum distance of 2km, and if the driver doesn’t agree, just walk away (you won’t get far before this or another driver accepts your offer). Prices for a sightseeing tour with stops are more complicated to negotiate and more prone to conflict in the end.

If you plan to stop somewhere for a while, it is best to make arrangements with the driver, make no promises and start all over again later. Some drivers start with a very low fare to get you into their loop, and when you expect or need to vary the agreed price, they pull out a typed price list with their “standard fares” which are exorbitantly inflated. If in doubt, ask the driver to show you his price list. Then negotiate from that point or walk away. To avoid trouble, it is also best to have the exact change for the agreed amount with you. That way, if the driver tries to change the contract, you can just put your money on the seat and walk away.

With the boat

You will miss a large part of Vietnamese life if you don’t spend some time on a boat. Be careful, though, because many boats are seaworthy but not constructed to first-world standards. The ferry from Phu Quoc to the mainland is an example. This ferry has a small entrance for all passengers to board. When it is full, which is most of the time, there are about 200 people on board. In case of an accident, the chances of everyone getting off the boat quickly enough are very slim. The idea of an emergency exit does not exist in this case.

Tour boats can be chartered for about 20 USD for a day visit; however, be careful about safety when chartering a boat. Make sure the boat is registered for tourist traffic and has enough life jackets and other safety equipment on board. You can also book a tour through a travel agency, but be aware that most travel agencies in Vietnam charge whatever margin they want, so the tourist often pays a margin of 30-40% and the owner and operator of the boat (from van to boat, etc.) gets very little of the total amount.

Ha Long Bay is a famous destination for one to three-day boat trips between its picturesque limestone islands. The problem is that all the boats seem to go to the same places – and with the high prices, poor quality of boats and service, it’s hard to find real value. Many boats have a $10 corkage fee and prohibit BYO alcohol, while the alcohol and seafood on board in some places is about the same price as in Europe. If there is rain, fog or low-hanging clouds, you may not see much. Try to choose a clear day.

Dozens of small family boats ply the river in Hue, taking visitors to the imperial tombs southwest of the city. This is a long journey as the boats are slow and take about 4 hours to travel one way.

Snorkelling and fishing trips to nearby islands are offered from Nha Trang, Hoi An and Phu Quoc. In central Vietnam, the northeast monsoon season restricts boat trips from September to February; other areas of Vietnam seem to be less affected.

A 90-minute hydrofoil connects Saigon with the beach resort of Vung Tau for about 200,000 dongs each way, the fastest way to reach the beach from the city.

The river tours are perhaps the most interesting. A day trip by boat is the centrepiece of almost every tour in the Mekong region.