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Getting around in Vietnam

Not all dusty roads and crowded buses

In the early 1990's, when Vietnam first reopened its doors to foreign visitors, the transportation infrastructure was creaking at best and totally dysfunctional at worst. A product of a few generations of war followed by a punitive and punishing economic embargo, the nation's transport was unreliable, expensive and uncomfortable. The grandiose-sounding Highway One was dotted with rusted-out ferry crossings in place of bombed out bridges; the rail system was glacially-paced and expensive. Budget airlines were unheard of and domestic carrier Vietnam Airlines was double priced, unreliable and equipped with vintage Russian aircraft.

How things change. Today's traveller has a far better range of options than in the early 90's - read on to find out all about them.

Plane

Vietnam Airlines and Jetstar are the two main domestic carriers. Fares are very reasonable and the frequency of flights to main hubs are good. Flights can be a handy way to lop off a day of travel for not as many dong as you may expect -- Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu and Saigon to Phu Quoc Island are both popular time-savers. Note it is often cheaper to buy domestic tickets once in Vietnam rather than buying them from online brokers like Kayak.com.

Train

Vietnam's train system is a lot better than is used to be, and while it's not all that cheap, it's comfortable, exceedingly scenic in places, and an overall very interesting and fun way to travel.

If you're travelling in high season or especially over Tet, book as far in advance as possible. On the downside it serves only the Vietnamese coastline along with a couple of spurs out af Hanoi (most notably northwest to Sapa). The coastal line serves many of the key destinations in Vietnam, notable exceptions are Hoi An (alight at Da Nang), Qui Nhon (alight at Dieu Tri) and Mui Ne (alight at Muong Man).

The Railways Vietnam website has comprehensive and accurate timetable and price information. Travelfish members can also avail themselves of the PDF timetable and pricelist we put together after fighting our way through the Vietnam Railways website. You can download it from the resources section of the Member Centre.

You can read a very detailed story on Vietnam's rail network here.

Automobile

Rental cars for long distance travel are yet to be much popularised in Vietnam, and seeing the state of the traffic it's easy to see why. Most who opt for self-drive transport do it via motorcycle rather than car.

Open Tours

The Open Tour runs through the length of Vietnam (and the reverse), commencing at Hanoi, the service stops at Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Da Lat or Mui Ne and terminates Saigon (obviously it runs in the reverse as well). There's spurs off into the Mekong Delta and Tay Ninh in the south (ex Saigon) and Ha Long Bay and Sapa in the north (ex Hanoi).

The ticket price is dependent on where you choose to stop, and once you buy the ticket, you're locked into that route -- unless you buy a new ticket. The cost is low, very low -- as little as US$24 for a non-stop epic from Hanoi to Saigon. The Open Tour system works for thousands of visitors to Vietnam -- particularly first time visitors who may be intimidated by the local bus system or who are looking for more creature comforts.

Local buses and minibuses

These take about as long as Open Tours but can be overloaded to outrageous degrees. On the upside -- you'll be the only foreigner on board -- on the downside, it won't take too long to figure out why. Local buses and minibuses are fine for trips under three to four hours, but longer than that can be a bit gruelling.

One disadvantage of the local bus system is that the bus stations they operate from are often on the outskirts of town and the transport to and from the bus station (mainly xe oms) will gouge you heartlessly given the opportunity, thus reducing your saving in travelling this way.

Motobike

Grab a minsk and hit the road. These bikes can be purchased for as little as a few hundred US dollars and you'll often not have too many troubles selling the bike off to another traveller when the time comes to leave Vietnam. The bikes are only semi-reliable, but just about any local with a screwdriver should be able to fix it up should you have minor ailments. If you don't want to listen to us, listen to your Mum -- invest in a helmet -- easily purchased in both Hanoi and Saigon. For more information, read our feature story on exploring Vietnam by motorcycle.

Bicycle

Long, with a scenic flat coastline, Vietnam can be a great destination for cyclists. The only really gruelling part is the northern mountains -- even the Central Highlands are not really all that hilly. Most nearly every town in Vietnam will have some lodgings, so you shouldn't struggle for a room. Things to pack -- a good supply of inner tubes and patch kits -- and of course, your bike -- but you probably knew that already. Vietnamese bikes are not of a very high standard, so BYO bike is a very good idea. The country has a pretty good network of secondary roads which are far preferable to cycling on the main road, where cyclists rank just above chickens in the pecking order ... get it ;-) -- you will be expected to yield to all larger vehicles.

Boat

This is only really an option in the Mekong Delta, where you can travel in both tourist boats for short haul trips and take freighters for longer trips. The former are comfortable, the latter can sometimes be comfortable, other times less so. Boat transport is slow -- figure on two days for a trip from My Tho to Chau Doc on the Cambodian border. The most popular tourist service are the ferries from Saigon to Vung Tao, and the boats from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. Boat travel generally works out as being more expensive than bus travel over a similar route.



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