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Getting around in Vietnam

Not all dusty roads and crowded buses

In the early 1990s, when Vietnam first reopened its doors to foreign visitors, the transport 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 at their disposal -- so many so that thinking about what they want out of a trip and planning ahead is a good idea.

Plane

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.

Flying domestically

An often-asked question on the Travelfish.org Vietnam forum is, "Should I book my flights in advance or when I get to Vietnam?" The answer depends mostly on when and where you want to fly, how flexible your flight times are and what your budget is.

Next stop Vietnam!

Next stop Vietnam!

With four airlines operating internal flights in Vietnam, and all providing an online booking service, there's plenty of choice and booking in advance is easy. Also, most of the flights booked online can be amended, should your plans change -- at a price of course, but at least you'll not be stuck with a flight you can't use. Do check booking conditions of the individual airline and flight type before booking though. If you're happy to wait until you get to Vietnam you might be able to get a better price; one trusty travel agent told us that she could book flights cheaper than online with the standard (national) airlines but not with budget providers such as Jetstar. As long as you have some flexibility, waiting until you arrive shouldn't leave you stranded, except for at peak periods when booking in advance is definitely recommended, as there are usually flights available for the same day or next. Here's a quick rundown of the four airlines operating domestic flights: Vietnam Airlines (a Skyteam alliance member) is the best of the lot, in terms of routes, airline quality and timeliness, but is generally more expensive. Its prices are tiered from Super Saver -- the cheapest -- up to Business Flex. Super Saver fares aren't often available so the best fare is usually the Saver. Note though that the fares, even within one tier, vary at different times of day and the year so flexibility, and the willingness to fly during the early hours of the morning, could you save you some dong.

Jetstar is an established budget operator in Vietnam now and is usually cheaper than Vietnam Airlines, but you get what you pay for in terms of service and timeliness. If you're not in a rush and have a mobile -- they will text with details of significant delays -- its regularly delayed flights might not bother you so much, but a five-hour wait at the airport isn't going to impress anyone.

If you tick the "I just want the cheapest flight" option the site will generate a neat graph showing the cheapest fare each day for a 30-day period around your preferred date, from there you can select the time of flight and add on extras, such as flexibility and luggage. Watch out for the other charges such as paying by credit card.

Air Mekong and VietJet are newer additions. Air Mekong is worth a look if you're flying to Phu Quoc, Qui Nhon, Pleiku, Con Dao or Dalat as neither Jetstar nor VietJet fly there. As with Vietnam Airlines, its flight prices are divided into five categories, with some rather complex fare conditions -- be sure to check before booking.

VietJet is very new and from Hanoi only flies to HCMC. In the Booking Engine box you have the option of two buttons: Find Flights and Find Value Fares. Wondering what the difference is? Mystery solved: Find Flights shows flights and fares just for the dates you have requested; Find Value Fares shows a calendar for the month and the cheapest flight each day, neatly colour coded.

What's the real difference in prices between the airlines? We can't offer a conclusive answer as it depends when you're travelling and when you book, but to give an indication, we looked at prices for a month's time and three months' time, avoiding weekends, one-way between Hanoi and HCMC, which is the only route they all operate.

VietJet was slightly cheaper than Jetstar, at just under 1 million VND including taxes and VAT, with neither including a checked baggage allowance: for Jetstar that's 100,000 VND (US$5) but VietJet doesn't tell you what it is until you're into the booking process.

Surprisingly, Vietnam Airlines was cheaper than Air Mekong: a Super Saver was available for the end of February but not at the end of April when a Saver was the best option at 1.7 million. Both include checked luggage. So from the cheapest to the most expensive there's about a 900,000 VND difference -- it's worth shopping around if budget's a concern.

In conclusion, if you're booking online there is a definite benefit to booking in advance as you will be more likely to bag a deal. If you need to keep your options open then booking on arrival through an agent or at Vietnam Airlines' office could save you money -- and online booking is there as a backup.

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, the railways only serve the Vietnamese coastline along with a couple of spurs out af Hanoi (most notably northwest to Sapa). The coastal line does serve many of the key destinations in Vietnam, with notable exceptions being 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.

Car

Rental cars for long distance travel are yet to be 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 so-called Open Toursare privatised long-distance bus services targetting tourists (though also popular with locals) running the length of Vietnam -- commencing at Hanoi the service stops at Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Da Lat and Mui Ne, among others, terminating in Saigon (obviously it runs in the reverse as well). There are 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). They offer door-to-door service and you should book a day ahead.

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 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 the savings made by travelling this way.

Motorbike

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 -- 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 services 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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