I'm currently planning a trip to Southeast Asia, where I'll be staying at a friends in Bangkok and then hopefully travelling to Vietnam and Cambodia etc.
I wondered if I could get some advice on how best to do Vietnam. Would it be best to fly from Bangkok all the way up to Hanoi and travel down by land? How is best to travel over land? I was just reading about the open tour system.
Or would it be best to travel over land across Thailand and enter Vietnam that way?
To hear some stories/experiences and get some tips from anyone that has done this/is planning to do this would be good!
The open tour buses are horrible I would try to avoid them especially the sleeper buses.
Train is the best way for night travel by far and decent enough for other travel as well. Kumho Samco(Ha Tien to Saigon) and Phuong Trang(Saigon to Dalat and Dalat to Nha Trang ) had nice buses for a few trips that I did. Easy rider/moto taxi can be fun although a little expensive, Hue to Hoi An or something like that would probably be worth it though.
Seriously consider flying as well, domestic flights are fairly cheap and can save significant time/headache for longer travel portions(say Danang to Saigon if skipping Nha Trang etc).
I would fly into Hanoi and then use a combination of train and domestic air. You don't want to use the train for long journeys such as Danang-Nha Trang. Hanoi-Lao Cai or Hanoi-Danang are fine on the train. I find the north to have much more of interest in Vietnam (don't miss Sapa, and Hanoi itself is really great).
One section that most people skip any stops is Hanoi to Hue / Da Nang . That is an easy to arrange sleeper train that is in some ways more convenient than flying when you figure in the location of the Hanoi airport. Also, it is a lot more interesting. If you stop off in Hue (I recommend it, a nice place) I'd say to carry on to Da Nang via train as well, and try to get a window seat facing east as the view is really nice between Hue and Da Nang.
I'd agree with the others that from Da Nang (Hoi'an) you'll probably want to fly to your next destination in the south, be it Dalat or HCMC. Once you get to the Delta trains aren't really an option and distances are much shorter so you can just use buses -as Geer1 said, Phuong Trang is most highly rated by locals, but Mai Linh minibuses are also quick and not overcrowded - be sure to specify which company you'd like your ticket from if booking through a hotel, though that still won't guarantee that you get the one you asked for.
From HCMC to Phnom Penh in Cambodia most people will take the bus rather than fly. However, if you're skipping ahead to Siem Reap you might as well book the usually fairly priced flights direct to SR. Otherwise, as mentioned above, form the Delta their are several overland crossings you can use to get into Southern Cambodia via bus or even boat.
I've heard negative things about the buses but commercial airliners or sleeper trains should be acceptable. Flying internationally into Ho Chi Ming seems easier (more air traffic) than into Hanoi, if I recall correctly.
"The open tour buses are horrible I would try to avoid them especially the sleeper buses."
Not only horrible, but also dangerous as hell. I think everyone traveling in Indochina should read this article
(Although the article concerns Vietnam, I do believe the situation extends to other areas as well)
"Flying internationally into Ho Chi Ming seems easier (more air traffic) than into Hanoi , if I recall correctly."
I've flown into both airports several times. Since I prefer Hanoi as a location, I usually go there, but it is far from perfect. The HCMC airport SGN is considerably larger, newer and nicer than HAN. SGN is also fairly close to central Saigon, whereas HAN is quite distant from town. I do like getting my VOA visa in HAN - they seem to be more efficient and faster than the VOA desk at SGN.
Hanoi is building a new international terminal at HAN, but it will be a few more years until it's finished. They do tend to overheat this terminal in winter, and there is very little to do/very little to buy/terrible food at HAN! Neither airport has a decent hotel in close proximity, but then this is Vietnam!
I recommend that travelers seeing the country for the first time buy an open jaw ticket (into one airport and out of the other). My favorite international carrier serving VN is Asiana Airlines, and they serve Hanoi, Saigon and Danang (transit airport is Seoul ICN) - I fly from the USA.