Vietnam's days as a pariah state, cut off from the rest of the world are long gone. Today the country boasts numerous land crossings with all of its neighbours and international flight connections to Australia, Cambodia, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the USA (among others). You can also enter by boat from Cambodia and by train from China.
You'll need a passport with at least six months validity to enter Vietnam.
The vast majority of foregn tourists enter Vietnam on a tourist visa. This visa must be issued before arrival and the typical visa is valid for 30 days. Depending on the consulate that issues the visa it begins to expire from the day it is issued, so it is a good idea to get your visa as close as possible to your intended arrival date. Extension of Vietnamese visas is possible once you are in Vietnam.
Nationals of Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand do not require a visa if they plan to stay no longer than 30 days in Vietnam.
Nationals of Denmark, Finland, Japan, Norway, South Korea and Sweden do not require a visa if they plan to stay no longer than 15 days in Vietnam.
For more information, see our Vietnam visa page.
Vietnam has two hub international airports, Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi and Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. A third airport, Da Nang Airport, in Da Nang, accepts a far smaller number of international flights. Over a dozen other domestic airports are scattered across Vietnam.
Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) is Vietnam's national carrier. It has a comprehensive domestic network and a growing international one. Jetstar (http://www.jetstar.com/) is the second domestic carrier with a more limited network.
A growing number of international carriers (both full service and LCCs) are now flying to Vietnam, including the following:
Air Asia (Hanoi)
Air China (Ho Chi Minh City)
Air France (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
ANA (Ho Chi Minh City)
Asiana (Ho Chi Minh City)
Bangkok Airways (Ho Chi Minh City)
Cathay Pacific (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
China Airlines (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
China Eastern (Ho Chi Minh City)
China Southern (Hanoi)
EVA Air (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
Hong Kong Airlines (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
JAL (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
Jetstar (Ho Chi Minh City)
Korean Air (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
Lao Airlines (Hanoi)
Lufthansa (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
Malaysia Airlines (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
Philippine Airlines (Ho Chi Minh City)
Qantas (Ho Chi Minh City)
Qatar Airlines (Ho Chi Minh City)
Royal Brunei Airlines (Ho Chi Minh City)
Silk Air (Da Nang, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
Singapore Airlines (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
THAI (Da Nang, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
United (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
You'll almost invariably get a better rate for a long haul fare shopping around online, but traditional agents are still worth a try -- if you haven't already, give our story on getting a cheap airfare to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam a read.
While a lot of international airlines fly into Vietnam, Bangkok and Singapore remain the main gateways. If you're coming from further afield, for example Europe or North America, it often works out more cost effective to purchase a long-haul ticket into one of Southeast Asia's hubs and then continue on to Vietnam with a budget carrier.
Air Asia flies from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to Hanoi, while both Tiger Airways and Jetstar fly to Ho Chi Minh City from Singapore. If you're checking with online agencies like Kayak.com, the airport codes you'll be needing are below, though note very few international airlines serve Da Nang:
Da Nang: DAD
Ho Chi Minh City: SGN
There are two crossings in Vietnam which involve trains, both with China, but only one of them has a train on each side of the border. The Dong Dang crossing, just over 160km from Hanoi can be reached by train from Hanoi, with the trainline continuing on into China, running north eventually to Beijing. There is a thrice weekly train between Hanoi and Beijing. The Chinese side of the border is the town of Ping Xian. While you can buy a through ticket to Beijing in Hanoi, it is cheaper just to buy the ticket to Dong Dang, take a xe om over the border and buy a new ticket in China (at a reduced rate).
The second train crossing is at Lao Cai (near Sapa) in northwest Vietnam, the Chinese town of Hekou is on the other side of the border. There is no train on the Chinese side though, so you need to arrange alternative transport onwards into China.
General overland travel
Please refer to our Vietnam borders page for more information or the Visa and border crossings FAQ for detailed crossing information, including trip reports from other travellers.
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.
PlaneFares 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.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.
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.
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.
One of the best ways to travel in Vietnam is by train. Vietnam's rail network extends to most destinations of interest to a first-time visitor in Vietnam and it's safe, comfortable, not too expensive, and allows you to see the countryside at a leisurely pace. What more could you ask for? Read on to find out just how Vietnam's train system works – where the trains go, what they cost and how long they take – along with a stack of other useful information.
Vietnam's train system serves a large swathe of the country – only the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta are left out. The first length of 71km of track was laid in 1881 and ran from Saigon to My Tho – a service which no longer runs. The route, more or less as it stands today, was completed in 1936 and stretches for 2,600km in its entirety.
Where do the trains go?
Officially the Vietnamese train system consists of seven rail lines, but of those only three are much used by foreign travellers in Vietnam.
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
This is the main north-south running line and is by far the most popular for both foreign tourists and Vietnamese travellers. A mind-boggling variety of trains run on this line – everything from express services to local trains even goats think are slow. While there are over 100 stations on the line, the popular and fastest trains service around 20 stations, into which most major coastal stops are covered. The stations include Hanoi, Vinh, Dong Hoi, Dong Ha, Hue, Da Nang (for Hoi An), Quang Ngai, Dieu Tri (for Qui Nhon), Nha Trang, Thap Cham, Muong Man (for Mui Ne) and Saigon. While trains running this route are sometimes referred to as the "Reunification Express", the title doesn't belong to any particular train nor service.
Hanoi to Lao Cai
This line, striking northwest from Hanoi, terminates at the border town of Lao Cai. From here it is a straightforward run up to the hill station at Sapa – one of northern Vietnam's most popular spots. Most of the trains run at night, and, somewhat strangely, different cars are owned and run by different companies, meaning while you're all on the same train, the quality of service and comfort can vary considerably.
Hanoi to Dong Dang
Dong Dang is the border town, in Lang Son province, on the Chinese frontier and this train, running northeast of Hanoi, is the most popular way to reach it.
The lesser routes are:
Hanoi to Hai Phong: a large port city southwest of Ha Long Bay.
Hanoi to Quan Trieu: in Thai Nguyen province, due north of Hanoi.
Kep to Ha Long: Kep is northwest of Hanoi on the line to Dong Dang. This spur does run to Ha Long, but the train stops well short of anywhere particularly useful – making this just about the slowest possible way on earth to get from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay short of walking.
Kep to Luu Xa: We couldn't even find the town of Luu Xa on any map, so this one's a bit of a mystery to us.
What classes are available?
The main classes on Vietnamese trains are hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper, though these are broken up into a number of sub-classes.
You get what you pay for certainly holds true when it comes to hard seats on a Vietnamese train. It is a hard seat – actually a wooden bench seat to be exact. The cheapest class on the train, hard seat is also the first to fill up and is invariably packed.
Next cheapest off the rack, soft seat are considerably more comfortable and are more than adequate for day-travel. The seats are quite difficult to sleep in though. Soft seat comes in three flavours – reclining air-con, air-con and non air-con.
Despite how it sounds, you won't be sleeping on a plank of wood but on a rather thin mattress. We'd say they're more than adequate for the budget traveller, though you won't be planning to fit a hard sleeper into your bedroom back home. Hard sleeper comes in a six-berth configuration with both a fan-cooled and air-con option. The cheapest bunk it the top one, then the middle one, with the lowest bunk being the most expensive. The compartments do not have a door, so you need to be extra careful with your belongings.
This is the most comfortable class and comes with surprisingly soft beds in a four-bed configuration, with or without air-con. Unlike hard sleepers, these compartments do have a door so are considerably more secure. All soft sleeper bunks are priced the same.
Aside from the above there are also a few classes peculiar to the Sapa and 5-star Express trains. See the relevant sections below for more information.
What are Vietnamese trains like?
Train types are distinguished by their prefix – the most likely of which you'll come across are the 5-star, SE, SP, TN and LC services – though there are many others. The prefix is followed by a number – odd numbers run in one direction, even the other. So for example the SE1 runs from Hanoi to Saigon while the SE2 runs from Saigon to Hanoi.
Cabins are furnished with four or six bunks, with upper bunks reached by a small ladder. Upper bunks are generally more secure when you're asleep, but you'll be closer to the air-con unit, so dress accordingly. Shared storage areas are provided underneath the bottom bunks – these should not be considered overly secure. Carriages come with two bathrooms – one with a squat toilet, the other with just a basin and mirror. Getting a seat or berth in the middle of the carriage (as far as possible from the bathrooms) is a good idea. Pack your own toilet paper.
The 5-star and SE trains are uniformly air-con, while the SP, TN and LC services are a mix. The windows cannot be opened in an air-con carriage, so if you're keen to have an open window (say for photos) then an air-con car is not for you. That said, the windows in non-air-con cars often have their metal shutters drawn – kids throwing rocks at trains remains a problem and so some opt to shutter the windows for protection – on occasion the conductor may insist the shutter is closed.
On the Hanoi to Saigon run, the SE services are the best. They are fast, they stop at most of the tourist hotspots and the prices are not unreasonable. The TN services are okay – they're slower as they stop at a lot more stations than the SE trains, but they're also cheaper and come equipped with a better range of the more budget-orientated classes.
There are three night trains and one day train every day between Hanoi and Lao Cai. From Lao Cai it is a straightforward undertaking to get to Sapa. The vast majority of travellers opt for the night train as it saves on the cost of a night of accommodation and the day train offers only hard and soft seats. The night trains offer all the available classes, though, just to complicate things, there are also a number of private cars which may be attached to your train. Private cars include Fansipan, Friendly, King, Pumpkin, Royal and Tulico – but there's precious little to separate one from another. The exception is the Victoria service, which is a good deal above any of the others, but is available only to guests of the affiliated Victoria Sapa Hotel.
This is a private express train with new cars, which runs between Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang, stopping at only Muong Man (for Phan Thiet and Mui Ne) and Thap Cham along the way. Trains come with four classes – the imaginatively-named A, B, C and D classes – with D class being more than enough for most travellers. The service runs overnight from Saigon to Nha Trang, but the return service is during daylight hours.
Do the trains run on time?
They leave on time, but often arrive late. Be sure to get to the train station a good half an hour before departure.
How long do the trains take?
The fastest trains trundle along at a maximum speed of around 70 km/h, but the main issue is that, as much of the line is single track (most of the time there are not separate lines for each direction) long delays can occur if your train has to wait for a train coming the other way.
Rough trip times are (depending on the class of train and number of stops):
Hanoi to Vinh 5-7 hours. Check schedule and prices online
Vinh to Dong Hoi 3.5-5 hours. Check schedule and prices online
Dong Hoi to Dong Ha 2-3 hours. Check schedule and prices online
Dong Ha to Hue 1-2 hours. Check schedule and prices online
Hue to Da Nang 3-4 hours. Check schedule and prices online
Da Nang to Nha Trang 10-12 hours. Check schedule and prices online
Nha Trang to Muong Man 4-7 hours. Check schedule and prices online
Muong Man to Saigon 3.5-4.5 hours. Check schedule and prices online
Do you need to make a reservation in advance?
Generally speaking yes, but through most of the year a day or two in advance should suffice – if you're planning on just buying a ticket on the day, as long as you're flexible regarding which train and class you'll get, you'll probably get a ticket, but showing up 30 minutes before departure planning to get a four-berth air-con ticket on the SE1 will probably not yield a lot of success. If you're planning on travelling by train across the Tet national holiday, book your ticket now ... we mean that ... pick up the phone right now! Train reservations are essential across Tet and should be made absolutely as far in advance as possible.
How do you buy a ticket?
The best way to purchase a train ticket in Vietnam is to go to the train station in person and buy the ticket. In Vietnam, train tickets are priced in Vietnamese dong and at the station you can only pay in dong. Travel agents and hotels often offer this service – normally for a small fee – but we recommend doing it in person as it avoids the need to worry about scams. Never buy a ticket off a tout at the train station.
What should you be wary of?
Aside from scamming travel agents, the number one concern is theft, though that's not to say people are being robbed left, right and centre, rather that you should endeavour to keep an eye on your stash. Here are some tips:
a) Never, ever leave a cabin if another passenger asks you to leave for privacy while leaving your bags in the cabin. Either tell the other passenger to use the toilet for changing, or take your belongings with you.
b) Try to secure the door handle of your cabin at night – for instance with a coat hanger – to deny thieves access while you sleep.
c) Be wary of leaving valuable items near the window as when the train is stationary, someone may reach in and grab stuff off your lap – they'll be long gone by the time you find your way out of the carriage.
d) Chain, or tie your bags together.
e) Sleep with your valuables with you in your bunk. Do not stow expensive goodies in an easy-to-open bag out of your reach.
f) Don't drink to excess and stay in control.
What are the best journeys?
The trip between Da Nang and Hue is easily the most beautiful stretch in the country – we'll not bother trying to describe it as Paul Theroux does it so perfectly here:
"'No one knows it,' said Cobra Two. No one in the States has the slightest idea how beatiful it is. Look at that – God, look at that!'
We were at the fringes of a bay that was green and sparkling in bright sunlight. Beyond the leaping jade plates of the sea was an overhang of cliffs and the sight of a valley so large it contained sun, smoke, rain and cloud – all at once – independent quantities of colour. I had been unprepared for this beauty; it surprised and humbled me in the same degree the emptiness had in India. Who has mentioned the simple fact that the heights of Vietnam are places of unimaginable grandeur? Though we can hardly blame a frightened draftee for not noticing this magnificence, we should have known all along that the French would not have colonized it, nor would the Americans have fought so long, if such ripeness did not invite the eye to take it."
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, pp 289.
Which is better train or plane?
Well, it depends. Train is cheaper and slower than flying, but for the shorter trips, it's not all that much slower than flying – especially once you factor in the time getting to the airport, checking in and so on. Of course if you want to get from Hanoi to Saigon as quickly as possible then flying is the best option, but if you've got a bit of time and plan a lot of stops, trains are often the best choice.
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.
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.
By far, the best way to experience Vietnam is by motorbike – as long as you can ride one competently. As with elsewhere in southeast Asia, in Vietnam the motorbike is king. They are cheap to buy, relatively easy to repair, and they can take you places the tour bus would never dare to go. What's more, there are no restrictions on foreigners buying motorbikes. All you need is a passport and valid visa, and you'll receive a title of ownership and a deed of transfer. Rentals will suffice for most, but if you plan on serious bike time, buying is more economical – you can even sell the bike before you leave and recoup some of the expense.
We know the traffic seems crazy. But once you get the hang of it, you'll learn there is a method to the madness. Travel by motorbike has its dangers, to be sure, and should be undertaken conscientiously. But the vast majority of foreigners come away from their motorbike trek with nothing but great experiences to talk about back home (and maybe a few tail-pipe burns to remember them by).
You can buy a bike almost anywhere, but bigger cities will have a better selection and be more comfortable selling to foreigners. Naturally, it's best to shop around. When you settle on a bike, insist on taking it for a spin – and to a mechanic for a once over.
Your two main considerations are whether to buy new or used, and how powerful a bike you need. New Japanese and Chinese models can be purchased for as little as US$400. They should be more reliable, but then again, you may be the one stuck working out all the kinks. And you'll take a bath on the resale value.
We recommend a used bike. This may seem a bit daunting, and it's a good idea to make friends with a trustworthy mechanic if you can swing it. When you buy a bike, all you're really looking at is the engine, the shocks, the wheels, and the frame. If nothing's leaking or broken, and it kicks up a throaty hum when it runs, you're off to a good start. Everything else on a bike can be fixed cheaply and easily – though be sure to factor such repairs into the price you plan to pay.
In terms of power, a 100 cc bike is fine throughout most of the country, depending on the weight you intend to carry. By the time you stack two people and two full packs on it, you'll struggle up the hills even in Da Lat. Northern Vietnam is notoriously hilly and requires at least a 115 cc bike. Check out the bikes used by the guys who do the Easy Rider tours, and look for something similar. If you've never driven a clutch, consider learning – it quickly becomes second nature.
Even if you buy a bike that's been restored, be sure to take it to a mechanic anyway and put some more money into it. New tires, break drums, batteries, starters and the like are all cheap and will give you that much more peace of mind. Finally, think about where you're going to put your stuff. We got a custom-made back-rack for US$6.25.
When it comes to plotting a route, we suggest planning to see more of the country by seeing less of it. You can't see everything from Sapa to Vung Tau by motorbike in a month. Pick a region – north, central, or south, and focus on that. Alternately, many buses and trains will take on a motorbike as freight for the price of an extra ticket, so you can split a trip between two regions. Don't plan an overly-aggressive route. The whole point is to take in the scenery, to stop and explore along the way. We find more than 120 kilometres in any given day starts to feel rushed. Fortunately, in thin, compact Vietnam, there is always a good option for your next stop within that distance.
It's also worth mention that, while the 'open road' in Vietnam can be breathtakingly beautiful and provide an utterly authentic experience of the country, this is Vietnam, and not all roads are open. Ask around if you plan to go into remote regions of the country, especially near the borders, but there's really no harm in just trying your luck. The worst that can happen is that the police will ask you to turn around.
Final note: wear a helmet, bring rain gear, and memorise the lyrics to Born to be Wild before you leave. You'll be needing them.
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.
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.