Getting Around Vietnam
Saying that motorbikes are the preferred method of transportation is an understatement. Although there are far more cars on the road than there were ten years ago, motorbikes still dominate the roads in Vietnam.
Driving here is quite different from driving in western cultures. We’ll explore some of the ways driving is different, and what you’ll need to adapt to.
City driving in Vietnam is chaotic and hectic. Locals rarely follow accepted road rules and rules are rarely enforced by police. People make turns with very little warning and all sorts of obstacles may present themselves, from people crossing the street to a stray banana stand or a loose dog.
Honking is especially common in Vietnam, and westerners should not take it personally. It’s culturally accepted and usually serves more as a fair warning than as a bit of angry retribution.
Drivers from the west may be surprised by the calm Vietnamese drivers exhibit when navigating a chaotic and unpredictable traffic system. Road rage is effectively unheard of here—even in near collisions, drivers remain stoic and carry on with their business. It’s advisable to adopt the same practice, although it may difficult at times for some.
One largely accepted maneuver that might bewilder newcomers to Vietnam is that the curb-side of a road often acts as an additional, reverse-direction lane. For example, if you’re going straight down a street, you should stay away from the curb because often people will drive the opposite way past you. Once you get used to this notion, it can be quite handy, especially on very short rides where making a left turn may be difficult.
Generally, smaller vehicles like motorcycles must yield to larger vehicles like cars, buses, and trucks. Drivers of these larger vehicles will not hesitate to cut you off or force you to stop so they can turn. Don’t expect any remorse or guilt either—it’s just the way things go here.
Gas stations are easily found all over the country and gasoline is quite cheap given the distance you can drive on one tank. Similarly, mechanics are ubiquitous and most are a bargain, though some may not have the professionalism you’d find in other countries. In a pinch, however, they can be lifesavers as they’re usually well-stocked with standard parts.
Country roads are significantly less hectic than city roads. Here is where you’ll find some of Vietnams most iconic scenes like rice paddies, mountains, and forests.
The same rules that apply to city driving apply to countryside driving as well. Buses and trucks have the right of way whether they should or not, and they should be treated with extreme caution. They may turn without much warning, so be prepared to slow down should you see one.
Animals are frequently seen in the countryside, whether it’s a flock of goats crossing the road, a few cows, or a group of ducks. Always keep your eyes open when driving through farmland since animals are plenty and don’t understand road rules.
In small villages, slow down to respect the community and not endanger children. Additionally, since many country town roads are dirt roads, it’s best to slow down to not send dust flying into the air to land on locals’ houses and businesses.
Like in the city, gas stations and mechanics are frequently found. Every small town will have a mechanic of some variety, and gas stations dot the freeways. It’s best to have an idea of how rural the upcoming route is going to be in order to plan out gas stops, but usually, it’s not an issue.
It’s highly advisable to limit motorcycle travel in the countryside to daytime hours. The increased visibility will help you avoid potentially devastating encounters with trucks and buses. Truck and bus drivers are especially reckless at night, overtaking other vehicles at blind turns or intersections without warning. Additionally, since many people in the countryside go to bed early, help may not be available if you need it at night and services may become scarce.
Other Transport Options
While motorbikes dominate the road, they’re by no means the only transport option available in Vietnam. Cars, buses, trains, and airplanes are all viable methods of getting around the country.
Cars are becoming increasingly popular as locals grow wealthier and tax burdens are eased. In many areas, this can lead to a marked increase in traffic congestion as parking rules are lax and generally unenforced.
Taxis are ubiquitous in Vietnam and usually very cheap. A drive across town may cost you less than $10, and shorter destinations can run as low as $1-2. The most reliable taxis nationwide are Mai Linh and Vinasun. Other cities will have smaller, local brands, but the two national cab companies are trustworthy. Do beware of low-rent-looking taxi services that may in fact attempt to scam you by driving you far from your destination or charging you far too much.
Another viable car option, the travel app Grab has made huge inroads into Vietnam in recent years, especially after merging with Uber. Grab cars are roughly as available as Taxis. Installing the Grab app on your phone will allow you to call a car no matter where you are, and rates are often even lower than those of taxis. Additionally, any language barrier is easier to navigate since the starting point and destination are both marked before the ride is accepted.
Visitors to Vietnam should note that car rental is more complicated in Vietnam than many other countries. This complication may be a blessing in disguise as driving a car in Vietnam’s road conditions would take some getting used to. If you wish to rent a car you’ll need to have your driver’s license converted to a local Vietnamese driver’s license, which can be done in Saigon and takes around five days.
However, hiring a car with a driver is easily done and cheap to boot. Whether you wish to hire a car for a one-way trip, a day, or a whole week, all of these services can be arranged. Travelers who wish to avoid traveling by bus, for example, can hire a car for longer trips to make their journey more pleasant and customisable. Many drivers will work for a thoroughly reasonable rate which you can negotiate with them. They can be hired independently or through a travel agency.
Buses are another viable travel option, both within cities and between cities. Although taxis are cheap and plentiful, some travelers and expats rely on buses to get around cities. They’re even cheaper than taxis, often around 5,000 dong (~20 US cents) per ride. The bus routes and stops may seem byzantine to begin with, but some time devoted to learning the system can help you enjoy a truly local experience.
For going between cities, especially shorter destinations, buses are often the way to go. They’re cheap as well. A ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh, for example, may cost $10-15. Not all bus companies are made equal—some buses are new and comfortable, with ample leg room and toilets as well. Others are run down, crowded, and dirty. Kumho Samco and Hanh Cafe are a couple of this writer’s favorite lines.
Some longer bus journeys involve sleeper buses, with rows of bunk beds lining the aisles of the bus. Those short in stature may find these acceptable, but those who are tall or otherwise large will struggle to remain comfortable in such accommodation. A 12-18 hour bus journey crammed into a tight space may be less than ideal for many westerners, as the buses are designed to Vietnamese size standards. For those on a tight budget, however, these buses are a good way to save money if time and comfort are not major concerns.
Air travel is becoming increasingly popular in Vietnam. Several budget airlines have entered the market and are competing for traffic throughout the country. This competition means extra-low fares between cities, which may save you a significant amount of time and headache. A flight from Saigon to Da Nang, for example, can take 1-1.5 hours, whereas a bus would take roughly 20 hours.
Vietnam Airlines is the country’s flagship airline, but others that have entered the market include VietJet Air, JetStar Pacific, and Air Asia. Other low-cost airlines connect passengers to other countries in the region.
Do consider that if you’re in Saigon or Hanoi the airports can be quite busy, especially during peak travel hours. Travelers going to international destinations should note that procedures at immigration can vary wildly in how much time they take, so allow extra time for these possibilities.
Trains are also available in Vietnam. An interesting fact: the world’s longest possible train ride goes from Saigon to Lisbon, Portugal.
Train prices will be between the prices of buses and airplanes, and the comfort level and time spent traveling will be in between as well. For heavy or late sleepers, do note that on night trains the locals will get up very early, possibly as early as 5 am. However, trains, in general, are far more comfortable than buses and allow for a more relaxed way to travel. In some areas, the trains pass through some truly beautiful spots.