Transport and Driving in Vietnam
The modes of transport in Vietnam are varied. In addition to the usual buses and trains, expats will soon see that the locals love to travel on two wheels using motorcycles or bicycles.
The roads in Vietnam’s cities tend to be congested and chaotic. Driving can be stressful and expats should avoid getting behind the wheel if possible.
Road traffic accidents are common in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and expats should always exercise caution when using Vietnam's roads.
Public transport in Vietnam
Public transport in Vietnam is not always comfortable but fares are reasonable. Buses and trains make it easy for people to travel around the country.
Intercity buses are commonly used to travel between major cities in Vietnam. While most intercity buses are in good condition and are air-conditioned, using buses for long journeys is not always comfortable. The seats are designed for the smaller people of Vietnam, and taller Westerners often complain about the cramped conditions and lack of leg room.
If passengers are not travelling to the final destination on the intercity bus route, Vietnamese bus drivers have a habit of dropping the passenger off at the most convenient crossroad for the bus driver rather than at the bus terminal as most people would expect.
Expats travelling with large pieces of luggage or bicycles should negotiate the extra fee for this with the bus driver rather than at the ticket counter. Fees for extra luggage should be no more than 10 percent of the ticket price.
The frequency of intercity buses in Vietnam varies according to the route and the bus company being used. On the busiest route between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City there are around 12 bus services a day.
Although trains in Vietnam are a little more expensive than buses, they are definitely a more comfortable way to travel overland through the country.
The major train line in Vietnam, the Reunification Express, runs between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This in itself is a 30-hour train journey, but there are a number of stops along the way. There are also some shorter routes from Hanoi to the northwest and northeast of the country.
When booking a train in Vietnam it is best to book a seat in a sleeper carriage because these seats are a lot more comfortable. On trains where there is the option, always choose a seat in an air-conditioned carriage.
The safest and most cost-effective way to purchase tickets is at the train station. On popular routes, however, the best seats in the air-conditioned carriages are purchased in advance by agents and re-sellers. Therefore, when passengers arrive at the train station to be told that tickets are sold out, there are in fact usually more tickets available from other sources. In most instances, unsold tickets can be bought at the last minute from re-sellers hanging around at the station. The commission on these tickets gets reduced as the train's departure time draws nearer.
Expats should try to purchase train tickets at least three days in advance to avoid disappointment and the hassle of dealing with agents and re-sellers. It is also worth remembering that train services will get busier during peak holiday season.
One common scam that expats should be aware of is when private travel agents or re-sellers at the station make passengers pay for tickets on an air-conditioned carriage and then give them a ticket for a seat in a non-air-conditioned or lower class carriage. The passenger often won’t realise that they have been scammed until they are onboard the train and it is too late to demand compensation.
Domestic flights in Vietnam
Flights within Vietnam are very reasonably priced, especially when a person considers how much time they save.
A flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City takes around two hours. There are also regular flights to other major towns in Vietnam, such as Da Nang, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Hue and Nha Trang.
Domestic airlines include Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar Pacific and VietJet.
Cycling in Vietnam
More adventurous expats might choose to travel through Vietnam by bicycle. In fact, many Vietnamese people get around by bike so it is a great way to meet the locals. Bicycles can be rented cheaply in many places in Vietnam.
Cycling in smaller towns is a relatively pleasant and safe experience. However, attempting to cycle anywhere within Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi is almost suicidal. Traffic in the major cities is chaotic and drivers are often erratic which can make cycling frustrating and dangerous, especially for inexperienced expats.
While parking bicycles in smaller towns is not a problem, in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi parking bicycles on sidewalks is not allowed and cyclists are required to pay a small fee to store their bike in a parking lot.
Motorcycles in Vietnam
Motorcycles are probably the most popular mode of transport amongst the Vietnamese locals. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are swarmed with them and it's not usual to see a whole family riding on a single motorbike.
However, expats must be in possession of a temporary Vietnamese motorcycle licence to be able to hire or operate a motorcycle in Vietnam. In order to obtain the licence, expats will need to convert their international driving licence and also have a valid residence permit.
Those caught riding a motorcycle which is involved in an accident with a third party who is injured or killed could face a jail sentence as well as a hefty fine.
It is illegal to ride a motorcycle, or be a passenger on one, without wearing a helmet. So expats must ensure they have a helmet at all times, and should insist that the rental company provides one when hiring a motorcycle.
Motorcycle taxis in Vietnam
Motorcycle taxis are a very common mode of transport in Vietnam. They are readily available and a reasonably cheap way to travel around.
Expats can negotiate prices for longer trips to outlying areas. Always settle on a fare before beginning the journey. Motorcycle taxi drivers in Vietnam have a habit of demanding more than the negotiated price at the end of the journey, so try to have the exact money at hand.
Western expats and tourists are often charged a rate that is above the market price, but those that can stand their ground will be able to negotiate a fair price.
Driving in Vietnam
Driving in Vietnam is not for the faint of heart. Expats living in Vietnam find driving to be a risky and nerve-wracking experience and most avoid getting behind the wheel altogether, especially in the bigger cities. Some expats even hire a driver to avoid the stress of driving and finding parking in Vietnam’s urban centres.
The bustling city streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are incredibly busy. Expat drivers will find that there is a lack of rules governing behaviour on the road, especially amongst cyclists and motorcyclists. Traffic congestion in the cities can be frustrating and parking is often difficult to find.
In smaller towns and villages, driving is a little easier. However, driving on Vietnam’s highways can also be dangerous. Expats who do decide to drive in the cities should do so defensively and learn to predict and pre-empt the behaviour of other road users.
The standard of roads in Vietnam varies from region to region, but generally roads are not well-maintained. Drivers and motorcyclists should be aware of potholes. While signage is not always clear, expats will find that most road signs are displayed in both Vietnamese and English.