From being pedaled along in a cyclo to a wild ride on a motorbike taxi to jetting among more than 20 airports, transportation in Vietnam runs as big a gamut as you'll find anywhere.
If you want to travel the length of the country with stops in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, you'll have quite a few transportation options. Which ones do you choose? It all depends on your time, budget, flexibility and sense of adventure.
With limited time, hopping from north to middle to south by air makes a lot of sense. For more remote destinations like the Northern Highlands, taking the train and hiring a car and driver is the best option. If you have more time and patience than you do cash, the bus system might be a possibility. Or, if you were born to be wild, you just might hop aboard a motorcycle.
Here's our guide to helping you make the right transportation choices.
You might be surprised to learn that Vietnam is home to more than 20 airports. That fact makes more sense when you discover that many airstrips built during the Vietnam War have been converted to peacetime airports.
By far, the most international flights arrive in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi, with daily arrivals through most Asian hub cities. Bangkok, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, Guangzhou, Siem Reap (home to Angkor Wat) and Phnom Penh have the most frequent flights. A few international flights also land in Danang and the seaside resort town of Nha Trang.
Major international carriers include Vietnam Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Korean Air, China Southern Airlines, Thai Airways, AirAsia, Jetstar and Hong Kong Airlines.
Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar, VietJetAir and VASCO operate domestic flights, with Vietnam Airlines covering the largest number of destinations. For a full list of flight options, see VietnamTourism.com.
If you're trying to decide among planes, buses or trains within Vietnam, we strongly suggest flying on longer hauls. Buses can be unpredictable and extremely time-consuming; train travel from north to south can be tedious too.
Note that American citizens need to obtain a visa before traveling to Vietnam, and passports must be valid at least one month after your date of exit from Vietnam (and maybe even longer, depending on airlines' requirements).
Vietnam is served by 1,600 miles of rails, with the main line, known as the Reunification Express, running from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Among its many stops are popular tourist areas like Hue, Danang and Nha Trang. But beware -- the entire trip takes upwards of 40 hours. Lines also run north from Hanoi to Dong Dang (with connections to Beijing) and Haiphong.
There are a number of classes on Vietnamese trains, but we'd recommend springing for the highest level you can afford. The lower-class hard-seat carriages can be grim, while some of the soft-seat cars now even have air-conditioning. There are both hard-berth and soft-berth compartments for overnight, with six and four bunks, respectively. In general, the country is trying to upgrade the train system, but that means there can be a wide range of cars and comfort, so it's tough to know what you'll end up with.
Another option is to go with a private company, which attaches more luxurious cars to standard trains. This is a popular way to go from Hanoi to Lao Cai in the Northern Highlands. Several companies, including Victoria Hotels, Sapaly Train and Fanxipan, operate relatively luxurious private cars. Although the Victoria carriages are considered the most comfortable, you must be staying at the Victoria Hotel in Sapa to book a spot on its sleepers.
Livitrans offers its own carriages on the route from Hanoi to Hue and Danang, and also has carriages on the Lao Cai route.
Even with the private companies, don't expect to travel in grand luxury. It's not the Orient Express. You'll just get a bit more room, a nicer, cleaner cabin and better bedding. But you'll still be at the mercy of the state-run train system.
The best bus options for tourists are the privately operated buses usually referred to as "open tour" buses. It's possible to buy an "open" ticket to get on and off along the Hanoi-Saigon route that most of these vehicles travel -- though it's best to keep your options flexible by simply purchasing individual tickets as you go, for not much difference in price.
The open tour buses are preferable to Vietnam's system of national buses because they are usually air-conditioned and operate on fixed timetables with a limited number of passengers. State buses can be exactly the opposite -- so rider beware.
Research any private bus companies before buying a ticket. One of the longest-running is the one operated by Sinh Cafe (which has many fake companies spoofing it). See the correct website below.
For tourists who are visiting both Cambodia and Vietnam, a popular route between the two countries is the fast boat from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc. Of course, you can also travel in luxury down the Mekong on a private tour company's river cruise too.
Once in Vietnam, the place you're most likely to get on the water is Halong Bay, where dozens of private vessels ply the waters, taking tourists to see the magnificent karst island formations. Day trips and overnight excursions are possible with a full range of ships, from bare-bones to luxurious. Research your choice of boat carefully, or work with a reputable travel company like the two we've listed below. There have been some mishaps with boats on Halong Bay, so this is no place to take risks or cut corners.
Ferry services can get you to most of Vietnam's major islands, and hydrofoils also serve some destinations. You can find detailed information and schedules at the Vietnam Tourism link below.
It's not possible for tourists to rent a car in Vietnam unless they have a driver's license from an ASEAN country (that's the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam). However, you can hire a car and driver through tour companies and most hotels. Make sure the driver knows enough English that you can communicate, and get specific information about the age and make of the car so there are no surprises. Be sure to specify air-conditioning if that's important, and be clear about where you're going, and the timing, before you set off.
For the courageous, it's possible to rent a motorbike or scooter in most major cities. You may find motorcycle rentals as well, particularly in Dalat. Check out the bike very carefully before you take off, and remember that Vietnam has a helmet law.
Not ready to roar off on your own? Another option is to hop on with Easy Rider Adventures in Dalat. This reputable organization (with many imitators, so beware), will take you on short rides or multi-day trips.
Cyclos, or bicycle rickshaws, are available in many towns, though they've been banned in some more congested cities. Drivers have a tendency to ask for outrageous sums. Negotiate fiercely, and settle on a price for your destination before climbing aboard.
Xe om are motorbike taxis, which scoot around in many cities. As with the cyclos, negotiate and agree on a price before taking off.
Taxis are available in major cities, though drivers may be reluctant to use meters -- and some meters are tampered with to rack up charges faster than they should. We also know of instances where Ho Chi Minh City taxi drivers have pulled over in the middle of a trip to demand a higher fare. Disreputable taxi drivers may also tell you that your hotel is booked or closed, but don't fall for it. Look for a reliable company, like Mai Linh, to avoid shenanigans.
Because of taxi issues -- particularly if you're exhausted after a long flight -- you might want to consider booking an airport pick-up through either your hotel or a tour company.
--written by Gayle Keck