So you want to travel Vietnam but have no idea where to get started? This comprehensive guide gives you all the info you need to organize your travel in Vietnam by plane, by train, and by bus plus gives you a short overview on what to keep in mind when exploring the country by motorcycle/scooter and how to use local public transport in Vietnam.
Vietnam is a surprisingly large country. For example, the journey by car between the two largest cities – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the South and Hanoi in the North – means you have to cover at least 1,500 km. Fortunately, the country has a vast network of airports. Of the 22 airports in Vietnam, 9 are international. In addition to the biggest cities, they cover touristic highlights such as Hoi An (via Da Nang airport), Phu Quoc island, Hue, and Dalat. If you want to optimise your stay in the country, flying is a great way of covering a lot of Vietnam in a short period of time.
While most of the regional and global airlines fly in Vietnam, the economic opening of the socialist country has given rise to a handful of homegrown carriers. The most notorious (and fastest growing) among them is budget airline VietJet whose founder is now Southeast Asia’s first female billionaire.
I recommend booking your flights via
- baolau.com or
- your favorite booking engine in ThreeSteps, the everything-travel booking engine that gives you up to 3% cash back on your hotel, flight vacation package, etc. bookings (I swear by them!).
Travel Vietnam by Train
Partially due to the complicated geographical features of the country – 3,400 km of coastline, many mountains, jungle, and massive rivers – the Vietnamese train network is not vast. However, the mainline spanning 1,700 km from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is a convenient and picturesque way to travel Vietnam. Stops include many of the major sights along the coast: Mui Ne dunes, Nha Trang, Da Nang (for Hoi An), Hue.
From Hanoi, a few smaller routes connect to destinations in the North:
- Hai Phong (for Cat Ba island)
- Lao Cai (for Sapa) – the line continues into China
- Dong Dang (get off in Kep and connect to Ha Long Bay) – the line continues into China
- Nguyen (the city is most famous for its massive Samsung plant but is also a good jumping-off point to Northern destinations such as Ban Gioc waterfalls and allows you to connect to Ha Long)
There are different comfort levels to choose from, from simple wood benches to all-inclusive sleepers. If you are only going to do one train journey, I recommend making it Da Nang to Hue (or vice versa). For much of the 3h journey, the train follows the coast and runs half-way up a cliff covered with jungle. Bought at the station, the ticket for the journey costs you less than $3 (70,000 Dong).
Buying a ticket at the train station can be a bit of a headache. I spent 3 hours at the station in Da Nang to buy my ticket to Hue. However, the process is well organized with waiting numbers and counters with English-speaking staff. So you can pull your number, see where the queue is at and head out for a meal.
If you’d rather not spend the time, you can book your tickets from different websites:
- dsvn.vn is the official Vietnam Railways booking engine. You can pay online or order tickets to pick up at the station.
- baolau.com is the all-rounder for booking any kind of transport (plane, train, bus, ferries) in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. They charge a few dollars extra compared to the official price (a fixed 40,000-Dong fee plus a 2.7% of the price).
- 12go.asia is another allrounder for booking any kind of transport (plane, train, bus, ferries). In addition to Vietnam, they operate in Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Myanmar/Burma. They also charge a few dollars extra compared to the official price (a fixed 60,000-Dong fee plus 4% of the price).
Note that tickets for the longer journeys and the sleeper berths tend to sell out a few days before. There are a few private operators, notably those operating their own sleeper wagons as part of the regular Vietnam Railways trains. Their berths, which tend to be considerably more expensive than the VR berths are not available on dsvn.vn but on baolau.com as well as 12go.asia.
For the latest on train travel in Vietnam, check Seat61.com.
Travel Vietnam by Bus
The bus network in Vietnam is excellent. There is barely anywhere you can’t get to by bus. And you can make your bus travels as local as you want to. Many times I would simply go to the bus station and buy my tickets for the next bus to my destination at the counter. That is the cheapest way of traveling cross-country.
However, almost every accommodation (and if they don’t tour agencies in town) sells tickets for the main backpacker routes.
A classic is the Open Bus operated by TheSinhTourist (or Open Tour). They sell hop-on/hop-off tickets allowing you to buy the whole route in advance but to then make stops along the way and spontaneously decide when you want to move on.
In between those two, you have the high-end Vietnamese companies like FuTaBus that don’t cater specifically to backpackers but with online booking and some English-speaking staff are easy to navigate even as a less adventurous traveler.
In my experience, baolau.com has the most comprehensive offer of routes and tickets if you prefer booking online.
Note that some of the official bus stations are located far outside the city centers. However, some companies or the agencies you buy your ticket from, offer transfer from/to the station.
Most of the long-distance buses in Vietnam as so-called “sleeper buses.” That means instead of regular seats with 2×2 people in one row you get a sort of berth with a back that reclines almost completely. There are six individual berths per row (three top ones, three lower ones – two each at the windows, one each in the middle), on the cheaper buses with the option of installing extra beds in the aisles. Pillows and blanket are provided.
Note that you will have to take your shoes off getting on the bus (you’ll receive a plastic bag to store them and will be provided with sandals for the stops).
The buses stop regularly but in their own rhythm: Some stop every hour, others only every few hours for meals. Meal stops often take you to restaurants where you don’t order a specific meal but pay a flat fee (40,000 to 60,000 Dong) and then help yourself from the copious amounts of different foods the host places on the shared tables.
If you are of average slender, smallish Southeast Asian proportions sleeper buses are great news. However, if you are bigger or taller you’ll find the arrangement quite quickly quite uncomfortable. I recommend to anybody taller/bigger to try to get into the back of the bus as there you’ll usually find three to five joint berths allowing you to spread.
For a hands-on account of bus travels in Vietnam, check out my post on the 26-hour journey from Hanoi to Luang Prabang in Laos.
Travel Vietnam on Motorcycle/Scooter
Motorcycle backpacking is a fast-growing branch of tourism in Vietnam. Travelers will arrive in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi and buy a motorcycle to head North or South, selling the machine at their final destination to the next backpacker.
Some say, there were no traffic rules in Vietnam. After watching it for a while I beg to differ. There are rules. They are just different from what you might be used to in Europe, America or Australia.
- Always be alert of everyone. Even if you think you might have right of way.
- If you go slow, you stick to the right side of the lane. Unless somebody is going against the traffic (Vietnamese on motorcycles love going against the traffic)
- Any two-wheeled vehicle going against the traffic is always the furthest right on your lane. That also applies if you’re on a bike and they are on a scooter.
- Bigger vehicles always have right of way. Having two wheels on the larger roads is nice as you can also drive on the shoulder. But it also means cars, trucks, and buses will try to get you off the lanes.
- Don’t have a serious accident. For the amount of motorbike and bicycle accidents in the country, the Vietnamese, though eager to help, are shockingly bad at first aid and will move (unconscious) accident victims any which way to clear the road for traffic.
If you plan to travel Vietnam by motorcycle/scooter, I recommend you come with a bit of experience in riding two motorized wheels.
However, you can easily get that experience in Vietnam. In most tourist destinations, it’s cheap (around $5 per day) to rent a scooter or semi-automatic bike, most accommodations have them or partner with a rental company. Included in the rental price is a helmet but not gas. Gas costs about 20,000 Dong per liter and 50,000 Dong of gas should last you for several hours of joyriding on a scooter.
You can buy bikes either via Facebook groups such as Vietnam backpackers travel and sales or from dealers specialized in catering to tourists like Hanoi Motorbike. Often the seller will include a helmet, luggage rack, and phone holder. Prices vary but seem to be between $200 and $500 for a decent, serviced bike.
Don’t forget to bring an International Licence. You will not need to show it to rent or buy a motorcycle. However, when police stops you, you risk hefty fines.
If you’d prefer a little more service and the certainty of full-serviced bikes and a drop-off location, look at agencies like Tigit Motorbikes for long-term bike rental.
If you want to jump from one location to the next, you can take your machine on the train and on some buses. Enquire at the train/bus station.
Finally, if you want to explore Vietnam by motorcycle but don’t dare ride yourself, you can use Easy Riders, where you can enjoy the ride from the back of the bike.
One very important bit of advice: Sunburn is a thing. You might be enjoying the airstream while you’re rocking along the smooth roads. But your day might end with second-degree burns. I’ve seen it and I still can’t believe the sun can cause such severe injuries. But it can. I tried one day just protecting myself with copious amounts of sunscreen and still burned in some areas on my hands and knees. That’s why I had a tailor in Hue make me a light cotton jacket to cover my arms, my hands, my neck and my chest, and I will never go out in shorts anymore (zip-off pants work great to be able to quickly change from pants to shorts and back.
Public Transport & Moving within Vietnamese Cities
The first thing you’ll notice in Vietnamese cities is the lack of roaring motorcycle engines driving colorful tuk-tuks. There are no tuk-tuks in Vietnam.
Instead, you can hire metered taxis, jump on the back of a motorcycle taxi (ordered via Uber or Grab), or hire a cyclo, the traditional bicycle rickshaw.
If you are uncertain about taxis and their legality, sign up to Grab (or Uber) – prices are locked down when you call your ride and drivers are vetted, which offers additional security. Oh, and rides are often cheaper than by taxi.
With about 7,000 Dong (or 30 cents) per ride the public bus is by far the cheapest way of moving around the cities like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. While signage at the stops is often lacking, Google Maps is a trustworthy source of route information. Plus, if you download the maps.me app, you’ll always know where you are regardless of WiFi access.
If you are traveling as a group or want to lock down a safe transfer anywhere in the country, check out Get Your Guide. As you can see in the box below: offers are numerous and often competitively priced.