Vietnam shares land borders with Cambodia, China and Laos and there are several border crossings open to foreigners with each neighbour, a big improvement on a decade ago.
There are no ‘suspect’ stamps that will prevent foreigners from visiting Vietnam, but some Vietnamese who live overseas may be given a harder time by immigration and customs than non-Vietnamese visitors. Arranging a visa remains essential before arrival in Vietnam, but these are easy to obtain from embassies worldwide or through Vietnamese travel agents in advance.
Shop around and it is possible to find a good deal to Vietnam. If there are no obvious bargains to Hanoi or HCMC, then consider buying a discounted ticket to Bangkok orHong Kong and picking up a flight or travelling overland from Thailand on to Vietnam.
Discounted flights are available into Viet nam, but Vietnam Airlines will not allow foreign carriers to sell cheap outbound tickets from Vietnam. A ticket from Bangkok toHanoi or HCMC costs almost half the price of a Vietnam Airlines’ flight, if it’s purchased in Bangkok. This also means that for anyone planning to purchase a long-haul flight in the region, Vietnam is not the place to do it with Bangkok just a short hop away.
It’s hard to get reservations for flights to/from Vietnam during holidays, especially Tet, which falls between late January and mid-February. If you will be in Vietnam during Tet, make reservations well in advance or you may find yourself marooned in a regional airport along the way. The chaos begins a week before Tet and can last for about two weeks after it.
Be aware that Vietnam is not the only country to celebrate the Lunar New Year, as it falls at the same time as Chinese New Year. Many people hit the road at this time, resulting in overbooked airlines, trains and hotels all over Asia.
There is a river border crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam on the banks of the Mekong. Regular fast boats ply the route between Phnom Penhin Cambodia andChau Doc in Vietnam, with a change at the Vinh Xuong–Kaam Samnor border. There are also two river boats running all the way to the temples of Angkor at Siem Reap inCambodia.
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It is essential to have a Vietnam visa before rocking up to the border, as they are not issued at land crossings. There are currently twelve international land borders: three each with Cambodia and China and six with Laos. We list the Vietnam side of the border first in the following country coverage. More are set to open during the lifetime of this book, so ask around in Hanoi or HCMC for the latest information.
There are few legal money-changing facilities on the Vietnamese side of these crossings, so be sure to have some small-denomination US dollars handy. The black market is also an option for local currencies – Vietnamese dong, Chinese renminbi, Lao kip and Cambodian riel. Remember that black marketeers have a well-deserved reputation for short-changing and outright theft.
Vietnamese police at the land-border crossings, especially the Lao borders, have a bad reputation for petty extortion. Most travellers find that it’s much easier to exit Vietnam overland than it is to enter. Travellers at the border crossings are occasionally asked for an ‘immigration fee’ of some kind, although this is less common than it used to be.
The Moc Bai–Bavet border is the traditional favourite for a cheap and quick way between HCMC and Phnom Penh. For those willing to take their time, it is much nicer to meander through the Mekong Delta and travel by river between Chau Doc andPhnom Penh. One-month Cambodian visas are issued on arrival at Bavet and Kaam Samnor for US$20, but they are not currently available at Phnom Den. Overcharging is common at Kaam Samnor.
The most popular border crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam is Moc Bai, which connects Vietnam’s Tay Ninh province with Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province. There are several buses daily between Phnom Penh and HCMC (via Moc Bai), usually departing around 8am, taking about six hours and costing as little as US$8.
A more pleasurable alternative to the Moc Bai crossing is the Vinh Xuong–Kaam Samnor border near Chau Doc. This offers the advantage of a leisurely look at theMekong Delta without the bother of backtracking to HCMC.
There are two companies that offer luxury boat cruises between HCMC and Siem Reap via this border: the international player Pandaw Cruises(www.pandaw.com) and Cambodian company Toum Teav Cruises(www.cfmekong.com). Pandaw is an expensive option favoured by high-end tour companies, while Toum Teav is smaller and is well regarded for the personal service and excellent food.
This border crossing point sees little traffic, as most visitors in Chau Doctend to use the river crossing direct to Phnom Penh. It’s relatively remote but the roads are in better shape than they used to be, so this crossing may start to see a trickle of travellers or cyclists.
There are currently three border checkpoints where foreigners are permitted to cross between Vietnam and China: Huu Nghi Quan (the Friendship Pass), Lao Cai and Mong Cai. It is necessary to arrange a Chinese visa in advance (US$30 for three months, add US$30 for same-day service) through the embassy in Hanoi (8.30am to 11am for visas).
The Vietnam–China border-crossing hours vary a little but are generally between 7am to 5pm (Vietnam time). Set your watch when you cross the border as the time in Chinais one hour ahead. Cross-border trade rumbles on all night, but foreigners can only cross during standard hours.
The busiest border crossing between Vietnam and China is located at the Viet namese town of Dong Dang, 164km northeast of Hanoi. It connects Hanoi with Nanning and is on the overland route to Yuanshou and Hong Kong. Dong Dang is an obscure town, about 18km north of bustling Lang Son.
There is a twice-weekly international train between Beijing and Hanoi, departing on Tuesday and Friday at 6.30pm, that stops at Huu Nghi Quan (Friendship Pass). You can board or get off at numerous stations in China. The entire Hanoi–Beijing run is about 2951km and takes approximately 48 hours, including a three-hour delay (if you are lucky) at the border checkpoint.
Train tickets to China are more expensive in Hanoi, so some travellers prefer to buy a ticket to Dong Dang, cross the border and then buy another ticket on the Chinese side. While this plan involves a motorbike to the border and a bus or taxi on to Pingxiang, it helps avoid the three-hour delay while the international train is given the once over at the border checkpoint.
There’s a 762km railway linking Hanoi with Kunming in China’s Yunnanprovince. The border town on the Vietnamese side of this border crossing is Lao Cai, 294km fromHanoi. On the Chinese side, the border town is Hekou, 468km south of Kunming.
There are currently no trains on the Chinese side. You will need to leave the train on the Vietnamese side, cross into Hekou and arrange a bus (Y119; 12 hours) from there. There are several train services a day from Hanoi to Lao Cai, so it is easy to combine a stop at Sapa by bus before returning to Lao Cai when crossing this way.
Vietnam’s third (but seldom-used) border crossing to China can be found at Mong Cai in the northeast of the country, opposite the Chinese city of Dongxing. It might be useful for anyone planning to travel between Halong Bay and Hainan Island, but otherwise it is well out of the way.
There are six overland crossings and counting between Laos and Vietnam. Thirty-day Lao visas are now available at the busier borders, but not currently at Nam Xoi, Na Phao and the Attapeu border. We have received scores of letters complaining about immigration and local-transport hassles on the Vietnamese side of these borders. In fact, these border crossings are probably second only to Hanoi hotel scams in the volume of email they generate. Lies about journey times are common: yes, it really does take almost 24 hours to get from Hanoi to Vientiane and not 12. Worse are the devious drivers who stop the bus in the middle of nowhere and renegotiate the price. Transport links on both sides of the border can be very hit and miss, so don’t use the more remote borders unless you have plenty of time, and patience, to play with.
Keep your ears open for news on the Tay Trang–Sop Hun border near Dien Bien Phu(northwestern Vietnam) opening up to foreigners. This has been rumoured for years, but it might just happen this time.
Known as Lao Bao–Dansavanh, this is the most popular border crossing betweenLaos and Vietnam and is usually the most hassle-free. The border town of Lao Bao is on Hwy 9, 80km west of Dong Ha. Just across the border is the southern Lao province of Savannakhet; the first town you come to is Sepon. There is an international service from Hué to Savannakhet (US$15, nine hours, departing at 6am every second day) that passes through Dong Ha (US$12, 7½ hours, around 8am). Coming in the other direction there are daily buses from Savannakhet at 10pm.
Vietnam’s Hwy 8 hits Laos at the Keo Nua Pass (734m), known as Cau Treo in Vietnamese, Kaew Neua in Lao.
The nearest Vietnamese city of any importance is Vinh, 96km east of the border. On the Lao side it’s about 200km from the border to Tha Khaek. Most people use this border when travelling on the direct buses between Hanoiand Vientiane, but this is no picnic. In fact it’s a set menu from hell. The journey takes about 24 hours and the buses get progressively more dangerous and overcrowded. The bus hardly stops for bathrooms or meals, but stops randomly when the driver fancies a sleep. Invariably the bus arrives at the border at an ungodly hour. Almost everyone ends up wishing they had flown! If you are a sucker for punishment, travel agents and guesthouses inHanoi and Vientiane can help set you up, literally, for somewhere in the region of US$20 to US$25.
The Nam Can–Nong Haet border links Vinh with Phonsovan and the Plain of Jars. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays it’s possible to catch a bus at 6am from Vinh toPhonsavan (US$12, 11 hours, bookings Mr Lam 038-383 5782).
There is a border at Cha Lo–Na Phao that links Dong Hoi and Tha Khaek, but very few travellers have used it until now. Two buses a week run between these two cities each week.
Arguably the most remote of remote borders is the Na Meo–Nam Xoi which connects Thanh Hoa, a transit town 153km south of Hanoi, with the town of Sam Neua and the famous Pathet Lao caves of Vieng Xai. This involves several changes of transport and a lot of overcharging. Some hardy travellers who have come this way have taken a full four days to get from Luang Prabang to Hanoi.
This is a new crossing that links Kon Tum and Quy Nhon with Attapeu and Pakse. The road and border only opened in mid-2006 and at the time of writing the crossing had still to be given a name. Transport is still sorting itself out but three Vietnamese-run buses link Attapeu and Pleiku (US$10, 12 hours), departing Attapeu at 9am Monday, Wednesday and Friday, coming the other way Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. There are direct buses from Quy Nhon to Pakse (250, 000d, 12 hours, four per week), but Lao visas are not available at this border.
It is possible to cross into Vietnam by bus from Cambodia or Laos. The most popular way from Cambodia is a cheap tourist shuttle via the Bavet–Moc Bai border crossing. From Laos, most travellers take the nightmare bus from Vientiane to Hanoi via the Cau Treo crossing or the easier route from Savannakhet in southern Laos to Hué in central Vietnam via the Lao Bao border crossing.
It is theoretically possible to travel in and out of Vietnam by car or motorbike, but only through borders shared with Cambodia and Laos. However, in reality the bureaucracy makes this a real headache. It is generally easy enough to take a Vietnamese motorbike into Cambodiaor Laos, but very difficult in the other direction. It is currently not possible to take any sort of vehicle into China from Vietnam.
Drivers of cars and riders of motorbikes will need the vehicle’s registration papers, liability insurance and an International Driving Permit, in addition to a domestic licence. Most important is a carnet de passage en douane, which is effectively a passport for the vehicle and acts as a temporary waiver of import duty.
Several international trains link China and Vietnam. The most scenic stretch of railway is between Hanoi and Kunming via Lao Cai, but the mammoth journey from Hanoi toBeijing via Lang Son is also a possibility. There are no railway lines linking Vietnam toCambodia or Laos.
It’s possible to enter Vietnam by train, plane, automobile and other forms of transport. Air is popular for those holidaying in Vietnam, while bus is the most common route for those travelling extensively in the region. Anyone planning on arriving from Chinashould consider the spectacular train ride from Kunming in China’s Yunnan province to Hanoi (although there are currently no trains on the Chinese side: check for updates). Entering from Cambodia, the boat ride down the Mekong River from Phnom Penhto Chau Doc is memorable.
Formalities at Vietnam’s international airports are generally smoother than at land borders, as the volume of traffic is greater. That said, crossing overland fromCambodia and China is now relatively stress-free. Crossing the border between Vietnam and Laos remains somewhat stressful.
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Package tours to Vietnam are offered by travel agencies worldwide. Nearly all these tours follow one of a dozen or so set itineraries. Tours come in every shape and size from budget trips to ultimate indulgences. Tours booked outside Vietnam are not bad value when you tally every thing up (flights, hotels, transport), but then again it’s a cheap country for travelling.
It’s easy enough to fly into Vietnam and make the travel arrangements after arrival. The main saving through booking before arrival is time, and if time is more precious than money, a pre-booked package tour is probably right for you.
Almost any good travel agency can book you on a standard mad-dash minibus tour around Vietnam. More noteworthy are the adventure tours arranged for people with a particular passion. These include speciality tours for cyclists, trekkers, bird-watchers, war veterans, culture vultures and gourmet travellers.
Adventure World (02-8913 0755; www.adventureworld.com.au) Adventure tours to Vietnam, as well as Cambodia and Laos.
Griswalds Vietnamese Vacations (02-9564 5040; www.vietnamvacations.com.au) Popular Australian company offering affordable adventures.
Intrepid Travel (1300 360 667; www.intrepidtravel.com.au) Small group tours for all budgets with an environmental, social and cultural edge.
Peregrine (02-9290 2770; www.peregrine.net.au) Small-group and tailor-made tours supporting responsible tourism.
Wide Eyed Tours (02-9290 2770; www.wideeyedtours.com) Set up by former Intrepid tour leaders, this company offers tours all over Vietnam and has an office in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
Compagnie des Indes & Orients (01 53 63 33 40; www.compagniesdumonde.com)
Intermedes (01 45 61 90 90; www.intermedes.com)
La Route des Indes (01 42 60 60 90; www.laroutedesindes.com)
Adventure World (09-524 5118; www.adventureworld.co.nz) A wide range of adventure tours covering the country.
Pacific Cycle Tours (03-972 9913; www.bike-nz.com) Mountain bike tours through Vietnam, plus hiking trips to off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Audley Travel (01604-234855; www.audleytravel.com) Popular tailor-made specialist covering all of Vietnam
Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) Well-established high-end company, strong on cultural tours.
Exodus (020-8675 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) Popular adventure company with affordable overland trips.
Hands Up Holidays (0776-501 3631; www.handsupholidays.com) A new company bringing guests close to the people of Vietnam through its responsible holidays with a spot of volunteering.
Mekong Travel (01494-674456; www.mekong-travel.com) Mekong region specialist with in-depth knowledge of Vietnam.
Selective Asia (0845-370 3344; www.selectiveasia.com) New company that cherry-picks the best trips from leading local agents.
Symbiosis (020-7924 5906; www.symbiosis-travel.com) Small bespoke travel company with an emphasis on cycling and diving.
Wild Frontiers (020-7376 3968; www.wildfrontiers.co.uk) Adventure specialist with themed tours like Apocalypse Now.
Asia Transpacific Journeys (800-642 2742; www.asiatranspacific.com) Group tours and tailor-made across the Asia-Pacific region.
Distant Horizons (800-333 1240; www.distant-horizons.com) Educational tours for discerning travellers.
Geographic Expeditions (800-777 8183; www.geoex.com) Well-established high-end adventure travel company.
Global Adrenaline (800-825 1680; www.globaladrenaline.com) Luxury adventures for the experienced traveller.
There are three international airports in Viet nam. Tan Son Nhat airport(SGN; 08-844 6665) serves Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and is Vietnam’s busiest international air hub.Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport (HAN; 04-886 5047) is the destination of choice for those concentrating on northern Vietnam, while a handful of international flights also serveDanang airport(DAD; 0511-830 339), a useful gateway to the charms of central Vietnam.
Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamair.com.vn) Hanoi (04-943 9660) HCMC (08-832 0320) is the state-owned flag carrier, and the majority of flights into and out of Vietnam are joint operations between Vietnam Airlines and foreign airlines.
Vietnam Airlines has a modern fleet of Airbuses and Boeings and the level of service on its international flights is starting to catch up with its bigger rivals. However, on the domestic front, cancellations and late flights are still possible.
Many international flights leaving Hanoi connect through HCMC, but it’s a headache. Passengers have to pay a domestic departure tax, fly to HCMC, claim their bags, check in again, and pay an international departure tax before boarding the international flight.
All phone numbers are in Hanoi (area code 04) unless otherwise stated.
Aeroflot (airline code SU; 771 8742; www.aeroflot.com; hub Moscow)
Air Asia (airline code AK; www.airasia.com; hub Kuala Lumpur)
Air France (airline code AF; 825 3484; www.airfrance.fr; hub Paris)
Asiana Airlines (airline code OZ; 831 5141; www.us.flyasiana.com; hub Seoul)
Cathay Pacific (airline code CX; 826 7298; www.cathaypacific.com; hub Hong Kong)
China Airlines (airline code CI; 824 2688; www.china-airlines.com; hub Taipei)
China Southern Airlines (airline code CZ; 771 6611; www.cs-air.com; hubGuangzhou)
Japan Airlines (airline code JL; 826 6693; www.jal.co.jp; hub Tokyo)
Jetstar Asia (airline code 3K; www.jetstarasia.com; hub Singapore)
Korean Air (airline code KE; in HCMC 08-824 2878; www.koreanair.com; hub Seoul)
Lao Airlines (airline code QV; 822 9951; www.laoairlines.com; hub Vientiane)
Lufthansa (airline code LH; in HCMC 08-829 8529; www.lufthansa.com; hub Frankfurt)
Malaysia Airlines (airline code MY; 826 8820; www.malaysiaairlines.com; hub Kuala Lumpur)
Philippine Airlines (airline code PR; in HCMC 08-822 2241; www.philippineair.com; hub Manila)
Qantas (airline code QF; 933 3025; www.qantas.com.au; hubs Sydney & Melbourne)
Singapore Airlines (airline code SQ; 826 8888; www.singaporeair.com; hubSingapore)
Thai Airways (airline code TG; 826 6893; www.thaiair.com; hub Bangkok)
Tiger Airways (airline code TR; www.tigerairways.com; hub Singapore)
United Airlines (airline code UA; in HCMC 08-823 1833; www.unitedairlines.com; hub Seattle)
Although many Asian countries now offer competitive deals, Bangkok, Singapore andHong Kong are still the best places to shop around for discount tickets.
Vietnam Airlines currently has a monopoly on the Phnom Penh to HCMC route, with several flights a day. There are no direct flights from Phnom Penh to Hanoi, only via HCMC or Vientiane. Vietnam Airlines also offers numerous services daily betweenSiem Reap and HCMC and a couple of more expensive flights direct to Hanoi. A good agent is Hanuman Tourism(855-23 218356; www.hanumantourism.com; 12 St 310,Phnom Penh).
Vietnam Airlines now offers links from Hanoi to several major cities in China, includingBeijing, Guangzhou and Kunming. These routes are shared with Air China, ChinaSouthern Airlines and China YunnanAirlines, respectively. The only direct flights between HCMC and mainland China are to Beijing and Guangzhou.
Vietnam Airlines and Cathay Pacific jointly operate daily services between Hong Kongand both Hanoi and HCMC. The open-jaw option is a popular deal, allowing you to fly into one and out of the other.
Reliable travel agents in Hong Kong:
Four Seas Tours (2200 7760; www.fourseastravel.com)
STA Travel (2736 1618; www.statravel.com.hk)
ANA, Japan Airlines and Vietnam Airlines connect Hanoi and HCMC with Osaka andTokyo. Cheaper indirect flights are available via other Asian capitals.
Recommended travel agents in Japan:
No 1 Travel (03-3205 6073; www.no1-travel.com)
STA Travel (03-5391 2922; www.statravel.co.jp)
Both Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines operate daily flights between Vientiane andHanoi or HCMC. There are also now several flights a week between Luang Prabangand Hanoi.
Malaysia Airlines and Vietnam Airlines have daily connections between Kuala Lumpurand both Hanoi and HCMC, but Air Asia is gaining favour thanks to low fares.
Singapore Airlines and Vietnam Airlines have daily flights from Singaporeto bothHanoi and HCMC. Jetstar Asia and Tiger Airways are cheaper budget carriers and e-tickets can be booked via their websites. For reliable fares from Singapore to Vietnam, contact STA Travel (6737 7188; www.statravel.com.sg).
Asiana Airlines, Korean Air and Vietnam Airlines all fly the Seoul–HCMC route, so there’s at least one flight offered per day. There are also several direct Seoul–Hanoiflights per week.
A good agent for ticketing in Seoul is Joy Travel Service (02-776 9871).
Airlines flying from Taipei include China Airlines, Eva Air and Vietnam Airlines.
A long-running discount travel agent with a good reputation is Jenny Su Travel (02-2594 7733; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Bangkok is still the most popular gateway to Vietnam. Air France, Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines offer daily connections from Bangkokto Hanoi and HCMC. Air Asia is a cheaper option to both Hanoi and HCMC.
One popular choice is an open-jaw ticket that involves a flight to either HCMC or Hanoi, an overland journey to the other city, and a flight back to Bangkok.
Khao San Rd in Bangkok is the budget-travellers headquarters. If some of the agents there look too fly-by-night, try STA Travel (0 2236 0262; www.statravel.co.th).
Fares between Australia and Asia are relatively expensive considering the distances involved. Most of the cheaper flights between Australia and Vietnam involve stopovers at Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Singapore, but Qantas and Vietnam Airlines have services linking Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney with either Hanoi or HCMC.
The following are good places to pick up tickets in Australia:
Flight Centre (133 133; www.flightcentre.com.au)
STA Travel (1300 733 035; www.statravel.com.au)
Discount tickets from Canada tend to cost about 10% more than those sold in theUSA. For the lowdown on cheap fares, contact Travel Cuts (800-667 2887;www.travelcuts.com), with offices across the country.
Although London is the discount-travel capital of Europe, major airlines and big travel agents usually have offers from all the major cities on the continent.
Recommended agents with branches across France:
Nouvelles Frontières (08 25 00 07 47; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr)
OTU Voyages (www.otu.fr) This agency specialises in student and youth travel.
Voyageurs du Monde (01 40 15 11 15; www.vdm.com)
Reliable agencies in Germany:
Just Travel (089-747 33 30; www.justtravel.de)
STA Travel (0180-545 64 22; www.statravel.de)
From other countries in Europe, try the following agencies in Italy, Netherlands andSpain.
Airfair (0206-20 51 21; www.airfair.nl; Netherlands)
Barcelo Viajes (902 11 62 26; www.barceloviajes.com; Spain)
CTS Viaggi (064 62 04 31; www.cts.it; Italy)
NBBS Reizen (0206-20 50 71; www.nbbs.nl; Netherlands)
Nouvelles Frontières (902 17 09 79; www.nouvelles-frontieres.es; Spain)
The best way to get from New Zealand to Vietnam is to use one of the leading Asian carriers like Malaysian, Singapore or Thai. Good agencies to start shopping around for tickets:
Flight Centre (0800 243 544; www.flightcentre.co.nz)
STA Travel (0508 782 872; www.statravel.co.nz)
From London there are some great fares to Asia, although prices to Vietnam are not as cheap as to Bangkok or Hong Kong. There are oodles of agencies in the UK. Some of the best bets:
Flightbookers (087-0010 7000; www.ebookers.com)
North-South Travel (01245-608291; www.northsouthtravel.co.uk) North-South Travel donates part of its profit to projects in the developing world.
STA Travel (087-0160 0599; www.statravel.co.uk)
Trailfinders (084-5050 5891; www.trailfinders.co.uk)
Travel Bag (087-0890 1456; www.travelbag.co.uk)
Discount travel agents in the USA are known as consolidators. San Francisco is the ticket-consolidator capital of America, although some good deals can be found in Los Angeles, New York and other big cities.
Useful online options in the USA:
Vietnam has an enormous number of rivers that are at least partly navigable, but the most important by far is the Mekong River and its tributaries. Scenic day trips by boat are possible on rivers in Hoi An, Danang, Hué, Tam Cocand even HCMC, but only in the Mekong Delta are boats used as a practical means of transport.
Boat trips are also possible on the sea. Cruising the islands of Halong Bay is a must for all visitors to north Vietnam. In the south, a trip to the islands off the coast of Nha Trang is popular.
In some parts of Vietnam, particularly the Mekong Delta, there are frequent ferry crossings. Don’t stand between parked vehicles on the ferry as they can roll and you could wind up as the meat in the sandwich.
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Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
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The relative affordability of vehicle hire makes the latter a popular option. Having your own set of wheels gives you maximum flexibility to visit remote regions and stop when and where you please.
The major considerations are safety, the mechanical condition of the vehicle, reliability of the rental agency and your budget. Don’t think about driving a car yourself in Vietnam (a motorbike is challenging enough) and moreover, hire charges for the car include a driver.
Motorbikes can be rented from cafés, hotels, motorbike shops and travel agencies. If you don’t fancy self-drive, there are plenty of local drivers willing to act as a chauffeur and guide for around US$6 to US$10 per day.
Renting a 100cc moped is cheap from around US$5 per day, usually with unlimited mileage. To tackle the mountains of the north, it is best to go with a Minsk. The ‘mule of the mountains’, these sturdy Russian steeds don’t look up to much, but they are designed to get you through, or over, anything. They are available for rent from specialist shops in Hanoi. For the ultimate experience in mountains of the north, consider joining a motorbike tour to discover the secret backroads.
Most places will ask to keep your passport until you return the bike. Try and sign some sort of agreement – preferably in a language you understand – clearly stating what you are renting, how much it costs, the extent of compensation and so on.
If you are travelling in a tourist vehicle with a driver, then it is almost guaranteed to be insured. When it comes to motorbikes, many rental bikes are not insured and you will have to sign a contract agreeing to a valuation for the bike if it is stolen. Make sure you have a strong lock and always leave it in guarded parking where available.
Do not even consider renting a motorbike if you are daft enough to be travelling in Vietnam without insurance. The cost of treating serious injuries can be bankrupting for budget travellers.
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Vietnam has an extensive network of dirt-cheap buses that reach the far-flung corners of the country. Until recently, few foreign travellers used them because of safety concerns and overcharging, but the situation has improved dramatically with modern buses and fixed-price ticket offices at most bus stations.
Bus fleets are being upgraded as fast as the roads, so the old French, American and Russian buses from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s are becoming increasingly rare. On most popular routes, modern Korean buses are the flavour of the day. Most of these offer air-con and comfortable seats, but on the flipside most of them are equipped with TVs and dreaded karaoke machines. You can ignore the crazy kung fu videos by closing your eyes (or wearing a blindfold), but you’d need to be deaf to sleep through the karaoke sessions – ear plugs are recommended!
Figuring out the bus system is not always that simple. Many cities have several bus stations, and responsibilities are divided according to the location of the destination (whether it is north or south of the city) and the type of service being offered (local or long distance, express or nonexpress).
Short-distance buses, mostly minibuses, depart when full (ie jam-packed with people and luggage). They often operate throughout the day, but don’t count on many leaving after about 4pm.
Nonexpress buses and minibuses drop off and pick up as many passengers as possible along the route, so try to avoid these. The frequent stops make for a slow journey.
Express buses make a beeline from place to place. This is the deluxe class and you can usually be certain of there being enough space to sit comfortably. Such luxury comes at a price, but it’s very cheap by Western standards.
It is also perfectly feasible (and highly recommended) to kick in with some fellow travellers and charter your own minibus.
If possible, try to travel during daylight hours only. Many drivers refuse to drive after dark because the unlit highways are teeming with bicycles and pedestrians who seem oblivious to the traffic. However, if you like living dangerously, there are some overnight buses.
Be aware that luggage is easily pilfered at toilet stops unless someone is looking after it. Bound to the rooftop, it should be safe from swift hands, but try to keep the bags in sight. A distinct disadvantage of having your gear on top is that it will be exposed to constant dust and sometimes heavy rain. You may want to consider putting your luggage in waterproof liners, if you can.
No matter how honest your fellow passengers might seem, never accept drinks from them, as there is a chance you may be drugged and robbed.
Reservations aren’t required for most of the frequent, popular services between towns and cities, but it doesn’t hurt to purchase the ticket the day before if you’re set on a specific departure time. Most major bus stations now have ticket offices with official prices clearly displayed. Always buy a ticket from the office, as bus drivers are notorious overchargers.
Costs are negligible, though on rural runs foreigners are typically charged anywhere from twice to 10 times the going rate. If you have to battle it out with the bus driver, it is helpful to determine the cost of the ticket for locals before starting negotiations. As a benchmark, a typical 100km ride is between US$2 and US$3.
In backpacker haunts throughout Vietnam, you’ll see lots of signs advertising ‘Open Tour’, ‘Open Date Ticket’ or ‘Open Ticket’. This is a bus service catering mostly to foreign budget travellers, not to Vietnamese. These air-con buses run between HCMC and Hanoi and people can hop on and hop off the bus at any major city along the route.
Competition has driven the price of these tours so low that it would practically only be cheaper if you walked. Sample prices from HCMC are as follows:
Ho Chi Minh City–Dalat US$5
Ho Chi Minh City–Mui Ne US$6
Ho Chi Minh City–Nha Trang US$6
Ho Chi Minh City–Hoi An US$13
Ho Chi Minh City–Hué US$15
Ho Chi Minh City–Hanoi US$23
In some ways they should raise the cost of the tickets and, by actually making money on the bus fare, allow passengers some freedom of choice on arrival at a destination. Unfortunately, they depend on kickbacks from a very elaborate and well-established network of sister hotels and restaurants along the way, making the whole experience feel like you are part of the herd.
As cheap and popular as it is, the open-tour deal is not the ideal way to experience Vietnam. Once you’ve bought the ticket, you’re stuck with it. It really isolates visitors from Vietnam, as few locals travel this way. Buying shorter point-to-point tickets on the open-tour buses costs a bit more but you achieve more flexibility, including the chance to take a train, rent a motorbike or simply change plans.
Nevertheless, cheap open-tour tickets are a temptation and many people go for them. A couple of shorter routes to try are HCMC–Dalat and HCMC–Mui Ne Beach, two places that are not serviced by train.
If you are set on open-tour tickets, look for them at budget cafés in HCMC and Hanoi. From the original Sinh Café concept a decade ago, there are now lots of companies in on this game. Buses vary in size and standard, so a good rule of thumb is to turn up and check out the bus before committing to a company. Sinh Café still has some of the best buses, closely followed by Hanh Café.
The bus systems in Hanoi and HCMC have improved immeasurably in the past few years. Get your hands on a bus map and it is now possible to navigate the suburbs cheaply and efficiently. Some of the most popular sights in Hanoi and HCMC are accessible by public transport, making for a cheap visit. However, many travellers prefer other fast and economical options, such as meter taxis, cyclos and motorbike taxis.
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The 2600km Vietnamese railway system, operated by Vietnam Railways(Duong Sat Viet Nam; 04-747 0308; www.vr.com.vn), runs along the coast between HCMC andHanoi, and links the capital with Hai Phong and northern towns. While sometimes even slower than buses, trains offer a more relaxing way to get around and more room than the jam-packed buses. The trains are also considered safer than the country’s kamikaze bus fleet.
Vietnam’s railway authority has been rapidly upgrading trains and facilities – with air-con sleeping berths and dining cars available now on express trains – and lowering the price for foreigners. Foreigners and Vietnamese are now charged the same price, a big change from a few years ago when foreigners were charged 400% more.
The quickest train journey between Hanoi and HCMC takes 30 hours. The slowest express train on this route takes 41 hours. There are also local trains that only cover short routes, but these can crawl along at 15km/h, as there is only one track with many passing points and local trains have the lowest priority. Vietnam is planning a massive overhaul of its rail network in the next decade, including the introduction of high-speed trains. Hoorah!
Petty crime is a problem on Vietnamese trains. While there doesn’t seem to be organised pack-napping gangs, such as those in India, thieves have become proficient at grabbing packs through the windows as trains pull out of stations. Always keep your bag nearby and lock or tie it to something, especially at night.
Another hazard is children throwing rocks at the train. Passengers have been severely injured this way and many conductors insist that you keep down the metal window shield. Unfortunately, however, these shields also obstruct the view.
Bicycles and motorbikes must travel in the freight car. Just make sure that the train you are on has a freight car (most have) or your bike will arrive later than you do.
Eating is easy, as there are vendors at every station who board the train and practically stuff food, drinks and cigarettes into your pockets. The food supplied by the railway company, included in the ticket price on some long journeys, isn’t Michelin-starred. It’s a good idea to stock up on your favourite munchies before taking a long trip.
Odd-numbered trains travel south and even-numbered ones travel north. The fastest train service is provided by the Reunification Express, which runs between HCMC andHanoi, making only a few short stops en route. If you want to stop at some obscure point between the major towns, use one of the slower local trains or catch a bus.
Aside from the main HCMC–Hanoi run, three rail-spur lines link Hanoi with the other parts of northern Vietnam. One runs east to the port city of Hai Phong. A second heads northeast to Lang Son, crosses the border and continues to Nanning, China. A third goes northwest to Lao Cai and on to Kunming, China.
Several Reunification Express trains depart from HCMC’s Saigon station between 9am and 10.30pm every day. In the other direction, there are departures from Hanoibetween 5am and 6.40pm daily.
The train schedules change frequently. The timetables for all trains are posted on the Vietnam Railway website and at major stations. Another excellent resource is the Man in Seat Sixty-One(www.seat61.com/vietnam.htm), the top international train website. Most travel agents and some hotels keep a copy of the latest schedule on hand. In HCMC call or visit the Saigon Railways Tourist Service (08-836 7640; 275C Ð Pham Ngu Lao, District 1) in the Pham Ngu Lao area.
It’s important to realise that the train schedule is ‘bare-bones’ during the Tet festival. The Reunification Express is suspended for nine days, beginning four days before Tet and continuing for four days afterwards.
There are four main classes of train travel in Vietnam: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. The latter three are also split into air-con and nonair-con options; presently, air-con is only available on the faster express trains. Since it’s all that many Vietnamese can afford, hard-seat class is usually packed. Hard seat is tolerable for day travel, but overnight it is worse than the bus. Soft-seat carriages have vinyl-covered seats rather than the uncomfortable hard benches.
A hard sleeper has three tiers of beds (six beds per compartment). Because of limited head room and the climb, the upper berth is cheapest, followed by the middle berth and finally the lower berth. There is no door to separate the compartment from the corridor. Soft sleeper has two tiers (four beds per compartment) and all bunks are priced the same. These compartments have a door.
Ticket prices vary depending on the train, and the fastest trains are naturally the most expensive. For all the details on trains from Hanoito Haiphong, Lao Cai and Lang Son, see the relevant sections.
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The supply of train seats is frequently insufficient to meet demand. Reservations for all trips should be made at least one day in advance. For sleeping berths, it is wise to book several days before the date of departure. You’ll need to bring your passport when buying train tickets.
Many travel agencies, hotels and cafés sell train tickets for a small commission, and this can save considerable time and trouble. It’s a good idea to make reservations for onward travel as soon as you arrive in a city.
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We are drowning in letters complaining about the quality of bottom-end budget tours being peddled in HCMC and Hanoi. Some are better than others, but remember the old adage that ‘you get what you pay for’. Tour-operator gimmicks like ‘one free beer’ or ‘10 minutes of internet’ are not a promising sign.
Renting a car with a driver and guide gives you the chance to design a tailor-made itinerary for you and your companions. Seeing the country this way is almost like independent travel, except that it’s more comfortable, less time-consuming and allows for stops anywhere, or everywhere, along the way.
The cost varies considerably. At the high end are tours booked through government travel agencies and upmarket tour companies, while budget and midrange companies can usually arrange something just as enjoyable at a cheaper price.
The price typically includes accommodation, a guide, a driver and a car. The cost of the car depends largely on the type of vehicle.
Once you’ve settled on an itinerary, get a copy from the travel agency. If you find that your guide is making it up as they go along, ignoring the agreed itinerary, that piece of paper is your most effective leverage.
A good guide can be your translator and travelling companion, and can usually save you as much money along the way as they cost you. A bad guide can ruin your trip. If possible, you should meet your guide before starting out – make sure that this is someone you can travel with.
Travelling with a freelance guide, you are usually responsible for their travel expenses, but if you pay for a package through a company, any expenses for the guide and driver should be included.
For trips in and around big cities like HCMC and Hanoi, you’ll often find women working as guides. However, it seems relatively few women are employed as guides on long-distance trips.
The following are Vietnam-based travel agencies who offer premium tours throughout Vietnam and Indochina:
Buffalo Tours (04-828 0702; www.buffalotours.com; 11 Pho Hang Muoi, Hanoi)
Destination Asia (08-844 8071; www.destination-asia.com; 143 Ð Nguyen Van Troi, Phu Nhuan district, HCMC)
Exotissimo (04-828 2150; www.exotissimo.com; 26 Tran Nhat Duat, Hanoi)
Sinhbalo Adventures (08-837 6766; www.sinhbalo.com; 283/20 Ð Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, HCMC)
Sisters Tours (04-562 2733; www.sisterstoursvietnam.com; 37 Ð Thai Thinh,Hanoi)
Tonkin Travel (08-747 3239; www.tonkintravel.com; 8, 34A Ð Tran Phu, Hanoi)
Specialised motorbike tours through Vietnam are growing in popularity. It is a great way to get off the trail and explore the mountainous regions of the north and centre of the country. Two-wheels can reach the parts that four-wheels sometimes can’t, traversing small trails and traffic-free backroads. A little experience helps, but many of leading companies also offer tuition for first-timers. Mounting a Minsk to take on the peaks of the north is one of Vietnam’s defining moments and should not be missed.
Foreign guides charge considerably more than local Vietnamese guides. Based on a group of four people, you can expect to pay around US$100 per day per person for an all-inclusive tour providing motorbike rental, petrol, guide, food and accommodation. Some of the best companies running trips in the north include the following:
Explore Indochina (0913-524 658; www.exploreindochina.com) Run by Digby, Dan and Thuan, these guys have biked all over the country and can take you to the parts others cannot reach. You can usually find them at Highway 4 , a bar on Pho Hang Tre. Prices are around US$135 per day.
Free Wheelin Tours (04-747 0545; www.freewheelin-tours.com) Run by Fredo (Binh in Vietnamese), who speaks French, English and Vietnamese, this company has its own homestays in the northeast, plus 4WD trips. Prices start from just US$70 per day with a group of four. It’s located opposite Cuong Minsk on Luong Ngoc Quyen.
Voyage Vietnam (04-926 2373; www.voyagevietnam.net) A newer, locally run outfit, this company is quickly earning itself a good reputation. Prices start from around US$60 per day.
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The cyclo (xich-lo), from the French cyclo-pousse, offers cheap and environmentally friendly transportation around Vietnam’s sprawling cities.
Groups of cyclo drivers always hang out near major hotels and markets, and many speak at least broken English. To make sure the driver understands where you want to go, it’s useful to bring a city map. Bargaining is imperative. Settle on a fare before going anywhere or you’re likely to get stiffed.
As a basic rule, short rides around town should cost about 10, 000d. For a longer ride or a night ride, expect to pay double that or more. It pays to have the exact change when taking a cyclo, as drivers may claim they don’t have change. Cyclos are cheaper by time rather than distance. A typical price is US$1 to US$2 per hour.
There have been many stories of travellers being mugged by their cyclodrivers in HCMC so, as a general rule of thumb, hire cyclos only during the day. When leaving a bar late at night, take a meter taxi.
The xe om (zay-ohm) is a motorbike that carries one passenger, like a two-wheeled taxi. Xe means motorbike, and om means hug (or hold), so you get the picture. Getting around by xe om is easy, as long as you don’t have a lot of luggage.
Fares are comparable with those for a cyclo, but negotiate the price beforehand. There are plenty of xe om drivers hanging around street corners, markets, hotels and bus stations. They will find you before you find them…
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Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com.vn) has a monopoly on domestic flights, as it owns the only rival, Pacific Airlines(www.pacificairlines.com.vn), which flies theHanoi–HCMC route and the HCMC–Danang route.
Most travel agents do not charge any more than when you book directly with the airline, as they receive a commission. A passport is required to make a booking on all domestic flights.
Vietnam Airlines has come a long way and many (but not all) branch offices accept credit cards for ticket purchases. The airline has retired its ancient Soviet-built fleet (thank heavens!) and purchased new Western-made aircraft.
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A great way to get around Vietnam’s towns and cities is to do as the locals do and ride a bicycle. During rush hours, urban thorough fares approach gridlock, as rushing streams of cyclists force their way through inter sections without the benefit of traffic lights. In the countryside, Westerners on bicycles are often greeted enthusiastically by locals who don’t see many foreigners pedalling around.
Long-distance cycling is popular in Viet nam. Much of the country is flat or only moderately hilly, and the major roads are in good shape. Safety, however, is a considerable concern. Bicycles can be transported around the country on the top of buses or in train baggage compartments.
Decent bikes can be bought at a few speciality shops in Hanoi and HCMC, but it’s better to bring your own if you plan on cycling over long distances. Mountain bikes are preferable, as large potholes or unsealed roads are rough on the rims. Basic cycling safety equipment and authentic spare parts are also in short supply, so bring all this from home. A bell or horn is mandatory – the louder the better.
Hotels and some travel agencies rent bicycles for about US$1 to US$5 per day and it is a great way to explore some of the smaller cities like Huéor Nha Trang. There are innumerable bicycle-repair stands along the side of the roads in every city and town in Vietnam.
Groups of foreign cyclists touring Vietnam are a common sight these days, and there are several tour companies that specialise in bicycling trips