ultimate guide to travel & transport in vietnam

Travel and Transport in Vietnam

From the moment we arrived at Saigon airport and immediately took the public bus to get into the city, I knew travel and transport in Vietnam was going to be interesting. Here’s just a few of the public and private transport options available in Vietnam.

Transport in Vietnam Airport bus Saigon
Front of the Bus from HCMC Airport

Public Bus HCMC Airport to City

The public bus from Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh) airport to Ho Chi Minh City is easy.  Public bus number 152 goes from right outside the arrivals, and costs 6k VND per person (17p or 28 cents) If you have luggage, then you’ll have to pay for a ticket for your luggage too. (and your bag costs the same as you) .

Of course, arriving at the airport means that you probably don’t have any Vietnamese money or small change! There are several ATMs as you exit arrivals, all of which accept foreign cards.  It’s a delight after China, in which you’re limited to Bank of China and ICBC ATM’s). And the bus driver is expert at managing change. Sitting in the front of the bus means you get to see everything.

Travel in Vietnam is relatively easy. There are heaps of comfortable buses and some great trains that are easy options. For all your transport in Vietnam, use 12goAsia for online booking and make life a lot easier! Get timetables for Vietnamese buses and trains, plus book online and get instant confirmation here.

Transport in Vietnam - motorbikes Saigon
A Sea of Bikes

And everything means the sea of motorbikes, the interesting riding and driving. Of course if this puts you off, you can just stay on the bus and go back to the airport. It’s cheaper than a taxi, and it’s a lot more fun.

Cheap Public Bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels

We also took the public bus from HCMC out to see the Cu Chi Tunnels.  This was our number one target destination in Vietnam before we set foot in the country. (more on our trip to the tunnels here:  ) Of course, you can take trips to see the tunnels, and there are no end of travel agencies that will take your 100k -125k VND off you to take you there for a morning or an afternoon. (That cost does not include the entry fee to the tunnel complex) You’ll get herded onto a big bus and taken there and probably to a special shopping area on the way back too.

Transport in Vietnam - motorbikes Saigon
Cu Chi Tunnels – Easy

The public bus was easy. We caught the number 13 from Pham Ngu Lao, just by waving at it. This bus costs you 7,000 VND per person and it takes about 90 minutes, traffic depending to get to the Cu Chi Bus Station.

Once there it’s easy to find the number 79, which costs another 6,000 VND and takes you through the countryside to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This part of the journey was about 45 minutes in torrential rain. Saying Tunnels, Tunnels to the driver means that he will yell at you when it’s time to get off.  Your heart may stop a little as it looks like you’re getting off in the middle of nowhere, with not even a bus stop sign in sight.  When you walk on a little and look to the left, there’s the sign for the tunnels.



Booking.com

Painless, much more fun that a tour (as we got to see the tunnels at leisure and, on a private tour of our town with the onsite guides!). Getting back to HCMC was less nerve wracking as we just did it all in reverse.

Hoi An to Danang Bus

The little yellow bus from Hoi An to Danang (from where we caught the train to Hue) was a most excellent experience. Here’s more details on how to go from Hoi An to Danang.

Google search for “bus from Hoi An to Danang” and all the horror stories will amuse or scare you. You’ll find horror stories about westerners being charged 50k VND for a journey that costs locals 20k VND. And they’re true! As a westerner, it was 50k for us. We figured it would be, we also figured that we could have bargained, argued and just not taken the bus.  Even at 50k (which,  face it, is US $2.50) it was a heck of a lot cheaper than the Sinh Travel 109k VND bus that went at the time that would allow us to catch the train from Danang.

Transport Vietnam - Hoi An Bus
Cargo on the Little Yellow Bus

The 50k fee was worth it for the entertainment, its a glorious slice of Vietnamese life.  We can debate until the cows come home about the “ripping off” of foreign travelers and how rife that is in Vietnam, but I’m not going to do that here. Instead I’ll remember how it was loaded with life, with a spare wheel (not for the bus, for something much bigger), with bags of fruit, of onions and how the rearrangement of all this cargo continuously throughout the trip was most amusing. We didn’t go particularly fast, in fact we ambled along, but we rarely stopped, even to pick up passengers. And we did pick up passengers, but it was mainly on the move.

Transport Vietnam - Hoi An Bus1

We’d slow, the drivers assistant would head down the steps at the front, haul up the individual wanting to get on and any bags and then we’d speed up again. Getting off was the same, you’re hustled to the door, held onto and then almost pushed as you drift up to the stop area.. Oh don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t feel dangerous, it’s just amusing, especially when they’re trying to push one person off and pull one person on at the same time.  Through the same door.

Transport in Vietnam – Sleeper Bus

Our next foray into transport was a sleeper bus. Horrors, I hear you say. Don’t you hear dreadful reports of those? How westerners are forced to sleep on the floor? Get the seat next to the toilet or thrown out onto the road in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Well, that wasn’t our experience.

Transport Vietnam - Sleeper Bus
Sleeper bus
Transport Vietnam - Sleeper Bus1
Transport Vietnam - Sleeper Bus2
Bottom Bunk Middle Seat
Transport Vietnam - Sleeper Bus3

We were heading from Saigon to Mui Ne, a beach resort to the north east of the city, it was our chill out time after 2 and a half months in Russia, Mongolia and China, and too much city time!

The cheapest way to get there was a bus. So we took to FUTA buslines, which got good reviews on TripAdvisor buses, headed to buy our tickets from their offices near Pham Ngu Lao, selected our seats (or sleeper bunks) and the following morning we were standing outside their offices waiting for the bus.

Luggage loaded in the hold, we headed inside, took our shoes off, and bagged them up as we got on the bus and got yelled at by the ticket collector, who told us three times to go to the wrong seats. As they were just on the opposite side of the bus we just did as we were told.

Sleeper buses in Vietnam are great. If you’re about six inches (15 cm) shorter than me. I’m 5 foot 6 inches (on a good day 167cm).   They’re like a reclining chair, that’s just not quite long enough. The seat back goes up and down, and there’s a little foot well, where you store your bag.

On this FUTA bus we got a clean small blanket (as the air con would be relatively fierce, but welcome) and a bottle of water. There are seat belts, but I think the only time we wore them was on an overnight sleeper we took from Phong Nha to Hanoi. And that’s it really. Relatively comfortable, well much more so than a sitting seat. Not quite comfortable enough to really sleep, although snoozing was good. And some great views.

Transport in Vietnam – More Buses

We took other sleeper seat buses, firstly from Mui Ne to Nha Trang, this time with Sinh Travel. Sinh Travel is the bus and tour agency in Vietnam that has a great reputation. So much so that they’ve been copied endlessly and in Hanoi for instance you can find a Sinh Cafe on literally every corner. The Sinh Cafe changed their name to Sinh Travel – and to find the pucker address, we took to the internet and their corporate site.  You can find that here.

Then in Mui Ne we hiked the 5 mile round trip from our hotel to their office, so that we wouldn’t have to pay a ticket booking fee.. That bus journey was another good trip. There were only 10 of us on the bus in total, so we got to move from the sunny side of the bus to the ocean side and while we did arrive in Nha Trang in torrential rain and had to jump off the bus shoeless into ankle deep water, it was good fun.

Arriving in Nha Trang in a Downpour
Mmm. View of the Loo

Sleeper bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An (Sinh Travel)

We also took the sleeper from Nha Trang to Hoi An, again with Sinh Travel, but this time I got the seat behind the toilet, in front of the group of Australians and Brits traveling together. It’s a reminder to book early.  And get a better seat.

A word of advice. Take a survival kit on sleeper buses – here’s mine. You’ll need it, because Jenny, the Brit behind us had either eaten something or drunk too much before she got on the bus. Seriously love. Why didn’t you just pay for a seat in the loo for the entire trip?

Sleeper Bus Survival Kit

  • Toilet Paper
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Eye mask
  • Ear Plugs
  • Flip flops
  • Kindle or Reading Material
  • Ipod/Music
  • Wet Wipes and/or hand sanitizer

Phong Nha to Hanoi Sleeper Bus (Hung Thanh Bus Company)

Sleeper from Phong Nha to Hanoi. CRAMPED!
Sleeper from Phong Nha to Hanoi. CRAMPED!

The only vaguely unpleasant sleeper bus we took was from Phong Nha to Hanoi. Supposedly a 9 hour trip, this took 12 hours, over the worst roads you can imagine. (strike that comment out if you’ve done bus travel in India).  Bumpy, wiggly, noisy. Sleep was elusive. Irritation was rife, especially when two hours into the trip you realize that not all seats on that Hung Thanh bus were created equal and both of ours – which admittedly we’d picked ourselves when we got on the bus, were about 6 inches (15cm) shorter than other ones!  Choose your seat carefully.  Although getting on in Phong Nha you probably won’t have much choice!

That damned Vietnamese girl in front was only four foot something, she had at least a foot to spare in her seat!!

Transport in Vietnam – Vietnamese Trains

We also traveled on trains. Three trains to be exact. We both thought it would be more, but the buses were just more convenient and in some cases cheaper. On our first two trains, we took soft seats.

Soft Seater. No Air Con

On both soft seat trips, from Danang to Hue and from Hue to Dong Ha the air con broke. That is deeply unpleasant. Really, really not nice. There’s more on how to go from Hoi An to Hue here.

Seat Mates when the AirCon broke
Seat Mates when the AirCon broke

Hanoi to Lao Cai (for Sapa) Train

Our final train trip in Vietnam was from Hanoi to Sapa, well actually to the Lao Cai train station 38 km minibus ride from Sapa. All the tour agencies sell special tourist carriage tickets – soft sleepers for around US $40 per person.

Vietnamese trains are weird in that the Vietnamese Rail (VR) company has its own carriages and the engines that pull the trains, then private companies hook on their own carriages – from Orient Express to Livitrans to a half dozen others and you can buy a berth in their “much nicer” carriages. The trains from Hanoi to Sapa are supposed to take 9 hours, in reality, they ALWAYS take 11-12 hours, so the hard seat option was seriously out. That left us hard sleeper, soft sleeper, or one of those special tourist carriages.

Buying Train Tickets in Hanoi

We bought our tickets the day of travel at the Hanoi train station, right at the regular ticket counter. Hard sleeper, two bottom bunks for 535k VND each. And even the ticket seller tried to tell us that hard sleeper was “not good”. It appears that soft sleeper wasn’t that much more expensive, about 100k we think (or US$ 5), but by then we were committed. And you know the budget right? $5 is 10%!!

Hard Sleeper on a Vietnamese Train

Vietnamese Train Hard Sleeper

Hard sleeper is a little like hard sleeper in China and Russia – six berths to an area, bottom, middle and top, with the price decreasing with the altitude. You get clean (if you join the train at the start) sheets, a pillow and a duvet. In Vietnam, the compartments have a locking door, air con, power sockets under the table and individual lights. Pretty snazzy really, and a lot better than we were expecting, especially given the warnings from the ticket seller, although nothing compared to the Chinese trains we’d been on.

Hard Sleeper Carriage Cleaning...

Of course one of the benefits of the tourist carriages is that none of your fellow compartment sleepers are likely to be getting off at the interim stations (and there are lots), they’re also likely to not know people in the neighboring compartments, so the door won’t be banging all night and the conversation won’t go on until the wee small hours. That’s a hint that in our ordinary carriage there was a lot of that going on!

We know this now. But it wasn’t so bad. Even the starting blocks, stand – squat toilet wasn’t that bad, we both used it at the end of the trip. I’d do it again, hard sleeper too, but again, the trains in Vietnam have nothing on China. They’re old, clunky and someone needs to sort out the coupling of them, either that or the driver was in a really really bad mood and didn’t care that when he slammed the brakes on we all rattled, rolled and nearly fell out the bunks.

Arriving in Lao Cai by Train

Free Bike Tour – Hoi An

We’ve cycled, too through Vietnam on a fabulous free tour in Hoi An – where we took to a ferry to one of the islands, and pottered around the island for a few hours, with no traffic, no horn beeping and just a couple of Vietnamese students for company. Bliss.

Hoi An by Bike
Riding the ferry in Hoi An
Riding the ferry in Hoi An
Ferry in Hoi An
Ferry in Hoi An

Xe Om (Motorbike Taxi)

My favorite form of transport here in Vietnam has, though, been the motorbike. When our hotel in Hanoi decided that they had no room for us, they sent us to another hotel on the back of an Xe Om – a motorbike taxi. So backpack on, clutching day pack, helmet-less, clutching onto a random dude we zigzagged through traffic, ran red lights and breathed again as we pulled up in front of the new hotel. The most we’ve counted on a motorbike is four people and in a country where its law to wear a helmet we’re still amused that while the adults mostly wear them, the kids they transport around on the bikes don’t!

CHiPs meets MASH meets the Brits
CHiPs meets the Brits
Gassing Up in Phong Nha
Gassing Up in Phong Nha

Renting Motorbikes in Phong Nha

We rented an automatic bike in Phong Nha for two days, a bargain at 100k VND (US $5) a day and complete with three 1.5 liter water bottles of gas (for 100k) headed out into the National Park. Perfect. There’s little traffic there, and while technically we were breaking the law, by renting and riding the bike, I don’t think we actually went fast enough for anyone to notice us.. I even got to ride my first motorbike ever, for about 200 meters, turned and then went back. I do believe that I topped out at 15 miles per hour, which is quite fast enough thank you. We skipped the National Park fee, as we were following two Vietnamese bikes, and we just ducked under the barrier like they did and figured that seeing as no one yelled at us or ran after us, it was fine.

Rent a motorbike in Vietnam from a trusted and reliable source. Get the best prices and options for Vietnam motorbike rental, plus read reviews from other customers. We use and recommend BikesBooking for Scooter and Motorbike rental in Vietnam.  You can get a price and reserve a bike here.

National Park Entrance on the Back Road from Paradise Cave
National Park Entrance on the Back Road from Paradise Cave
Contemplating Making a Run for the Border
Contemplating Making a Run for the Border

We rode down the side of rice paddies, negotiated water buffaloes, bamboo bridges, forded a river (only after I waded through and made sure it was shallow enough of course) and got gloriously lost in the most amazing countryside. The kid in one of the villages telling us to F-off kind of spoils the picture I’m painting, but hey, teenagers, the same the world over eh?

Rice Paddies Phong Nha
Rice Paddies Phong Nha
Sharing the Road Vietnamese Style
Rice Fields Vietnam

State of Roads – Vietnam

There are two constants about travel and transport in Vietnam. The first is the state of the roads. I have NEVER seen worse roads (update – post India and Nepal, I HAVE seen worse roads), seriously bad everywhere, there’s a state of constant construction, there are holes, bumps, and they just end, the roads I mean, not the holes…. Perhaps that’s why the state of driving is so bad – and it’s seriously bad.

Use of the Horn – no one looks

The horn is used as a replacement for looking. Seriously. Folks, on bikes, in cars, in trucks and probably in buses too, just pull out, no looking They just hold their hand on the horn and go for it. They overtake on blind bends, up hills where they can see oncoming traffic. They accelerate when I am standing both feet on the brake for them. And then at the last minute, as if they realize that they’re not going to make it, they’ll pull in, slam the breaks on and slam on the horn. This happens on the highways, on country roads and in the towns and cities.

Accidents on the Roads?

For our mothers, who I’m sure are having palpitations now after reading this, fear not. We only saw one accident. That was the train that hit the truck. It wasn’t even at a road crossing. The truck was driving along the train track out in the open, on the way from Hanoi to Halong Bay, when the train hit it. Go figure. The roads are so bad, it had to take to the train track. We saw this while we were on a bus, with a driver who was furiously hitting the horn to warn the folks who had slowed to to watch the accident, that we were coming through, ready or not..

It’s kind of funny, that will all the transport at our disposal, we actually walked out of the country onto our next stop, China, but more on that here..

Everything gets carried on bikes, including panes of glass..
Everything gets carried on bikes, including panes of glass..
Motorbike Repair Shop Nha Trang
Motorbike Repair Shop Nha Trang
Special Bike Handling Skills include Umbrella Management
Special Bike Handling Skills include Umbrella Management

Other key routes to travel in Vietnam

Want to know more about different forms of transport in Vietnam? Our guide to Vietnam transport is here. And here’s how to travel some of the popular routes around Vietnam, your options, and how we did it.

Travel Tips for Exploring Vietnam

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