There's a variety of transport in Vietnam. In addition to the usual buses and trains, expats will soon see that the locals love to travel on two wheels, using either motorcycles or bicycles. The roads in Vietnam’s cities tend to be congested and chaotic, though. Driving can be stressful, and many expats prefer not to get behind the wheel themselves.
Public transport in Vietnam
Public transport in Vietnam is not always comfortable, but fares are usually reasonable. Buses and trains make it easy for people to travel around the country.
Intercity buses are commonly used to travel between Vietnam's major cities. 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 legroom.
If passengers don't travel 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.
The frequency of intercity buses in Vietnam varies according to the route and the bus company commuters are using, but generally increases on busy routes and during peak times.
Although trains in Vietnam are a little more expensive than buses, they are definitely a more comfortable way to travel overland.
The major train line in Vietnam is operated by Vietnam Railways, runs between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This in itself is a train journey of over 30 hours, but there are a number of stops along the way.
When booking an overnight train in Vietnam, passengers have the option of reserving hard seats, soft seats, hard beds or soft beds. Hard seats are the cheapest and least comfortable, and soft beds are the best options.
The safest and most cost-effective way to purchase tickets is at the train station. On popular routes, however, the best seats in air-conditioned carriages are purchased in advance by agents and resellers. 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.
Expats should try to purchase train tickets at least three days in advance to avoid disappointment and the hassle of dealing with agents and resellers. It is also worth remembering that train services will get busier during the peak holiday season.
One common scam that expats should be aware of is when private travel agents or resellers 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 aboard the train and it is too late to demand compensation.
Motorcycles in Vietnam
Motorcycles are probably the most popular mode of transport among 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.
That said, 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.
It is illegal to ride a motorcycle or be a passenger on one without wearing a helmet, although expats are sure to observe that many locals don't abide by this rule. Nevertheless, expats should ensure they have a helmet at all times.
Taxis in Vietnam
Taxi cabs can be easily hailed in city centres and are inexpensive by international standards. There are a few local taxi companies that come recommended, such as Mai Linh and Vinasun, while ride-hailing applications such as Grab are operational in major cities. It's best to opt for well-known taxi companies and book in advance via phone or online to ensure a safe experience. Motorcycle taxis are also a very common mode of transport in Vietnam. They are readily available and are a cheap way to get around Vietnam.
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 to avoid this kind of disagreement.
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 little regard for road rules, especially among cyclists and motorcyclists. Traffic congestion in the cities can be frustrating and parking is often difficult to find.
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. In smaller towns and villages, driving is a little easier.
The standard of roads in Vietnam varies between regions, but roads are generally 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.
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 a poor choice. Traffic in the major cities is chaotic and drivers are often erratic, which can make cycling frustrating and dangerous, especially for inexperienced cyclists.
Domestic flights in Vietnam
Flights within Vietnam are very reasonably priced, especially considering how much time they save. Domestic airlines include Vietnam Airlines, VietJet Air and Bamboo Airways.
A flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City takes around two hours. There are also regular flights to other major cities in Vietnam and beyond.
►Safety in Vietnam has more information on staying safe in the country
"The most used vehicle is the motorbike and taxi. The car fees are very high so only some expats have a car but then also with a driver. You have to live in this chaos for a while before you wanna put yourself into the traffic. There is a metro in progress. Also, the bus lines are very good and very cheap." German expat Anne shares her experiences with public transport in Vietnam in our interview.
"Ho Chi Minh City is THE city of the motorbikes. Everyone is used to taking a Grab (a taxi driver on a motorbike) that will take you to your location at a very competitive rate. After a few months of understanding the ways people drive, it is best to buy your own motorbike or scooter to be able to move around and be more independent." Find out more about living in Vietnam in our interview with French expat Guillaume.
Are you an expat living in Vietnam?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Vietnam. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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