Getting around is likely one of the biggest grievances faced when traveling. Looking at maps, it can be difficult to tell the distances between locations and booking ahead of time is difficult. Vietnam offers a range of options to help you traverse the cities and country as a whole. The country is very long, making travel times substantial. Here is a quick look at some of the ways for you to get around during your stay in Vietnam.
Walking is an option on nicer days and within the likes of more pedestrian areas like around the West Lake (Hồ Tây). But the heat from the sun, flooding on the streets and motorbikes parked on the sidewalk can make it difficult to get around.
Vietnam has developed a reputation for their traffic. The streets of the cities are infamously gridlocked, filled with commuters, food sellers and tourists trying to make their way through. Despite the apparent free-for-all, battle royale, there is actually some order to be seen.
Crossing the road can appear near impossible at first. However, with some patience, it is possible to navigate yourself past the oncoming traffic to the other side of the road. After all, the locals do it everyday. It is well worth looking for a bridge or underground passage to cross some of the bigger streets, but in smaller roads like those in Hanoi’s old quarter (Phố cổ Hà Nội), they are very few and far between. The key to making it across safely is to move slowly and make eye contact with the oncoming drivers.
Motorbikes have a lot of control over their vehicles - at least when they are going at a reasonable speed - and so they are able to manoeuvre around you as long as your movements are consistent and well telegraphed to the drivers. It can help to use hand gestures to signal that you intend to step forward or to let them know that they can go ahead. With some time and care, you will be across the street in no time.
The motorbike or scooter is synonymous with Vietnam. It seems that everyone owns one, and understandable so. Between the constant traffic and small alleyways, motorbikes are a much quicker and easier transport for people getting around the city.
There are an abundance of motorbike taxis (xe ôm) throughout the country who can get you where you need to be cheaply. Tell them where you want to go and you can be on your way. Just make sure to agree on a price before hand as unfortunately a minority of drivers can be a bit tricky and cause you some grief. There is also the issue that their English is not the best and so communication can be difficult.
Alternatively, there is the option to use ride-hailing apps like Grab, which offer motorbikes with pricing set upfront. Communication is generally easier as you select where you are and where you want to go using the map on the app.
It is possible to buy/rent your own motorbike to get around. This is only really recommended to seasoned bikers due to the traffic, but offers up a lot more freedom to get around the city or surrounding areas. Fuel is also cheap and so this can be an economical option over the long run.
But when it rains, things start to get a bit crazy. Of course, motorbikes don’t have a roof or any other protection from the rain. So people will put on their plastic rain coats and biker jeans, and seek out shelter wherever possible. Adding to this the lack of desire to walk in the sometimes monsoonal downpours and the flooding around the city, things quickly become very busy.
Long distance travel is also an option, and is a great way to experience the country.
Taxis (xe tắc xi) are a good option is you have luggage you need to take with you. There are plenty in the cities so they should not be a problem to find. They generally have a good understanding of the layout of the city and popular locations too. Taxis of course cost more that the motorbikes and can have difficulties getting to locations that are within the winding alleyways. But the air-conditioning can be welcome on the hotter days.
Grab is again an option for finding taxis quickly, with communication kept to a minimum if so desired. There are a number of options of differing size and price depending on your needs.
The cheapest option would be to use the bus (xe buýt). Though much less convenient, buses offer rock-bottom prices to get you to your destination - or at least nearby. There is a large network across the cities, but the language barrier can make it hard to know which bus to take.
There are both fan and air-conditioned options and comfort can vary quite a bit, especially as the fleets begin to age. Things can get crowded too, as school kids use buses to get home after finishing for the day. Tickets are bought from the conductor onboard, and they can usually help you know which stop to get off at too.
As well as local buses, there are also numerous options for getting between cities and provinces. Depending on how much you want to pay, these can be the most comfortable option for traveling long distance with some offering wifi, toilets and air-conditioning.
Vietnam’s train network stretches from the north to the south of the country. Trains (xe lửa) can be a very economical option for the budget-conscious traveler, while also offering great views of the Vietnamese countryside. It can be a great way to experience travel with the locals. Their speed is dependent on how much you are willing to pay but overall they are a cheap option. They also have the added convenience of dropping you off towards the center of whichever city you visit, saving costs of transport when you arrive.
Comfort levels can vary, especially as the infrastructure ages. This hampers the speed the trains travel and can make them very loud. There are however air-conditioned sleeping berths available for overnight travel, which can save on hotel costs while also getting you to your destination.
With the elongated size and distance between the major cities, taking a plane (máy bay) is the fastest and most convenient option, and also the most expensive. There are a number of low-cost operators that connect the north to the south and elsewhere in the country. It can save you a lot of time, but you do miss out of the scenery that you would see traveling by bus or train - or even motorbike. Flights only serve the bigger cities, and so onward transport may be needed if you are going to somewhere smaller.
While airports can be a hassle to get to and from, Ho Chi Minh’s Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport is located right in the middle of the city, making it much more convenient.
There are plenty of options for getting around in Vietnam. Overall, the options are relatively cheap, with motorbike being the best option whether driving yourself or as a taxi. Despite the reputation it has built, getting around Vietnamese cities isn’t an instant death wish - there is some order to the chaos. While it is far from the safest option, if you are be patient, take your time and avoid rush hour as much as possible, you should be fine.
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