A Backpacker’s Guide to Transportation in Vietnam
This complete guide to transportation in Vietnam has insights from a seasoned traveler who’s tried it all. Get all the inside knowledge here.
Transportation in Vietnam can be overwhelming, especially for first-timers. You’ll probably make mistakes like I did — it’s all part of the experience.
But since I spent four months perfecting the various options, take it from me: this guide has everything you need to know to survive — and thrive — while taking transportation in Vietnam.
Navigating Vietnamese train transportation
Best used for short-haul journeys between cities and scenic rides in luxury cabins.
Trains in Vietnam will often be skipped in favor of hopping on slightly more affordable buses.
I think it’s worth splurging a little to experience short, scenic rides or to lie down flat in a sleeper carriage for those mammoth journeys from one end of the country to the other.
The train systems are slow yet reliable, making them ideal for people hungry to see the Vietnamese countryside without stopping and starting on a motorbike.
The trains travel an average of 40 kilometers (24 miles) an hour and run on a 2,600-kilometer (1600-mile) line managed by Vietnam Railways. The routes stretch from Ho Chi Minh City to the Chinese border in the north.
I recommend using the trains for speedy city connections or long-haul journeys from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Lat. Having a bunk to lie down in on an Odyssean journey is a blessing I’ll never take for granted again. It’s still a hell of a long trek, so now that I’ve done it a couple of times, I stick to flying between these locations. But for first-timers, I’d suggest the train, just for the experience!
My favorite journeys were for shorter hops, like day trips between Da Nang and Hue. The scenic ride is relaxing, and the smooth journey is worlds apart from the rocky driving through the Hai Van Pass in a minivan or bus.
Alternatively, try the reunification express line connecting Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Don’t do it all at once, though. The 36-hour journey is a brutality no one should experience unless absolutely necessary. If you have the time, hop on and off to enjoy the incredible scenery, with stops at Hue, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Phan Thiet.
Otherwise, if you’re short on time, just fly.
Most trains in Vietnam offer four distinct classes: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, and hard seat.
The pretty self-explanatory descriptions hold, with hard seating resulting in back pain for long-haul journeys and softer seats offering a marginally more luxurious experience.
All sleeper classes offer bunk bed-style seating. Unlike the convertible seats on Thai trains, these beds always remain in this configuration.
The hard sleepers come in six-bed configurations, and the soft sleepers will be split into four beds for slightly more privacy and less chance of snoring neighbors.
Limited companies offer private tourist sleeping cabins with two beds. These will be owned by private companies and demand a higher ticket price. These cabins only appear on popular tourist routes, like between Hanoi and Sapa.
The hard seating options are attractive for budget backpackers but trust me, it’s worth splurging for the soft seats. I’ve made one long-haul journey in a hard seat, and I don’t think my back has forgiven me for it two years later.
About the train
Most trains will have a Western toilet and a squat toilet in every carriage. Bring toilet paper, just in case. Soap and paper will usually be provided. Usually.
Sleeper cabins come equipped with clean bedding, including a pillow and blanket, air conditioning, a window, an electric socket, and somewhat reliable WiFi. Try not to book any calls during a train journey; there’s no telling when the WiFi or your signal will drop out.
Passengers in luxury or VIP cabins often receive light snacks and refreshments, but this isn’t true for all classes.
Hot drinks and food will be sold on board, but don’t expect anything particularly tasty. I recommend buying a banh mi or two and some cup noodles to enjoy on the train.
Buying train tickets
Where possible, always book tickets in advance. Long-haul journeys, especially the higher-class seating, will often sell out.
Children under five ride for free. Research availability before you go because peak tourist seasons can result in overcrowded trains.
Surviving Vietnamese buses
Best used for budget travel between cities.
The first time I visited Vietnam, I thought my first bus ride might be my last. Ever. Thankfully, I was wrong. And now, buses are my favorite mode of transportation in Vietnam.
Buses might be a little uncomfortable at times and difficult to sleep on, but I create a new, unforgettable memory every single time.
This method of Vietnamese travel is undeniably my favorite. It’s, by far, the most affordable and efficient way to get around Vietnam. Plus, you’ll ride with locals, meet plenty of fellow travelers, and enjoy incredible views of the countryside.
Be warned; the experience can be a little wild. I’ve seen a manager pelt a driver with his shoes, seen someone topple out of an upper-level seat, and smelled an onboard toilet let loose.
The drivers also drive fast, and someone is constantly honking, so don’t expect to get much sleep on long-haul journeys.
Pro tip: Always use your seatbelt! I often found myself rocking from side to side on the bendy roads, and you don’t want to get thrown to the floor mid-nap. I’ve seen more than one person fly out of their seat on tight turns.
Not all buses have toilets on board, but the driver usually stops for a rest stop roughly every three to four hours.
Sometimes, a ticket includes lunch or dinner at the rest stop, so always double-check to see if you can snag some free (ish) food. Ask your driver to confirm what’s included.
Pro tip: Bring bus slippers for rest stops because those provided rarely match or fit.
Standard buses will be the cheapest option for travelers. Commonly departing all cities and towns multiple times a day, these buses will be your saving grace when flitting about the country on your backpacking adventures.
I mainly booked standard class tickets because the seats were perfectly comfortable, and the price tag kept my daily costs down.
However, VIP buses can be the perfect option for long-haul journeys or if you’re over the cramped conditions on standard buses.
I loved the VIP bus on my Hanoi to Ha Giang trip because I’d recently been unwell and couldn’t stand the idea of being in a cramped seat. Upgrading for a little more luxury was worth the extra money.
Standard buses in Vietnam will be split into three rows of double-decker seats, like moving bunk beds.
Pro tip: Always ask to book a lower bunk because you feel the motion of the bus much more intensely on the top.
Seats recline to about 45 degrees, and you can find a little hole to tuck your shoes in beneath the head of the seat.
VIP buses will be a little more luxurious.
They have fewer seats, usually topping out at 16 instead of close to 100.
The seats recline almost completely flat. Your little cubicle will have a privacy curtain, various lighting options, a USB charger port, and sometimes a small TV tuned to local channels.
Pro tip: Pack travel sickness pills if you struggle with it. The journeys can be extremely jerky. You’ll regret not being prepared.
Buying bus tickets
You can usually book bus tickets on the same day in person at bus stations.
However, to see all the options available and request lower bunks, book online in advance through Bookaway’s website.
Choosing domestic flights in Vietnam
Best used for city-hopping, luxury budget travelers, or people with limited time and a packed itinerary.
Sometimes, hopping on an 18-hour train or 20-hour bus just isn’t an attractive concept, especially after spending a hectic few days in Ho Chi Minh City. A train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City can be 30 hours long, so this is when it’s time to consider flying instead.
I’ve taken domestic flights between Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City and from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. I don’t mind splurging to save myself the time and energy wasted on epic journeys via the roads or railway tracks.
Plus, once you factor in all the extra costs, like buying food on the road, the difference might not be that significant.
Airport and airline info
Vietnam has five airports that offer international flights, including Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi and Da Nang International Airport. More than 20 airports with domestic flights serve the rest of the country.
You could do most of your travel in Vietnam exclusively through flights. As long as your budget can handle it, flying is the most convenient method of travel.
Vietnam Airlines is the national carrier, offering the most flights daily. Viet Jet, Pacific Airlines, and Bamboo Airlines also offer affordable deals.
Figuring out taxis, mototaxis, and minivans
Best used for short journeys only!
Taxis or ride-hailing apps
Ride-hailing apps like Grab or Gojek are usually the way to go in bigger cities. Like Uber, both ride-hailing apps prevent you from negotiating prices. Once you’ve booked, the price is set, and you can even attach your bank card to avoid fiddling with banknotes at the end of the rides.
These apps do not work outside bigger cities, so chat with your local hostel or homestay for recommendations when booking taxis. Don’t trust the random person who pulls up and offers you a ride, especially when traveling alone.
Always negotiate and confirm the price before setting off in a taxi. If it’s metered, keep an eye on it throughout to ensure they don’t turn it off.
Don’t be afraid to barter with the price. It’s part of the culture, and the first price they offer will not be fair. Start at a quarter or half of their initial offer and go from there.
Motorbike taxis will be significantly cheaper than cars. Always accept the helmet offered because the rides can be wild in bigger cities like Hanoi.
Pro tip: Hold onto the back of the bike with both hands and keep your core tight when driving around. The driver may stop abruptly, and it’s no fun headbutting someone wearing a helmet!
Sometimes, smaller companies offer minivan rides between close-together towns like Hue and Da Nang.
For most people, minivans will be significantly more comfortable than a bus or a train.
I liked using minivans for short trips, but the seating did not work well because I’m nearly six feet tall. I often felt very uncomfortable and experienced several passengers who played music or videos out loud on their phones the whole way.
Drivers stop only when they want to, and on some journeys, they do not stop at all.
I once traveled for nearly four hours without a single rest stop, even though several passengers repeatedly requested a toilet break.
Traveling (safely) by scooter transportation
Best used for day trips and adventures in the mountains.
It’s easy to rent a motorbike in Vietnam. Rental companies sit on every corner, and most accommodations offer rental options.
I think it’s one of the best ways to see the country — I wish I’d driven more! It is an exhausting way to travel, though. And you’ll need to pack light to make it possible.
However, I do not recommend driving in big cities like Hanoi because the traffic is terrifying. It’s also fun watching how many local passengers can perch on a scooter. I once saw a whole family of five and their dog sitting on one scooter in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City’s biggest intersection.
You can rent a motorbike in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and then drive it the length of the country, dropping it back off at a sister location at either end.
I do not recommend doing this unless you’re an experienced driver. But if you’ve had some practice, then go for it! It’s an incredible way to see the country, and you can stop or start whenever you like.
I highly recommend driving a scooter when you inevitably do the Ha Giang Loop, one of the country’s most popular excursions.
Pro tip: Pay for the insurance because most health insurance won’t cover you. Technically, it’s illegal for any foreign driver to drive a motorbike over 50 cc in Vietnam without a local license.
Is it worth cycling?
Yes! I loved cycling around historic cities like Hue and the countryside of Ninh Binh.
Cycling costs as little as $1 per day and is an amazing way to explore an area without getting stuck in traffic. However, the bikes can be a little rickety, so don’t plan long-haul journeys on one.
You can even opt for guided bicycle tours in various places in central Vietnam, like Hoi An.
What to pack for Vietnam
Don’t forget these essentials if you want to survive public transportation in Vietnam:
- Water and snacks
- Layers for when the air conditioning peaks (and it will)
- A change of clothes for long-haul journeys
- Charger pack
- Eye mask, ear plugs and anything else you need to get some sleep
Budget transportation in Vietnam is challenging but worth it.
If you opt for budget transportation, you might endure some grueling days of traveling. Still, it’s undeniably the best way to travel in Vietnam.
I met so many fellow travelers this way and saw surreal views I’ll never forget. Take the risk and skip the luxury option, and you won’t regret it.
Buses! They are always an unforgettable experience. I love them!
Very safe. I’ve never felt unsafe while traveling anywhere in Vietnam.
Usually pretty affordable. The cheapest way to get around Vietnam is definitely by bus.