If I had any artistic skills, I’d draw a cartoon about trying to cross a street in Vietnam. It would show a skeleton in a Hawaiian shirt leaning against a street sign. Two locals would be next to it, and one would be saying “Looks like another tourist tried to wait for a break in traffic to cross the street.”
How to cross a busy street is just one thing you need to know about getting around Vietnam. Let me break it down for you by mode of transport.
In the cities, traffic bubbles and boils in all but the wee hours. The motorbike traffic rarely stops. So how do you cross a street? You look forward and walk at a slow, steady pace. The motorbikes will weave around you without complaint. Taxis, buses and trucks are another story. Beware of them. Fortunately, there are far fewer of them; there’s probably 40 motorbikes for every car or trucks. Sidewalks are often a hazard unto themselves since they also serve as motorbike parking lots and makeshift cafes. That said, I still like going on-foot. The dense cities mean there’s plenty of cool stuff to see for every step you take.
Bus rides are not great for getting around Vietnam. The roads are rough, the seats are tiny and suspension maintenance seems an afterthought for many tour companies. I saw some overnight buses that looked pretty plush, but I didn’t try any. The regular city buses also looked a bit worn out and crowded.
After we bounced around the roads for four hours on buses, our next tour (Saigon River Tour) transported us all by boat to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Getting around Vietnam by boat, we found, is far more pleasant. We chatted with the crew and enjoyed a scenic ride up the Saigon River. What would’ve taken two hours by bus took one hour by boat. Sweet sailing!
Talk about saving time: A bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi would take about 30 hours. But a 2-hour ride on a Vietnam Airlines A330 got us there in less than two hours. Boarding was quick and easy, the service was good and the plane was clean. And here’s a tip for aviation nerds: Have your camera ready to snap a photo of MiG-21 fighters lined up in shelters on side of the runway opposite the terminal. For long distances, a flight is the choice for getting around Viet
I avoid taking taxis in the United States. It’s a mind-boggling ripoff, but sometimes I have no choice. But they’re great for getting around Vietnam cities. A 20-minute ride will set you back about $5 US, or 100,000 Vietnamese Dong. We had good luck avoiding taxi-driving shysters; we followed advice from a new friend who grew up in Saigon. She told us to stick with Vinasun taxis, and to be vigilant for sound-alikes and mispellings. In Hanoi, we stuck to a simple bit of advice: Stick to cab companies that use Toyotas, and avoid every cab driver with any make of Korean automobile. This blog post does a nice job of outlining taxi scams in Saigon … for Hanoi, stick with the Toyotas!
We took two overnight train trips – from Hanoi to Lao Cai and back again. It was included as part of the price of our three-day hike/homestay arrangement through the Hotel Rendezvous (a great place that I highly recommend, and will focus on in a future blog post). That got us a room with four bunks. Sarah and I had two, and the others went to other random passengers. On the first trip, we shared the room with a gregarious chemical engineer from Hanoi. On the next trip, three people crammed into the remaining two bunks. Both trips were bumpy, slow and loud. But we fell asleep anyway, and it was far better than any bus trip we’d been on.
No. Just no. Unless you’ve lived in the country awhile and fully understand its traffic manners, this is not the way to get around Vietnam. I saw a few foreigners who rented motorbikes. I saw one later with a bandaged leg and a glum expression. Others in the rural areas probably fared better. I get the desire to say you did something “adventurous” (one guy was actually recording with a GoPro Helmet hero, an absolute joke at the slow speeds scooters travel). And also, don’t let anyone drive you around as a motorbike passenger. That’s a scammer favorite.
If you want to look like a dumbass tourist, hop in one of these bicycle rickshaws and let a local pedal you around. Even in the United States, this feels like the most-exploitive modes of transit anywhere. Plus, locals will get a giggle out of you. They know that only lazy tourists and 85-year-old grannies will ride a cyclo.