If it"s less than 100 cc, it"s a moped. If it"s 100 cc or larger, it"s a motorbike. If its larger than 125 cc, it"s illegal (the ones you see will probably be owned by the rich sons of party officials and those connected to a government law-enforcement agency).
Requirements for a local drivers" license:
- Fluency in Vietnamese
- One year"s residency in Vietnam
- Ownership papers for the bike (these are impossible to get since it is illegal for foreigners to own a motorbike)
- Renewal of your license every time you extend your visa (every 2 - 30 days)
- And finally -- If you own a bike larger than 125 cc you are required to do public service and join a motorcycle association -- and have plenty of spare cash to pay off the men in blue.
Honda for hire
- They cost a little more than a cyclo for short trips, about the same for longer trips.
- You can get into the countryside for a day without having to worry about overnighting, etc.
- A full day on a little moped can be quite trying, especially given Vietnam"s roads.
- Be sure to negotiate the fare before you depart.
There are 2600 km of track along the coast from Saigon to Hanoi and destinations north (Haiphong, Lao Cai, Lang Son). The train from Saigon to Hanoi is the famous Unification Express - express being a bit of a misnomer since it now runs slower than when the French first built it 60 years ago (average speeds are between 10 and 30 mph). However Vietnam Railway Administration is upgrading its trains. It takes 30 hours to go from Ha Noi to Saigon or vice versa (this is the fastest train and it only stops some big city like Nha Trang, Danang, Hue ...)
You absolutely cannot buy tickets from Saigon to Hanoi in February every year because Vietnamese people go home for their Lunar New Year Holiday. Most of them work in the South and celebrate New Year in the North.
- There are often several bus stations in the larger cities. Make sure you"re at the right one.
- Buses leave early in the morning (usually between 5 and 7 AM).
- Short-run buses leave when they"re full.
- Do not sit in the far back if you can help it. It"s a much bumpier ride. There"s a reason that a half filled bus looks like the passengers have all been swept forward by a tidal wave.
- You can buy two seats and give yourself a little more room if you can handle lounging in luxury while a Vietnamese mother carrying three children and a load of coconuts stands in the aisle beside you.
- You have to have a lot of baggage before the conductor can legitimately charge you extra.
- You can ride on top of the bus if you can convince the conductor that you"re not a clumsy foreigner who will simply topple off at the first turn (this will be a much harder sell if you"re a woman). Never leave your baggage inside when you go topside.
- Develop that zen-like attitude towards pain and discomfort as quickly as possible.
- Traditional gender constraints tend to disappear once the wheels began to roll. I have yet to see a Vietnamese couple kissing or even walking hand in hand, but within the confines of public transport moral restraints give way to practical necessity. People nestle like spoons and sleepy heads occasionally drop onto unknown shoulders. As a foreigner, you will be largely exempt from this. If someone"s really crowding you, expect a thief.
Theft in buses
If you are traveling with a bicycle (which goes on the roof) be aware that it may be taken down in lieu of someone else"s and disappear.
- Never put baggage under your seat. A thief can get at it from the seat behind you and slip off the bus.
- Never put baggage in the overhead rack unless you have a means to secure it. Thieves are fast and efficient.
- The Vietnamese are respectful and physically aloof. If someone leans over you (to look out the window) or even offers you a drink out of their soda bottle, be a little wary. Thieves can slice open your hip (money) bag from below and empty the contents in about half a second.
- You can reserve a ticket at the station the night before, provided you are willing to pay full foreign price (five times what the Vietnamese pay)
- You can stand outside the station and flag the bus down as it"s coming out. You then cut a deal with the driver. If you wish to try this, go into the station beforehand and check the published rate, then ask a few passengers what they are paying. Your fare will be somewhere in between, depending on how hard you argue with the driver/conductor. If you buy tickets from stations you won't be overcharged anymore.
What kind of bus?
There are four different kinds of buses you can take in Vietnam:
- The Express (no, they don"t serve coffee on board). "Express" can be a bit misleading. They rarely travel faster than 20 mph unless you"re on the true intercity express route, when they can reach dizzying speeds of 30 mph. They do, however, have priority at ferry crossings which can save you a good bit of time.
- The Local. Average speed is around 12 mph. They stop everywhere. The people on them tend to have large, sharp-edged, smelly cargoes. They are a true slice of Vietnamese life.
Minibuses (can be either public or private):
- Public. These are actually privately-run buses that augment the public busing system. They are usually found sitting like vultures around the edges of bus stations. Their owners are highly entrepreneurial - which means the driver will do his level best to squeeze in as many passengers (read "income") as he possibly can (a la 34 frat guys in a phone booth). Sometimes you can make arrangements for a public minibus driver to pick you up at your guesthouse on his way out of town. Sometimes you sit around on your bags for a day when he doesn"t show up.
- Chartered. This is the more common way for foreigners to travel by bus. It is less crowded than any of the other options. You will be rubbing elbows mostly with other foreigners. It will cost several times as much as the other buses (but will still be quite cheap). You can make arrangements through the local backpacker cafe or guesthouse catering to foreigners. Sometimes these buses even have air conditioning, though mostly they say they do and then don"t. By the way, "less crowded" is a relative term - I"ve seen 17 long-limbed foreigners stagger out of a minibus in Sapa after a twelve-hour journey from Hanoi. The driver will try to limit your luggage.
Taxis are hard to park and slow to drive around cities. If you wish to do a one-day excursion into the countryside, you should explore this option. Compare prices with an equivalent "tour" in a hired car.
This the non-backpack, strolling around kind. Remember most of Vietnam is hot for most of the time.
- If you walk too far and get tired, you can always flag down a motorcyclist to give you a ride back. Offer them a tip that would be slightly more than the equivalent cyclo fare.
- If you pass huts/villages you will often be invited in for tea. Still bring water.
- Children will most likely follow you wherever you go. This can be a joy (when they take your hand and show you around) or an annoyance (when they shout the same two American words at you for an hour or more at a time and when you ignore them, throw rocks at you). Like the occasionally oppressive tropical sun, you are not going to make them go away so you might as well make the best of them.
- A driver/guides costs about $10 per day. Is that a great deal or what? Make sure your guide speaks your language and that you think you can live with him day and night for the duration of your trip. Get several other travelers together and split the cost of the car and driver. Even for budget travelers this is a financially viable way to see Vietnam as long as you like the people traveling with you...
- If you are driving from Saigon to Hanoi (or any other significant distance) expect to get shaken down ("fined") occasionally by the police. Let your driver do the bargaining and reimburse him. Make it clear that if the fines stay reasonable he"ll see a difference in his tip.
- Bargain down the car rate even if you"re in an established tourist agency. Then sign a contract in English and take the original with you. If your driver asks for it, give him a photocopy.
- Make sure the itinerary is in black and white before you leave.
- Cars are a bear to park and extremely difficult to drive around the narrow streets of Hanoi and other cities. Do your driver a favor and take cyclos when you"re in big city.
- Flying is not expensive anymore ($100 from Saigon to Hanoi). o Bring a couple of dollars in Dong to the airport to pay the departure tax ($ 14).
- You need your passport and visa to book a domestic flight and to check in.
- Domestic weight allowances are very strict.
- You can charter a flight or a helicopter if you have money to burn.
- Most cyclo drivers rent their cyclos for a couple of dollars a day from the owner and then team up with someone so that the vehicle is in use most of the time. If they have no place to live they sleep in the cyclos chairs at night.
- Cyclos are a fantastic way to see a city or town. Leisurely, quiet, inexpensive. Rent a cyclo when you first arrive and take a few hours to cruise the streets.
- You should always carry a business card from your guesthouse with you when you go out. That way if you get lost you can hop into a cyclo, show him the card and let him take you home.
- If possible, bring a map with you and be aware of where you"re going. On the one hand this may save you some money - drivers often go the long way around so they can charge you more.
- If it"s late at night and you"ve just come out of a bar it may save your possessions - - cyclo drivers have been known to pedal you into a dark alley where you will be mugged by his accomplices. Also do not leave valuables (video camera, etc..) in a cyclo when you go inside. Wouldn"t you be tempted if three year"s income was staring you in the face? Cyclos are often driven by ex-south-Vietnamese army men who can find no other job and have no city residence permit (which means they get shaken down regularly by the police and usually have to live on the street). They barely scrape by on their cyclo income and leave a great deal of sweat on the pavement. Keep this in mind when you"re bargaining them down that last 5 cents.
- Cyclo drivers who have no interest in picking you up are probably undercover police.
- You must establish the fare before going anywhere or you will be honor-bound to pay what the driver asks.
- Have the correct amount in local currency with you. Drivers sometimes don"t have change (or pretend they don"t).
- Hiring a cyclo by the hour is cheaper than hiring it by the trip.
- If the idea of buying/renting just the cyclo and taking it out into the countryside appeals to you, forget it. Cyclo drivers have to have a license (for both themselves and their vehicles). You wouldn"t get far before you were fined and the cyclo impounded (at considerable cost to its owner).
- There are many iterations of the basic cyclo - some have small motors attached, some have three wheels and a cart behind, some are hooked up to a horse.
Bordergates of Vietnam
- Tan Son Nhat Airport is Vietnam"s busiest international air hub, followed by Hanoi"s Noi Bai Airpot. A few international flights also serve Danang. Bangkok has emerged as the principle embarkation point for Vietnam but it is still possible to get direct flights from a number of major Asian cities and a few Australian cities. Buying tickets in Vietnam is expensive. Departure tax is
14.00, which can be paid in dong or US dollars.
- There are currently six border crossings for travellers coming to Vietnam, but more may open soon. All crossing points suffer from heavy policing and often requests for "immigration fees".
- For getting to/from China, it become very popular to cross the border at Friendship Pass, or Dong Dang, 20km (12mi) north of Lang Son in northeast Vietnam, to get to/from Nanning. There is a twice-weekly international train between Beijing and Hanoi that stops at Friendship Pass. The other popular border crossing with China is at Lao Cai in northwest Vietnam, which lies on the railway line between Hanoi and Kunming in China"s Yunnan Province. There is also a seldom used crossing at Moi Cai.
- It is possible to enter Laos from Lao Bao in north-central Vietnam; there is an international bus from Danang to Savannakhet (Laos). The other crossing is at Keo Nua Pass/Cau Treo, west of Vinh. The only crossing to Cambodia is via Moc Dai; an international bus links Phnom Penh with Ho Chi Minh City.