Getting to Vietnam
From Outside Asia
Vietnam Airlines is expanding and improving its fleet. Air France flies here from Bangkok, Japan Airlines flies in from several cities, and most other major Asian and European airlines (including Lufthansa) also fly to Vietnam. Quantas makes the trip from Australia. Several US airlines have started flying to Vietnam again. None of the flights is non-stop; they go through Tokyo or Osaka in Japan, or Hong Kong. So far, United and American Airlines fly into both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
If you want to look for the cheapest details, some online booking agents are worth checking out.
Don’t forget the day you lose when you cross the International Dateline (you get it back on your
The long-distance cruise ships don’t make calls in major Vietnamese ports, but that is likely to change in the next year or two.
From Inside Asia
Vietnam Airlines is the primary carrier for internal flights and many flights to adjacent countries. The airline does code shares with Siem Reap Airlines, Lao Aviation and Air France. Keep in mind that many Lao Aviation aircraft are not up to Western standards. Always check to see which airline is actually flying your flight. The Vietnam Airlines website is www.vietnamairlines.com; you can book online.
Hanoi - Bangkok 3 hours/Air France, Vietnam
HCMC - Bangkok 3 hours/Air France, Vietnam
HCMC - Siem Reap/Angkor Wat 1 hour/Lao, Vietnam, Bangkok Air
Hanoi - Luang Prabang 1 hour/Lao Aviation, Vietnam Air.
There is no viable rail service from other countries at present. However, Vietnam has a decent north-south train route. You can go north to the Chinese border, continue to Beijing, connect to the long-haul trains across China, and eventually to the Trans-Siberian Express across Russia and back to Europe – if you’re so inclined and have the time and visas!
You can take a bus or mini-bus from several adjacent countries.
Tip: Keep in mind that Vietnam still does not issue visas upon arrival. If you try to enter without a visa you will be refused entry.
Vietnam Airlines covers much of the country, and the flights are reliable and safe. The trip from Hué to HCMC takes about an hour by plane and costs $70-$100, as compared to $10-$15 or so for the bus, which takes 14-16 hours. There are airports in or near Sa Pa, Hanoi, Da Nang, Hoi An, Hué, Da Lat, Nha Trang, HCMC, and other major travelers’ destinations. The Hanoi-to-HCMC flight costs about $200, but may be less through some travel agents. Most other flights are about $100 or less.
Hanoi - HCMC 3 hours
Hanoi - Dalat, Danang, Nha Trang, Hué1½-2 hours
Dalat - Nha Trang 1 hour
HCMC - Dalat, Danang, Nha Trang, Hué 1½-2 hours
FLIGHTS TO OTHER COUNTRIES IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Roads in Vietnam are generally OK, but not great. They are far better surfaced, marked, and maintained than in Laos or Cambodia. There are few “super-highways,” and those are around the major cities. Since these and all other roads are choked with scooters, motos, cyclists, cars, animals, and many other things not seen on Western highways, travel is risky at best. I have been in several fender-benders and one more serious accident on Vietnamese roads, and the delays were not welcome.
Once the bus I was in hit a cow and was rear-ended by a dump truck. It took hours to bring another bus to get us to Da Lat. Another time a van clipped a young woman weaving on her bicycle in the middle of a super-highway near Hanoi.
Vietnam is well-equipped with vans, mini-buses, tourist buses, and regular buses, as well as cars for hire, so it is easy to get around by road. As a general rule, tourist buses leave and arrive on time, and are relatively cheap and quick. There are a number of “tourist cafés,” such as Sinh Café, that run all kinds of bus services to almost any place you may want to visit, so travel around the country is relatively fast, comfortable and easy. For short trips, or trips to the interior (to Da Lat, for example), buses or mini-vans, or private cars are the way to go unless you want to fly.
Caution. The tourist café buses are notorious for taking you where you want to go, then driving into the
courtyard of a favored hotel, and locking the gates behind you, forcing you to stay in their hotel for the
night. About all you can do is refuse to hand over your passport. Without your passport they can’t
register you with the police and hotel owners are rarely willing to take the risk of an unregistered
“guest” so they will probably open the gates and let you out.
Vietnam has a decent railroad system – a legacy of the French. Indochina was a three-tiered Colonial empire, with Vietnam at the top, Cambodia in the middle, and Laos at the bottom. As a result, the French provided lots of training in Colonial administration to the Vietnamese, and needed rail infrastructure to move these trainees and employees around the country.
During and following the Vietnam-American War, the rail infrastructure deteriorated significantly, but the post-war government has restored the lines along the coast and inland to the northern hill country (towards Sa Pa) so it is now possible to travel from the far northwest corner (to within two km of the Chinese border) to Hanoi, down the coast, and into HCMC by train.
To travel by train the entire length of Vietnam, without stopping, is going to take about three days and two nights.
Tip: If you travel by first-class soft sleeper (the only way I recommend), you do get “meals” of a sort, but I strongly encourage you to bring your own food, drinks, and snacks. When the train stops, your window will be deluged by local women selling lots of stuff –corn-on-the-cob, bananas, baguettes, and more. My favorite of their many offerings is what I call “road-kill chicken.” I call it that because the poor thing is simply plucked, smashed flat, and grilled, head and all.
If you plan to travel by train – and I highly recommend doing at least a part of your trip that way – book at least a few days ahead (more on weekends) to get a soft-sleeper berth.
Tip: Many times it is best to go through a travel agent since they have pre-booked large blocks of soft-sleeper tickets and may be your best only source. Going to the train station will save a few dollars but the wait and hassle are not worth the small savings, especially since the ticket offices keep irregular hours and may not even have tickets.
For short hauls, buses, private mini-vans, or private (hired) cars make the most sense.
One of the most interesting and relaxing trips is a boat trip along the Perfume, Red, or Mekong Rivers. It is possible to spend weeks on motorized and “poled” boats seeing the backwaters of Vietnam. At a minimum a two- or three-day boat trip through the Mekong Delta is an experience not to be missed – a trip back in time.
There are passenger and cargo boats going both directions on the Mekong River, tourist boats that take you to caves, tombs, and temples along the Perfume River, and many more choices. You can also kayak the coast or Ha Long Bay.
Why visit Vietnam
Top sights & activities and suggested itineraries
When to go to Vietnam
Lifestyles in Vietnam
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