When traveling in Vietnam you have a few different options for transportation. I’m not talking about “within the city” transportation I’m talking about “exploring the country” transportation. The 6 hour+ drives between cities is something many travelers don’t think about or they forget how long of a country Vietnam is. It’s 36 hours of driving straight through from Sa Pa in the North to Saigon in the South. I found from experience that it takes much longer than that regardless of the mode of transportation you choose. The two most common ways to road trip Vietnam are by sleeper bus or by motorbike.
Nothing can compare to the thrill of weaving through scooter traffic on a crowded street in Hanoi. Wind blowing in your hair, taking in the smells of the street food vendors and whizzing past shops selling everything imaginable. On top of the adrenaline rush the sheer convenience of being able to keep to your own schedule and stop at every red bean cake vendor or fresh juice stand that strikes your fancy in a definite plus. That being said driving on unfamiliar roads with unfamiliar traffic laws is a daunting task and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Buses in Vietnam on-the-other-hand are uncharacteristically comfortable and allow you to sleep while they drive to your destination through the night. I’m going to go over the pros and cons of each to help you decide which way is going to work the best for your trip.
Many backpackers simply hit the “highlight reel” of Vietnam visiting only Hanoi and Sa Pa in the north and then maybe fly down to Saigon (Ho Chi Mihn city) in the south. But you can’t fully experience Vietnam without seeing Hoi An, Danang, Nihn Bihn, Hue, or Nha Trang in my opinion. (There are countless other stops along the way these are just my favorite.) Luckily for the savvy backpacker Vietnam has a very decent road network connecting all these cities so you simply have to decide if you want to drive the route yourself or take advantage of the extensive night bus services. Flying into Hanoi was slightly cheaper from my home base so I began the journey in the North and made my way South to Saigon but it’s just as easy to do the opposite route.
The freedom to make every little pit stop you desire.
As I mentioned before this method gives you the freedom to stop at every single shop and food cart that strikes your fancy. I stumbled upon the Marble Mountains while motor-biking and ended up making an entire day of it. There are so many things to see it’s nice to not be confined to a strict bus schedule.
See off the beaten path
Smaller unnamed villages and towns aren’t linked by the buses so if you’re REALLY trying to get off the beaten path motor-biking might be your best bet. Spontaneity is best served from a motorbike.
Buses are great from getting you city to city but that will still leave you without wheels once you get there. Hanoi is a HUGE city and it isn’t feasible to get everywhere on foot, you will need to either rent a motorbike for the day or rely on taxi transportation.
There really isn’t any question about which option gets the blood pumping and gives you the more exciting journey. The sheer thrill of motor-biking through the country might be enough to dismiss the bus option all together.
Motor-biking in Asia for an unexperienced driver is dangerous.
Roadways in Vietnam are well maintained for the most part and there are even traffic lights in most major cities. Unfortunately drivers don’t use them. Like at all. I was told that an American was hired to help them sort out their road system and installed all the traffic signals throughout the country. Before he was able to effectively show the citizens how to use them or implement traffic laws he was killed in a traffic accident . (This story was told to me by a Vietnamese taxi driver when I asked what the deal was with the signals, so I wouldn’t take it to seriously) The result is a country that drives relatively lawless. Accidents are extremely common (among tourists) and it has a lot to do with the merging “rules” that drivers in the US, Europe, and Australia aren’t used to.
Rental agencies may try to scam you
Many larger rental sites will loan you a bike for long distance riding and they are slightly more legit than the roadside rentals within the city but they sometimes hold onto your passport as collateral. This means any damage you do to the bike or any “damage” they claim you do you will be held responsible for and the repair costs pretty much whatever they say it does.
Long drives can be uncomfortable (especially with baggage)
Long stretches of highway between cities can mean that you’re biking for hours. The seats are always worn out and uncomfortable and there isn’t anywhere to store your pack comfortably. Plus side is it forces you to pack lightly! 🙂
No hassle travel.
You don’t have to navigate, you don’t have to drive, you don’t even have to be awake. Most long hauls between cities will start in the early evening and then drive you through the night to the final destination. You save money by not needing hotel for the evening, you get to wake up refreshed in a completely new city and you can pack all you want.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say bus travel is safer than motor-biking. Yes, the drivers are sleep deprived while driving on rough roads in the middle of the night BUT I would still gamble on that verses my driving unfamiliar roads with little to no grasp of the traffic laws.
When it really came down to it money was a big factor. Motorbike rentals from the large companies (the only ones who let you return the bike to a different location) were 10 dollars or more per day. So depending on the length of your stay costs can add up quickly. Your only other option is to purchase a bike in Hanoi for around 200USD. Fuel prices are pretty minor. But you risk buying a rundown bike and not being able to sell it again at the end of your trip. Not to mention actually making the time to sell it. Bus tickets however, are set prices and normally cost around 10USD. Which would have been spent on a hostel bed anyways.
Confusing pick-up locations/late arrivals
Bus tickets are purchased at any one of the many travel and tourism agents along the roadways. (The shops are clearly marked outside and are EVERYWHERE. Super easy to find.) They give you a slip of paper that you MUST NOT LOSE. There are no electronic records of this purchase and then they tell you the time/location to meet the bus. This location is probably going to be a random street corner and the bus is likely going to be late. Maybe very late. You will stand around wondering if they are going to show up or if you got swindled out of your money. But just when your about to give up it always comes. Patience is key here with the bus system.
Did I mention patience?
While we’re on the subject of being late, the ride time is an estimate. Anything from potholes to flooded roadways can set you back a couple of hours. This isn’t a good option for those who stick to a strict time schedule, but honestly nothing in Asia is.
Not a heavy sleeper?
I can sleep anytime, anywhere. If you can’t, keep in mind that these “sleeper buses” are double-decker seats that are reclined into an ALMOST flat position. Your feet are enclosed and the seats are skinny so your body positioning is pretty limited to on your back. Also if you are a tall human it’s significantly more difficult to get comfortable. I am 5ft 6inches and I feel like the seats fit me perfectly. The roads are rough in some areas. Sometimes you get bounced around as they make sharp turns, pass other vehicles, or hit serious potholes.
All this in mind I personally chose to take the bus route.
It was convenient, cost-effective, and I didn’t have to risk my life on a motorbike all trip. I had a minor motorbike incident early on in the vacation. You can rent motorbikes as needed for 5-6USD per day to get around in the city. I left the long hauls to the professionals. What worked for me, however, may not be what strikes your fancy. I definitely see a motorbike road trip through Vietnam in my near future…after some more practice.