Vietnam: From the Bottom to the Top

Vietnam: From the Bottom to the Top

We’ve completed the trek from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.  Covering 1,400 miles in 24 days, we stopped in the Mekong Delta, Mui Ne, Da Lat, Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue.  There are still a several posts to come from along the way, but here is a quick overview of how to travel the length of Vietnam.

HOW WE DID IT

We bought an “Open Bus” ticket in Ho Chi Minh that included stops in Mui Ne, Da Lat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, and concludes in Hanoi.  For $40 a person, we got to see much of Vietnam.  This is the beaten path, the tourist trail, which has benefits and drawbacks.

TIP: Stop in Da Nang.  Most tourist buses don’t include a stop in Da Nang, but passing through it looked like an incredibly vibrant city worth seeing for a day or two.  While the tourist buses don’t include Da Nang, there is a large tourist industry including beach resorts and a Greg Norman golf course.

The benefit of the Open Tour is that it stops in the tourist center of each city, instead of the edge-of-town bus stations.  The drawback is that your trip is similar to most tourists in Vietnam.  We want to be off-the-beaten path tourists, but there are enough lost-in-translation moments that avoiding a few can soothe the soul.  It is also, by far, the cheapest route.

The inside of a "sleeper" bus. With an Open Tour ticket you will spend 11-12 hours on this bus, partially reclined, with no bathroom. And yours will be full, unlike this rare, empty, bus.

BENEFITS of the “Open Tour” buses: Get picked up and dropped off in the tourist centers of cities where the bulk of hotels and attractions are.  It’s the cheapest and you meet other travelers.

DOWNSIDE of the “open tour” buses: You miss the experience, good and bad, of navigating on your own.  The bus quality is a crapshoot.  You will find yourself on an 11-hour bus with shitty seats and no place to take a shit.  The roads are like those 50’s exercise machine that shakes your fat loose.  Even worse, you cross the major portions of the trip (Nha Trang to Hoi An and Hue to Hanoi) during the night and miss seeing a lot of Vietnam.

OTHER OPTIONS

These are the primary options for navigating through Vietnam.

  1. EASY RIDERS, motorcycle tours, price dependent on which tour you choose.  Based in Da Lat, the Easy Riders are probably the best way to see the country.  This isn’t just transportation, it’s a tour and it’s private, so you get to stop when you want to versus whizzing by on a bus or train.  Our friends over at www.mintjellie.com did this and we hope they will have a full review soon.  The cost is substantial ($50-70/day), but from what we’ve heard you won’t regret it.
  2. TRAIN, about 2x the price of the open bus:  This seems like the best way to see the countryside in comfort.  Vietnam has a lot of crappy roads, but you won’t notice on the train.  Most importantly, the ability to walk around and use a bathroom when you need it is priceless.
  3. PLANE, about 3-4x the price of the open bus.  Intra-Vietnam plane tickets can be ridiculously cheap.  Some legs costing as little as $20, longer legs about $60.  This changes an 11-hour bus ride to 30-40 minutes in a plane.  While this is efficient, you will miss seeing most of Vietnam and you need to plan ahead.  The best prices are one month out on JetStar.
  4. CITY-BY-CITY BUS, costing about 150% more than the open bus depending on stops.  You will get to choose your own route and can choose to stop in different cities.  If you want to do this to get away from tourists and get the best price, you will need to get yourself to bus stations outside town, where you will need to have the name of your destination written down because English may not be spoken.  If you buy tickets from tour agencies you might end up on the same buses as Open Tour bus, paying the “tourist” price.
    • Our Experience:  We did this to get to the Mekong Delta.  I can honestly say, if you do this right you could end up on nicer buses for only a slight price premium.

TIP: In Southern Vietnam, use Futa Phuong Trang, they generally have the best buses, but most importantly will pick you and drop you off at your hotel.  When you get off the bus ask a security guard or your bus attendant to take you to the shuttle bus, which is free of charge.

IF I KNEW THEN, WHAT I KNOW NOW, WHAT I WOULD DO

If you are time-rich like we are, I would recommend combining several of the options.  If you are starting in Ho Chi Minh here is the path, which can easily be reversed from Hanoi (prices per person):

  1. To go to the Mekong Delta, take a tour from Ho Chi Minh (~$30).  We did it on our own and it cost more with no real benefit.  The Mekong Delta is interesting, but two days, one night, is probably enough.
  2. Ho Chi Minh to Mui Ne ($6) or Nha Trang (~$8), get a ticket from Futa Phoung Trang’s office at Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham (in the heart of the tourist area).  Don’t buy the ticket from a tour agency, it’s the same ticket with a commission tacked on.
  3. Nha Trang or Mui Ne to Da Lat, you can choose mini-bus ($8) or a VIP van (~$14).  The minibuses are crammed and uncomfortable, but it only lasts for four hours.  If you can find it, a car/jeep (~$60) for hire would be the best method and allow for you to stop and see the amazing scenery.
  4. From Da Lat, take the Easy Riders to Nha Trang or Hoi An (~$50/day, tour length flexible).
  5. If you went to Nha Trang, take the train to Da Nang ($23), ideally during the day.  The bus ride is a terrible 11-hour bus ride that will jar your teeth loose.
  6. From Da Nang, take the bus to Hoi An ($3).  Any company should do, it’s a 45-minute ride.
  7. From Hoi An to Hue, buy any bus ticket ($7).  A short, four-hour ride.
  8. From Hue to Hanoi take the train.  You will pass many rice paddies and see totally different scenery than in the south.  This is 12 hours by bus or train.
  9. From Hanoi you can find tours to Sapa and Halong Bay.  These will be the subject of future posts, but appear a better deal than doing it yourself.

CONCLUSION

As all countries there are many ways to get around Vietnam depending on time and budget, but the best way is probably a combination of options.

Over the next two weeks we’ll have additional guides for seeing Vietnam.  Let us know your tips and questions about visiting Vietnam top-to-bottom, side-to-side, or pogo stick style.

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Comments

» Donna :
Jan 27, 2011

Excellent … I can already see a new career for you two when you return home … replace Rick Steves on traveling “through the back door!” Great stuff! With no desire to visit those countries, I find myself captivated by your posts about it … good job! I’m off to the lake for overnight … Linda and I are going to Father Hennepin State Park on Mille Lacs to see if we can “shoot” some albino deer hanging out at the park. Will forward a pic if we get any good ones! Take care! I’m bringing the laptop and iPod along to practice my wifi skills before I really need them! Donna

» dad :
Jan 28, 2011

i agree with donna, i would think your information is invaluable for someone considering a similar excursion……one problem is things can and do change dramatically, the info shelf life may be short lived…..one upside i am experiencing, is we have a better idea/clue as to what your up to now, then when you lived here…..our travels, not as exciting as yours, but booking tickets for calgary stampede in july…..goos stuff…..be safe….love dad

» Cindy :
Feb 2, 2011

Excellent information. The sleeper busses look great. What an awesome idea…but are they clean? Do people bring their own bedding. They certainly look inviting and fun.

» Kim :
Sep 23, 2011

Thank you so much for these wonderful tips! This post is bookmarked and I will be back when we start to plan the SE Asia leg of our trip. Also, thanks for the great email and for answering all of my questions :)

» Krista :
Sep 18, 2013

Heading to Vietnam in a few weeks, and this post is invaluable to me. My worst nightmare is being stuck on a bus for 12 hours with no bathroom. I’m excited to take the train in Vietnam! Thank you thank you for compiling all this research and posting it. SUPER helpful.

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.
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