Vietnam is one of the most popular traveller destinations in South East Asia, and one of my favourite countries so far. Rich in history and culture, Vietnam has an awful lot to offer anyone that visits. Stretching over 1000km down the east flank of Asia, the varied landscape and seemingly endless coastline make Vietnam a must-do destination.
Arriving in Vietnam you’ll probably fly in to Ho Chi Minh city in the South, or Hanoi in the North. Your route thereafter will be determined by where you start, but how are you going to get there?
There are 2 main options when choosing how to travel through Vietnam; bus or motorbike. There are numerous variables that come in to play when deciding between the two- length of trip, number of destinations, confidence on a bike, budget etc etc.
Travelling by bus is probably the ‘safest’ option. I use the term safest lightly though as the only bus journey that I took was far from safe. Vietnamese coach drivers are notoriously reckless and there are horror stories of coaches crashing head on when overtaking.
You can save time by travelling long distances over night on a sleeper bus. This service can be booked through most travel agents found in all cities. The price varies depending on how far you are travelling but you can expect to spend between 100,000-500,000 VND for a night bus. The other advantage of travelling at night is saving money on accommodation!
Travelling between cities at night does mean that you will miss out on seeing a lot of the country though. The main cities along the coast don’t give a true impression of the ‘real’ Vietnam; commercialised by western tourism, a lot of the cities cater for the masses rather than showing how Vietnamese people really live. Another disadvantage of travelling by bus is the lack of freedom; when you arrive in a city by bus you arrive without a means of transport. If you then decide to venture outside the city you will then have to book on to a tour or find alternative means of transport.
The buses are also frequently over crowded with locals who have no problem sleeping in the aisle. Trying to climb out of the top bunk on a night bus without stepping on the sleeping locals is quite the task, especially when the driver is attempting triple overtakes on winding roads.
Vietnamese bus drivers are notoriously wreckless.
One the other hand, choosing to travel by motorbike is the other (better) option. Spending 4 weeks making your way down, or up, the country is the ultimate adventure. There are two ways you can do this; rent a bike or buy one. Renting a bike from Hanoi and then dropping it off in Ho Chi Minh, or the other way round is one way to do it. Buying a bike and then selling it at the end is the other.
Having your own bike affords you the freedom that no other method of transport can. Having the option to go wherever you want, whenever you want is the single best thing about it. Whether it’s riding over the Hai Van Pass, or riding along the beach between Hoi An and Da Nang, having your own bike will enhance your trip!
Choosing to ride a bike over 1000km in a foreign country isn’t for the feint hearted though; hectic traffic, bad road conditions, changing weather and unreliable motorbikes make it, at times, an arduous task as demonstrated by Jamie’s expression below. But it all adds to the adventure.
Buying a motorbike in Hanoi
The first step to take is to buy a motorbike. The best place to start in the Old Quarter is Ngo Huyen, a street lined with backpacker hostels and hotels which will have bikes for sale parked outside. The bikes for sale will have just been ridden from the South so checking them over is important. There are a number of rental shops and garages that also sell bikes. These can often be the safer bet as they will have (hopefully) been serviced before sale. Spending between $200-$300 will get you an adequate machine- it will indefinitely break down multiple times on your trip but that’s part of it.
Opt for a Honda Win or a Minsk if you can- they are the most popular, hence easiest to fix when they brake down. Also, most importantly, make sure the seller provides the blue registration card when you buy the bike. Without this document you won’t be able to sell the bike at the other end, and could also get in trouble should the police pull you over.
Make sure you get the registration card with the bike when buying
Picking a route
The coastal route is by far the most popular, and direct route. Following Highway 1, this route sticks close to the coastline for most of the way passing through the main cities Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An and Nha Trang. Leaving the coast to head inland to Dalat is highly recommended.
The alternative route is the historical Ho Chi Minh trail which was used during the war to travel from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North) to the Republic of Vietnam (South). This is a more adventurous route which heads in to the mountains and crosses the border in to Laos at numerous points.
The coastal route is the favoured route by many due to the number of places to visit along the coast. There are however long stretches between Hanoi and Hue, and Hoi An and Nha Trang which will require long days of travelling.
Whichever route, or method of transport you choose, Vietnam is a beautiful place bursting with culture. Getting out of the cities and seeing how the locals live away from the tourism is the best way to experience the country.
Would you travel by bus or bike?