Vietnam is a really popular gap year destination and the country is well equipped for the thousands of backpackers who descend on the country every year. The best way to travel around Vietnam is via a combination of plane, train, bus and tuk tuk, stay with me and I’ll go into a little more detail...
One of the most popular ways to explore Vietnam is to gradually make your way north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, or south, and then do the other leg by plane. It could take you days, weeks or months to go north to south or vice versa, but travelling by plane is just a 2-hour journey and will cost around £40 if you book in advance.
As for the other main cities – they’re well connected too. Whether you need a flight from Da Nang, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Hue, Nha Trang, Da Lat or Phu Quoc – flying there from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City is easy with the range of domestic flights available.
You’ll find the trains in Vietnam are more expensive than the buses, but the comfort involved and the time difference are well worth it. Spend any time in Vietnam on your gap year and you’ll hear the name ‘Reunification Express’ banded about all the time between your fellow gappers. This train runs from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and is the most popular way to get between the two. It takes more than 30 hours, but book an overnight train and you can sleep your way through most of it in an air conditioned sleeper berth. Purchase your ticket as early as possible, especially during peak season.
There are plenty of shorter routes throughout the country and you can also cross into China, to Lao Cai. The trains in Vietnam are one of the best experiences you can have in the country.
If you’ve got plenty of time and you don’t care for comfort, getting around Vietnam by bus is a great option. Most cities in Vietnam are served by some sort of bus route, but be warned, travelling via Vietnam’s rickety roads might not be for you. For example a 276km (172mi) journey from the Mekong Delta to Ho Chi Minh City by bus will take about 8 hours in total.
Within the big cities travelling short distances by bus is a good option. If you’ve done your homework before you arrive in Vietnam and have learned a little of the language travelling by local bus is a great way to practice your skills. Bear in mind that any Western fatties might be a little uncomfortable on the local buses, which have been designed for little Vietnamese bottoms.
Public Buses travel between the cities' bus stations. In bigger places, you often have to use local transport to get into the city centre from there. Buses are generally in reasonable shape, and you have the chance to interact with locals. Roads in Vietnam are crazy – if you’re of a nervous disposition get a seat towards the centre of the bus so you can’t see the many near misses that are sure to occur.
As a westerner, when you arrive in a destination you’re sure to be hassled for accommodation. If you don’t want this, just have the name of a hostel ready to get them off your back while you think.
Hoang Long is one of the best bus companies – check out their website for rate information and bus terminal locations.
The Open Tour busesare a great option for budget backpackers – they’re well cheap and cover all the main destinations. The best thing is, if you see something you like out the window you can ask the bus driver to stop and check it out. It’s what they’re there for. Make sure you take some snacks and drinks along for the ride. As always, be careful with your stuff and don’t fall asleep with your iPod in your ears – chances are it won’t be there in the morning. Know where everything is and keep it locked up.
International driving licences are not accepted in Vietnam – and renting cars is not the norm. If someone recommends this they’ll usually mean complete with a driver. If there’s a group of you getting around Vietnam this can be a great way to get a tour, your way. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to drive around Vietnam anyway – especially if you’re used to the polite roads of the UK. The driving here is crazy and everywhere you go you’ll hear angry drivers pumping their horns like there’s no tomorrow.
The adventurous gappers among us should have a go at getting around Vietnam by bicycle. There are a few adventure travel tour companies who can support you in this – or you can just join the locals on two wheels and go out there for yourself. It’s cheap enough to rent bikes in the big cities and Dalat, Hoi An, Hue and Ninh Binh are well known as great spots for cycling.
All three are popular modes of transport in Vietnam, just make sure you confirm a price before you leave. Don’t be afraid to haggle down. Drivers are pretty easy to flag down, as they’re more than likely on the hunt for you, rather than the other way around. In the more peaceful cities like Hue, you will enjoy the slow riding of a cyclo trip, but if you just want to get from A to B, get yourself a motorbike driver.
Tour companies such as Easy Rider Tours and the like offer long-distance transport on bespoke trips – just tell them what you want and they’ll sort it out for you with a driver.
Be very careful renting a bike for yourself to drive – as I’ve said the roads are crazy – and if anything bad should happen there are strict penalties of punishment.
You definitely need to spend some time on a boat during your time in Vietnam. Halong Bay is definitely the number one boat destination in Vietnam – take a 1-3 day boat trip around the limestone islands and caves. Boat tours are also available in Hue where local families try to earn a dong or two from passing gappers. Snorkelling, fishing and lunch trips are available from Nha Trang, Hoi An, and Phu Quoc to nearby islands.
Of course, you have to do a river tour along the Mekong Delta too. It's incredible.