Planning to travel by bus or train in Vietnam?
Then this quick guide will help you plan and book your journey.
Although booking buses or trains in Vietnam may work differently compared to what you’re used to in your country, it’s quite easy. And even though the standards of comfort may not always be the highest possible, the public transportation is good and will definitely get you where you need to be.
Vietnam has a great bus network and the Reunification Express railway running from Hanoi to Saigon also lets you easily cover a lot of miles.
Do keep in mind that local buses can be slow and most night-buses have awkward bunk beds with not much leg space. Sometimes it’s worth spending a bit more on a 1st class train ticket or ‘VIP’ bus service for a bit more comfort if you have the budget.
How to book buses in Vietnam
Bus and minivan services in Vietnam are run by hundreds of different companies. This means timetables are not always complete and not every bus can be booked online, though more and more bus connections you now can.
You can usually book transportation easily via your hotel or hostel reception (who can make a call for you) or at any of the small ticket agents that you’ll inevitably find in any place that any tourists go.
It is very common to find mom ‘n pop travel agencies pretty much anywhere that sees tourists. Many backpackers and independent travelers just get their tickets from these shops. Chances are that you can just step out of your hostel or hotel and find several on our doorstep.
These agencies sometimes let you get tickets for services that are not available online.
Luckily, some sites have made booking online easier in recent years, such as 12Go Asia, Baolau.com and the Vietnamese startup VeXeRe.com, which all accept international payment methods such as PayPal or credit cards.
Do keep in mind there is no centralized booking system in Vietnam.
The sites offering online booking basically have to set up lots of separate partnerships with some of the hundreds of bus operators. When you book on their sites, they often still have to manually call the bus operators to confirm. Unless it specifically says ‘instant confirmation’, you may have to wait a few hours to receive the actual ticket.
There are several ways to book buses in Vietnam:
- Buy tickets at the bus stations
- Book at a local travel agency
- Use online booking sites (recommended)
The best booking sites for buses, trains, ferries, or minivans in Vietnam are:
How to book trains in Vietnam
The trains in Vietnam do have a central booking system these days, making it very easy to book them. In fact, you can now only book trains online.
Trains are slower and somewhat more expensive than buses but, if you ask me, they’re also much more comfortable. I’ve caught far more sleep on night trains than on any of the buses.
They’re also a cool way to travel!
After booking your ticket you’ll be sent a PDF document with a QR code and your carriage and seat number. You can simply show this on your phone to the attendant. Every carriage has its own attendant, so there’s always someone to help you find your seat.
You can book trains in Vietnam with Vietnam Railways but only using Vietnamese payment methods. For foreigners, it’s easiest to book with sites like 12Go Asia or Baolao (which charge a 40,000 dong commission).
It’s best to book trains at least one or two days ahead of time, as they do fill up pretty quickly. While 12Go Asia doesn’t let you book trains departing within the next 24 hours, Baolao might still let you make such late bookings, at least in my experience.
There are no hop-on-hop-off tickets for the train. If you’re going south to north or the other way around, you’ll have to buy individual tickets for each part of your journey.
What about night trains & buses?
Because Vietnam is a relatively large country (it’s actually taller than West Coast USA) and since key tourist sites are spread around the north, center, and south, many travelers choose to travel overland at night. This potentially helps you save time.
I think traveling at night in Vietnam is often worth it. It’s very common for backpackers in Vietnam to travel overnight, making use of the many night buses available as well as the Reunification Express running from Hanoi to Saigon offers a range of sleeper carriages.
Night travel can save you time and money. You’ll spend fewer waking hours in transit and you get to save a night’s accommodation. But not all night travel will be that comfortable.
Normal night buses: Vietnamese night buses typically have 3 rows of bunk beds stacked two levels high. The beds have a plastic casing around them which is quite restrictive especially if you are tall. There are usually no toilets, so the bus has to take regular toilet breaks that interrupt the journey. At the back there is usually a large flat bed space that will accommodate about four people. These may seem like prized spots at first, but the lack of barriers will make you move constantly and may lead to involuntary spooning of some unwashed stranger.
What I’m saying here is that the regular night buses aren’t all that great. But… they’ll get you there.
VIP/luxury night buses: Unless you’re traveling on a tight budget, be sure to keep an eye out for any upgraded ‘VIP’ buses, which operate between only some destinations. I took one of these from Hanoi to Ha Giang, for example. For just $8 more I got myself a private cabin with a comfy massage bed, USB chargers, snacks, A/C, and more. I thought this was totally worth it.
Night trains: There is a choice from various classes of seats and beds on the Reunification Express. The 2nd class berths have 6 beds in them. They’re quite cramped and there’s not enough room to sit upright. They also might have people sleeping on stretchers in the hallway outside and I’ve also seen certain six-legged insects crawling around the 2nd class carriages (sorry… I thought you should know). The 1st class (soft sleeper) carriages have 4 beds and are a lot more comfortable and clean. 2nd class is probably fine for a budget backpacker, but the 1st class upgrade is worth it if you can spare just a bit of extra dong.
Hop-on-hop-off bus tickets
There are several operators selling hop-on-hop-off bus passes for Vietnam. This means you can travel the full length of the country (between Hanoi and Saigon) on one ticket and going in one direction.
Sounds convenient, right? Well, they might not always be worth it.
Many of my travel buddies in Vietnam used these tickets but got quite frustrated with the limitations, as it reduces your flexibility a lot. They were also unable to switch to trains or minivans for particular legs of the journey where these would have been more convenient.
I’ve always booked my transportation one step at a time. Even if the hop-on-hop-off ticket is slightly cheaper overall, it’s not so great to have to lock yourself in. In my opinion, this makes them not really worth it.
Motorbiking in Vietnam
Although I love traveling Vietnam by bus and train, arguably the best way to explore Vietnam is by motorbike. The feeling of freedom you’ll get is amazing. You’ll also be able to go off the usual travel circuit, getting you much closer to the real country of Vietnam.
Many consider Vietnam one of the best motorbiking countries in Southeast Asia. If you can ride a bike or scooter and want to know more, be sure to check out our in-depth guide to motorbiking Vietnam.
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