Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips
Other Means of Getting Around
"I returned to Vietnam in the most incongruous of vehicles - an ancient, wheezing taxi. They congregated like vultures around the bus station, waiting to take up the slack when buses were crammed full. I bargained hard for a place on the torn plastic seats and congratulated myself on the final price - until the driver cranked his engine to life and six Cambodians crowded in beside me. The driver cheerfully munched on roasted baby birds at all the ferry stops and inhaled endless homemade cigarettes. In all ways he was a fine, upstanding fellow... until he slipped behind the wheel. He drove as though he wanted wings for Christmas and was quite prepared to earn them, either by a spontaneous breakthrough in rocket science or via a more traditional path, bestowed upon him by the good St. Peter."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Taxis are hard to park and slow to drive around cities. If you wish to do a one-day excursion into the countryside, you should explore this option. Compare prices with an equivalent "tour" in a hired car.

This the non-backpack, strolling around kind. If you want to hike, see TREKKING. Remember most of Vietnam is hot for most of the time. If you walk too far and get tired, you can always flag down a motorcyclist to give you a ride back. Offer them a tip that would be slightly more than the equivalent cyclo fare.

If you pass huts/villages you will often be invited in for tea. Still bring water.

Children will most likely follow you wherever you go. This can be a joy (when they take your hand and show you around) or an annoyance (when they shout the same two American words at you for an hour or more at a time and when you ignore them, throw rocks at you). Like the occasionally oppressive tropical sun, you are not going to make them go away so you might as well make the best of them.

The reason this one is in the "other" list is because I never hired a car - never even sat in one - for the seven months I was in Vietnam. I did speak to a number of travelers who did, however, and here's what they told me:

Buying a car: you can't. You can't rent a car to drive yourself in Vietnam and you don't want to. You may be an Indianapolis 500 race driver who doesn't mind playing chicken with trucks, buses, potholes and water buffalo, but you probably don't know how to bargain down a fine in Vietnamese and where to park the car at night in Danang so that it's still there in the morning.

photo A driver/guides costs about $5 per day. Is that a great deal or what? Make sure your guide speaks your language and that you think you can live with him day and night for the duration of your trip. I listened to two women in Saigon complaining that they hadn't met a single Vietnamese in their entire ride down from Hanoi. A little secret: your guide is Vietnamese. He's probably knowledgeable, friendly, and proud of his country. He's also probably quite lonely in the evenings in his guesthouse room. Share your social time with him - you'll see much more of the country and learn something along the way. I met the best guide in the world when I was in Saigon. He became my friend, my older brother, my protector. Unfortunately for you he is now living in California. There may be others like him out there.

Get several other travelers together and split the cost of the car and driver. Even for budget travelers this is a financially viable way to see Vietnam as long as you like the people traveling with you...

If you are driving from Saigon to Hanoi (or any other significant distance) expect to get shaken down ("fined") occasionally by the police. Let your driver do the bargaining and reimburse him. Make it clear that if the fines stay reasonable he'll see a difference in his tip.

Bargain down the car rate even if you're in an established tourist agency. Then sign a contract in English and take the original with you. If your driver asks for it, give him a photocopy.

Make sure the itinerary is in black and white before you leave.

Cars are a bear to park and extremely difficult to drive around the narrow streets of Hanoi and other cities. Do your driver a favor and take cyclos when you're in big city.

Flying is relatively expensive ($150 from Saigon to Hanoi when I was there). o Bring a couple of dollars in Dong to the airport to pay the departure tax.

You need your passport and visa to book a domestic flight and to check in.

Domestic weight allowances are very strict. When I was returning to the US I was booked on an afternoon domestic flight, an overnight in Saigon, and the international flight the next day. Vietnam airlines insisted that I pay the overweight on my domestic flight (about $300) even though they had made the booking all the way through to the US. I eventually bargained them down to $8, but it took an hour.

You can charter a flight or a helicopter if you have money to burn.

"My cyclo driver edged closer. "You take ride, see city," he said suddenly in Vietnamese, pointing at his cyclo. I shook my head, then had a sudden inspiration and turned to re-examine his pedal-powered vehicle. From the midsection back it resembled a regular bicycle. A huge metal chair hung from the handlebars, supported by two wheels on either side of the seat. In poor weather a tattered awning could be raised over the passenger's head. It looked like the perfect chariot to take me into the highlands along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. My pack would be my passenger, protected from the vagaries of weather and thieving hands. Mentally I was already cruising through shimmering green paddy, scattering flocks of roadside geese to the four winds.

My guide was horrified. "You can't take a cyclo. It's too hard for a woman." Gulik, the bike's owner, agreed wholeheartedly. He suggested that I be the passenger with a Vietnamese driver. He slapped his bare chest.

The idea of crossing Vietnam in a mobile lawn-chair, tossing handfuls of candy to ragged children made me cringe. I offered to test-ride Gulik's cyclo to see how hard it really was.

"The police would come," Tam said, his eyes flickering up and down the street. "Maybe if you were a man..." At any rate, Gulik added, the cyclos were licensed. If I took one out of the city limits I would be arrested immediately and the owner would be held responsible. It was obviously out of the question. Both men brightened considerably."

Excerpt form Hitchhiking Vietnam

Most cyclo drivers rent their cyclos for a couple of dollars a day from the owner and then team up with someone so that the vehicle is in use most of the time. If they have no place to live they sleep in the cyclos chairs at night.

Cyclos are a fantastic way to see a city or town. Leisurely, quiet, inexpensive. Rent a cyclo when you first arrive and take a few hours to cruise the streets. You won't regret it.

photo You should always carry a business card from your guesthouse with you when you go out. That way if you get lost you can hop into a cyclo, show him the card and let him take you home.

If possible, bring a map with you and be aware of where you're going. On the one hand this may save you some money - drivers often go the long way around so they can charge you more.

If it's late at night and you've just come out of a bar it may save your possessions - - cyclo drivers have been known to pedal you into a dark alley where you will be mugged by his accomplices. Also do not leave valuables (video camera, etc..) in a cyclo when you go inside. Wouldn't you be tempted if three year's income was staring you in the face? Cyclos are often driven by ex-south-Vietnamese army men who can find no other job and have no city residence permit (which means they get shaken down regularly by the police and usually have to live on the street). They barely scrape by on their cyclo income and leave a great deal of sweat on the pavement. Keep this in mind when you're bargaining them down that last 5 cents.

Cyclo drivers who have no interest in picking you up are probably undercover police.

You must establish the fare before going anywhere or you will be honor-bound to pay what the driver asks.

Have the correct amount in local currency with you. Drivers sometimes don't have change (or pretend they don't).

Hiring a cyclo by the hour is cheaper than hiring it by the trip.

If the idea of buying/renting just the cyclo and taking it out into the countryside appeals to you, forget it. Cyclo drivers have to have a license (for both themselves and their vehicles). You wouldn't get far before you were fined and the cyclo impounded (at considerable cost to its owner).

There are many iterations of the basic cyclo - some have small motors attached, some have three wheels and a cart behind, some are hooked up to a horse.

They cost a little more than a cyclo for short trips, about the same for longer trips.

You can get into the countryside for a day without having to worry about overnighting, etc.

A full day on a little moped can be quite trying, especially given Vietnam's roads.

Be sure to negotiate the fare before you depart.

These can be either create-your-own, which means you hire a guide and vehicle to take you where you want to go, or the packaged kind, in which you plug yourself into the system and hope that they know what they're doing.

There are three options if you want to do it yourself:
  1. Government agencies like Saigon Tourist will be happy to book an official tour for you at an official (exorbitant) price.
  2. You can find a group of like-minded tourists and hire a private guide with a car. This is much cheaper but may soon be illegal (it competes with the government tours)
  3. The backpacker cafes and budget guesthouses can organize a car/minibus and driver for you.

"Tam was waiting for me in the lobby with his little moped. "Get on," he urged. We were late again.

We sped off through the traffic, clipping bicyclists and almost getting sucked under the wheels of an overloaded market truck. I remembered Tam's future aspirations as a cabby and delicately suggested that he amend his driving style before reaching America, and that he perhaps lose the habit of paying off the men in blue.

"I am a very careful driver!" he insisted, leaving behind a flurry of feathers as he shot across the path of a bicycle laden with upside-down ducks. "Especially when I have a passenger!" He cut around the outside of a truck into a massive surge of oncoming traffic. "And when that passenger is a foreigner," he put down a foot to corner better, "and a woman," he waved a languid hand and shot through a stampeding herd of mopeds, "and like a sister in my own family," we missed a turn and inadvertently mounted a sidewalk, "then I make sure nothing happens."

We had arrived on time. Perhaps he wouldn't make such a bad cabbie after all."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Packaged deals:
Although there are many overseas agencies who will book you a conventional package tour, you are much better off going to the nearest backpacker cafe and booking yourself on a pre-arranged tour. They are incredibly cheap, very efficient and leave almost daily from the major cities. they also, not surprisingly, go to some of the more scenic and interesting destinations in the area (particularly up north).

Low cost, almost no organizational effort, high efficiency.

You will be spending most of your time with other foreigners (my bias here. This could just as well be a pro)

You can't stop where you want, when you want.

You may sometimes feel like a piece of baggage on a conveyor belt.

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