Rambling around

Getting from here to there in vietnam is, for the most part, quite a straightforward affair.

By DON WILLS on June 07,2017 10:25 AM

Rambling around

Photo: Viet Tuan

Vietnam’s transport system is mostly efficient, relatively cheap, and can be relied upon to get you from almost anywhere to anywhere with very few hassles, (except at Tet that is, when the demand for plane, train and bus tickets is at a premium).

Air transport

Vietnam Airlines held a monopoly on domestic air transport for many years but now carriers like Jetstar Pacific and Vietjet Air are gaining a foothold in the market. Whatever airlines you are with, you can’t always rely on the planes leaving on time. Plan ahead in case of delays.

There are various international airports in Vietnam, with the three biggest being Noi Bai in Hanoi, Tan Son Nhat in HCMC, and Da Nang International Airport. There are also provincial airports in most sizeable cities on the tourist map. While none of these can hold a candle to Singapore’s Changi or the Netherlands’s Schiphol for design and sophistication, they are well run and efficient.

Rail network

Vietnam’s rail network is extensive (2,600 km of rail in all) and is regularly upgraded. Trains offer passengers the option of soft seats, bottom hard, and bottom soft (what those last two terms mean I shudder to think), with or without air conditioning. Train travel is ideal if you’re travelling with children, especially on overnight trips. The kids are not bound to their seats for the journey; they can move out into the corridor or take a little excursion with you to the dining car. And a night spent in a sleeping compartment is an adventure in itself.

If there’s no dining car on your train, not to worry; at every station food vendors board the train to hawk a variety of snacks, from bread rolls to skewered frogs.

The first north-south railway line, the 1,726 km-long Transindochinoise from Saigon to Hanoi, was built in 1899, and underwent extensive upgrading by the French in 1936. It became the repeated target of sabotage and bombings in WW2, the French War (1945-1954) and the American War (1955-1975), but in spite of its battle-scarred history it survives. Today, the north-south route is served by the Reunification Express, the Grande Dame of Vietnam’s rail system. It departs from HCMC for Hanoi and vice versa several times a day, a trip that takes 29 to 40 hours. You needn’t take the full trip in one bite - you can stop off at places like Danang and Hue along the way and continue your journey later should you so wish.

Buses

Bus transport is the cheapest but not necessarily the safest way to get around. Buses range from battered old rattlers well past their retirement dates to shiny new 40-seaters. Some bus companies will just take you to the destination; no tricks, no hassles, no sweat. Others see the ride as the perfect opportunity to gouge extra bucks out of unsuspecting passengers, especially tourists, so beware. They’ll pack the bus to bursting point and spin the journey out by an extra hour or so by stopping to take on even more passengers and making far too many stops at roadside restaurants specialising in low quality food at top-notch prices.

The only other frustration of bus travel you’ll encounter is having to roam around a busy, polluted bus terminal in search of the right bus to board.

Boats

Boats are the preferred mode of transport in the Mekong Delta. Travelling the Delta independently, while not impossible, is arduous, and most travelers choose to go with a tour company. There are plenty to choose from. Unlike other parts of Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta the tourism infrastructure is relatively undeveloped. On a tour, you can expect to be passed from carrier to carrier and from tour company to tour company. The road network is patchy and eventually peters out the further south you go. For the most part you’ll find yourself on the water, whether it be aboard a small cruise vessel, motorboat, sampan, noisy long-tail speedboat, or skiff. You’ll be expected to hoof it from time to time while transferring from transport A to transport B. Sometimes you’ll have the river to yourself, at other times your boat will be cautiously nosing its way between freighters, barges, sampans, and river vendors.

Other

If you’re the independent sort, you can hire a motorbike for VND250,000 to 400,000 a day (depending on the duration of the hiring period) to get around. Navigating is easy: once you’re out of a city the road signage is good. The driving standards, however, aren’t. Road rules seem to be largely a matter of choice and vehicle maintenance is lax.

With the exception of the Mekong Delta, travelling between cities is relatively straightforward. It’s when you’re travelling within the cities that the difficulties arise. The problem is those infuriating, all-too-familiar disruptions to any journey: gridlocks. Vietnamese motorists are no slouches when it comes to transforming a simple five-minute traffic jam into a gridlock of nightmarish proportions. It’s most likely to happen when traffic in one direction slows to a crawl then stops; a common enough occurrence, especially in peak hour. Now in any other country you’d just sit and wait it out, right? It’s sure to clear up before too long. It is the ideal time to pull out a book or catch up on your text messaging. But not in Vietnam. As soon as the traffic flow in one lane comes to a stop, your average motorcyclist immediately drives onto the footpath or the opposite side of the road and a thousand or more motorbikes follow suit, effectively turning what was a minor one-directional stoppage into a full-blown gridlock, one that’ll take hours to untangle.

Bangkok and Jakarta had the same problem, and built urban railway lines and monorails to alleviate their traffic woes. Hanoi and HCMC have no such lines just yet but they are on the drawing board. Work has already begun on the first of six lines in HCMC, from Ben Thanh Market in the downtown area to Long Binh in District 9. When completed in 2021 (don’t hold your breath - the completion date keeps getting pushed back), it will carry 930 passengers an hour at 110 km/h on the aboveground stretch (17.1 km) and 80 km/h on the underground stretch (2.6 km). Meanwhile, Hanoi is busily building its own urban railway network.

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