Quick Travel Guide  •  Vietnam, Southeast Asia

Everything You Need To Know Before Traveling To Vietnam

Last Updated On: June 2, 2020


Nothing can quite prepare you for the madness of traveling Vietnam. The million scooters, the distinct smells of the bustling street markets, and the incredibly diverse cultural sights. With Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa in the north, and Hoi An, Mui Ne, and Ho Chi Minh City in the south, there is so much waiting to be discovered. Don't know where to start? Don't worry, that's what we're here for. Within this post, we are going to share with you an overview of everything you need to know about traveling through Vietnam, taking you step by step through the visa application process as well as diving into detail about all the fun and exciting ways to get around the country.


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How to Bus Travel, Vietnam, Southeast Asia | Bare Escape

How to get your visa for Vietnam

There are many ways to get to Vietnam while traveling through Southeast Asia. You can arrive by train, bus or other overland transportation from Cambodia, China, and even Laos, but the easiest and the most recommended way is by plane. In order to enter Vietnam, your passport must be valid for at least six months upon arrival, and depending on your nationality you will probably have to apply for a visa before you arrive. 3 different ways to get your visa for Vietnam:

  1. From a Vietnamese consulate or embassy in your home country
  2. Apply for an E-visa at the website of the Vietnam Immigration Department
  3. Visa on arrival (most popular). This is the easiest and most convenient way, but be aware that this method requires a written approval letter that can only be obtained through a local travel agency prior to your departure date. Click here to get the process started!

The visa on arrival option is the most popular method for tourists & backpackers and was also our first choice because it allowed us to be flexible. When traveling through Southeast Asia, you should have a rough idea of the places you want to see and the countries you would like to visit, but I would discourage you from having a detailed time schedule (if you have the luxury of time that is). This way you can simply exist and stay a day or two longer in a place if your heart desires. For an easy and worry-free visa on arrival application process, we decided to use Vietnam Visa. The process is simple. All you need to do is fill out their online application form and pay a small fee of $21 for their service either via Credit/Debit, PayPal or Western Union. The process only takes a few minutes and within 2 working days, your visa approval letter, as well as the entry and exit application form, will be in your email. If you forgot to apply for a visa and you are traveling to Vietnam tomorrow, you can apply for their super urgent service for an extra fee and within 2-4 working hours, you will have everything you need to get your visa on arrival. Don’t forget to print out all of your documents before you leave for Vietnam, but don’t worry, the front desk at your hotel or hostel will most likely print everything out for you at no charge. Also, before you head to the airport make sure to fill out the entry and exit application form and bring 2 passport-sized photos (either 4x6cm or 2x2 inches), your original passport, and cash to pay for the stamping fee in either USD or VND (Vietnamese Dong).

Bring Cash! The stamping fee is a fixed amount of $25 USD for a single entry visa and $50 USD for a multiple entry visa.

When we arrived in Vietnam, we had our entry and exit papers filled out and passport pictures in hand, ready to get our single entry visa. But there was only one problem. No Cash. Although we were informed prior to bring some with us, we were under the impression that there would have an ATM in the customs area, like they had in Cambodia. Luckily we had some leftover Euros but had no clue about the exchange rate. The officer was kind enough to allow us to pay in Euro, but he just threw out a random number because obviously he had no idea either. So learn from our mistakes and bring some US dollars to pay for your stamping fee!

How To Get Your Visa For Vietnam, Southeast Asia | Bare Escape
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How To Get Around In Vietnam

Vietnam can be divided into 3 main regions, North, Central & South. Each section can easily take a week or more to explore, especially if you really want to get to know the areas and not have to rush from one place to the next. It is recommended to explore either the North or the South, but if you are like us and simply want a little bit of everything then keep reading. There are many ways to travel the length of Vietnam. Depending on your time schedule you can travel either by train, bus or plane. Since we were traveling through Southeast Asia for 4 months in total we always opted for the most affordable route in order to stay within our daily budget.

Keep in mind that this is Asia we are talking about, so getting from A to B always takes longer than expected, especially when you travel by land and public transportation. Flying might be faster and more reliable but takes out all the fun, since this is where the best travel stories are made. We are going to go into a few different methods of travel we recommend, but to be completely up to date with the latest and best ways of getting around Vietnam, I always recommend getting in touch with your hotel prior to your arrival.

How to use the Open Bus Ticket System in Vietnam

One of the cheapest ways to travel within Vietnam is via the Vietnam Open Bus Ticket System. Especially popular among backpackers, this system allowed us to travel all the way from Hanoi to Saigon and explore everything in between with one ticket going in one direction for less than $50 per person. So what does this mean? With the Open Bus Ticket, you can get off at any major stop, spend a few days exploring the area and then jump on the next bus when you are ready to continue your journey The ticket is valid for a whole month. Every ticket comes with a detailed bus timetable and the branch office addresses in each city so you can easily contact the bus company and confirm when and where you want to go next. All you have to do is call 24 hour prior to your desired departure date to give them your ticket number and voila! Quick tip: have the front desk at our hostels call to arrange just to make sure there wasn't any miscommunication.

While this way of traveling is cheap and convenient, it is not always the most comfortable way of traveling. The Vietnamese love to use their horn while weaving in and out of traffic, so make sure to bring earplugs, motion sickness medicine, and extra layers to stay warm because nine times out of ten, the bus driver is going to blast the air-con all night long. We prefer traveling at night because with only two weeks on our hands we didn’t want to lose any precious daylight that could have been used to explore more places! Plus being on a budget, we didn’t have to spend any extra money on a place to stay.

Hanoi, Vietnam, Southeast Asia | Bare Escape
Hoi An, Vietnam, Southeast Asia | Bare Escape

How to pick the best open bus ticket company in Vietnam

If there is one piece of advice I can give when choosing your Open Bus Ticket is to Do Your Research. With over 25 different bus companies choose from, your ride may be great, horrible, or anything in between. It is rather difficult to recommend the best Open Bus Ticket companies since it often is a hit or miss. All the buses we rode in were decent, but some seemed to be in better condition than others. We used Sinh Cafe Open Bus and we had the best experience one can have traveling over 10 hours in a sleeper bus, with a bus driver who hardly spoke any English, a rather tight sleeping space, never-ending blasting AC and 30 other strangers.

The Open Bus Ticket is the cheapest way of traveling for a reason.

The Open Bus Ticket comes with a lot of benefits but there are a few downsides. The most notable is once you've bought your Open Bus Ticket, you will have to finish your journey all the way to Ho Chi Minh City with the very bus operator you bought your ticket with from day one. This is why choosing a decent bus company at the beginning makes a lot of sense. In general, any bus from a decent bus company will stop at the following cities: Hanoi - Ninh Binh - Phong Nha - Hue - Da Nang - Hoi An - Nha Trang - Da Lat - Mui Ne - Ho Chi Minh City. Depending on the cities you want to visit you can skip some and just remain on the bus until you've reached your desired destination. Be aware that most routes are overnight sleeper buses due to the long distances. Some advice for those thinking about traveling via sleeper bus through Vietnam and Southeast Asia in general:

  • Pack wisely: There is not much storage space on the buses. Bring only your essentials and valuables such as passport, money, electronics and snacks, the store everything else in the luggage compartment below the bus.
  • You're hot and you're cold: Temperatures on the bus can vary dramatically so be prepared. Sleeper buses are known to get extra cold at night since they love their AC, so make sure to wear layers because the blankets that are usually provided are not very thick.

For more information about the Open Bus tickets and where to purchase them check out BC Family Tour. BC Family Tour is a leading travel company in Southeast Asia and they also happen to offer assistance with booking all kinds of bus tickets. You can choose your route and book your open bus ticket directly over their website.

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What you need to know about Train travel in Vietnam

Trains in Vietnam are cheap, convenient, and surprisingly comfortable. The Vietnam Railways' system is pretty connected, the Reunification Line stops at almost all of the major tourist destinations such as: Vinh - Hue - Da Nang (to get to Hoi An) - Nha Trang - Binh Thuan (to get to Phan Thiet and Mui Ne) - Ho Chi Minh City You can purchase your tickets either online or at any railway station in the country. Tickets can be purchased up to 2 months in advance, however exact dates are required. The Vietnam Railway does not offer “open tickets" like we recommended above, so this is great For online bookings, we recommend to book either via 12go Asia Train or Vietnam Railways.

I personally love train travel. It allows me to walk around, travel like a local, and sit by the window and watch the as urban jungles turn to breathtaking landscapes.

When traveling by train through Vietnam you can choose between a seat or a sleeper (with our without air-conditioning). A sleeper is a seat that turns into a bed at night and if you choose this option, usually you can book your ticket for First Class sleeper trains also known as soft sleepers or Second Class sleepers also known as hard sleeper:

  • First Class Sleeper: Choose between VIP soft sleepers with 2 berth compartments or the ordinary soft sleepers with 4-berth compartments featuring 2 upper and 2 lower berths.
  • Second Class Sleeper: The hard sleeper usually comes usually with 6 berths, 2 lower, 2 middle and 2 upper.

While there is no such thing as local trains or tourist trains, some routes offer more luxurious carriages run by a private company, which are added to the standard Vietnam Railways trains. A popular route is from Hanoi to Sapa. Sleeper trains are the best choice for long-distance train travel in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asian in general. You not only save money, but you also save daylight and you can use your precious days exploring the incredible sights of Vietnam instead of traveling.

How to get from Hanoi to Sapa

If you are interested in traveling to the Northern Highlands, then we recommend taking the train. This route is arguably the most popular Vietnam train ride amongst international tourists. The town of Sapa does not have its own train station. The closest railway station to the hill station of Sapa is Lao Cai, but there are plenty of buses and taxis going to Sapa from Lao Cai which is around 40 km away. As explained above, besides the public trains, it is also possible to book your train ride via a private company. Many private companies offer more luxurious train rides, meaning cleaner, smoother, and overall more enjoyable trips, and the route from Hanoi to Lao Cai is known for it.

The Victoria Express Train is one of the most luxurious trains connecting Hanoi to Lao Cai. The train is open to everyone, both in house guests of the Victoria Hotel and Resort in Sapa as well as non-in house guests. The train runs daily, except for Saturdays. The benefit of taking the Victoria Express Train is that passengers have exclusive access to the Victoria Express Lounge to check-in, which includes Wi-Fi, snacks, and light refreshments. The Victoria Hotel and Resort in Sapa offers great promotional packages. This includes roundtrip train tickets, a shuttle bus transfer between Lao Cai Railway Station and the Vicotria in Sapa, a private half-day tour, and much more. The normal train ticket does not include the transfer from Lao Cai to Victoria Hotel and Resort in Sapa but a pick up can easily be arranged by the resort. The Victoria Express Train is one of the more expensive options, but the experience is one of a kind. There is no need to worry if the Victoria Express Train is out of your budget. There is a multitude of “luxury” trains offering comparable prices and services. Now it is up to you to pick your favorite and one that fits your budget. Here are a few others you can choose from: Sapaly Express, Chapa Express, Dream Express, Fanxipan Express, Livitrans Express, King Express, and Orient Express. A great place to book your ticket and compare prices is at Vietnam Railways.

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The Ultimate. Guide to Vietnam, Southeast Asia | Bare Escape
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