May 24, 2011

How We Moved Our Family From Point A To B In Vietnam

The logistics of traveling with a family are very different to when you are travelling on your own or with other able-bodied adults.  Young kids in particular can have attention span issues, motion sickness issues, and mobility issues.  It wasn’t until about 2 weeks before we were to arrive in Vietnam did we realise how BIG a country it actually is.  Apparently it is a similar size to Italy and has 3451km of coastline!  After we identified the ‘where’ part of our itinerary for Vietnam, we had to address the ‘how’-- as we had only allowed for a maximum of 30 days there, we were going to have some serious ground to cover in terms of getting between destinations as well as maximizing our time once we got there.

One of our 'Sleeper' buses
For longer distances, generally people travel through via train, bus or air, or combinations of them.  Each has their pros and cons, and of course, budget is a primary consideration for us.  Many people rave about the rail network in Vietnam—it’s relatively inexpensive and allows for more freedom of movement than on a bus, although by some reports, may be slower than the bus.  Air travel is quick and covers a lot of ground, is relatively inexpensive too (we’ve heard, but ‘relative’ is the key), but you can bypass too much of the countryside in the meantime.  We’d read about the ‘Open Tour’ bus ticket so set out to explore that option when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. The ‘Open Tour’ ticket basically has a set number of destinations between HCMC and Hanoi.  You choose which destinations you want to get off and on at and pay accordingly.  The buses run on a set schedule, and generally 1 departure per day.  You can also choose between ‘seated bus’, or ‘sleeper bus’ or sometimes a combination of the two may be available.  Once you have decided on your destinations, you simply board the bus for your first leg, get off at your destination and stay as long or short as you’d like.  The day before you intend to set off again, you simply contact their local office (numbers and addresses are all provided on your ticket) to advise them.  Depending on the company that you are with, they will even pick you up from your hotel as part of the deal.  You are generally required to complete your travel within 30 days.  And unlike a conventional tour, you aren’t stuck with the same group of people on your bus as there is a usually new group on each leg due to everyone’s different combination of travel schedule and itinerary.

One of our Sleeper Buses

We booked 3 seats on a sleeper bus, with 6 destinations between HCMC and Hanoi (although in the end we actually only travelled as far as Ninh Binh and had to pay extra for a local mini-van to Hanoi).  For each seat, we paid approximately $40.00 USD.  It can be tricky booking ‘Open Tour’ tickets.   All of the agents in HCMC that we talked to were all quite coy about the actual bus company that you are booked with as they all say that there are about 4 different companies which offer the ticket and that there is no difference between them.  Furthermore, they all show you pictures of pristine new buses too, all which look suspiciously alike. In reality they basically put you with the one which they can make the most profit with.   In hindsight we were perhaps a bit hasty in booking ours and we weren’t firm enough with the travel agent to find out exactly which company we were being booked with ahead of time.  There definitely ARE differences between the companies and the age of the buses themselves.  We ended up with a ticket on the T.M. Brother’s Cafe bus, which was one of the more popular ones that they stick the backpackers on, and it was alright.  Although we had a very un-kid-friendly driver for our first leg between HCMC and Mui Ne (at one point he actually stopped the bus and made Maddy change seats because she was annoying him), the rest of the drivers were actually ok and quite cautious on the road even, which was a very good thing.  The buses themselves varied in age and quality, with the newer and nicer ones being found on the more northern routes it seemed.  

The sleeper bus was actually very comfortable.  The seat backs usually were adjustable so that you could be semi-flat or upright, but your legs were always in front of you.  The configuration of the bus was 2 levels like single bunk beds, with 3 rows across each separated by an aisle.  Occasionally storage of your carry-on belongings such as daybags and handbags was extremely limited on some of the buses.  All of the buses had air conditioning and one even had windows which you could open (Dalat to Nha Trang—great for taking pictures outside the window!).  Most of the buses had a toilet on board and even had seat belts.  In many ways, it was a good compromise between a bus and a train as you had more space to move around than on a standard bus and you could even walk around or at least get up to stretch your legs.  And you didn’t have to worry about strangers sitting next to you encroaching on your space.  Luckily the buses that we were on were typically not full, so the girls could actually have a bed to themselves, despite the fact that we were entitled to only 3 seats/beds.  In any case, the beds were usually roomy enough for the 2 of them to sit together and play, and at times, even to sleep together.  I found them to be much more comfortable than conventional ‘seated’ buses.

A couple of complaints about the ‘Open Tour’ bus option though.  Firstly, the drivers and their assistants tend to be more concerned about filling the bus along the way with either their friends or other paying Vietnamese passengers to probably make some extra money.  But they do this at the expense of the actual passengers who have paid for this premium service by trying to force you to sit further to the back so that they can easily put the ‘extra’ passengers in the front.  As well, usually extra seats don’t exist as they get filled along the way.  Sometimes they get so greedy that the aisles themselves are full with the extra passengers sitting or lying on the floor, despite this in fact being illegal apparently.  This is worse on the busier routes and during holiday periods.  (You also get this problem when travelling on ‘premuim’ mini-van services.) Secondly, even if you think you know which company you are booked with, that can also change!  From Hoi An onwards, we ended up travelling on another company’s bus, but this turned out to be a good thing for us as they had newer buses and nicer drivers!  They actually allocated us an extra seat on our overnight bus to Ninh Binh so we each had our own seat for the night.  

Our 'upgraded' bus--much nicer!

Sleeper Bus, from the front

At the end of the day, we found the Open Tour ticket a really good option for us, especially since we were time poor.  As we usually only had 2.5days in each place, we didn’t have to waste time and money worrying about how to get to the next destination.  We also didn’t have to worry and waste time about where to board our transportation as we were always either picked up at our hotel or at least met there and escorted to the meeting point.  Travelling with 2 young kids, this has been very convenient for us.  We’ve met a lot of nice people on the buses too and seen lots of the countryside along the way.

Travelling by bus through Vietnam with our family hasn’t been as horrible as one would imagine.  Our trips ranged from 2hrs (Ninh Binh to Hanoi) to 12 hours (Hue to Ninh Binh), with most trips around 5-7hrs long.  Amazingly the girls handled the travelling quite well and rarely complained about them and they don’t have motion sickness issues.  On longer afternoon trips, they often had a nap.  They were quite alert and full of energy on the morning trips, so they tended to be a bit more challenging, but with the extra room that the sleeper buses afforded them, they could play with each other or take out their drawing materials to ‘create’.  On the earlier legs, they would occasionally watch a DVD on the longer rides, but the battery on the laptop died while we were in Dalat so that hasn’t been an option for them since.  We’ve had 2 overnight trips of 11 and 12 hrs each, and on both the girls slept through most of the way, although the same couldn’t be said for Jim and I due to the poor conditions of the roads as well as Yasmine and I having to share a bed one night.  Any way you slice it though, travel days are always draining for everyone regardless of the length.

Chilling Out At The Back

Sharing a Seat, Munching on Caramel Popcorn

Essential Accessory!
Aside from the logistics of long distance travel, there is also the issue of shorter distances that include sight-seeing.  On previous trips, Jim and I preferred to explore on foot, walking for hours on end.  This time around due to the girls and their ‘little legs’ and with only 2.5 days in each place, we had a lot of distance to cover.  Vietnam doesn’t have tuk tuks as in Thailand or Cambodia, although they do have cyclos (Tricycle taxis) and ‘ox oms’ (motorcycle taxis where you hop on the back behind the rider), but they are only good or 2 of us at best, so we’d need always need 2.  Even though they are generally half the price of taxis, they still add up.  Instead we’ve found that hiring our own 110 or 125 cc motorbike (scooter) was the ideal and most economical way for us to move our family around for a day or two while in a city or town, saving our energy for exploration of the sights themselves. Luckily as Jim is a very experienced rider, coupled with the fact that the girls are still small enough to not take up too much room, we were able to travel around ‘Asian-style’ on our family bike!  Hiring a motorbike was very cheap—on average, it’d cost $5.00 USD per 24/hrs for a manual bike.  They were also very fuel efficient, especially as we’d only be travelling no more than 30km/hr on average.  At a cost of $1.00-$1.23 per litre, we’d maybe use 1 litre, sometimes 2, of petrol for a day’s sightseeing covering a distance of up to 20km.  Surprisingly we found that we often enjoyed the countryside around where we were staying more than the place itself and we are really glad that having the use of a scooter has given us a greater taste of an area that we would have otherwise missed out on.  And the girls are happy that they didn’t have to walk everywhere!  Yasmine would even fall asleep for a ‘cat nap’ while sandwiched between Jim and I on the back of the scooter during the afternoons!  Word of warning though:  only attempt hiring your own motorbike/scooter if you are somewhat experienced, especially if you are going to attempt it with your children on board.  We’ve seen too many tourists bring home with them scars and even broken limbs as souvenirs of their experiences.

Yasmine, asleep AGAIN while on the scooter!

A comment too about organised tours:  we generally avoid them for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, they can really bump up the budget expenses, especially when travelling as a family.  You really pay a premium for convenience when usually you can do it all on your own. Secondly, it can be too rigid for families who have children, especially young ones.  It can be very demanding for the children and the parents to ‘always keep up’ and to not have any flexibility in choosing mealtimes, breaktimes, etc, as was the case in our Halong Bay trip.  Lastly organised tours can be a very ‘closed’ experience, sheltering you too much from the ‘real’ society as everything you do and every contact that you have is carefully orchestrated. In spite of this, organised tours can also have their benefits too.  Often they can be the most efficient way to see certain sights, saving you time in organising it yourself.  For this reason, we took a half day tour to the Chu Chi Tunnels in HCMC and the 3 day/2 night tour to  Halong Bay—it just made the logistics easier for a slightly higher price than it would have probably cost us to do it on our own.  Also sometimes it’s just the ‘only way’ as in our day boat trip in Nha Trang.  Definitely pros and cons.

So in case you were wondering, that’s how we’ve been getting around in Vietnam.  We’re also still managing to stay within budget and with everyone relatively happy, probably even fitter than before due to our faster pace of travel despite hiring scooters every place we go.  It’s been a big country to explore, and we’ve only just scratched the surface, but we think we’ve done pretty good considering we are travelling with 2 kids in tow!


  1. What a gift you are giving your children to expose them to so many people and experiences!

    I noticed your daughter wearing the face mask. When did she need that and to protect her from dust? Also, we have ten days in Vietnam next week flying in and out of Saigon. A little concerned about the weather, so we were going to decide on our itinerary at arrival. Initial thoughts are fly to Nha Trang for all to adapt with time and climate in relaxing atmosphere.
    -Fly to Nhatrang to rest & visit for a few days (if you have extra time, take the bus ride to Dalat, stay overnight).
    -From there fly to DaNang (visit Hoi An)
    -From there fly to Hanoi (visit Halong Bay, Chua Huong)
    -Fly back to Saigon (for visit before you leave)

    If you have a chance, could you recommend number of days for each area? Is Mekong Delta worthwhile for single day trip?

    1. Hi!
      Thanks for your interest in our travels! How exciting that you are arriving in VN soon, but yes, i've heard that it can be very hot at this time of year. Nha Trang is certainly nice to be able to catch the ocean breeze and maybe even take a boat trip as we did. (have you seen our post on Doing the Funky Monkey?) There's also a popular amusement park across the bay but we never made it there. Dalat is a nice respite from the heat but keep in mind that it's quite far from Nha Trang as the road is very windy (not good for those who are prone to car sickness). if you only intend to go there and spend the night, i don't think it's worth the long trip.

      We spent 2nt and 3 day in each of our destinations in VN--we felt this was a good amount of time although it is still rushed. Keep in mind that if you go to Halong Bay, it is a full day trip, leaving around 8am and returning around 4pm. the old quarter of hanoi is fascinating to walk around in but it can be very crowded later in the day and the pick pocket thiefs are rampant--keep a close on on your things cus they are good! Hoi An is definitely worth a look, but IMO head out into the old quarter later in the day or early evening as it's quite magical at night too. China Beach is nearby but other than that, not much else if you are time pressed. we didn't make it to the Mekong Delta as it too is quite far from Saigon but i've heard it's beautiful. If you are time pressed, sign up for a half or full day tour of siagon, which usually involves a visit out to the Chu Chi Tunnels, which is a must-see.

      There is so much to see in VN--don't be tempted to see it all in your 10days! the logistics of travel there can result in added time in your travels--keep that in mind.

      As for my daughter's face mask--yes it was for the dust due to riding in the front of the scooter. Hiring a scooter is a great way to see the towns and a bit of the countryside, plus its readily available and very economical to do.

      Hope this helps--have fun!

  2. Hi, can you tell me the name of the bus company that had the upgraded buses. Thanks, Sarah