Millions of U.K. citizens will be traveling home for Christmas both from aboard and domestically throughout December, a similar pilgrimage for Vietnamese people awaits as Tet holiday fast approaches in early 2024.
The British will be greeted with train strikes, high prices and frozen runways causing delays, comparably locals in Vietnam will face unending traffic and elevated prices for flights. It begs the question, how do both countries stack up against each other for domestic travel?
On Feb. 21, 1804, the U.K. was propelled into industrial age when Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive completed the first-ever steam-powered train journey. Britain was undoubtedly the forefront for railway engineering.
Fast-forward two centuries and a return train journey from Liverpool to Leeds will now cost US$53.30 (VND1.3 million) for a journey that takes less than one and half hours. But it’s okay, there will be stable wifi, guaranteed seats and reliable punctuality, right? These expectations are considered luxuries in modern-day railway travel across the U.K.
According to The Guardian: “Rail passengers have been delayed or disrupted on more than half of all train services departing from 15 of Great Britain’s busiest stations in the last year.” Traveling by train in the United Kingdom has gone from being exemplary to shambolic in the last few decades.
Meanwhile in Vietnam, rail transport was introduced nearly a century later in the 1880s by the French administration of Indochina, since then, they have been full steam ahead in their efforts to catch up. The earliest rail project was the Saigon-Cholon tramway in 1881, however, nowadays the single-track north-south railway line between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is the most significant route.
A soft-sleeper cabin on this journey will cost approximately $62 and takes around 32 hours. Undoubtedly slower than U.K. trains, but less than $10 more to travel 1,727 km compared to the 105 km journey between Liverpool in Leeds in the U.K.
A similarly popular route between Hanoi and Da Nang has recently been upgraded with high-quality trains with meticulous interior enhancements such as water heaters, ceramic sanitary equipment and luxury dining, with tickets starting for train SE19 starting at some VND920,000 ($38) on weekdays. Passengers will also get to enjoy the spectacular view as it makes it way along the coastline.
Foreigners board the high-quality Hanoi-Da Nang train in October 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy
Admittedly, progress is necessary for Vietnamese trains with a necessity for more readily available information, more frequent connections and faster journeys, however the strides are certainly progressive, compared to the regression evident in the U.K.
The more popular mode of transport for intercity travel within Vietnam are domestic flights. The Hanoi-HCMC route is the busiest domestic route in Southeast Asia with nearly one million passengers opting to take to the sky every month, similarly Da Nang to Hanoi is the third-most popular route in this part of the continent, where over half a million citizens choose to fly every month.
According to Vietnam Airlines, you can fly between Vietnam’s two major cities for as little as VND798,000 ($33) one-way. Whereas, a flight between Edinburgh and London will cost you around $20 according to Skyscanner, significantly cheaper, although the flight time is on average 50 minutes less.
The cheaper price within the U.K. means you’ll be flying with a budget airline with laughably-limited legroom and a carry-on bag that has to fit under the seat in front of you if you want to avoid extortionate fees in the airport that will far exceed the cost of your return ticket.
Additionally, you’d better hope you ate prior to departure, as there’s a slim chance of receiving any food or drink for less than $10 during your flight. In contrast, Vietnam Airlines domestic flights allows checked luggage up to 23 kg and refreshments on board free of charge, preventing you from arriving at your destination with stiff muscles and an empty stomach.
Due to the frequency of domestic flights available, the affordability and the difference in size between the two countries, it’s a far more viable option in Vietnam.
A National Express bus from London to Manchester takes approximately 5 hours and 20 minutes and costs $8.70 according their website, whereas a bus journey of a similar duration between Hanoi and Sa Pa is listed as VND400,000 ($16.51) on the Vexere app.
However, the variety of options in the type of bus available in Vietnam is a stark contrast compared to the fixed option of the 49-seater standard coach in the U.K. In Vietnam you can choose between an eight-seater limousine with ample legroom and a bottle of water provided or the more popular option among backpackers – a sleeper bus with cabins offering privacy, comfort and a unique travel experience compared to the west.
The huge caveat to this is undoubtedly the question of safety. Traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in Vietnam with nearly one fatality ever hour on average and these sleeper buses have been described as “death on wheels” by many in the past.
The mountainous roads in the north are in direct correlation with these crashes, in October five people were killed in Lang Son Province from a crash involving a 16-seater bus on the national highway. In that instance, on-site testing showed no sign of alcohol or drugs in the systems of any of the three drivers, however that’s a rarity as Vietnam’s roadside fatality rate and leniency towards drink-driving indisputably go hand in hand.
The convenience, flexibility and cheap cost of buses in Vietnam is unquestionable, however you truly cannot put a price on your own safety. Therefore, I would personally favor a domestic bus journey within the U.K. where I can feel confident that the drivers face stricter punishments for driving under the influence, and also drive in a manner that is not putting every passengers’ life at risk with maneuvers many wouldn’t dare to attempt on a motorbike, let alone in a 30-tonne bus.
*Darren Barnard is from the U.K. and living in Vietnam.
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