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My friend Ritchie and I spent just over a week in Vietnam, starting in Ho Chi Minh City, working our way up the coast via Nha Trang, Hoi An and finally Hanoi, before taking a nightmare bus journey to Luang Prabang in Laos.
You can travel Vietnam by train (see Man in Seat 61 for timetables), but we did the whole thing by bus. It felt like the most convenient option because we were always picked up directly from our accommodation, or from the travel agent where we booked our ticket. Some places- like Hoi An- don’t have a train station, so you would have to get a train to Da Nang and then a bus to Hoi An anyway. It just felt like the cheapest and easiest option, allowing door-to-door travel. The overnight bus journeys also allowed us to save money on a night’s accommodation.
What are buses in Vietnam like?
Sometimes the bus will pick you up from your accommodation or the place where you booked your ticket, and other times you will be picked up by a mini bus, then transferred to the main bus. The bus isn’t a double-decker, just a single floor, but it is fitted with three rows of bunk beds. One row on either side of the bus, and one in the middle. The bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang was a brand new bus I dubbed the ‘disco bus’ because of its pink and purple lights, but the buses after that were all a bit more old and worn.
When you get on the bus you are given a plastic bag to put your shoes in and the driver sort of grunts and shows you to your seat. I say seat, but they are more like angled-flat beds with a fair bit of recline. On the downside they are too short, so your legs will be pretty cramped, meaning you have to lie in the foetal position when sleeping. The driver will then drive through heavy traffic picking up more passengers, so it takes quite a while before you’re officially on your way.
Between the on-board music, bumpy roads, the honking of horns and the swerving, you might find it difficult to get to sleep. I personally sleep like a baby on any kind of transport, but if you struggle then you could consider popping to a pharmacy and getting a sleep aid. Often the drivers will not speak very much English, so it’s difficult to know what’s going on. If you see everyone getting off the bus, then that’s usually an indication to follow suit. Chances are you’re stopping for food, the toilet, or both. Every now and then you’ll stop at a local snack stall or basic restaurant for dinner or breakfast- whatever meal time it is. Vietnam is a big place and therefore the bus journeys are long, plus they’re always late. You’re in it for the long-haul, so get comfortable!
Here are some pictures of the buses I rode in Vietnam:
Some Tips for Bus Travel in Vietnam
- Shop around for a ticket– It’s quite easy to buy a bus ticket to your onward destination in Vietnam from any of the travel agents in the street or at the reception desk in your guesthouse. But prices can vary, so ask around to try and find th cheapest deal.
- Keep your day pack and valuables with you at all times- Your big backpack or bag will be stowed in the hold underneath the bus. As a general rule, if there’s anything you really wouldn’t want stolen, make sure you keep it on your person. I usually travel with a smaller backpack that contains things like my passport, money, laptop, camera and other electronics, so I took that on-board. It was kind of annoying having a bag taking up room on my seat, but I wasn’t taking any chances. To be safe, don’t leave your electronics out when you go to sleep. Keep an eye on your belongings, and if you have an iPod or a phone, tuck it away so that it’s not easy for another passenger to steal it. When you get off the bus to go to the toilet, take this stuff with you.
- Carry a little amenity kit– These are long-ass bus journeys, so it’s worth having a toothbrush and toothpaste to hand to keep your breath nice and fresh. No-one likes the feeling of furry teeth when trying to get to sleep at night. Wet wipes, deodorant, lip balm, moisturiser, ear plugs and an eye mask are also really handy to have with you. Girls, put some pantyliners in your bag to keep your underwear fresh.
- Don’t drink too much- Water, I mean. I’m not saying you should dehydrate yourself, but you’ll have no idea when the next rest stop will be, so you don’t want to feel like you’re bursting to pee. Make sure you use the bathroom before you get on the bus, and go to the toilet when the bus makes a stop. Drink water in sips, but don’t guzzle bottles of water.
- Wear comfortable clothes- This sounds obvious, but wear your most comfortable, loose clothing. There’s a reason those aladdin pants are so popular with backpackers. I usually wore leggings and a loose top with sleeves so that I wouldn’t get too cold under the air conditioning.
- Take music and something to read- Long journeys can be boring if you can’t sleep, so it’s always worth having something to entertain you. I like to carry a Kindle with a few books downloaded onto it, along with an iPod. Take whatever works for you.
- In my opinion, the top bunk is better- It’s the age-old argument of which is better: top bunk or bottom bunk? In my opinion the top bunk on the bus is better for 2 big reasons. These buses are cramped and small, so if you’re on the top bunk it generally feels less claustrophobic; you have more air, more light and you can see out of the window. Second, you’re less likely to feel the vibrations through the floor or hear the sounds of the road.
- Add another hour or two onto your arrival time- Buses in Vietnam are notoriously late, late, late. On my first couple of bus journeys I would look at my watch, thinking “But this was supposed to be our estimated time of arrival!” You’ll arrive when you arrive. Usually with the crazy Vietnamese traffic you’ll be and hour or two later than planned.
- Have accommodation booked in advance- When you hop on a night bus, the last thing you want to be worrying about is where you’re going to stay when you arrive all groggy and sleepy at your destination. Hop on the WiFi at your guesthouse, book something and write down the address to give to a taxi driver when you arrive. This way you don’t have to deal with the chaos of locals all touting for business asking ‘you need room?’ when you get off the bus.
- Take some snacks- The bus driver will make one or two food stops and everyone will pile off the bus for a meal. It will usually be a basic roadside snack stop serving chicken or beef pho noodles. It’s always worth carrying some snacks like Pringles or biscuits just in case you feel ravenous in between stops. On bus journeys in Vietnam, you’re never quite sure when the next stop will be. Carry some cash in local currency too, so you can pay for meals.
- Bring some hand Sanitiser– When you’ve been on a grimy bus for the last few hours, your hands will be feeling a bit icky and there might not be a sink with running water at the restaurants you stop off at. Carry some hand sanitiser so you can clean your hands before you eat. This was my number one item for bus travel in Vietnam.
- When you get off the bus, locals will hassle you- The locals know when your bus will be arriving, and they’ll be waiting. While the driver flings your bags onto the side of the road, you’ll often be surrounded by people offering you a taxi or a room to rent. If you already have a room booked, you won’t need to worry about being ripped off on accommodation or running around on a wild goose chase. It will also enable you to have a rough idea of what a taxi will cost, so you don’t get ripped off on the fare either. Ask a few different taxi drivers for a price and haggle with them before you get in.
- Take a sleeping bag or something warm– You’ll usually be given a blanket to put over you when you’re trying to get to sleep, but I get really cold on air-conditioned buses, so I travelled with a compact sleeping bag and a hoodie, plus some warm socks. I’d rather be too warm and take some layers off, than be too cold. Plus you can use your sweater as a pillow.
Have you ridden night buses in Vietnam? Do you have any tips you’d like to add? I’d love to hear your comments below.