Despite our best intentions to capitalise on all the cheap flights we saw advertised, I feel like we took a crazy amount of buses in Vietnam. Mainly because they are ridiculously cheap but also because we are hopelessly disorganised and never managed to book flights far enough in advance for them to be cost effective.
Case in point – when I first looked flights from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh on our dates were a mere £15 per person… by the time we sat down to book them it was going to cost £116 for both of us to fly. We’re pretty skint because it turns out freelancing means lots of unpaid invoices for several weeks after work is completed, so really bus travel in Vietnam was pretty much our only option.
From sleeping in aisles accompanied by jolly monks to some of the most comfy bus beds I’ve experienced we had it all. So with time spent on everything from rickety local buses to mini buses and night buses (both regional and international!) here’s our verdict on what to expect when travelling Vietnam by bus.
The Buses Themselves
The buses of all types and classes are often a bit of a state, poorly maintained and quite dirty although some are a lot better than others. The Open Tour night buses that run from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh and are designed for backpacking are quite good on the whole compared with the local sleeper buses and mini buses. That said they are still quite grubby and prepare for broken seats, dodgy air con and lots of neon lights, so my first piece of advice is to lower your expectations when it comes to bus travel in Vietnam. Then lower them a bit more.
The most shocking one we had was the local sleeper bus to Hanoi from Vientiane where the front window was covered in cracks – all buses we saw at the border were in similar states of disrepair but I don’t know whether to blame this on Laos or Vietnam. Off topic but mini bus travel around Laos was GREAT.
Not a factor you can control and it obviously varies greatly but you can pretty much guarantee there will be too many passengers on the bus and therefore people sleeping on the floor and in every nook and cranny. Don’t be British and demur to pushy people, hop on and grab a seat as quickly as you can if you want to get one at all!
This is more to be expected on local buses but even on decent looking touristy mini buses in Vietnam they pack in way more people than you’d think possible. Top Tip – avoid sitting at the back unless you want a truly bone shaking ride where you have to work hard to avoid biting off your own tongue.
Drivers / Staff
Another variable one but the positives are that on night buses they have a small team of usually 2-3 guys including the driver meaning there’s slightly less chance of someone falling asleep at the wheel. However they can be extremely loud when talking to one another ALL NIGHT, playing rave music, and even though smoking on buses is illegal you can often expect the driver to be lighting up on the go.
All local bus conductors we encountered on buses in Vietnam were friendly and helpful so no issues there. But bus travel in Vietnam is not a peaceful experience.
The beds are pretty much 180 reclining with small plastic surrounds that stop you falling out and thin leather mattress type cushions. After trying to sleep on greyhound buses in Australia that are basically just normal coaches and some battered specimens of bus in South America these beds made a welcome change.
On the whole they are reasonably comfortable but you’ll get a far better sleep if you’re under 5′ 3″. Your feet are wedged into a small plastic compartment which is really uncomfortable for tall people.
Good luck on this one, in our experience it will depend largely on whether your driving team like to listen to loud music and how smooth the driving is, some buses we slept great whilst on others we didn’t sleep at all.
Our last bus from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh saw us witness a full scale screaming match at 3.30am between the driver and one of his team until he lost patience and kicked the guy out of the bus at the side of the road. Not until every single person who had been peacefully sleeping had been woken up. This was our worst experience of bus travel in Vietnam, or perhaps tied with the breaking down on the way to Hanoi incident.
Generally speaking we found the roads nowhere near as bad as areas of Laos and Cambodia, especially if you’re taking the main tourist trail. I’ve read some reports of very windy mountain roads and buses full of people being sick so perhaps be prepared with a carrier bag, but we experienced none of this. Thank goodness. I think the key routes are fairly safe as far as standards in this part of the world go and we didn’t worry too much about this with our bus travel in Vietnam.
The one and only reason for travelling on buses in Vietnam rather than other transport, in my opinion, is that they are very cheap. Often costing less than £10 for a 10/11 hour journey and much less than the train or plane for the same routes unless you book really far in advance it’s the top choice for budget travellers.
Shop around though as obviously all hotels and agencies add a different level of commission on top which can vary massively. Check Lonely Planet for handy guide prices as a starting point then see what a few companies offer and you should save some money.
Routes & Tickets
I guess another advantage is how easy it is to opt for bus travel in Vietnam as the routes cover literally everywhere you could want to go. You can even get open tickets all the way from Hanoi down to Ho Chi Minh or vice Versa so you don’t have to worry about buying individual tickets to your next destination every time you stop off.
Bus tickets are easy to get hold of with travel agencies everywhere and all hotels / hostels we stayed at also selling them.
Bus Station Locations
Getting dropped off in a bus station way out of town in the middle of nowhere is an all too common occurrence and a massive pita. It’s also normally the case that you’ll arrive in your next destination at some time between 3am and 5an, which is obviously a convenient time to be in the middle of nowhere in a brand new place.You’ll then need to try and find or negotiate onward transport with people who can’t wait to rip off some tourists who have had the misfortune to end up miles outside Hanoi in the middle of the night.
The only places this didn’t happen were when we arrived in Dong Hoi and Ho Chi Minh.
Make sure to have a SIM card with 3/4G, your hotel address and remember Uber is available in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.
Bus Safety & Security
This is universally not good, we consider ourselves lucky we didn’t wind up in an accident and would definitely not have taken buses if it wasn’t so much cheaper than alternative options. Drivers will be on their phone and even playing computer games, they will overtake on blind corners and scooters and random cows will appear out of nowhere.
Bus crashes are not uncommon, we saw many buses looking like they’d been through the mill and I don’t think we took a night bus that I could imagine being deemed roadworthy back in the UK.
Lots of people reported belongings going missing, from clothes and shoes to phones and wallets, based on what we heard travelling by bus in Vietnam was the only time we used our waist belt things to store passports etc during long journeys.
So overall we were lucky to travel solely by bus in Vietnam for three weeks without any really major problems. We did meet people who had belongings stolen and wound up in crashes, luckily none too serious, so whilst i think you’d be unlucky for anything to go too badly wrong I wouldn’t be travelling in Vietnam by bus if I had the money to fly.
I don’t know if trains are any safer as I’ve also heard many nightmare stories about those and there was actually a train derailment that resulted in fatalities while we were in Vietnam. Pretty shocking all in all, but I guess that’s just one of the risks of travelling in these countries. I’d still take the risk instead of missing seeing amazing places any day of the week – this was our itinerary for 3 weeks in Vietnam if you want to find out more on the specific buses we took.