When we think of Asia we think of chaotic traffic and almost non-existent road rules. So what do you do if you want to travel through a country where flights and rail travel are relatively expensive? This is our story of travelling by bus through Vietnam and how we found it to be the cheapest, most comfortable, flexible and efficient way to travel the country.
When we got to Vietnam our plan was to travel from Ho Chi Minh in the south to Hanoi in the north and to see as much of the country as we could in between. However, we arrived in the bustling southern capital without any idea of how we would accomplish this!
We really wanted to buy or hire a motorbike and have the freedom to drive ourselves around Vietnam, but our large amount of luggage (meaning we’d need to take 2 bikes), my lack of motorcycle driving experience and the overwhelming traffic conditions made us doubt the safety and flexibility of this option.
So buying a bus ticket was our remaining choice – and looking back retrospectively it was, without doubt, the best decision we could have made.
We spent just under a month travelling through Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh to Sapa in the extreme north. We drove more than 2,500kms on 5 different trips with a total of 52 hours on board a bus. Here’s why we believe its the best way to travel around Vietnam.
Flexibility of an open bus ticket
Unlike a normal bus fare where you buy a ticket from one city to the next at a pre-determined date and time, in Vietnam you can buy a multi-city ticket that is completely flexible. Basically you’ll choose where you want to go, pay (price depends on how many stops you make) and then book your first leg of the journey. Once you reach your first destination you can book the second leg at no extra cross for whenever you want – 1 day or 2 weeks later, the choice is yours!
We paid around US $50 each to travel from Ho Chi Minh – Nha Trang – Hoi An – Hue – Hanoi – Sapa and spent from 2 nights to a week in each city. We chose to book with The Sinh Tourist company who, although being a little more expensive than its competitors, is famous for its reliability and safety and we had absolutely no problems with them.
For those used to travelling by plane, seats on a Vietnamese sleeper bus are pretty much like first class! Each seat comes with a pillow, blanket, bottle of water and fresh towel and the seat itself reclines almost 180 degrees. Most buses have been converted to ‘double decker’ sleeping buses that have air-con and even free wifi (although to be honest the wifi only worked on 1 of our 5 bus trips).
Still, the seats were super comfortable and, although many of our trips were overnight, we were able to sleep well. It also means you save on one night’s accommodation which is an added economic bonus to traveling by sleeper bus.
Driving anywhere in Asia is usually the opposite of what we’d define as ‘safe’. Scooters zip around everywhere while their drivers are texting and their passengers (yes more than one) aren’t wearing helmets. Trucks overtake slower trucks on tiny, winding roads and let’s not even talk about the intersections! There has been many news articles published in the last years about buses falling off mountainous roads or crashing head-on with cars or trucks coming the other way – but despite all of this we surprisingly felt relatively safe during our bus trips.
Paying extra for a more reliable bus company may have helped in this respect – after 5 journeys we never saw one of the drivers speed or do anything too crazy (honking like a lunatic was ubiquitous however). On the contrary, the bus often moved so slowly that we got frustrated at how long it was taking.
The down side of travelling by bus
Like everything in life, there’s always some negatives to consider.
- You’ll lose a lot of time travelling by bus compared to by plane. Buses move super slowly here – a journey of only 400kms can take up to 12 hours so be prepared for this. We spent over 52 hours in total on buses in Vietnam, and although its good to be able to sleep or work for a bit, a lot of the time you’ll be just sitting on the bus or at a toilet stop twiddling your thumbs.
- Speaking of toilets – only 1 of the buses we took in Vietnam had a toilet. So its always a good idea to head to the bathroom before embarking on your journey. Thankfully most of the buses stopped regularly at petrol stations or markets so we could relieve ourselves, however don’t expect a clean toilet – and more likely than not it’ll just be a hole in the ground.
- Limited flexibility in choosing destinations. When you compare traveling by bus to buying a scooter and being free to drive where you want you’ll obviously have a lot less choice (and perhaps less fun). That being said, the bus system in Vietnam is extremely well organised and even if you have to transfer a few times, you’ll most likely be able to get anywhere you want.
- There’s no where on-board to keep your hand luggage. This is something that we found quite frustrating as we carry a lot of camera equipment that we want to keep close at all times. The only spot to put them was at our feet or behind our seat if it wasn’t reclined (which was frustrating). Luckily there was usually a spare seat near us that we made good use of with all our bags!
Apart from these 4 points, we found travelling by bus to be extremely comfortable, cheap, secure and best of all – flexible. We highly recommend the Sinh Tourist Company if you’re thinking of traveling by bus through Vietnam.