Much Ado About Buses

Buses? A boring topic, you say? Emily thinks so.  She is sitting right beside me and just said as much.  Truthfully, she might be right, so I’ll try to keep this short. But we spend a lot of time riding on buses, waiting for buses, thinking about buses.  They have been an integral part of our trip, and of the South East Asian backpacker experience in general.  Sure, they’re not the most romantic (or comfortable) way to travel, but they are certainly the cheapest.  Plus, I came up with a sweet title for this post that is just too good not to use.  You laugh, but coming up with titles is the hardest part of writing this blog!

Vietnam is a huge country, and many of the bus rides are really long.  To give you an idea of some of the distances and costs:

  • Hanoi to Hue – 12 hours (approx) overnight sleeper bus –> 300,000 dong ($18 CAD) per person
  • Hoi An to Nha Trang – 11 hours (approx) overnight sleeper bus –> 270,000 dong ($16.20 CAD) per person
  • Nha Trang to Dalat – 4 hours regular bus –> 120,000 dong ($7.20 CAD) per person

Vietnam is a fairly inexpensive country to travel in, and unsurprisingly the buses are some of the more reasonably priced in South East Asia. Now it should be noted that Vietnam has a pretty decent rail system, which we took with Heather and Kieran overnight when we went north to Sapa.  The sleeping cabin we had was fantastic – much more comfortable than any bus, especially overnight.  But trains in this country are expensive – usually twice as much as the bus. And then there is the additional costs to get to/from the train station.  Unfortunately, this has put trains generally out of our budget while in Vietnam.

So given that trains (and of course planes) are generally out of our budget, that leaves the buses.  And given the size of Vietnam, it would be hard to do much traveling between cities without going on a sleeper bus.   So far we have gone on sleeper (overnight) buses in Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  The Vietnamese sleeper buses have definitely been the nicest and most comfortable, with the most likelihood of getting some sleep.  The seats let you lay almost flat, and the buses generally seem to be in good condition.  They give you water, blankets, and a pillow, and they have wifi that works pretty well.

Interior of the sleeper bus.  Each person gets a sort of “pod”, which lets them lay nearly flat.  There are 3 aisles of seats, configured in a top and bottom row.
I can nearly stretch all the way out. If you’re 6′ or under, you’ll be pretty comfy.
Blinds are a nice touch.
Though blinds won’t be of much use if the driver leaves the neon LED interior lighting on for the whole drive.  Better pack a sleeping mask.
You need to take your shoes/sandals off when getting on a sleeper bus. They give you a plastic bag to store them in, and sometimes provide flip flops to wear when you get to a rest stop.

However, there are a few drawbacks to the sleeper buses. For starters,  no one seems to be able to give reliable information as to when you will arrive.  Once we thought we were arriving at 7am, only to find ourselves getting off the bus at 4:45am wondering what we are going to do until we can get into our hotel room.  You’d think the ticket office, driver and/or bus attendant (staff member on the bus who is supposed to take care of everyone) would be able to tell you, but it doesn’t seem to ever work like that.

This leads to the next drawback of the sleeper buses: the drivers and on-board attendants are certifiably insane. There is no other way too put it.  It starts when you get on the bus. The bus tickets don’t have assigned seats, so when you get onto an empty bus of course you try to sit in the best seat possible.  Maybe you get travel sickness and need to sit near the front?  But the attendant has other plans, as he tries to force you into an arbitrary seat of his choosing.  If you don’t like the seat he points you to, for example if you don’t want to spend 12 hours beside the toilet that doesn’t flush properly, you can try asking for another seat – but good luck.   We have had this issue twice now, and both times we wanted different seats (on very empty buses) the attendant basically began yelling at us in angry Vietnamese.  This is no real attempt at communication.  It is a man going from 0 to 60 in an instant, losing his mind in an instant.  Both times we held our ground and took different seats.  Eventually the attendant burned himself out, and left us alone.

The rudeness and aggressiveness of the attendants has been an ongoing theme on sleeper buses.  We were warned of this in advance, by other travelers who described  this baffling aggression.  We thought it may have been exaggerated, but by now we have seen it too many times to think it an isolated incident, or just someone having a bad day.  The bus attendants regularly yell/scream at passengers for asking questions, trying to get something from their bag, or anything at all really.

The other problems with sleeper buses here is the difficulty in actually sleeping.  Its nothing to do with the bed/seat, and more to do with the driving.  The bus drivers treat the roads as a rally course, making for a roller coaster of a ride that can be quite impossible to sleep through.  They will drive down the opposite lane for ages, regardless of the oncoming traffic.  The horn never stops honking, day or night. It makes for a harrowing experience, even by Asian standards.  Before coming to Vietnam we had read a number of different sources online that suggested a lot of the sleeping bus drivers are on drugs, specially on amphetamines (speed) to keep them alert and to “help” them get to their destination sooner. Having now experienced several overnight bus rides first hand, this would not surprise us at all.  It would also explain the irrational behaviour of the bus attendants.

This is one of our bus drivers. At a rest stop he just finished hitting that wooden bong.  Hopefully it was just tobacco.  After this photo he put the bong into the storage compartment under the bus and away we went.

Interestingly, we have only had these problems on the sleeper buses.  The regular seat buses used for short drives seem to be ok.  The drivers have generally been pleasant, and there is much less (less by Vietnamese standards) rally car racing going on.

A roadside stop on the way from Dalat to Mui Ne.  This is a regular “day” bus, with normal seating.
Bus rides always seem to make a rest stop somewhere around halfway through the trip.  The stops are usually around 20 minutes long, though we never know for sure because the drivers can’t or won’t give accurate information.  So you use the washroom, grab a quick bite to eat, buy some snacks, and hover close to the bus so you don’t miss it when the driver decides its time to leave.
All the bus stop snacks you can dream of….if you can figure out what they are.
Unfortunately, Choco-Pies always look and sound better then they taste.
Every bus stop has Oreos and Pringles. Or, if you like you can save a few thousand dong and buy the local brand.  I bought the chocolate chip and raisin cookies.  Emily said they taste like “communist food”, which makes sense given we are in Vietnam.

This afternoon we finished our last major bus ride in Vietnam, a 5 hour journey from Mui Ne to Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City. A quick note on that name – it seems that the name Saigon, or Sai Gon, is just as commonly used as the official name of Ho Chi Minh City.  The city renaming was controversial in 1975, and remains so today. Many South Vietnamese supporters still live in this area and maintain the use of the old name. The beer here is even called Bia Sai Gon.  Now where were we? Right, Saigon.  I’m relieved to say that was the last bus ride of any length that we will be taking in this country.  They have been a necessary part of our trip, but each ride felt a little like dancing with the devil.   Fingers crossed that the buses in Malaysia are a little less wild!

  • Doug / April 30, 2017 / Saigon, Vietnam @ Madam Cuc 184 Hotel at 4:10pm

3 thoughts on “Much Ado About Buses

  1. I thought this was a thrilling read. Emily how can you think buses (like this) are boring? With neon lights and rally racing and amphetamine popping drivers, it was probably the most thrilling ride of life. Roller coasters will seem boring now. I laughed pretty hard at some of this Doug, well done!

    The buses actually look great and the price is right. Wish there was more of those available here… Minus crazy attendants. Enjoy Malaysia, when I was in Kuala Lumpur I was thinking of you guys. It was a pretty cool city but I didn’t get to enjoy it much. Make sure to enjoy the Teh tarik. It was awesome tea… Chopped ginger in it was lovely as well even though it sounded weird.

    Looking forward to more, I need to catch up on a few entries 🙂


    1. These buses would be fantastic in Canada. It would be a great way to do long distance travel. I’m sure there is some federal law about lying down in a bus, so they probably wouldn’t be allowed.

      We are going to be in KL in a few weeks. We are flying into Penang, in the north. We will definitely look out for the tea! Thanks for the tip!

      We need to coordinate one of your trips with somewhere we are!!


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