Vietnam’s north-to-south, or vice versa, backpacking route spans the whole length of the country. During that time, you will no doubt end up on a less than ideal overnight bus or sleeper train. These can take anywhere from 8 to 15 hours.
The main overnight transport routes are:
Hanoi to Sapa (12 hours by bus)
Hanoi to Hue (13 hours by train)
Hoi An to Nha Trang (11 hours by bus)
My advice? Take the train. Rarely do I recommend the more expensive option, but I found overnight buses to be quite horrific. The trains are a smoother, safer ride, although they can take a little longer, sometimes the station is a bit out of the way, and they cost a little more. Understandably a lot of travellers opt for the bus because of this, me included. Some people don’t mind it, but it really wasn’t for me. So if you are taking the bus, read my 5 tips to make your journey more bareable.
Sounds dumb, but I totally did it. I drank as much water as I wanted when I ate dinner, not thinking about getting on a bus at 6pm and not being able to go to the bathroom until 10.30pm. With no toilets on board most of the buses, you have to wait until the driver pulls in at the usual stop. Sometimes, if the driver needs to go, he’ll pull in at a roadside and all the men will pile off and take a piss over the edge of a mountain. Not much use to the women on board and it’s not a sure thing. The stops are pretty grim, no toilet roll and often no running water, sometimes no lights as well. Take some hand sanitiser.
Knock back some motion sickness tablets
By far the worst journey is the return bus route between Hanoi and Sapa. This winding mountain road is motion sick inducing, and you are forced to lie down because there’s no space for you to sit up on the bunks. Motion sickness tablets will definitely take the edge off and help you get to sleep. They’re also essential for bus rides to Dalat. Try and get a bottom bunk so that you won’t be thrown around as much, and you can stretch your legs in the aisle if you need to.
If you’re travelling solo, you’ll probably be sharing a tight bunk with a stranger. There are old, unwashed leopard print blankets on each of the bunks, which you need because of the leaky air-con pumping out above you. I hate to admit I also saw a cockroach on one of the journeys I took. There’s a reason silk sleeping sheets are available at all the shops in town, and this is it. You don’t know exactly what you’re lying on or who you’re lying next to. Cocoon yourself in your silk sheets and you’ll be much happier.
You’ve already booked and paid, but some bus driver doesn’t want to let you on the bus. Sounds crazy, but it happens. The drivers, especially on the return journey from Sapa, are sometimes trying to make a few extra dollars on the side by picking up random people who will pay them directly. They’re probably earning only a fraction of what tourists pay to hotels and tour operators, so they have no qualms about it. It happened to us, but we insisted, forced our way on and told them they could phone the guesthouse we’d booked through if they had a problem with our reservation. Not wanting to be caught, they soon backed down.
Once you’re on the bus, another big problem is the driver and assistant trying to make Western tourists move to the worst bunks (e.g. top bunks, ones with leaky air-con, ones near the toxic smell of the engine) so they can give the Vietnamese who are hassling them a better bed. The way to deal with their pushiness is to point-blank refuse. You’ve paid the same fare as everyone else, so take whatever free bunk you want. Don’t move and they’ll eventually leave you alone.
Just before my return journey from Sapa to Hanoi, I was waiting nervously with Luke, afeared to be getting back on one of the buses. It was already half hour late. Finally it came round the corner, but to our dismay backed up a road away from the bus stop. Luke sighed and said, “It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t pick us up, I know someone who died on a sleeper bus in Vietnam anyway.” I stared at him wide-eyed, “WHAT?”
Immediately realising his mistake, he fumbled for words, “Well, I mean know of someone, a friend of a friend, and it was years ago, when I was in sixth form, and I don’t know what bus it was, or which route it was on. Probably it’s not this bus at all!”
I looked at him, horrified. “You knowingly allowed us to get on a DEATH BUS. And not only that, we booked a return ticket on it! Why would you do that to me?”
He stared at his feet and whispered, “It’s cheap…”
I’m sure the accident and fatality figures are pretty low for the overnight buses, especially taking into account the sheer numbers of them that go! But there is definitely a risk involved, and all you need to do is type “nightmare bus Vietnam” into Google to see what I mean (don’t do that, mum). At the end of the day, it’s a gamble you take when travelling on any kind of transport in any part of the world, but know the alternatives and weigh up the difference in price and how important that is to you before you decide to jump on board. In the end, I took 3 overnight buses in Vietnam and survived, but I probably wouldn’t do it again.