How to Survive Overnight Buses in Vietnam

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.

The overnight bus vietnam that didn't want to let us on
The overnight bus that didn’t want to let us on

1Don’t drink any water beforehand

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.

View over Sapa overnight bus vietnam
The overnight bus to Sapa arrives next to the lake, after journeying through the mountains

2

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.

3Buy some silk sleeping sheets in town

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.

Silk sleeping sheet bought in Hanoi for £1.50 overnight bus vietnam
Silk sleeping sheet bought in Hanoi for £1.20

4Stand up for yourself

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.

Luke scrunches his face overnight bus vietnam
Close your eyes and hope for the best!

5Don’t think too much (maybe don’t read this one)

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.

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

29 thoughts to “How to Survive Overnight Buses in Vietnam”

  1. Oh man, I have heard horror stories about these overnight buses, but this is something else! Death bus, yikes… Great advice in any case. I love it when bloggers manage to give very specific practical advice like “buy some silk sleeping sheets”… rather than just “keep an open mind” or some other vague nonsense that kind of goes without saying. Good on ya!

    1. Yeah, really not cool! Yes, me too, I read so many of those vague nonsense advice posts, which made me giggle, but aren’t practical at all! Those silk sheets saved me on those buses. Thanks, Colleen :)

  2. Great post. These rules actually apply to any Asian country. It’s the same with China, Thailand and even the Philippines. There are no toilets in local buses and the driver stops twice during 16h ride! Insane!

    1. I had similar experience in a small mini bus in Palawan, Philippines too, yes! I never took a bus in China, but I can imagine it’s not great. Man, that’s awful about the local buses, twice in 16hrs is not okay!

    2. Depends on the bus… there are “VIP” buses which have toilets, wifi, and even power outlets. Of course you’ll have to pay double for these. Hopped on one from Baguio-Manila :)

  3. I almost didn’t open this post because I knew the horrors it would contain! hahaha We had quite a few unpleasant experiences on said buses over the summer and couldn’t wait to get off the overnight ones. I hate having to “stand up for myself” when I already paid to get on but, as you said, it happens. My husband speaks Vietnamese so he was able to recount everything the locals on the bus were saying about the foreigners – oh my!

    1. Yes, I also hate having to do that as well.. It seems that you do often when you travel though, even here in the UK! Wow, cool that your husband speaks Vietnamese (is his family from there?) but oh my, I wouldn’t want to know what the locals say about all the tourists =/

      1. Yeah, he was born in Vietnam but his family immigrated to Australia when he was still a baby so English is his native language but he still speaks Vietnamese with his family. He hadn’t been back since then (32 years) so when we went last year it was like we were both discovering it for the first time. His language ability helped us a lot in getting around and not getting swindled as much, but there are some occasions when you’d just prefer to be ignorant of what’s actually going on around you hahaha

        1. That’s a fantastic dual-nationality to have! Wow, must’ve been a great thing to experience together, though really strange for him. Oh yeah, I’m sure.

          What did he think of Vietnam after experiencing it so many years later?

  4. Charlie, I just finished a 10 day trip to Vietnam and I rode the overnight buses, THREE TIMES! For me, it wasn’t that bad, since I can sleep like the dead (literally NOTHING can disturb me) but my friends were absolutely miserable and vowed never to take any again!

    1. You are so lucky being able to sleep like a log on a sleeper bus! I sleep well in a bed, but not on a moving bus haha! I’m glad that it went okay for you, some people really seem not to mind it, sad for your friends though! How did you like Vietnam, Stephanie?

  5. Great post! We’ve only taken overnight buses in Europe and Turkey, but I still have to totally agree with what you’ve said! Even the “best” overnight buses (definitely the ones in Turkey) still leave much to be desired. You still end up dehydrated, overtired, and aching all over when you finally arrive. Thankfully most we took in Europe were on flat, straight highways with little chance for danger. Thanks for sharing and safe travels!

    1. Do the ones in Turkey have wifi and a toilet? I think those things are really important for a comfortable overnight bus. But yes, I definitely feel that way after an overnight bus – I’m always surprised when I see a few people jumping off looking chipper, I guess for some it’s not a problem. Safe travels to you too, Travis.

  6. Last time i was in Vietnam, traveling from Da Lat to HCMC in 2013, we came across a horrific night bus crash, some 15 people were seriously hurt and several died. It is a cheaper way to do things, but i would recommend taking a train, as that is a must see sight, and experience.

  7. Yeah! I totally agree! I just came back from backpacking in Vietnam and almost died twice during same journey in bus from Da Lat to Saigon! We almost crashed twice! Like the bus driver totally lost control once and we were sliding in the wrong lane and there were a truck coming towards us!

    They drive like maniacs in here and in narrow mountain roads they bypass other busses in corners and just honk and wish there is no one else coming.

    So. I recommend train. And if you take bus go back and use seatbelt in case shit happens.

  8. I am in Hanoi I have just been travelling the north, Sapa, Back Ha, Ha Giang, Dong Van, Meo Vac. The bus to Sapa now takes just 5 hours due to the new highway. I went on the Sapa Express a very comfortable journey, 17.5 dollars but we’ll worth it. The rest of the trip I did on local buses, not so comfortable but only up to 5 hours on any one journey. One of the best trips I have done.

  9. Not sure weather this is “sooky” or not, are they really thaaaat bad ? we are coming from China and doing vietnam and have been on 3 sleepers

  10. Great post,

    Some buses are terrible, though other buses aren’t. Comfort very much depends on the company you’re traveling with. Though standards in Vietnam are much poorer if you compare them to Thailand for example! Agreed!

  11. The thing that bothers me is sleeping next to a stranger. Especially as a solo female. Last thing you need is some creepy guy trying to touch you. I have my first 12 hour bus journey tomorrow and it does not help ease my nerves that people are posting about death. This was meant to be how to survive a night bus, not make people fear for their lives. Now, i need drugs after this. I would have flown but SE asia has horrible turbulence.

    1. Sleeping next to a stranger is not ideal, but I think there are more kind people than there are creepy ones. If you can get the aisle side as well, I think that would be more comfortable in that situation. Good luck with your bus journey tomorrow. Well I gave 5 tips of how to survive the night bus, and also worth remembering that I did survive 3 of them ;)

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