YOU’RE IN HANOI or Ho Chi Minh City and want to travel the coast. Like most backpackers, you’re not considering flights, and even the overnight trains cost too much. At the same time, you’re not ready to buy an ancient Russian scooter and compete with the locals for elbow space on the road.
So the bus it is.
Most travel agencies sell point-to-point bus tickets, which gives you the option to change companies along the way. But for a cheaper deal, there are Open Tour tickets — you ride one company the whole way and negotiate how many stops you get.
This isn’t quite hop-on-hop-off, but it’s close. The Open Tour scheme gives you a booklet of tickets with your designated stops — for example, Hanoi->Hue, Hue->Hoi An, Hoi An->Mui Ne, Mui Ne->Ho Chi Minh City — but with blanks for the times and dates.
You need to know which stops you want before you buy the ticket and can’t just hop off as you please. You can, however, stay as long as you want in each city. Simply go to an associated travel agent the day before you wish to depart to confirm a seat on the next day’s bus.
You’re organised; now for the journey.
Choosing the right bed
On the overnight buses, you can get almost fully reclined bunks that are much more comfortable to sleep in than normal bus seats.
Line up early and choose your own adventure: top or bottom bunk? Front, middle, or back of the bus? Do you want the window, or the middle aisle? Read on to find out how your choice will influence your night.
You choose bottom bunk, go to 1.
You decide on top bunk, proceed to 2.
1. Easier to hop in and out of, you reason. Rookie mistake. The air-con doesn’t reach you down here, and you’re closer to the bus driver’s buddies, who take their shoes off and curl up on the floor in the aisle. Spend a sweaty, smelly night.
2. Once you’ve winched yourself up with your elbows to the top bunk and settled in under the air-con, you congratulate yourself on the right choice. Five minutes later you’re shivering and realising the air-con vent is broken open with no slats to close it off. Stuff the curtain in there if you’re on the window. If there’s no curtain or you’re in the middle aisle, use that extra pair of socks you packed for this purpose. (See packing list below.)
Front of the bus, go to 3.
Back of the bus, read 4.
3. Front means no queuing to get off the bus at the many stops, and you can keep an eye on the driver as he texts and smokes continually. Who knows, maybe if you see an impending crash you could Tarzan leap from your bunk and be close enough to grab the wheel. Or maybe you decide this vantage point is a little disturbing and you’d rather not know what’s coming, but the constant air-horn honking pierces your trusty earplugs and punctuates every almost-dream.
4. In the back, there’s finally a bit of peace and quiet. If you’re travelling with mates, you can take the entire back row, which has five bunks side by side. Good choice, but beware the potholes — the ceiling is startlingly close to your forehead.
Central aisle, go to 5.
5. You choose the middle aisle of bunks because you’re slow and all the windows are taken, or maybe you just like being the centre of attention. You’d better hope it has a functioning seat belt, or that you’ve brought your own rope to tie yourself down.
The roads can be so bumpy there’s a high chance of being flung out of your bunk, and it’s a long fall down onto the Vietnamese man on the floor in the aisle. With the window beds at least you can only fall out of one side.
You choose top bunk, window aisle, in the middle of the bus, but not above the toilet, go to 6.
6. Congratulations! With an eye-mask, ear plugs, warm clothes, and perhaps a sleeping pill, you will be able to sleep.
Note: If you’re tall you’ve got only one choice, and that’s the fully reclined bunk above the toilet. Pity about the smell!
What to Take on the Bus
In time, you’ll create your own personal bus kit. Here are some starting essentials:
* Wear thongs (yes, I’m Australian, and I mean “flipflops” or “sandals”), but also take warm socks. Two pairs: one to wear and one in case you need to block the AC vent.
The reason for the thongs is that you’ll be instructed to take your shoes off on boarding and given a plastic bag to keep them in. If you take too long (fiddling with laces or buckles), you hold up the whole queue and the driver will yell at you.
* Take earplugs and an eye mask. Essentials if you plan on getting any sleep. Sleeping pills are optional. You can buy herbal relaxants over the counter in Vietnam. If you’ve got proper prescription stuff, it’s a bit of a gamble when to take them, because the breaks depend on the driver’s whim — you may be left asleep in the bus while everyone else is out using the loo and eating pho.
* Your favourite distraction. iPods and books are invaluable. Make sure you charge the batteries and pack a travel reading light or torch, because chances are the one above your head won’t work. Also a good chance to catch up on your journal, but the bumps won’t improve your handwriting.
* Make sure your gear is secure for when you do nod off. Your pack will be under the bus and should not have any valuables in it. Your passport, camera, money, etc. should be in a lockable bag, preferably secured to the bunk or to yourself, so you’ll feel if anyone’s having a go at it.
If you like to sleep while listening to your iPod, keep it in a zip-up pocket (or tucked into your t-shirt/waistband), so again you should wake up if it tries to go walkies in the night.
* And the toiletries. Toilet paper and antibacterial hand wash for the bathrooms at rest stops — trust me, they’re better than the toilet on the bus.
You’ll stop for pho and snacks, which are delicious at the time, but six hours later the morning breath is not so good. Take your toothbrush, deodorant, and face wipes to freshen up at a morning stop if you’ve still got hours until your destination. You’ll feel like a new person.
* Important note: If you’re taking Doxycycline as malaria medication and know you’ll be spending several nights on buses, you should plan to take it with lunch or breakfast instead of dinner. You’re not supposed to lie down for 30 minutes after taking the pill, as it may upset your stomach, and that’s something you don’t need to experience on an overnight bus.
Before you go, check out Lauren Quinn’s guide on How to Get a Tourist Visa for Vietnam.