The Sleeper Buses of Vietnam

Today’s post will be a love/hate letter to a very specific part of travelling, especially in Vietnam.

I’m no stranger to adventuring and financial compromise; when backpacking, one can hardly expect to live a life of comfort throughout the entirety of the trip – indeed, if you are perfectly comfortable whilst moving through country after country, I would controversially posit that you somehow aren’t doing it properly.

Over the last month-and-a-bit of mostly-purposeful wandering, we’ve experienced a sliding scale of accommodation quality. Most of our bedrooms haven’t had monstrous insects scuttling along the walls; some have. Most rooms have been free of suspicious stains and/or smells; some haven’t.

Generally speaking, we’ve been able to sleep in most places thanks to/despite the quality of the room, knowing that we can always extend our stand or run for the hills the following morning. In the case of the latter, it’s usually not too long of a journey to reach the next town, at which point we once again roll the dice on how liveable the hostel will be.

The Philippines’ geography requires travellers to choose between boat and plane for most journeys; if the trip covers more than a single island, most people would simply opt for a short, cheap flight. We’d prefer not to waste money or burn ozone on flights if possible, however, so it’s trains and buses for us.

As of writing this post, I’ve yet to experience a train journey in Vietnam, though that may change in the next few days. What I have experienced, over the course of just five bus trips, is over 40 full hours of long-distance, usually overnight travel.

Sleeper buses are as notorious as they are practical. If you were to Google some second opinions before traveling, you might find yourself being a bit put off – such phrases as ‘coffins on wheels’ and ‘you couldn’t pay me to get on one’ seem to come up a lot – but 200,000VND (about £7) to cover the 14-hour slog from Hue to Hanoi is more than a little tempting.

We first encountered sleeper buses on the five-hour journey from Hô Chí Minh to Mūi Né, all those cities ago at the start of the Vietnamese leg of the trip. We were picked up from the Hanh Cafe travel agency near Bùi Viên at 8pm, thrown unceremoniously into the back of a van (no seats but a few thoughtful loose cushions) and driven right to the door of the bus – a large, coachlike vehicle with more curtains than the average bus. We threw our bags underneath, removed our shoes (as per custom) and prepared to find our seats.

‘Seat’, however, would be a questionable choice of word. Sleeper buses don’t so much have seats as narrow bunkbeds, crammed into the bus in a manner not entirely unlike a battery chicken farm. Closer to shelves than actual beds, you’ll end up feeling like a Toy Story extra scrambling back to your designated spot whenever the bus is about to set off again. A gentle aroma of ‘old socks’ permeates the air and, rather like being awake on a long-haul flight, you’re suddenly very conscious of the fact that there is *always* someone coughing at any point on the journey.

I’m not freakishly large for a human – 187cm, or a little over 6’ – but I will warn my fellow tall-ish people: you *will* spend a large portion of the journey with your knees somewhere around your nostrils, or bent into the foetal position. The hardier narcoleptics among you may manage to get a few winks at some point on the drive, but for me the ‘sleeper’ part of the bus was in name only.

Generally, the bus will stop every 2-3 hours to allow for leg-stretching and cigarette/bathroom breaks. This may either be at a designated stop, or on the hard shoulder of the motorway in the middle of the night – and applies to both the male and female passengers, with little other than a few metres of dark road either end of the bus in the way of gender-separation.

For the longer trips, you’ll get a ‘dinner rest’ sometime around nightfall at a roadside restaurant, giving you 20 minutes or so to get in, get fed and get back on the bus. The driver will usually disappear immediately into the ‘VIP’ bus driver section of the restaurant, leaving unfamiliar travellers (c’est moi) to wonder how the hell the diner system works. There will usually be a makeshift menu to point at on one side of the room, at which point you pay and run to the other side to grab your tray, inhale your pho and return quickly to your shelf on the bus.

I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories surrounding the bus industry in Vietnam, but so far haven’t encountered any especially bad conditions; I gather that conditions have improved drastically over the past few years, and if you book through a tourist travel agency you shouldn’t have too much trouble with dodgy drivers.

I would argue that taking a Vietnamese sleeper bus is one of those traveling experiences you just have to have, like ordering unidentifiable/inedible food or apologetically avoiding eye contact with a sex worker. It’s inarguably the cheapest way to traverse the country (with the possible exception of riding your own bike) and – touch wood – so far not a calamitous experience in my own travels.

You might not be particularly comfortable and there might be a couple of bugs on board (they were only very, very small cockroaches and that was only one bus, promise), but you’ll stagger off the other side with more than enough leftover money for all the coffee/alcohol you’ll need to get over the journey.

Guests at the Four Seasons need not pay any heed to this post.

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