Tips for surviving an overnight bus in Vietnam

Overnight buses are even more common on the Vietnamese tourist trail. Vietnam is a long and skinny country, with many travellers heading between Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon) and Hanoi. The locals have learnt to capitalize on any opportunity they can when it comes to the tourism industry, and bus pass options between these two cities are plentiful.

The majority of these bus rides are overnight, and the following tips should help you chose the best pass for you. And after you have bought your overnight bus ticket, these tips should help make it painless (at least as painless as possible).

1. Shop around
The tourism industry is big in Asia, and no matter what need you have to meet, there will probably be plenty of companies trying to earn your custom. If you want to find the best deal then you need to spend a bit of time shopping around and doing a bit of comparative shopping. This will also greatly benefit you when it comes time to bargain on a price.

Even though many companies may seem very similar, it is the small differences which make or break your trip. Do you want a bus that arrives early in the morning, or later in the day? Do you want a bus that picks you up from your hotel, or do you want to make your own way to the depot? Will there be air conditioning? And just how roomy are those sleeper seats?

Knowledge is power. Arm yourself.

2. Book in advance
This is especially important if you are on a tight schedule. Even if you have bought yourself a bus pass from Hanoi to HCMC, that does not guarantee you a seat. Most of these passes are “hop on, hop off” and you need to let the company know in advance that you would like to reserve a seat. The last thing you want is to drag yourself and all your stuff to the bus, only to drag it right back to the hostel again.

Most hostels or guest houses can arrange a spot on the bus for you, if you let them know early enough. Of course, most of these buses will actually drop you off just outside a hostel that they have an agreement with. If you do stay at one of these places, then it’s even easier to have the receptionist arrange your onward travel.

3. Sleeper bus vs sitting busIn all my travels around Asia, I only encountered the sleeper bus in Vietnam. The sleeper bus is just how it sounds… it’s a bus, but instead of seats it has strange bunk-like contraptions. The seats may or may not fold into regular seats as well, giving you the ability to adjust your “bed”.

When I was in Vietnam, we opted to book the sleeper bus pass. It was a little bit more expensive, but we reasoned that the added restfulness we would get during the journey was worth the money. One question we forgot to ask though, was just how big the beds were. Although comfortable (relatively), the beds were certainly not designed for people more than 6 feet tall! So if you are tall, be aware that you may need to sleep with your knees up, or in some sort of fetal position. In some cases, it may actually be more comfortable to book a regular bus that has plush reclining seats instead of forcing your legs to adjust to the confines of the bus bed.

4. What to take on board
One thing that I will not travel anywhere without is my big bulky sleeping bag. This thing can deal with even the worst of Canadian winters, and yet I still take it with me to tropical countries. Why, you ask?

It seems as if the air conditioning in hot countries only has two settings: maximum and off. My sleeping bag has saved my sleep on many a freezing overnight bus ride.

Other items to consider packing in your carry-on bag include a head lamp if you want to do any reading, as many of the buses don’t have little reading lights. And conversely, if you want to get as much sleep as possible, then maybe bring an eye mask with you.

And don’t forget your earplugs. Just like with hostels, as soon as you forget to bring ear plugs, you will certainly have a snorer in your room.

Most importantly: Make the most of your experience!
No matter what sort of bus book, the most important thing to remember is to enjoy yourself. Maybe the bus is not as comfortable as you expected, or maybe you end up having to share your “bed” with strangers, but hey, when it comes to travel, getting there is half the fun.