Valium, Coffee, and Pho: lessons in bus-backpacking in South Vietnam

Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.

-Babs Hoffman

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Over the Cambodian New Year holiday a friend and I took a trip from Phnom Penh to Hoi An (a city almost smack bang in the middle of Vietnam) and back again. We travelled completely by bus. Over 9 days and 8 nights we completed 7 separate bus journeys, spending about 72 hours on the road and travelling just under 2,500 kilometres. Needless to say, we learned a few lessons in the process.

Lesson 1: “Nothing is certain, but everything is possible”[i]

Every bus experience in Vietnam is different – even when travelling with the same company. You might get a big bus, or you might get a minivan. You might be picked up from your hotel, or you might have to walk to a different hotel halfway across town. You might get water, or you might not. Your bus might be clean and quiet, or it might reek of urine and cigarettes. And if you travel from Cambodia to Saigon during Khmer New Year, you might get stuck in traffic for five hours, resulting in the border being closed before you reach it, resulting in sleeping on the hot, mosquito-ridden bus until the border opens again, resulting in a trip that should take 6 hours taking 18. In short, expect nothing, and…

Lesson 2: Be prepared

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABring a good, long book that’s easy to get into (and don’t leave it in your backpack under the bus). I started out with Lord of the Flies but quickly realised I’d read it so many times before that it wasn’t going to hold my attention on a bumpy 7 hour journey. In Nha Trang I picked up a copy of Mark Haddon’s The Red House – perfect bus reading. Bring something to listen to, as well, for those overnight trips where your little light doesn’t work (podcasts are great – I sustained myself on Stuff You Should Know and Sunday Night Safran until my mp3 player died). Other sleeping-bus essentials include water and snacks (particularly if you’re diabetic!), socks (good for warmth and for keeping the creepy-crawlies at bay), and Valium. I’ll just write that last one again. Valium. That’s V-A-L…

Lesson 3: Consult Trip Advisor

Wi-Fi is everywhere in Vietnam (even on some buses) and this – coupled with my friend’s Smartphone – gave us fairly uninterrupted access to Trip Advisor. I’ve never really used this website before, but on this trip I found it to be an invaluable resource. Through Trip Advisor we were able to find really good hotels and restaurants in each city we visited, which saved us time once we arrived. It was largely thanks to Trip Advisor that we had very good sleeping and dining experiences across South Vietnam. Click these links to see reviews of the hotels we stayed at in Saigon, Hoi An, and Dalat.

Lesson 4: Be wary of scams

There are an astounding number of bus companies in Vietnam that offer “open-tour” (pre-paid tickets along various routes) services throughout the country. Tickets are cheap and the variety of destinations makes planning your own itinerary fairly easy. However, the abundance of companies – all with slightly different departure and arrival times – sometimes makes it difficult to find the information you’re looking for (and there is not much available online). It also makes it easy for morally questionable tour operators to convince you that the bus you’ve booked isn’t going to make your other connection, and that you need to take their bus (read: shit bus) instead. Long story short, we were scammed out of about US $20, and discovered that the tour operator for the Tam Hanh bus company in Hoi An (Minh Phuc Travel, 54 Thai Phien St., Hoi An City) is running something of a dodgy business and that Tj Le in Nha Trang (who helped us figure everything out at the other end, and even paid for our breakfast out of his own money) is awesome. Lesson learned.

Lesson 5: Vietnamese coffee cures the sleeping-bus blues

As does a big steaming bowl of breakfast pho and the fact that hotels seem to have no problem with sleepy, smelly backpackers checking in at seven in the morning. All of the hotels we stayed at (see Lesson 3 for links) let us check in early at no extra charge, which meant we could have much needed showers before seeing the sights. More often than not we were greeted with breakfast and coffee (also included in the room charge). I couldn’t have spent nearly as many nights on the sleeping bus were it not for the promise of a hotel room and numerous cups of strong, rich coffee in the morning.

Lesson 6: Walk when you can

When you find yourself (finally!) not on a bus, walk as much as you can. This not only helps you avoid swollen ankles, but also saves money on motorbikes and taxis. We found that most of the sights in each city we visited were in walking distance of our hotels, and that helpful maps were readily available. The heat can get a bit overwhelming at times, so wear sunscreen and seek out air-conditioned coffee stops along the way!

Lesson 7: Appreciate your bus-free evenings

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Four of our eight nights in Vietnam were spent on sleeping-buses, so we made the most of our ‘in town’ evenings. We did a lot of slow wandering, took extra showers, and slept really well! Spending so much time travelling meant we saved quite a lot of money on accommodation, so we were able to treat ourselves to cocktails and good meals (thanks also to Trip Advisor) when we had the time. Click these links to see reviews of the best restaurants we ate at in Saigon, Hoi An, and Dalat.

Lesson 8: Get a massage!

Sleeping buses in Vietnam may be friendly to your wallet, but they are not so to your back and neck. I’ve never felt (and heard!) my body crack as much as it did during a post-bus massage in Saigon. There are plenty of spas throughout the country that offer affordable massages, as well as facials, waxing, and manicures and pedicures. Both of the spas we visited (in Saigon and Nha Trang) were wonderfully cool and quiet, and offered lovely extras like tea, ginger-coconut lollies, and aloe vera yogurt (surprisingly yummy and refreshing).

Lesson 9: Go to Hoi AnOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It may take two 11 hour bus rides to reach from Saigon (with a stop in Nha Trang), but this Unesco World Heritage site is definitely worth the travel time. Both my friend and I agreed that Hoi An was the highlight of our trip – the old port city has been beautifully preserved, and we spent two full days wandering the streets here. Hoi An is particularly stunning at night, when what must be thousands of coloured lanterns light the city. In Hoi An time seems to stop – for a while we forgot where we were going next and completely enjoyed being where we were. A wonderfully slow-paced, enchanting experience.

Lesson 10: Make the last bus a good one

By the time we made it back to Saigon we were almost bussed out, and decided to pay a little extra for our final trip to Phnom Penh. The Giant Ibis Bus (a Cambodian based company) is $18 per person, but well worth it. The staff spoke English well, and were really helpful when it came to organising visas at the border (I’ve never crossed between Vietnam and Cambodia so quickly and smoothly before). They also provided water and bakery snacks, as well as Wi-Fi (although the connection was a little iffy at times). We arrived in Phnom Penh tired, but very happy.

There were certainly uncomfortable moments on this trip (bus-bugs and unmentionable toilet stops, to name just a couple) but these only made us appreciate the wonderful moments more (sunny beaches, hot showers, long lazy breakfasts). Adventure, beautiful sights, and great company: a perfect holiday.

[i] Moroccan saying that came to my attention via this story from the BBC.

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4 comments
  1. In Thai buses the reading lights never work; once the sun sets you’ve either got to pull out the flashlight or put the book down.

  2. Hi, I loved this post! Do you happen to remember which bus companies you used…? Also what were the bus bugs?!

    • Carly said:

      Thanks! Unfortunately I don’t remember the names of the bus companies … it seems the best thing to do is ask around at a few different travel agencies/hotels and figure out which ones best suit your travel plans. The bus bugs were maybe some sort of small cockroaches??

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