What Really Happens on an Overnight Sleeping Bus in Vietnam

In Vietnam, there are three popular ways to make it north to south or vice versa: plane (to the major cities only), train, or overnight sleeping bus, otherwise known as an Open Bus Ticket.  As flying wasn’t possible, we opted to try the overnight sleeping “Open Bus” from Hoi An to Nha Tran.

Prior to booking this ticket, I had heard so many stories, both good and horrifying ones about traveling by Open Bus in Vietnam. I heard everything from the bathroom had flooded mid-trip and did not work for the entire drive to there was a small kitchen in the back of the bus that someone cooked meals and tried to sell to passengers.  Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive when Brenden determined it would be easiest to take the bus directly from Hoi An (as opposed to getting a shuttle back north to Danang to catch the train).

To start with, I’ll put a few rumors to rest based on our experience:

1. There are NO toilets on the bus, so no need to worry about having the seat next to the flooding toilet. (We learned on a subsequent trip that some buses do indeed have toilets!)
2. There is no kitchen area on the bus, so you won’t exit smelling like burning cooking oil.
3. Sheets and pillows are not provided.  They did give us a airline type blanket, and there is a thin headrest attached to the seat, but that is it.
4. The WIFI did not work for us (and we had a brand new bus, only 10 days new).  Also, there are no charging outlets at your seat. (On our second Open Bus trip with a different company, the WIFI worked beautifully.)

Now that we have the basics cleared up, I thought I’d share our 12+ hour overnight bus ride experience as it unfolded.  I took these notes as the events occurred along the journey.

4:50 pm – We are picked up from hotel by a guy on a scooter. Yes, a scooter. While the travel agent said a minivan would come to fetch us, a smallish framed man, with less than pleasant body odor arrived and said he was our ride to the bus depot. He’d take me and my suitcase first, while Brenden started to walk in the direction of the depot and he would return to fetch Brenden and his bag.

5:00 pm – Arrive at bus depot. It’s a tin roofed cement slab with plastic chairs and a separate toilet area. The cost to use the toilet is 2,000 Dong. There is no toilet paper, no lighting, and from what I could tell, no running water at the basin. The bus had not arrived yet. Brenden arrives roughly 5 minutes later, also by scooter. We meet a friendly German couple also waiting for our bus. We pass time comparing trip notes while waiting for the bus.

5:30 pm – The bus arrives. It looks new, as the travel agent promised. We are the first to board the bus, only a small family, mom, dad, and child on the bus from a previous destination. The bus departs promptly after arriving. I’m pleased to learn that no one wears their shoes on the bus. Your given a plastic bag (re-used yay!) and carry your shoes to your seat. We were advised by the travel agent to get the bottom beds as it’s faster and easier to exit at toilet breaks. You also have the benefit of keeping your carry-on bag in the aisle once everyone settles. We were told we had assigned seats on the bottom toward the front of the bus, but when we boarded they filled up the bus from back to front.

6:00 pm – The bus finishes driving around Hoi An to other pick up locations and we are on our way out of the city.

7:15 pm – Our first stop is at a gas station for a bathroom break. The toilets here stink, severely. This location only has squat toilets, and there is no toilet paper. Luckily for me, Brenden was thinking ahead and took a roll from our hotel.

7:20 pm – We are on the road again.  The route takes you on single lane roads, chock-a-block with road construction and straight through small towns.  Along the drive, there is constant honking, sudden stops and swerves as the driver barely misses the passing motorbikes sharing the road.

8:44 pm  – Brenden pulls out the candy we bought for the ride. We never really buy or each junk food like this in our travels, but this trip seemed almost like a special occasion or going to the movies.

9:03 pm – Most of the bus is asleep now, and the driver turns on all interior florenct lights for 45 second, long enough for passengers to think we are stopping, then proceeds to turn them off again.

9:10 pm – I finally feel tired enough to recline my seat to put on my headphones and fall asleep.

9:41 pm – Still wide awake. Can’t get comfortable. The seat is too short. I’m 6′ and I can’t lay in the seat without a bend in my legs.  Turn on some old school Dave Matthew’s Band Busted Stuff.  Finally, I fall asleep.

10:24 pm – Without warning, all lights in cabin come on. We look outside, we’re clearly at a “restaurant”.  No English is spoken, but the guide says something, then the driver and guide get off the bus. No clue how long we’ll be stopped here, but we take the chance to get off the bus to stretch and use the toilets. The bathrooms here are better than first. There are actual toilets, but no toilet paper. Sink with plenty of running water and soap! Some passengers brush teeth at trough-style sinks.

11:10 pm – Back on the bus and on the road again.

11:15 pm – I’m watching the man in the next seat, center aisle, pick his nose. I try not to gag, but I can’t stop watching because I must know where he puts the bugger.

11:17 pm – He’s still picking, but I now have the answer to where the “crop” is being put. In his mouth. I feel slightly better knowing this.

11:45 pm – I recline my seat to sleep. {enter state of sleep}

12:59 am – I’m awake with a sore neck. The bumps in road are intense.  Feels as though we are driving over dirt paths on an African safari. {enter state of sleep}

1:41 am – Woken up by the rough jostling of the vehicle from bumps in the road.  It’s pitch black outside, but it seems the bus is winding downward through a hillside pass, while braking repetitively. {enter state of sleep}

2:19 am – Awaken by a the driver slamming on the brakes. {enter state of sleep}

2:34 am – The roads are terrible. It’s like driving in potholes and poorly paved uneven blacktop on old country roads.  The ride is not comfortable and sleeping is near impossible. {enter state of sleep}

3:13 am – Stop alongside road.  {enter state of sleep}

3:28 am – Stopped again. {enter state of sleep}

3:43 am – Stop at gas station.  Brenden gets off to use toilet.  Other than the driver and Brenden, everyone else stays quietly in their seats. {enter state of sleep}

5:21 am – Beginning to get light outside. The bus stops along the highway to let someone off. {enter state of sleep}

5:25 am – Stop again at another gas station. {enter state of sleep}

6:00 am – Woke up to picturesque views of country side with a lovely sunrise.  I’m now going in and out of sleep. The driver is back on the horn non-stop. {enter state of sleep}

6:25 am – I pull my eye guard off again just as we’re driving into the city. The beach is packed already with lots of swimmers. First impressions are that it reminds me of South Beach in Miami, albeit a few years back.

6:30 am – We arrive at the bus stop located in what seems to be the center of Nha Tran, just two blocks off the beach.  I’m groggy from lack of sleep but there is a sense of urgency that we all depart the bus.  Standing right at the door of the bus are 15-20 taxi drivers and travel agents yelling for our attention.  They’re grabbing at us, yelling “Taxi! Taxi” and asking “Where you are going?” or “Hotel.  Do you need hotel?”  We quickly find our baggage, then step to the side to collect ourselves and say goodbye to our bus friends.

6:45 am – We wave over the one taxi driver that has given us some much needed and requested personal space along the side walk.  He takes us to our hotel which is a few minutes drive from the bus stop.  Unfortunately, when we arrive, we learn that our room will not be ready for check-in until around 1:00pm that afternoon.  Not the news I wanted to hear after that trip!

7:05am – We wearily leave our bags at the hotel, then head out for some much needed coffee.

So, would I do it again?

After the experience, I’m not sure if I would take the overnight bus again.  It’s not that it was a nightmare experience, but it was an uncomfortable one.  Aside from the constant bumps, horn blowing, braking and stopping, there is also the fact that I am 6′ tall and these beds are probably better suited for someone under 5’8″.

Since I first drafted this post, we learned a terrible overnight sleeping bus accident that occurred just outside of Sapa this week. Eighteen passengers were killed and many more injured when the bus collided with a car, then careened down a ravine.  Since hearing of that incident, I’ve looked online for more details on the safety of these buses and have learned enough that Brenden and I are beyond thankful we arrived alive on our journeys, but we won’t chance it again.  Going forward, we have decided we will only travel by train or plane.

Should you still decide to take the bus….

I recommend to take the following items on board with you:

1. Water and a snack

2. Wear long pants to avoid sticking to the pleather seats

3. An eye mask to block out the neon lights along the window

4. Ear plugs or earphones with music

5. Anti-nausea pills or bands (I wore the Sea-Bands) around my wrists for the entire drive

6. A light jacket as it can get cool on the bus after the dinner stop

So, after learning more about the Open Bus overnight bus ride, would you travel this way around Vietnam?  Have you taken the Open Bus and had a different experience?  Please share your thoughts below.

  • http://petadunia.info peta dunia satelit

    Loved this post! Abby and I were laughing hysterically as you recounted this story. Glad to see you made it there alive and you had an experience along the way.

  • http://petadunia.info peta dunia satelit

    Haha! I love your capture about the nose picker! I can totally hear you and see your face as you stare at him just waiting to see where he puts that nasty booger!