Express interprovincial coach services are usually large, modern and comfortable. Many provide free Wi-Fi, TV and water facilities. Some coach companies also have their own rest stations with restaurants and shops along the route. Tickets should be bought from the registered ticket booths at the bus terminal.
Main coach companies
Children under the age of five travel free of charge and tickets are half price for children between the ages of five and ten. Discounted monthly tickets are also available for regular users.
Most coaches are not equipped with facilities for disabled passengers, although some special services are available on some routes.
In backpacker haunts throughout Vietnam, you’ll see lots of signs advertising ‘Open Tour’, ‘Open Date Ticket’ or ‘Open Ticket’. This is a bus service catering mostly to foreign budget travellers, not to Vietnamese. These air-con buses run between HCMC and Hanoi and people can hop on and hop off the bus at any major city along the route.
Competition has driven the price of these tours so low that it would practically only be cheaper if you walked. Sample prices from HCMC are as follows:
Ho Chi Minh City–Dalat US$5
Ho Chi Minh City–Mui Ne US$6
Ho Chi Minh City–Nha Trang US$6
Ho Chi Minh City–Hoi An US$13
Ho Chi Minh City–Hué US$15
Ho Chi Minh City–Hanoi US$23
In some ways they should raise the cost of the tickets and, by actually making money on the bus fare, allow passengers some freedom of choice on arrival at a destination. Unfortunately, they depend on kickbacks from a very elaborate and well-established network of sister hotels and restaurants along the way, making the whole experience feel like you are part of the herd.
As cheap and popular as it is, the open-tour deal is not the ideal way to experience Vietnam. Once you’ve bought the ticket, you’re stuck with it. It really isolates visitors from Vietnam, as few locals travel this way. Buying shorter point-to-point tickets on the open-tour buses costs a bit more but you achieve more flexibility, including the chance to take a train, rent a motorbike or simply change plans.
Nevertheless, cheap open-tour tickets are a temptation and many people go for them. A couple of shorter routes to try are HCMC–Dalat and HCMC–Mui Ne Beach, two places that are not serviced by train.
Vietnam has an extensive network of dirt-cheap buses that reach the far-flung corners of the country. Until recently, few foreign travellers used them because of safety concerns and overcharging, but the situation has improved dramatically with modern buses and fixed-price ticket offices at most bus stations.
Bus fleets are being upgraded as fast as the roads, so the old French, American and Russian buses from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s are becoming increasingly rare. On most popular routes, modern Korean buses are the flavour of the day. Most of these offer air-con and comfortable seats, but on the flipside most of them are equipped with TVs and dreaded karaoke machines. You can ignore the crazy kung fu videos by closing your eyes (or wearing a blindfold), but you’d need to be deaf to sleep through the karaoke sessions – ear plugs are recommended!
Figuring out the bus system is not always that simple. Many cities have several bus stations, and responsibilities are divided according to the location of the destination (whether it is north or south of the city) and the type of service being offered (local or long distance, express or nonexpress).
Short-distance buses, mostly minibuses, depart when full (ie jam-packed with people and luggage). They often operate throughout the day, but don’t count on many leaving after about 4pm.
Nonexpress buses and minibuses drop off and pick up as many passengers as possible along the route, so try to avoid these. The frequent stops make for a slow journey.
Express buses make a beeline from place to place. This is the deluxe class and you can usually be certain of there being enough space to sit comfortably. Such luxury comes at a price, but it’s very cheap by Western standards.
It is also perfectly feasible (and highly recommended) to kick in with some fellow travellers and charter your own minibus.
If possible, try to travel during daylight hours only. Many drivers refuse to drive after dark because the unlit highways are teeming with bicycles and pedestrians who seem oblivious to the traffic. However, if you like living dangerously, there are some overnight buses.
Be aware that luggage is easily pilfered at toilet stops unless someone is looking after it. Bound to the rooftop, it should be safe from swift hands, but try to keep the bags in sight. A distinct disadvantage of having your gear on top is that it will be exposed to constant dust and sometimes heavy rain. You may want to consider putting your luggage in waterproof liners, if you can.
No matter how honest your fellow passengers might seem, never accept drinks from them, as there is a chance you may be drugged and robbed.
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