Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips
Burning Breaks...
Regardless of the label - express, local, etc. - most full-sized buses in Vietnam are 20-40 years old and being held together by electrical tape and sheer mechanical genius. Expect frequent breakdowns and a deconstructionist attitude towards interior decorating.


They're dirt cheap. Even though you're paying five times the domestic rate, it still comes out to about $.03 per kilometer.

They go almost everywhere.

If you want to meet, converse, and interact with locals, this is the way to go (it's almost as good as hitchhiking with only half the wait).I met some very interesting people...

Travel by bus is a window into Vietnamese life. You will learn what cargo people travel with, what they recycle, how to keep a thirty-year-old vehicle on the road with bits of rubber thong and electrical tape...

You can bring your bicycle along for a nominal fee. Travel by bus will help you to develop a Zen-like attitude towards pain and discomfort.

Its only marginally faster than a glacier.

You spend an inordinate amount of time hanging around grubby bus stations waiting for your bus to leave. Most buses don't depart until they're full, regardless of the published schedule.

They're painfully crowded. Picture 34 fraternity guys packed into a phone booth.

The only thing utterly reliable about them is that they will break down reliably.

Bus stations at midday are among the hottest places on earth...

They require a Zen-like attitude towards pain and discomfort

There are often several bus stations in the larger cities. Make sure you're at the right one.

Buses leave early in the morning (usually between 5 and 7 AM).

Short-run buses leave when they're full.

Do not sit in the far back if you can help it. It's a much bumpier ride. There's a reason that a half filled bus looks like the passengers have all been swept forward by a tidal wave.

You can buy two seats and give yourself a little more room if you can handle lounging in luxury while a Vietnamese mother carrying three children and a load of coconuts stands in the aisle beside you.

You have to have a lot of baggage before the conductor can legitimately charge you extra.

You can ride on top of the bus if you can convince the conductor that you're not a clumsy foreigner who will simply topple off at the first turn (this will be a much harder sell if you're a woman). Never leave your baggage inside when you go topside.

Develop that zen-like attitude towards pain and discomfort as quickly as possible.

Traditional gender constraints tend to disappear once the wheels began to roll. I have yet to see a Vietnamese couple kissing or even walking hand in hand, but within the confines of public transport moral restraints give way to practical necessity. People nestle like spoons and sleepy heads occasionally drop onto unknown shoulders. As a foreigner, you will be largely exempt from this. If someone's really crowding you, expect a thief.

photo If you are traveling with a bicycle (which goes on the roof) be aware that it may be taken down in lieu of someone else's and disappear.

Never put baggage under your seat. A thief can get at it from the seat behind you and slip off the bus.

Never put baggage in the overhead rack unless you have a means to secure it. Thieves are fast and efficient.

The Vietnamese are respectful and physically aloof. If someone leans over you (to look out the window) or even offers you a drink out of their soda bottle, be a little wary. Thieves can slice open your hip (money) bag from below and empty the contents in about half a second.

conductor watching...

"My half-hearted attempts to study grammar soon fell by the wayside in favor of dedicated conductor-watching. The man was as quick and agile as a cricket, leaping down and jogging alongside, scooping up babies and manhandling women up the steps. When we pulled over to pick up larger groups with bicycles and cargo he clambered up on the roof like a gecko. A helper slung the bikes up and he snatched them out of the air and lashed them on board in record time. I pulled out my watch and clocked his best efforts. A woman with children cost us three seconds; two bicycles and a fifty-kilo sack of rice set us back less than twelve, and for the single young men the bus barely slowed."

Excerpt form Hitchhiking Vietnam
You can reserve a ticket at the station the night before, provided you are willing to pay full foreign price (five times what the Vietnamese pay)

You can stand outside the station and flag the bus down as it's coming out. You then cut a deal with the driver. If you wish to try this, go into the station beforehand and check the published rate, then ask a few passengers what they are paying. Your fare will be somewhere in between, depending on how hard you argue with the driver/conductor. Some people take it to an extreme...

There are four different kinds of buses you can take in Vietnam:

Full size:
The Express (no, they don't serve coffee on board). "Express" can be a bit misleading. They rarely travel faster than 20 mph unless you're on the true intercity express route, when they can reach dizzying speeds of 30 mph. They do, however, have priority at ferry crossings which can save you a good bit of time.

The Local. Average speed is around 12 mph. They stop everywhere. The people on them tend to have large, sharp-edged, smelly cargoes. They are a true slice of Vietnamese life.

Minibuses can be either public or private:
Public. These are actually privately-run buses that augment the public busing system. They are usually found sitting like vultures around the edges of bus stations. Their owners are highly entrepreneurial - which means the driver will do his level best to squeeze in as many passengers (read "income") as he possibly can (a la 34 frat guys in a phone booth). Sometimes you can make arrangements for a public minibus driver to pick you up at your guesthouse on his way out of town. Sometimes you sit around on your bags for a day when he doesn't show up.

Chartered. This is the more common way for foreigners to travel by bus. It is less crowded than any of the other options. You will be rubbing elbows mostly with other foreigners. It will cost several times as much as the other buses (but will still be quite cheap). You can make arrangements through the local backpacker cafe or guesthouse catering to foreigners. Sometimes these buses even have air conditioning, though mostly they say they do and then don't. By the way, "less crowded" is a relative term - I've seen 17 long-limbed foreigners stagger out of a minibus in Sapa after a twelve-hour journey from Hanoi. The driver will try to limit your luggage.

Rule #1 The only rule you need to care about is Rule #2

Rule #2 The Law of Tonnage still applies - only this time you are riding in the mouth of the whale. It took me a while to get used to seeing bicyclists, dogs, and mopeds disappear under the front fender only to emerge an eternity later off to one side. On the other hand, buses do have accidents. If things start to go wrong, be prepared to exit through the nearest window or door. Unless the bus is in free fall down the side of a mountain you probably won't be moving at more than a few miles per hour.

Vietnamese buses are a miracle of workmanship, an ode to the creative genius of the Vietnamese driver/conductor/mechanic.

That 55-gallon drum above the driver's cabin is the gravity-fed water coolant system. If you reach the top of a steep pass chances are the driver will stop by a stream and the passengers will get out and form a fire brigade to refill the drum.

Buses have been known to drive up a hill backwards when their low gears are no longer functioning.

If their starter is out of order then they will only stop on a hill.

Learn the smell of burning brakes/burning electrical systems.

Shocks went out of style in Vietnam along with miniskirts.

The generally poor shape of the buses start to make a lot more sense once you have a good look at the roads they have to drive on.

Repairs on the fly...
"The driver abruptly cut the engine and reversed direction, struggling to keep the bus centered on the narrow lane as we rolled backwards down the hairpin turns. It took me a moment to realize that there was a fire burning between his knees. He kept going until he found a convenient place to pull over and then calmly subdued the blaze with the business end of his rubber thongs. He briefly inspected the molten wires, then released the brakes and continued his backward roll down the hill. The bus shuddered twice, reversed direction and we were on our way again. The connection to the battery had clearly lost its life in the conflagration. Thereafter the driver simply ignored all stops that weren't positioned on a hill. Ingenious."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

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