8 Tips for Sleeping on an Overnight Bus in Vietnam

At the end of 2012 I spent three weeks travelling through Vietnam from Hanoi right down to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. Just like many other backpackers my primary mode of transport was by overnight bus.

Overnight busses are a win-win because they are so cheap yet also double as accommodation for the night so the price of a bus ticket covers it all!

However, they have a reputation – and for very valid reason – of being uncomfortable, noisy and not particularly conducive for sleeping. I’m not going to make any promises that you will get a solid 8-hours sleep, but these tips might just make the trip a little bit more bearable – you will certainly come out feeling fresher on the other side!

9 Tips for Sleeping on an Overnight Bus in Vietnam

1. Eat a good meal before you board – best to avoid the beers before the overnight bus though! Take a couple of snacks and a big bottle of water.

2. But don’t drink too much water! Some overnight busses don’t have toilets so you just have to hold on and wait until then next stop. You never know how many (or how few) stops there are going to be. Sometimes they are a couple of hours apart, other times they are very few and far between. Don’t take any chances – there is nothing worse than waking up and needing to go! Try to get off at every stop even if just to stretch your legs.

3. Take a sleep sack/sleeping bag liner, and an extra warm layer (like a sweater). It may get cold in the wee hours of the night and there is nothing worse than trying to sleep when you are an icicle! Snuggle up in your little cocoon, it will help you to sleep so much better.

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4. Don’t take unidentified sleeping pills! My friend and I took our chances buying sleeping pills from a pharmacy and they came out rather secretively in an unidentified black bag – not entirely sure they were sleeping pills as I was wired all night and got no sleep whatsoever! If you think you are going to need sleeping pills, bring them from home or buy them from somewhere legit (i.e. not a Vietnamese roadside pharmacy!).

5. Make sure your iPod is fully charged and has some relaxing/chilled out music that you can listen to all night. I’ve never felt more relaxed than I have taking in the Vietnamese view out the window in the early evening with my favourite music in my ears.

6. Don’t expect to get a good nights sleep. Let’s face it, you’re unlikely to get a good nights sleep – you’ll spend hours looking at the Vietnamese travellers lying in the aisle peacefully snoring away, oblivious to the hooting, dangerous swerving of the bus and all of the potholes you seem to bounce over in the road. Unfortunately, sleeping in conditions like this just does not seem to be part of our genetic makeup! If you board with the expectation that you probably won’t get an amazing sleep, any sleep you do get will be a bonus!

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7. Take a scarf – for three reasons! 1. To put over the pillow provided to protect your head from potential bedbugs/other nasties! 2. To wrap around your head to try and dull out the honking that carries on all night! And 3. To wrap around yourself as another layer if you get cold!

8. If you can, get a bed on the side. Vietnam’s overnight buses are three rows wide, so the row of bunks in the middle has an aisle on either side. The sides are a preference, as not only do you get your own window, but you can sort of huddle up against the wall to feel secure. In the aisle row you have to hold on a bit more to save rolling from side to side (or falling off the bunk altogether!). That said, I had a bed in the middle row once and came out unscathed – just had a bit less sleep is all.

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Yep, the horn will be hooting all night and at times it will be like being on a roller coaster. Its all part of the journey! We paid a measly NZ$45 for a 5-stop bus ticket from Hanoi to Saigon. Three overnight buses and a four hour bus to travel down the entire country – cheap as chips!

Dare I say it but with the beauty of hindsight, overnight bus journeys are actually quite fun – and I will certainly do it again!

Do you have any more tips for overnight bus journeys?

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Visiting Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam

In October 2012 I realised it was time to stop resisting the travel bug.

It was the same month in which I resigned from my job.

In November I boarded a plane and travelled halfway across the world.

Over three months I backpacked through Vietnam, the Philippines and India. And no, three months most definitely was nowhere near long enough!

I flew into Hanoi on November 15th. I was meeting my friend Gena there, she had arrived from Thailand a couple of hours earlier than me and was waiting amongst the cluster of taxi drivers holding a little sign with my name on it. Cute!

We’d reserved a couple of beds in a dorm at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel (The Original), which i would definitely recommend if you’re young, not bothered by dorm rooms, and keen for a good time in Vietnam! Its affordable, a decent breakfast is included, and most of all its just fun. We met so many people there!

Gena and I spent a couple of days wandering the streets of Hanoi, planning our trip through the country and booking a tour to Halong Bay.

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Hanoi is a bustling city – quaint buildings, scooters en masse, loud horns tooting from every which way, and a tangle of power lines above every street. Very beautiful in a rather rustic way.

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After a couple of days in Hanoi, which included lots of delicious food, exploring the city, and a night out at a club that got closed down by armed police (yikes!), we made the 3 hour bus journey to Halong Bay for a 2 night/3 day cruise on our junk boat “Elizabeth Sails”. Junk boat by name, but not by nature – this was upmarket by our backpacking standards! We had a cosy twin cabin with ensuite (complete with an incredible shower, we jumped up and down with delight when we saw it!). Given we had read and heard horror stories of boats with rats (!!!) we were delighted when we boarded our immaculate boat.

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On arrival onto our boat we enjoyed a delicious lunch of fresh seafood, veges, rice and fruit, as we cruised through the bay. The striking limestone hills protruding out of the sea were beautiful, reminding me vaguely of the tranquility of the Marlborough Sounds back home in NZ.

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That day we visited the “amazing caves” which were pretty amazing (although most of the sights at the cave were along the lines of “here is a rock that looks like a woman” “there is a rock that looks like an elephant” “here is a rock that looks like a – what do you think it looks like ladies…a cannon…?” and so on). For the remainder of the afternoon we lazed about on the sun loungers on the rooftop of our boat, and visited a beach that was just so-so (too full of tourists).

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Our busy day was completed with a delicious seafood dinner which we washed down with a couple of Hanoi beers and promptly headed to bed for a bit of reading and an early night. We were tired…and also attempting to avoid joining in on the karaoke upstairs that pounded through our ceiling for hours on end!

The next morning was an early start – we breakfasted at 7 and were quickly shuffled onto a new boat that took us to Cat Ba Island where we spent our second night. We arrived on Cat Ba at lunchtime and checked into our hotel…again it was luxurious for our backpacking standards! We ate our all inclusive lunch in the restaurant overlooking the ocean – another tempting array of (mostly) delicious Vietnamese cuisine. Right now we just felt like we were winning at life.

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For the afternoon we had the option to either jump back on the boat and visit Monkey Island, or stay on Cat Ba and chill out on the sun loungers at the resort there… Given a rather terrifying experience I had with an oversized monkey when I was in Thailand a while back that scarred me with a mild fear of wild monkeys, coupled with the fact that we were now 4 days into our Vietnam trip and had not yet had any tanning opportunity (I know, right!!) we easily selected the option to laze on the beach.

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It was a glorious afternoon.

Later that evening we decided we would hit Cat Ba town for a good night out. We started at the Downunder Bar, owned by a guy from Dunedin who married a Vietnamese woman. It wasn’t very busy that night (we must have been the only kiwis in town…) so we got a beer and a manicure from his wife and headed back to the hotel for dinner and a cocktail. Somehow they managed to make my pina colada taste like flour, so we washed that down with a few 2 for 1 mojitos at another bar in town. We bumped into two German friends we had made in Hanoi and they joined us for a while, but Cat Ba wasn’t exactly raving so we called it a night.

The next morning we were up with the sun again for an early breakfast (buffet, yum!) and back on board the boat to Halong City where we would eat lunch and then bus back to Hanoi.

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Halong Bay was stunning and I would definitely recommend a tour if you’re ever in Vietnam (it was significantly better that our Mekong Delta trip down south which I will come to later/in another post). It is very touristy and I imagine rather difficult, if not impossible, to explore without doing a tour – but in my eyes it was absolutely worthwhile.

Have you visited Vietnam? What was your favourite city/region?