Sitting down having breakfast at my hostel in Ho Chi Minh City on the first day of my RTW in 2016/7, I stared at my cup of fantastic Vietnamese Iced Coffee and said to myself: "Right, I'm here now. Now what?". It was my first time backpacking and I could only surmise what my next steps were going to be. Casual conversations with fellow hostel guests lead me to discover what all the buzz was about backpacking through Vietnam - doing it on a motorcycle and cruising through the 1,800 km of road from Ho Chi Minh in the south to Hanoi up in the north or vice versa.
That sounded awesome except for one thing - I didn't know how to ride a motorcycle. Shoot! Add on the fact that I didn't want to hurt myself seriously in the first few weeks of a year long trip meant that I crossed this off as a viable option rather quickly.
I found the next best thing — the hop on/hop off bus! Here's how it works:
- Essentially a collection of prepaid, one-way bus passes from one Vietnamese city to the next
- No travel date, ie. an 'open' ticket, on each route
- Passengers will have to call the respective bus company 24 hours before expected departure to book a seat on the bus and redeem the open ticket for that leg of the journey
- Most bus companies in Vietnam offer this ticket along the Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi route along the East Coast
- Riders can elect to combine tickets and skip cities all together. For example, combining tickets for City A to City B and City B to City C to go directly from City A to C
In general, any bus from a reputable bus company will stop at the following cities:
- Ho Chi Minh
- Mui Ne
- Da Lat
- Nha Trang
- Hoi An
Here are the journey times from each city above to the next. If you are thinking of skipping a city, just add the durations together because the bus WILL stop at each major town (and more) to pick up more passengers and drop off cargo.
Ho Chi Minh > Mui Ne = 4.5 Hours, 220 km (likely a sleeper bus)
Mui Ne > Da Lat = 4 hours, 150 km (climbing hill pass with smaller bus)
Da Lat > Nha Trang = 3.5 hours, 140 km (coming down hill pass with smaller bus)
Nha Trang > Hoi An = 10 hours, 500 km (overnight sleeper bus)
Hoi An > Hue = 3 hours, 130 km (likely a sleeper bus)
Hue > Hanoi = 14 hours, 675 km (overnight sleeper bus)
Things to note:
- On the Hoi An to Hue leg, the bus does stop at the bustling city of Da Nang which is Vietnam's 5th largest city and is an active port. The beaches here looked lovely!
- On the Hue to Hoi An leg, the bus stops at Ninh Binh that gives travelers access to Cuc Phuong National Park and its amazing caves.
When purchasing this ticket, it is very important to shop around. There are as many bus operators as there are scooters on the streets of Saigon! I was staying on Backpackers St in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh and conveniently for me, this street is littered with tour operators selling open bus tickets.
After reviewing several options, I ended up going with Viet Nhat Bus Company. The agent who sold me the ticket spoke excellent English and showed me pictures of the bus interiors to my satisfaction. She even gave me a discount (ask for one if not offered!) on the ticket which ended up amounting to 900,000 VND (41 USD) compared to the 1,230,000 VND (56 USD) ticket my hostel was selling. Seeing all these zeros is making me laugh! My ticket encompassed all the cities mentioned above but if you don't want to stop at all of them, the price will be lower.
Is this right for you?
Yes, if any of the following apply:
- You don't know or want to ride a motorcycle over 1,000 kms
- You want to stick the major towns on the east coast of the country
- You only have 2 - 3 weeks to travel in Vietnam
- You like to have an idea of where you're going in advance
There is a trade off here: cost savings versus flexibility. If you end up falling in love with a particular city and/or are running out of time and have to leave Vietnam, then this ticket is definitely not for you. Committing yourself to a planned out bus itinerary will require some travel time budgeted into your plan because Vietnam is a very long country. You have the ability to skip towns on the bus to save time overall, but you will still have to endure the travel time with less breaks in between.
If you are very unsure, I would recommend you book bus tickets or plane tickets (if you need to cut travel time) as you go along. In the end, buying the bus ticket worked out pretty well for me although I fell in love with Da Lat and spent more days there than I originally planned which led me to skip Hue and go directly to Hanoi from Hoi An.
- Shoes are strictly prohibited in Vietnamese buses. Wear slip on shoes or flip flops to get on and off the bus quickly.
- The temperature on the bus can vary and sleeper buses can get quite chilly. Most of the time, a blanket is provided but if you are the type to get cold easily, make you sure bring a light sweater on board with you.
- If you are on a sleeper bus, there is no real overhead space for you to store things. You are expected to store them in your cubby by your feet or on the floor next to you. Personally, I would feel inconsiderate putting it on the floor next to the seat because it would block the already narrow aisle. Storing it in the foot cubby also means that you give up space for your feet so try and bring only the essentials (passport, money, electronics) in the cabin with you and store everything else in the luggage compartment below.
- The bus will make pitstops for to pick up more passengers, meals and bathroom breaks every 3 - 4 hours, but if nature calls, tell the driver immediately!
If you want to see some footage of what it is like on the bus, check out my vlog as I traveled from Ho Chi Minh to Mui Ne!
About The Author
Nico Atienza is a Philippines born, Sri Lankan raised traveler who sold everything, quit his job and escaped the rat race to travel the world in 2016. Apart from his love of travel, he is an award winning volunteer, miles + points aficionado and perpetually epicurious story teller. You can peer into his life by following him on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram or send him an Email.