Vietnam has an extensive network of buses that reach the far-flung corners of the country. Modern buses, operated by myriad companies, run on all the main highways. Out in the sticks expect uncomfortable local services.
Most travellers never visit a Vietnamese bus station at all, preferring to stick to the convenient, tourist-friendly open-tour bus network.
Whichever class of bus you’re on, bus travel in Vietnam is never speedy – plan on just 50km/h on major routes, perhaps 60km/h on Hwy 1 – due to the sheer number of motorbikes, trucks, pedestrians and random animals competing for space.
Cities can have several bus stations, and responsibilities can be divided according to the location of the destination (whether it is north or south of the city) and the type of service (local or long distance, express or nonexpress).
Bus stations can look chaotic but many now have ticket offices with official prices and departure times clearly displayed.
Some bus companies also have their own private terminals, but these are quite rare.
Modern air-conditioned buses operate between the main cities. You can be certain of an allocated seat and enough space.
Most have comfortable reclining seats, others have padded flat beds for long trips. These sleeper buses can be a good alternative to trains, and costs are comparable.
Deluxe buses are nonsmoking and some even have wi-fi. On the flipside, most of them are equipped with TVs (expect crazy kung fu videos) and some with dreaded karaoke machines. Ear plugs and eye masks are recommended.
Deluxe buses stop at most major cities en route, and for meal breaks.
Mai Linh Express (www.mailinhexpress.vn) This reliable, punctual company operates clean, comfortable deluxe buses across Vietnam. Destinations covered include all main cities along Hwy1 between Hanoi and HCMC, Hanoi to Haiphong, HCMC to Dalat, and cities in the central highlands.
The Sinh Tourist (www.thesinhtourist.vn) An efficient company that has nationwide bus services, including sleepers. You can book ahead online. Look out for special promotional prices.
Short-distance buses depart when full (jam-packed with people and luggage). Don’t count on many leaving after about 4pm.
These buses and minibuses drop off and pick up as many passengers as possible along the route; frequent stops make for a slow journey.
Conductors tend to routinely overcharge foreigners on these local services so they’re not popular with travellers.
In backpacker haunts throughout Vietnam, you’ll see lots of signs advertising ‘Open Tour’ or ‘Open Ticket’. These are bus services catering mostly to foreign budget travellers. The air-conditioned buses run between HCMC and Hanoi (and other routes) and passengers can hop on and hop off the bus at any major city along the route.
Prices are reasonable. Depending on the operator and exact route, HCMC to Hanoi is US$35 to US$70, while HCMC to Hue is around US$25. The more stops you add, the higher the price. Try to book the next leg of your trip at least a day ahead.
Buses usually depart from central places (often hostels popular with travellers), avoiding an extra journey to the bus station. Some open-tour buses also stop at sights along the way (such as the Cham ruins of Po Klong Garai).
The downside is that you're herded together with other backpackers and there's little contact with locals. Additionally, it's harder to get off the main 'banana pancake' trail as open-route buses just tend to run to the most popular places. Some open-tour operators also depend on kickbacks from sister hotels and restaurants along the way. Dodgy drivers also pack bus aisles with locals paying them cash in hand.
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 your plans.
Nevertheless, cheap open-tour tickets are a temptation and many people go for them. Aside from the main north–south journey, the HCMC–Mui Ne–Dalat–Nha Trang route is popular.
If you are set on open-tour tickets, look for them at budget cafes in HCMC and Hanoi. The Sinh Tourist (www.thesinhtourist.vn) has a good reputation, with online seat reservations and comfortable buses.
Reservations aren’t required for most of the frequent, popular services between towns and cities, but it doesn’t hurt to purchase the ticket the day before. Always buy a ticket from the office, as bus drivers are notorious for overcharging.
On many rural runs foreigners are typically overcharged anywhere from twice to 10 times the going rate. As a benchmark, a typical 100km ride should be between US$2 and US$3.