We hadn't planned transportation between any Vietnam cities in advance of our 3-week stay since we didn't know if our rough itinerary might change as we learned more about the country. In the end we visited five different cities and took a train or bus to get between most. These were often the best options financially and logistically, but we also enjoyed the opportunity to see the country from a different perspective and to have a unique experience in a new destination.
Hanoi (north) to Hoi An (central)
When deciding how to get from Hanoi to Hoi An we easily chose train over plane. Train ticket prices are comparable to flight prices, but by booking an overnight sleeper car we ended up saving money on accommodations for that night. Traveling by train also allowed us to see more of the country, including some amazing views along the coast, all of which we would have missed from a plane.
About four days out we booked two Vietnam Railway berths in an air-conditioned soft sleeper on a SE1 train (one of the nicer ones, apparently) that would take 15 hours, departing Hanoi in the evening and arriving to Da Nang (about 30km outside of Hoi An) midday. We purposely timed our trip to have daytime hours between Hue and Da Nang, whose route is supposed to offer incredible views. A few hours after booking I received an email that our request was not available on this train; after some back and forth we ended up paying a little less, about $62 US total, for the same beds on a 20-hour train ride, departing Hanoi in the afternoon and arriving to Da Nang midday, on a SE29, whose quality we could find no information about. Despite the long ride ahead of us, we were looking forward to forced relaxation after a week of all-day explorations.
We boarded the train shortly before departure and were happy to find that it left right on time. Upon boarding we were escorted to our assigned berths in a room identical to the other soft sleeper rooms on the train with 4 berths total, 2 upper and 2 lower, each with a plug point, light, pillow and blanket. In between the berths is a table, a garbage can and a large window with curtains. The sliding door to the room locks, but unless you have booked all 4 berths in the room you risk locking out a new passenger by bolting it. Each car has about 5 rooms, a bathroom with a sink as well as a separate sink and mirror. Besides one person who also boarded at Hanoi and arrived to his destination only 2 hours later, no one else joined our room, which was a welcome surprise.
My first impression was this was clearly an old train, based on decor and quality. The room was fine and seemed pretty clean, minus a couple of bugs we had to squash and obvious wear and tear. The bathroom, on the other hand, was what you would expect on a train, even a NJTransit or Amtrak, where passengers are unsuccessfully trying to aim in the bowl while being jostled around; we tried to use it as little as possible. One of the bathrooms did have soap at the sink, an added bonus.
Each passenger was given a bottle of water before an employee came around selling dinner vouchers. It all happened so fast we weren't sure what was going on, but after some faltering communication and the help of our bunkmate we discerned that dinner was rice and meat, cost 35,000 VND/person (about $1.50 US), and would be delivered at 6PM.
The time went faster than expected; we read and napped before taking a walk to the cafe car for coffee. On the way we passed through the cars with hard beds and hard chairs. The cafe car was mainly filled with employees hanging out and smoking, who seemed to be amused by our existence as we ordered coffee from them; we just smiled and nodded, taking it to be friendly. Shortly after returning to our room, dinner rolled by on a cart and we were each passed a plate of rice, pork and cabbage along with a cup of soup, chopsticks, a spoon and a wet napkin in exchange for our meal voucher. While not a memorable meal, it was serviceable. A beverage cart also rolled by and we ordered a couple Bia Saigons at 20,000 VND (about $1 US) each. Empty dinner plates were left outside the room to be picked up by staff.
With not much else to do, we went to sleep early and slept fairly well through the night, waking up here and there as the train rolled into stations. We woke up around 7:30AM after the train stopped at Hue, and had either missed the breakfast menu or they didn't come around, so walked to the cafe car and ordered two bowls of phở bò; not the best we've had, but more than edible.
By 9AM we reached the mountains and realized that while cars cut straight through them, the train curves around them along the coast. This is where the amazing views come into play, and we weren't disappointed. We found an open window on our way back from the cafe car and spent a long time "oohing" and "ahing" out the window, our cameras clicking away.
At this point, after being on the train for almost 18 hours and in the same clothes for 24, I was longing for a shower and a clean bathroom. We couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised when the train pulled into Da Nang two hours early. We bid farewell to the friendly staff and went out front to meet our taxi to Hoi An.
Ho Chi Minh City (south) to Dalat (central)
Looking at the map we thought we would visit Dalat after Hoi An, but after some research found that would be a challenge; with only a couple flights heading there each day and most stopping in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) first, we decided that would be our next stop instead. We learned the 7-8 hour bus ride from HCMC to Dalat runs 41 (!) times a day with Phuong Tran bus service, meaning there shouldn't be any obstacles awaiting us. Once in HCMC we visited the Phuong Tran bus office, a few minutes’ walk from our Airbnb apartment, to book our ticket for the sleeper bus, the only option. Prices had apparently increased due to Vietnamese New Year, Tet, although we only received verbal notification of this, but at $6 US each we decided to accept it.
We were scheduled on a 9:30AM bus Sunday morning, so after a bowl of hủ tiếu, coffee and picking up bánh mìs for lunch, we headed to the bus office, which doubled as the waiting room and bus stop, to find that the buses were running behind. Our bus eventually pulled up around 10AM and after having our bags stored underneath it and our tickets checked at the door, we departed shortly after, surprisingly not hitting any traffic on our way out of HCMC.
We were highly amused upon boarding the bus, as it was unlike any we had seen before.
First of all, we had to take our shoes off when getting on the bus; very common in Asian homes and businesses but this was the first we had seen on transportation. Everyone picked up a plastic bag from a pile to store their shoes in, so we followed suit. Perhaps this is what kept the bus so clean, which was nice to see.
Second, we knew we were on the upper level so had assumed the bus was a double decker, but what this really meant is we were on the top bunk of a single deck bus! The seats on the sleeper bus resemble very narrow bunk beds, 3 across, with a narrow aisle between each. We climbed up to the small seat, which no one taller than us could comfortably fit in (we couldn't even fully stretch our legs), where a blanket was waiting. I was in the middle seat so felt like I was floating with an aisle on either side of me, while the window seats had extra security on one side. Our feet rested in a little cubby where we were meant to also stow away any handbags. The sleeper seats reclined far back, which most people took advantage of to nap.
In addition to the driver there was another employee in a Phuong Tran shirt who walked around handing out bottled water and wet towels and checking everyone’s final destinations. The bus was air conditioned and equipped with free wifi that connected pretty well for the first half of the drive.
The kicker is, there was no bathroom on the bus. Before boarding we made sure to use the restroom in the waiting room, which was cleaner than expected, as many times as we could; we were so nervous about no option to use a toilet on the bus but to be honest, if there was one I would probably avoid it. Turns out, if you really have to go they will probably stop for you; at one point a woman made her way to the front of the bus and shortly after we pulled over on the side of the road. A few other passengers took advantage of the unplanned stop to also use the bathroom (which was maybe the woods?) or smoke a cigarette.
4 hours in we stopped at a planned rest stop for bathroom and lunch, noting the sign that said we were allotted 30 minutes before departing again. We carried our shoes to the front of the bus to put on as we exited and were amused, and not surprised at all, to find a crate of used flip-flops sitting on the pavement that passengers were grabbing from at random. We skipped the risk of a foot infection, which doesn't seem to be a fear in Asia at all, as flip-flops are often shared by strangers, and put our own shoes on. We were surprised to find that the large rest stop seemed to be owned by the bus company; their name was everywhere. The bathrooms had many stalls and were surprisingly clean and stocked with toilet paper, although no soap. The main hall of the rest stop was massive, with a food court serving soups, rice dishes and other Vietnamese meals and snacks. Many passengers sat down to order lunch, but we sat on benches outside to eat the bánh mìs we had picked up earlier that morning. We risked drinking some of our bottled water and shortly later boarded the bus again.
Our driver was very generous with his horn, which at the time was highly annoying, but after driving around Vietnam ourselves on a rented motorbike we were thankful for all the honking; it told us when a car or bus was coming up from behind, which is all the time, since no driver in Vietnam seems to stay in their lanes or pay attention to where they’re going. Despite the honking and small beds, the ride was pretty comfortable. We arrived to Dalat shortly after 4PM, only about 6 hours after departing HCMC.
We were grateful that our hotel in Dalat had already mentioned that most bus companies provide free shuttle service to passengers’ accommodations; there were several Phuong Tran vans waiting for us when we got off. We gave someone our hotel address and they directed us accordingly to the van heading in that direction. This was a nice service to have available after a long bus ride.
Dalat (central) to Mui Ne (south)
While still in HCMC we had stopped by the Sinh Tourist office to book tickets for this leg at $11 US each. Tickets can be purchased online but then need to be delivered to your hotel, so going straight to the source seemed to be the best bet.
On the morning of our 7:30AM bus we followed the ticket instructions that said to arrive 30 minutes early to check-in and arrived just before 7AM to a madhouse. On a crowded and narrow Dalat street there were buses, customers and pedestrians trying to maneuver around each other. Sinh Tourist staff, who were hard to distinguish because they weren’t wearing anything bearing the name, were running around yelling. I left Prem with our bags to jump into the mess and figure out where to “check-in” but all I saw was a desk labeled “booking office” with a long line. I figured, we already have our tickets so let’s go eat breakfast (priorities).
After slurping down a bowl of bún bò we ran back to the bus stop at 7:20AM so we had time to use the (very dirty) bathroom (again, none on the bus) before boarding, and found out, from one of the yelling men we assumed were employees, that we had to stand in the long line mentioned above to get a baggage tag before we could board. Knowing the next bus didn’t depart until 11:30AM, we stood anxiously in the slow-moving line while I tried to communicate to the yellers that we were meant to be on the bus leaving in 6 minutes and would we make it? Finally, either because they were sick of me asking them or because they wanted to help us, one of them pulled me to the front of the line and dropped my tickets on the desk. Avoiding the glares of the passengers in line behind me, the woman behind the desk checked us in before handing me baggage tags and our tickets.
We would make it! We attached the baggage tags to our luggage, passed them off to be stored underneath the bus, and boarded, looking for seats 26 and 27, which were nowhere to be found. There were two buses simultaneously headed to Mui Ne, so, maybe we were meant to be on the other one? No, one of the employees told us. “Take off your shoes”, he said, as he pointed towards the front of the bus. It took us a minute to realize that he meant for us to climb over the ledge to the two passenger seats next to the driver, which were marked 26 and 27. We would be spending the 4-hour ride with a front row view of the crazy driving of Vietnam. Yikes. These seats were very tight, making me grateful I was sharing them with Prem, and quite close to the dashboard, which meant cramped leg room.
The rollercoaster took off around 7:45AM. As Dalat is in the highlands and we were headed to the coast, most of the ride was spent winding down the mountain, passing other cars and motorbikes when it didn’t seem possible and taking advantage of any straight and empty roads to hit the accelerator while I gripped Prem’s arm fiercely. I felt like we were in Speed with Keanu and Sandra. Given all of this, our driver seemed to be able to anticipate other drivers’ moves and didn’t make too many reckless decisions. Based on the amount of honking that happened on our drive from HCMC to Dalat, I’m sure the Phuong Tran driver drove in a similar manner, but luckily we had back row seats to that show.
This bus also had an employee on board in addition to the driver, although besides handing out water bottles after boarding and then burping throughout the ride in the seat behind us, his presence wasn’t obvious, especially since neither he nor the driver wore Sinh Tourist gear.
Around 9:30AM we stopped for a 30-minute break on the side of the road. Most people made a beeline for the bathrooms, which were dirty and did not have a sink. Food and drink were for sale with tables and chairs and there was a section of hammocks for relaxing. After our driver finished his meal, everyone boarded the bus and we took off. We arrived to the bus stop in Mui Ne at around 11:30AM, not even 4 hours after departing Dalat. Sinh Tourist does not offer free transportation to hotels, so we hailed a cab.
Taking a train or bus in between Vietnam cities offers a chance to see more of the country (we saw breathtaking views on each of our rides) and a different way to experience the culture and people. Depending on what company and what type of seat you book the ride can be quite comfortable. As for security, Vietnam is a very safe country and tourists should feel comfortable traveling by road or rail between cities. As when traveling in any country, be smart and aware when it comes to yourself and your belongings.
Based on our limited experience, we recommend Phuong Tran (also called FUTA) bus line for bus service. They are a huge company servicing most of the country many times a day. Their accommodations were clean and comfortable and their staff was professional. The free wifi and shuttle service to hotels were added bonuses.
For all things train we defer to The Man in Seat 61. We found this site to be the most valuable source of information on train travel in Vietnam. Based on a wealth of experience and research this blog provides every last detail in an organized fashion, which made it easy for us to maneuver around the planning and booking process and also provided insight into what to expect once on our trip. We ended up booking our Vietnam Railway tickets through the well designed, simple to use travel site Baolau.
As for what to bring when traveling by long distance train or bus, make sure to carry extra layers for warmth, snacks, water, some form of entertainment (think: book, playing cards, journal), antibacterial gel and tissues and/or toilet paper for those bathrooms that are lacking.