A different kind of travelogue. As an avid young traveller I often wondered what would it would be like when I got older, gathered commitments, created children and accrued debt. This is what it's like.
There is a first time for everything and if you’re thinking it’s the first time for a sleeper bus experience in Vietnam it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Here’re a few things I wish I knew before the first time I tried it.
The Dirty Dozen Tips for families on sleeper buses;
(This applies to the locals buses and not to the Backpacker focused “open-ticket” (hop on hop off) buses.)
1. First Time; Maybe do a shorter trip the first time then you’ll work most of this out.
2. The Unknown; Have a look inside the exact bus type before you book your tickets if you can.
3. Seat Choices: With family groups being our focus it’s worth looking at the seats right at the back. This is not a great choice usually due to bounce, engine noise and being pressed up against the next guy. However there are sometimes 4 or 5 seats across and if thats the size of your group it may suit you better than the other single seats.
4. Seat Realities; The seats are small, tall people will suffer, claustrophobic people will suffer. The seats are plastic coated, you will sweat.
5. Cold; The air-con is often impossible to adjust; you may need a warm layer.
6. Carry-On; The space inside the bus for luggage is non existent; bring a minimum volume of essentials. (Look at what the locals bring aboard.) So think hard about what you will need. There were no overhead shelves or under seat spaces at all. Everything else goes underneath in the Luggage section. (See 7,8 & 9)
7. Pick up services; The Futa service that we used a few times picks you up from your hotel and brings you to your bus and vice versa at the far end. This worked fine 1 out of 4 times we used them as detailed in Grand Tour 2015 #15. ( http://wp.me/p3OJcX-7e ) One time we were forgotten and thus the last on to the bus.
8. Baggage; Don’t be the last on to the bus as your bag may be squished in the door and liable to fall out everytime someone gets off the bus. The bags nearest the doors are also the bag easiest to steal and there are plenty of stories of bags going missing.
9. Shoes; When we got on it was wet and we were given a plastic bag to put our shoes in which went in a tiny locker behind our seats. You couldn’t get a big pair of boots in there. If you want to put anything else in there it will be safe when your seat is back because your seat makes it impossible to get at the little locker BUT remember its a shoe locker most of the time. I’d be slow to put my food in there. When you stop at the food place they provide communal flip-flops (aka Thongs) for you to use if you wish to do so. (I didn’t.)
10. Food; The food at the food stops was ok for meat eaters if you have already adjusted to the reality of vietnamese kitchens. (And if you intestines have adjusted too.) For vegetarians and picky kids it was a challenge. We could see the kitchens some of the times. Only one of our group of 4 was willing to eat at any of our stops.
11. Toilets; The stops vary with the bus services but on ours the food stop was only one that was a real toilet. Men get out and pee anywhere. Women are not really catered for. The local women have some sort of ninja bladder control but Dominique had a very unpleasant walk off into the dirt in the dark on the side of the road in the middle of the night. (If you can use one of the women peeing standing up things that might help but it might also get you more than some funny looks.) Maybe don’t have that Ca Phe with ice or the cold beer that you really crave.
12. Language skills; I don’t think our experience of getting pushed off the bus was representative.(See http://wp.me/p3OJcX-7e ). I just think there was a communication error. The attendant on the bus may not have much in the way of English or French or whatever you speak. So if you don’t have much Vietnamese then be prepared. Perhaps get any important messages written down by a friendly bilingual Vietnamese person before you go or have access to phrase book. (Important things like; “I’m Vegetarian.” “I think I am about to wet/poo myself.” “The guy beside me has stopped breathing.” “Would you mind awfully if the bus was stationary before I get on/off?” That sort of thing.) Or learn some Vietnamese. (You went to Vietnam after all.)
In fairness the whole thing is already fun to look back on. Less fun to do. We brought three significant bags on board and they took up a lot of space that we really didn’t have. The kids loved it but then the seats are actually the right size for a 10 year old.
The train is better.
13. Dirty Bakers Dozen Tip; Take the Train.