Travels In Vietnam 2011: Sleeper Bus Nightmare!

I’d never heard of sleeper buses before I went to Vietnam. I believe they’re a relatively recent addition to the tourist transport infrastructure, and are available in Laos and Cambodia also.

My first experience of this Asian people-moving phenomenon – and, I vow, my last – was an overnight journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An. I was too miserable – nay, traumatised – to record any photographic evidence of this 12 hour nightmare of discomfort, but for the sake of would-be travellers to Vietnam I feel a sense of civic duty to warn you of what awaits if you book a berth on a sleeper bus.

It’s not a bad concept, right? After all, sleeper trains have been around for yonks. Why not sleeper buses? Fully (almost) reclining seats, sleeping your way through the night and thus minimising the tedium of a long bus trip…and it’s cheaper than flying. How bad could it be? What’s 12 hours bus ride for a budget traveller?

Well, lemme tell ya, it’s a goddamned eternity when you’re involuntarily exploring degrees of discomfort you never dreamed existed. See, we’re not talking yer usual double-bunks here. The sleepers are two-tiered, sure, but there are three rows of DBs, and they’re squashed into the confines of a bus that’s not much bigger – if at all – than a normal one with upright seats. So whether you’re on the top or bottom sleeper, you can’t sit up. You have to ease yourself out of prone position as if you were doing a shallow sit-up, and careful with that forehead, Eugene.

Worse, the sleepers are hinged somewhere around your tailbone, and whatever elevation you choose from the limited options available, you’re constantly slipping down off the incline and jamming your coccyx into the hinge corner.

Worse still – much worse – there’s a coffin-like receptacle for your legs, angled downwards to save space. If you’re taller than an average 10-year-old you are not able to extend your legs. There is nowhere else for them to go, so you have no choice but to try to jam them into this coffin thingo. By bending your knees, contorting your feet and manipulating your legs sideways from the hip, wonders can be achieved – albeit at a physical cost mere words cannot communicate.

Adding to the challenge, this damned leg receptacle is wedge-shaped, tapering towards the end so that it is impossible to have your feet sticking up vertically in the anatomically natural position for a prone homosapien. Fortunately, I am double-jointed and was able to twist my feet into a spastic side-on position that somehow accommodated them, although for no longer than 15 minutes before I’d have to haul myself up far enough out of the tapered holster of torture to switch from sideways left to sideways right. If you’re not understanding, take heart, cos neither am I. And I wasn’t at the time, either.

There’s more. There’s a horizontal ridge across the bottom and towards the end of the leg coffin, sticking up far enough to dig into your shins and ankles. The naive hope that somehow, some time during the eternity you’re on board, you’ll find a position that is bearable is quickly dashed by this little detail.

Why is this cursed ridge there? I guessed it was some token safety measure, a sort of foothold to prevent short folk from slamming toe first into the end of the coffin in the event of the bus braking hard. Shame about the rest of us – any sort of road accident would inevitably result in snapped legs, broken toes and far, far worse. These sleeper buses are death traps and I’d be amazed if they are allowed anywhere outside SE Asia.

But now, the final horror, which was mine alone. The sleeper I was initially allotted was not a sleeper at all – it was closer to a fucking luggage rack! There’s only one on each sleeper bus. It’s a short straw you don’t wanna get.

Situated above the toilet, it is crammed into an impossibly confined space, and is so short there is no room even for a leg-coffin. When I crawled on to it and lay on my back, my nose was almost touching the roof of the bus. I had to bend my knees and wrench my legs to the side to fit my feet in against the butt of this crypt. My partner was on a middle top sleeper next to me. She was shocked. I was beyond shocked. I couldn’t talk. Just stared cross-eyed at the roof in front of my nose, and tried not to panic.

I’ve heard it claimed that fate or God or the universe or whatever never delivers us anything we can’t handle. Well, I couldn’t handle this. I knew I wouldn’t last in that rack longer than 30 minutes, but it was a fully-booked bus. What could I do?

I was internally debating whether to stand up in the only space I could see, behind the driver’s seat, to try to push someone’s luggage aside and sleep in the aisle, or to just tap the driver on the shoulder and demand to be let off the bus. My partner’s hoarsely whispered exhortations jolted me out of my reverie.

“There’s a vacant sleeper – just down there. Grab it!”
“But maybe the passenger will still turn up.”
“We’re about to take off. Grab it before someone else does.”

I obeyed. Thank Christ. Or fate. Or the universe or whatever.

A few minutes later, with the bus revving, the driver left his seat and loomed over me with a face like thunder.

“Better?” he enquired sternly.
“New seat.”
“Yes. The other one – too small.”
“Happy?” (gruffer still)
“Better, thanks.”

He turned scowling, resumed his seat, and gunned the engine. We began to move off. I reflected that I had probably taken the co-driver’s sleeper, but of far greater concern was that I had been saved from a night of torture – this new sleeper was merely unbearable.

I was soon to contemplate as I contorted myself this way and that how mercies this great could suddenly seem so small. After 2 hours of twisting and turning and easing myself higher, lower, and every degree between, my gratitude to the universe had evaporated entirely.

It was to be a long, long sleepless night ahead, with only the countless thousands of lights from the squid boats off the coast as company.

More posts in this series on Vietnam:
Travels in Vietnam 2011: Intro
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: The Cu Chi Tunnels
Travels In Vietnam 2011: War Remnants Museum, Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Mekong Delta
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Dalat
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Nha Trang
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hoi An
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hue
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Eating and Drinking!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hype vs Reality
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Reflections & Wrap-up

15 thoughts on “Travels In Vietnam 2011: Sleeper Bus Nightmare!”

  1. Oh my goodness…..

    I have just returned from SE Asia and had to do a google search to see if anyone else had experienced & documented the same horrors as I.

    We are brothers’ in pain. And sleep deprivation.

  2. Hi Pete. Had a good chuckle at your comment. I can laugh now, enough time having elapsed since the nightmare of that ironically named “sleeper bus” to put my post-traumatic stress disorder behind me. I see you are still deep in yours! All the best for a full recovery, bro!


    PS: Actually, it was worse than a nightmare, which at least requires sleep as a pre-condition.

  3. I understand your pain completely. Oxymoron at its best – sleeper bus. We were a family of 5 and our buses (yes we did more than one!) were generally overbooked. I actually think the people who slept in the aisles got a better sleep. One of our seatbelts was gummed up with something. I told the child not to even try to imagine what it was. The ‘blankets’ were yuk, but we lived through it and now laugh at the experience. I can still visualise my 6’4″ husbands’ face in the middle of the night and it makes me smile (although not at the time).

  4. I am on a sleeper bus as I type this! Looking for some kind of consolation I searched the sleeper bus in google. Everything you have said in this post is spot on! I’m laughing my ass off at all the points I can relate to! Can’t wait to show your post to my friend when we make another frequent stop that makes it impossible to sleep.

  5. Hi Jem and my sincere commiserations! By the time you read this, your ordeal will be over, so there’s a reason to down a few extra bia-hoi! See, even the sleeper bus nightmare has an upside! Not enough of one for me ever to consider putting myself through it again, though – not in this incarnation, anyway!

    Glad my post gave you a chuckle, and hopefully you found some solace in knowing that you were not alone in your suffering. Do what you can to warn others off the experience – it’s the least we can do! OTOH, maybe everyone deserves just one sleeper bus experience…

    Enjoy the rest of your Vietnam travels!

    Cheers and Happy New Year

  6. I have just paid for an overnight sleeper bus from Hanoi to Hue for my three friends and I. I now am terrified of what tonight will hold for us, iam 6″4 and guess im in for a bloody shit night then hey! will see how i enjoyed the night and share my experience tomorrow. FAQK!

  7. Hi Jackson M.

    Oh my lawd – 6ft4 you say? FAQK indeed! You’ll be through the ordeal by the time you get to read this. Hopefully, you’ll have had a wonderful, restful journey sleeping like a baby all the way. OTOH…

    Looking forward to your report!


  8. I am currently on the same sleeper bus in exactly the same seat/ bed with my partner next to me heading from Hoi an to Nha tran. It is so unbelievably uncomfortable that I felt the urge to tap into the wifi at the restaurant the bus stops at to try and find any reviews on this type of bus. I feel like an animal being transported to a slaughter house, and the smell that is emanating from the toilet from below only ads to the over all discomfort. To make things worse the crew operating the bus decided to make themselves a an extra buck by taking all our bags out from underneath the bus filling the underneath with scooters. Our bags were shoved into any space left in the aisles of the bus, that’s when my sunglasses met there fate. Wouldn’t recommend to anyone!!!!

  9. Nick, when you say “exactly the same seat”, you’re not referring to the dreaded luggage rack I referred to in my post, I hope? I just could not have stayed there. The standard sleeper coffin thingos are unbearable, but that luggage rack is impossible! Quite honestly, if I hadn’t nabbed that spare coffin down below I would have gotten off the bus. (Actually, I shouldn’t say ‘spare’ – I obviously cadged the co-driver’s sleeping quarters).

    Sincere commiserations. But you’ll be over it now, and just think – now you, too, have a travel story for the ages! Not that any bastard will want to listen to it, except those of us who have endured the same torture!


  10. Leonie, I only just noticed your post! The term ‘sleeper bus’ is, indeed, an oxymoron – and of the highest (lowest?) order!

    All who suffer the sleeper bus torment deserve acknowledgement and a sympathetic ear from ‘those who know’! If you’re still subscribed to this thread, please accept my sincere apologies for unwittingly ignoring you!


  11. I have used the sleeper buses several times from 2008 to 2012… experiences have been much better than the ones described here. Have usually slept most of the way on Ho Chi Minh City/Nha Trang trips…..about 8 hours. Only regret is that I missed some of the good food at the bus stops. Although not some of the restrooms at those stops. It’s all part of the adventure. I had not used the bus system in the USA since my service days….last year I tried it again…..go figure , I miss the VN busses !

  12. How, Marc, how? I’m 6 ft. You must be some sort of natural contortionist. But before you get too self-congratulatory, have you challenged yourself to a night in the luggage rack I mentioned? You haven’t lived – or died – until you’ve “done” that. I “did” it in 5 minutes, and that was sufficient to last several lifetimes.


  13. I’m heading over to Vietnam in a month’s time, and stumbled across this post looking at reviews for these so-called “sleeper buses”. A struggling uni student, I’m super dooper poor at the moment, and so budget-wise, this does seem to be my cheapest method of transportation from south to north. But holy heck, I think I might try and fork out the little bit extra for the train now – this sounds kinda miserable!

  14. G’day Hannah. Honestly, go by the usual type of sitting-up-in-seats bus, or train, or cycle or WALK rather than put yourself through a night on a “sleeper” bus (that is one inappropriate descriptor!).

    I’m a long time outta uni, but still travel on a budget – both by necessity and choice. You’ll find Vietnam is a great destination for budget travellers. We stayed in little guest houses or small hotels for under $20 per night most of the time. Clean, and perfectly adequate, and they almost all have free wifi.

    Food can be extremely cheap if you eat at local places. Beer is cheap and good, and if you go for the local 24-hour brew – “bia hơi” – it’s only 25c per glass (might be a bit more now). It’s served nice and cold and is actually surprisingly OK.

    Bus and train is cheap, as is boat where appropriate. And some of the package deals are incredible bargains. eg: In Saigon, we booked on a 48 hour tour of the Mekong Delta which included overnight accommodation, return bus and a very energetic tour guide: $35 per person. We rarely go for package deals,but stayed in Saigon longer than planned and wanted to make up time. Turned out to be an excellent decision. Saw a lot in the time, and you’d never know where to go or how to get there in an intense 48 hours if you travelled under your own steam. Unbelievable value.

    Have a great trip, and do try to avoid that bloody “sleeper” bus nightmare.


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