So I’d been the one who insisted on traveling during Chinese/Lunar New Year because I thought it would provide for an enhanced local experience. And while we did have a great time enjoying the lantern festival and fireworks in Hoi An, traveling during this period really has resulted in some unfortunate travel trade-offs for us as well. Mainly, it’s really hard to book last minute transportation when a massive portion of the local population is also on the move. So we weren’t really surprised when we found out that all the trains to Hanoi had been booked up for months, but we figured we should still be able to catch a bus (local or tourist) to Hanoi from Dong Hoi if we went early enough in the day. We’d read that there were 7 local buses that left daily to Hanoi and a handful of charter companies that ran mostly overnight buses (which we’d hoped would be a last resort). We’d never had any issues booking buses same day, so we left Phong Nha on the 8AM local bus headed towards Dong Hoi confident we would be in Hanoi by nightfall.
When we arrived at the Dong Hoi bus station though, somehow Jesse’s normally spot-on navigation skills got a bit disoriented. We knew that there were 2 bus stations in Dong Hoi but the one we were dropped off at was not where we thought we would end up at and we didn’t really see somewhere we could buy tickets. We figured maybe it was just a different drop off point. The owner of our hotel in Phong Nha had also written the address of what she thought was the right bus station on a piece of paper for us, so we hopped on some moto-taxis and headed to find a bus. Unfortunately, that address ended up being a charter bus company’s address (not the local bus station as we’d expected) but we went in anyway to ask about tickets to compare prices. We were quickly told “No!”, no seats left on any buses that day or the next day. Luckily, that street seemed to be where most of the charter bus company’s offices were so we walked a few doors down and asked the next place. No again. Not tomorrow either. We tried three more places…all shaking heads and “No!”, sometimes coupled with a condescending laugh which definitely had the tone of “haha you silly foreigners thinking you can catch a bus to Hanoi today!”
Continuing our walk down the street (with full backpacks in tow), we actually ran into another group of young tourists who I asked if they knew of a company that we should try out and they encouragingly told us that they had just now come from booking tickets to Hanoi as well from a place across the street! So we headed over quickly but this lady (who was clearly not confident with English) started shaking her head as well. When we told her that we’d just met the other people who’d just come from booking the tickets with her, she pulled out her notebook and slowly wrote the following words for us to read: “The End.” Oh boy!
There was one more company that we’d read about but it was a few kilometers further down the road so we reluctantly made the trek out there feeling sure that we knew what their answer would be as well. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for the laughing followed by waving hands followed by “No!” to materialize. Feeling pretty discouraged at this point, we decided to grab a taxi and get them to take us back to the local bus station. Of course no taxis were in sight, and actually it was sort of reflective of the whole town itself which seemed to be mostly closed down and deserted. We had to walk back a long way to find one, and passed another bus company sign that we’d missed on our way in probably because it was inside of a cafe. I thought it was a useless exercise to ask, but Jesse insisted on trying it out anyway and the lady actually told us that she had 2 seats left on an overnight sleeper bus that left at 7:30PM that night.
We’d heard some pretty bad horror stories about how incredibly uncomfortable the sleeper buses in Vietnam could be for people over 5’4″ and had resolved a long time ago that we would never take one – especially not a 10 hour one. We also wanted to get to Hanoi that night (we’d already booked our hotel) and this bus would get us there at 5AM the next morning. Still hoping the local buses would be running, we decided to continue on and hope to find a taxi to bring us back to the local bus station.
When we did finally get there, we saw the little ticket terminal that we must have missed when we first arrived. We walked up to the booth, asked about buses to Hanoi (we could see all the departure times listed on the window) and the lady just shook her head at us. “No buses today.” Gah!
With seemingly no choice, we headed back out, hailed another taxi and headed back to the cafe/bus lady to book the last two overnight sleeper bus tickets with her. How bad could it really be?
Thankfully we were able to leave our backpacks in the kitchen of the cafe for the day as we had still another 8+ hours to kill in Dong Hoi before the bus left. Perhaps if the city hadn’t been seemingly shut down because of the Tet holiday and it hadn’t been raining on & off most of the day, we wouldn’t have disliked Dong Hoi as much as we did. But honestly, it was by far the least interesting and disappointing day we’d had our whole trip. We walked for hours and hours across the city, visiting the market, the waterfront boardwalk, the train station and even the other bus station in town. But everything just felt “meh.” We pretty much ate at every food stall that we passed, because so few were open that day. Thankfully there was one delicious make-your-own fresh spring roll place that had some really awesome pork skewers and a tasty peanut dipping sauce so that helped us feel a bit re-energized. But still we could not wait for the bus to leave by the time 7:30 rolled around.
Overnight sleeper buses are essentially normal sized coach buses split out into 3 rows of narrow bunk beds. I think there were about 38 “beds” on our bus (near the back they sort of cram 2 beds beside each other next to the washroom), and amazingly we didn’t have the worst ones! Our beds were both on the bottom level near windows, so essentially we were sleeping on the floor of the bus next to the walking aisles. The beds are designed to be at an angle such that the space underneath where your head and torso are lying (reclined a bit upward) is where the next person’s feet would be. But if you can imagine, these buses are designed for people much shorter than someone Jesse’s height (and with much, much smaller feet) so he pretty much did not fit into anything properly and ended up looking like a caged animal in a very uncomfortable position. I, on the other hand, could fully stretch out my legs and felt very happy in my bed. Once again, being short prevails!
As expected, the bus was full and in fact they even had people sleeping on mats in the aisles as well. At one point during the ride, I woke up suddenly to find another man sleeping right beside me in the aisle. It felt like the entire side of his body was pressed up against the side of mine (save for the little plastic parts from my bed) which frightened me at first until I realized he was sound asleep and was equally pressed up against the person in the bed on his other side. I did hold on to my purse a little harder after that, but it all turned out okay. Jesse even managed to find a rotation of positions that he could use to prevent his legs and neck and back to not feel completely strained or numb the whole time so that was a small win as well. He might have even dozed off for a few minutes here and there to boot.
All in all, we felt our overnight bus ride to Hanoi went as well as we could have hoped. But we were happy when it was finally over. We caught a taxi to our hotel (didn’t even get ripped off!) and were thrilled when the manager cheerfully told us our room was actually ready for us even at that early hour. So we promptly checked in and fell into bed to get a little more sleep before daybreak. We loved Hanoi already!