Bus Travel, Open Tours & Sinh Cafe

One of the most popular modes of transport for visitors to Vietnam, particularly among budget travellers, are the Open Tour buses that operate between all the major stops on the tourist routes. While these can be handy if all you want is a quick trip up the coast, we would strongly encourage travellers to look further afield for a more interesting, genuine experience of Vietnam.

Open Tours - Sinh Cafe, T M Brothers, Hanh Cafe & Phuong Tran

100s of people wait for a Sinh Cafe Bus
Hundreds of people wait for Sinh Cafe buses

These operators are famous in Vietnam among travellers and have pretty much become the default mode of transport for any backpacker passing through the country. It can't be denied that they offer a cheap service whose hop-on, hop off system is flexible to suit indecisive travellers who decide they really want to stay another day in one town and skip another.

Yet it is this default, generic feel to the tours that make them so mind numbingly, crushingly dull. I would love to be able to recommend one company over the other but the truth is there is so little to tell them apart it would be difficult to say so.

Perhaps it is fair to say Sinh Cafe and PT have the most modern fleet of buses - yet my most recent experience of Sinh Cafe involved 2 hrs of delays before an irate assistant herded us onto a small city bus with no leg room or a/c before verbally abusing us, so I am also hesitant to recommend them on this basis. The fact we'd paid more than double the ticket price for the privilege of travelling a week after a national holiday didn't exactly sweeten the deal either.

This is mass market, industrial tourism at its finest - the phrase 'meat market' certainly sprang to mind a few times on that last trip. True, it gets the job done but it certainly doesn't leave you with a feeling of wonder nor is it likely to lead to the kind of chance encounters that make a journey through another culture so special.

If you want to leave Vietnam enamoured with the country and people, longing to return one day, this probably isn't the best way to travel.

The alternative

There are hundreds of local bus companies that run regular routes from city to city. Catch these buses and not only will you make some savings on your tickets but you will be travelling with Vietnamese people rather than yet more tourists who have been to the same places you've just been and you will most likely see in every place you visit for the rest of your trip too.

The opportunity to chat to people who live in the country you are visiting who are not waiters, hotel receptionists or other members of the tourist industry is great, and offers up a great chance to learn more about the country you are visiting.

It is also common for large bus companies to run buses as often as every half an hour, rather than at one or two fixed times per day like to open tour operators, meaning you have a far great flexibility in when you depart and arrive in your destination - no lost days or dead time while you wait for that night bus.

It is true that some smaller bus companies may over-load their buses or stop to pick up more and more passengers on the way, but by going with a trusted brand you can ensure you have a smooth journey in a cool spacious bus.

In general I prefer travelling by train whenever possible, but when I need to take a bus I am extremely fond of Mai Linh, who now have buses that cover almost the entire country. Their staff are friendly, their services frequent and punctual, their buses cool and comfortable and their prices are cheap. Most importantly, they don't overload buses, they drive safely and direct to the destination - no roadside stops for more passengers.