top of page
  • Writer's pictureDeb Smithers

Travels to Sapa, North Vietnam.

A sleeper bus experience.

After a remarkable few weeks in the charming old town of Hoi an and with a degree of hesitancy, the time came to continue onto the next journey, making my way to Hanoi and then onto the photographic mountain ranges of North Vietnam. Taking myself from the warm ocean waters of Cam An to the chilly, misty mountains of the amazing province of Sapa. I had scheduled 6 glorious weeks in Sapa to begin my placement in a tiny school nestled at the base of the mountains run entirely by the generosity of its volunteers who travel from far and near to contribute to this worthy cause. I had heard that getting there was half the fun, whether by train, private shuttle, or bus. Of course, my decision was to travel to Sapa by sleeper bus to really live the experience, 'The overnight adventure" I should say. So let us remember shall we, these were my words.

We were to travel through the night on this 9-hour journey, along the narrow roads that clung to the mountain's edges and after reading numerous reviews I was feeling somewhat nervous once the day to travel had arrived.

Many reviews had detailed the trip as hair-raising as the buses travelled at high speeds along the narrow and treacherous mountain highways through the dark gauzy night. I read that drivers do full 24-hour shifts, and driving whilst watching movies was normal to help the drivers stay awake. It soon enough became apparent to me that this cheaper and much longer form of travel would indeed scare the pants off even the most placid traveler.

Although I had studied somewhat and made myself familiar with the Sapa O Chau organization, nevertheless I was still unsure of what to expect when I arrived, but one thing I was sure of was that it was going to be a wonderful experience and I was also excited. What a magnificent place to put those extra teaching studies into practice.

One of the best reviews I had read was;

" Bus not for the worry person "

The Sapa O Chau school had been founded by Shu Tan, an incredible young woman of the Black Hmong, the ethnic minority who initially resided in one of the villages situated deep within the Fansipan Mountain more than 15 km from the town of Sapa. The school began as a way for the ethnic minority children living in villages far from the town to have the opportunity at some level of education that they would certainly otherwise not have and it is entirely funded by charitable donations. Without some level of education and basic knowledge of the English language, for most of these kids obtaining any kind of work in the tourism industry would surely be almost impossible.

As we were loaded onto the bus and were allocated our bunk, I struggled to navigate my way up the miniature ladder to my sleeper, I got myself into the best possible position, finding any space left down by your feet for your belongings and that was where you remained, unable to reposition or move within an inch. All the while the little Vietnamese driver with his staunch manner and messy teeth screamed his instructions into the microphone, and to get a perspective of what it felt like, you may liken it to that of a tin of tightly packed sardines.

The bus consisted of 3 rows, top and bottom, with 45 sleeper seats in total. I could see people were finding the humor in the adventure thus far, laughing at the inability to move, struggling to reach into their bags that were squashed down into the only remaining crevice of space down in the narrow leg compartment. Like myself, having no understanding of the information given by the driver, still, everyone around me seemed to be finding humor in the situation thus far.

With no warning we were off, charging through the streets of Hanoi, some half falling from their beds, personal items and shoes hurling around the bus, and although I was laughing profusely at this hilarious situation, I was certain my excitement levels were about to begin to level out as I started to feel every muscle in my legs begin to cramp up.

What a blessing to become aware that the man next to me spoke a little English and Vietnamese and he tells me he has taken the sleeper bus before giving me a quick translation of the driver's information to the passengers. He informs me that we would be given 2 x 15-minute stops for the 9-hour journey, one for food and one for the toilet. You must wear your allocated plastic footwear when getting off the bus and remove them when returning. No footwear is to be worn on the bus and there is to be no eating or drinking on board for the duration of the trip. Most importantly, he informs me that when you exit the bus it is crucial to know when you are to reboard, and he stresses again that the bus waits for no one, if you are not on the bus and in position when it departs, you will be left behind!

He ends the translation with the news that if you should happen to find yourself needing to use the toilet other than your allocated 15-minute stop, then you have a problem. The only exception he has ever witnessed is that if you are a Vietnamese male, they may make a speedy half-minute stop along the side of the highway.

The night was long and as the bus charged down the highway the airhorns blew every second of the way and this continued for the entire 9 hours. I found myself fixated on watching the driver as indeed to his left is a small screen with a movie playing. Afraid to drink any water in fear of needing the bathroom I recall feeling so dry and indeed the two 2 stops were so quick you found yourself not wanting to venture more than a few meters from the bus in fear of it taking off without you.

And so it seems that all I had read, and been told of the sleeper bus adventure, was in fact very true!

After what seemed like the longest 9 hours of my life, feeling like death had warmed up, sleepless, dehydrated, and having eaten nothing but a tube of dry salty pringles, we finally arrived at 5.30 and in one piece. Unsure if by this stage I was still able to use my legs, or how I was going to get down the miniature ladder hanging down from the sleeper bunk, I was absolutely elated to be finally getting off the bus.

As it reverses into what appears to be some kind of depot, it is still dark and the mist is thick. I'm feeling like a bull at the gate, I remember feeling disorientated and with my belongings in hand, I am ready to get the heck out whether it be walk, fall or crawl.

But then again, the driver picks up his microphone and begins yelling his instructions in Vietnamese and although I have no idea what he was saying, I remember I didn't care, as by that moment my freedom felt so close and as amazing as the litre of water I had just quickly downed. After he finishes his speech, he places down the mic and switches off the engine. The air conditioning shuts down and he exits the bus locking the door behind him. My first thoughts were, oh my goodness, what just happened?

My trustworthy interpreter informs me that we have arrived too early and the depot office will not open till 7.30 am. We are to remain on the bus for another 2 hours. No way out, no water, no windows to open, no toilet, no air conditioning, and 45 people on the bus! How my body was feeling at the end of those 2 hours is difficult to put into words, but I would surely never, never forget this, 'Overnight adventure'!!

After the doors did finally open and I stumbled out of that bus, I knew at that moment that every second of this death-defying journey was worth it, it had taken my breath away. The cold morning mist on the mountains was thick and hanging so low. I had never in my life never seen a place like this before, I arrived, in what looked like heaven on earth.

With eyes wide open and jaw dropped, I recall all I could do was stand in amazement. I hope to never forget that moment and that feeling. 

  • Was the sleeper bus a safe way to travel for the female solo traveller? Yes, definitely.

  • Would I recommend this as a good way to travel to Sapa? Yes, as I always say, take the experience.

  • The cost was very cheap, being less than $30 for the journey to Sapa.

  • Best tips, don't bring too many items onto the bus with you as you will need to utilize all the space on the sleeper to try to remain as comfortable as possible.

  • Drink lots and hydrate well the day before.

  • Don't drink a lot of fluids before the journey.

  • If you allow yourself one thing to eat whilst on the journey, I suggest you don't make it a tube of dry salty Pringles!

Always take the experience when you can!


bottom of page