Danang Bus – picture credit: www.travelfish.org

A Triumphant Bus Ride in Vietnam

Nov 21, 2014 - Julie

The bus ride from Hoi An to Da Nang marks our most triumphant and proud moment of our travels in Vietnam. It may not sound like anything special, but let me explain why we felt so accomplished by the end.

Hoi An, while one of the best cities in Vietnam, does not offer much choice when it comes to transportation in and out. No railroads and no airports meant traveling by road (bus/taxi) was the only option. The nearest train station and airport is in the city Da Nang, about an hour’s drive away.

Considering our 4-hour bus into Hoi An from Hue cost us 90,000 Dong (USD 4.20) each, we expected the 1-hour bus out of Hoi An to Da Nang to cost a lot less. We were totally wrong. Most travel agencies quoted us 120,000 Dong (USD 5.60) each for the cheapest bus available, while private taxis were even more absurdly expensive. Clearly it was one of those things where they trap you once you get in so they can charge you way more for the only way out.

We were not happy with the increased price for a quarter of the service, so we sought out other options. It turns out there was a local bus we could take, but it would take more effort on our part. This bus should only cost 18,000 Dong (USD 0.85), the cheapest option by far. We armed ourselves with as much information as we could find online – thanks to those previous travelers who were kind enough to share their exact routes and tips. Now we will share ours.

Everyone warned that the fare collector on this bus would charge foreigners more (big shocker there), sometimes asking for 50,000 Dong per person, even though the 18,000 Dong fare is clearly displayed on the side of the bus, as well as on a large sign at the bus station. Before I continue, let me just say that this is the kind of scam that absolutely infuriates us. The money is not even the big deal, the principle is what matters. It’s one thing to discuss an unset cost with a tuk-tuk driver and mutually agree upon a price. It’s a total scam to see the price posted and be charged another. Imagine you’re in the store buying a shirt that has a price tag of $18. But when you go to the cashier to pay, instead of charging you $18, he/she charges you $50, pocketing the difference for him/herself. You would be outraged! You would feel like they’re totally trying to rip you off! You would demand to pay $18 as the price tag clearly indicates, not $50. That’s exactly how we felt.

So we went in expecting the bus fare collector to try to rip us off, but determined to get as close to the fair price as we could. Previous travelers posted advice for how to best deal with this – we put these tips to good use.

  • Give yourself time
    Buses run from a bus station that’s 20-min walk outside of Hoi An city center every half hour or so. We had a 10pm train to catch in Da Nang and no real plans that day, so we were at the bus station at 2pm, giving ourselves more than 6 hours to catch one of the buses. So we were in no hurry. When the fare collector offered an inflated price, we just said no and sat down nearby, calmly waiting for the next one.

  • Don’t get on the bus
    When we arrived at the bus station at first, the fare collector and bus driver immediately told us to get on the bus. They didn’t even want to talk about the price, they just pointed to the bus for us to get on. We knew that we would lose our leverage to negotiate once we got on the bus, because we would already be on their bus and essentially accepting their service. So we refused to get on until we agreed upon a price. This has been consistent with how we have been approaching everything – we don’t get on, get in, sign up, buy, commit unless we explicitly agree on the price and double, triple check so there are no surprises later.

  • Don’t surrender your luggage
    Usually we put our bigger backpacks stored under the bus or in a pile in the front/back of the bus, while keeping the smaller backpack and other valuables with us. In this case, we kept everything with us, even though it was crowded with our seats. After negotiating a lower price (the right price!), we didn’t want to give the fare collector any opportunity to “get back” at us by doing something like throwing our bags out of the bus or stealing from us. Apparently that has happened to other people.

In the end, we settled on 20,000 Dong per person. The 2000 Dong (USD 0.10) difference was not worth arguing for since we had already proved our point. All the locals on the bus also paid 20,000 Dong. I don’t know if they get their money back later or not. On the one hand I want them to, because out of everybody, locals should not be scammed. On the other hand I don’t, because they’re in cahoots with the scammer and encouraging the scamming of tourists (quite common in Vietnam). This general scam “culture” is undoubtedly one of the worst things about Vietnam.

The bus itself was barely a bus. Of course there was no AC, but at least the windows were open and it was breezy. The bus driver honked constantly during the entire hour-long bus ride. He might as well have built in an ambulance-style siren so he doesn’t have to press the horn all the time. There were several horns to choose from: a low honk that was tolerable, a long loud honk that was piercing to the ear, and other ones in between. The long loud honk was so loud that I learned to recognize when it would happen (when the driver’s right hand would leave the gear shift) just so I could plug my ears.

The driver and fare collector were also clearly using public resources (the public bus) to run their own personal businesses. For most of the ride, the fare collector stood by the open door, waiting for people to drop off packages to be delivered. That’s why the driver was constantly honking – so people would know the bus was passing by. Packages were delivered by chucking them off the bus since the bus never fully stopped, even when people get on and off. It only slowed down. The fare collector pushed you off / pulled you on during the brief slow down, before the bus accelerated again.

We were not deterred by any of this. We were just really determined to make this work. I was so focused on keeping track of our belongings, tracking our progress on Googlemaps, not letting our guards down that I honestly didn’t even notice the discomfort. We were going to get to Da Nang no matter what. When we were dropped off by the Da Nang train station, we felt victorious. Like we had just won a battle. We saved some money (always great), but the most rewarding part was having successfully taken the bus. It’s always extremely satisfying to have your plans come to fruition when you wanted it so much.

Besides the triumph, it was as authentic as any local experience gets. It showed us so much. We came on this trip to see the world – this is what one part of the world is like. For someone who has only lived in a developed country, they would never be able to imagine or fathom such a story for something as simple as a bus ride. The whole incident triggered some extensive contemplation on the topic of scams (you can read the results of my thoughts here). In this sense, the bus ride was a success for the trip as a whole. It made me question what I know. It reminded me not to take things for granted.

For your casual two-week-a-year vacationer looking for a fun, relaxing time during their vacation, the money difference is negligible and not worth the hassle. For us long-term travelers, we make the effort. Because if we gave in a few dollars every time someone tried to scam us, then we would be giving up money constantly because people try to scam us all the time. For two weeks, it’s not much. When I’m on vacation for two weeks, I don’t care that I’m paying a few dollars more per day. For a year of traveling, it would add up so quickly. This is not a vacation for us – this is our daily life. No one would want to be scammed in their daily life.