Trip Report: From Hue to Phong Nha – You Get What You Pay For

After spending two days in Hue, I was heading out to Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park in rural Vietnam, known for its extensive system of caves, and intriguing history in the Vietnam War. Soon I will post about my trip to the park area, but before exploring the park, however, I had to get there.

I had done extensive research on how big of a pain it is to get there, and how expensive it can be to get there conveniently. The most popularly discussed options were:

  • Take a train from Hue to Dong Hoi, walk a mile, then take a local bus (total time: 7 hours, price $12).
  • Take a bus from Hue to Dong Hoi, then switch to another bus (6 hours, $10).
  • Take either the bus/train to Dong Hoi, and then have a private car transfer to Phong Nha (5 hours, $30).
  • Door to Door private car transfer from Hue to Phong Nha (4 hours, $50).

I decided to survey the landscape once I was in Hue and see what local options there may be. When walking around Hue I saw a “traveler bus” that went door-to-door from your hotel in Hue to your hotel in Phong Nha for $9, and took about 4 1/2 hours. This seemed way better than all of the other options, so I hopped all over it. Not only was it the cheapest, but only one transport that went door-to-door? I couldn’t lose! Or so I thought. Well, this once again reminded me generally in life, you get what you pay for. And if one option if cheaper and/or seems significantly easier than others, there’s probably a reason for that.

I was picked up on a motorbike with all my bags. In Vietnam this is quite common so this was actually the least annoying part. When this is how people transport televisions in Vietnam, never be surprised at how much they can fit on a motorbike:

Then the “bus”. I use quotes because it was basically a 16-seater van. This is not the actual van I took, but this is exactly what it looked like:

Not quite the “bus” I was expecting. All but two seats were full, and as I was traveling solo, I was fortunate to have an empty seat next to me. The temperature outside was around 100 degrees with a heat index above 120, and the A/C inside probably only cooled it to 90, with no relief from the humidity. Literally everyone on the bus was fully sweating for the entirety of the ride. And the seats, well, lets just say they were not built for people above 5’4″. Legs were constantly on arm rests and in the aisle, with people trying to contort themselves to fit into the miniature seats. It was quite an uncomfortable 4 1/2 hours, with the only break being when the driver wanted a cigarette. (“Smoke break, 5 minute!”)

To top it off, the diver cruised right past my stop. They had a list of our destination hotels, and were supposed to drop us off in order coming in. When I pointed out that he had missed the turn for mine (which I only knew from following our journey on cached Google Maps), he got very angry and started yelling at me in Vietnamese.  Ultimately, he did make the u-turn to drop me off, ending this horrid odyssey.

Once again in life the old adage holds: If something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

And while the journey was horrendous, I did get to the Phong Nha Farmstay just in time for some live music, a cold beverage, and this stunning sunset over the rural Vietnamese rice paddies:

Seeing that, I had almost instantaneously forgotten about the “adventure” to get there.

Michael Prodanovich is a contributor to Point Me to the Plane, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel

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Comments

  1. Ugh that sounds miserable. I hate when there are no good options — even a private transfer would have been 4 hours in the back seat of a car

    • Yeah really! I guess another option would have been to rent a car or motorbike and drive yourself, but with how hectic the roads are there, that wasn’t even an option I wanted to consider.

  2. Congratulations – you actually did some real traveling. You will remember that ride a lot longer than another seat in business class.

    Keep in mind, please, that your ride was more pleasant and convenient than the way most Vietnamese people can afford to travel.

    • Yeah, excellent point. Seeing how the Vietnamese travel – either 3, 4 (or 5+) people on a motorbike, or people crammed into buses without air conditioning was also quite humbling. Definitely makes us realize how fortunate we are to have been born and grown up where we did. And thats also why I travel – to see and experience other ways of life.

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