"No! No! Don't sit!" the driver bellowed at the bewildered woman as she made a move towards the nearest empty seat. "But where can I sit?" she replied, clearly wondering how seat allocation might be managed on this curious mode of transport. "Anywhere" came the gruff but not overly helpful response. This general state of confusion is pretty standard on the Camel Travel bus in Vietnam. Apparently cheap tickets come at a cost.
Mounting the Camel
We're not sure why everyone had to remove their shoes before boarding the bus but it certainly slowed things down. The tiny Vietnamese sleeper pods were not designed to accommodate foreign giants so just taking a seat became a complicated procedure. I caught my feet on the screws in the pod and tore holes in my socks. Having squeezed ourselves into place, we each had to find space in our pods for day packs and our newly acquired bag of shoes. There was none. Little did we realise that having some luggage in the cargo hold, a seat and only a 4 hour trip put us safely in the category of 'the lucky ones'. Even if the seats were broken and left us fixed in a near horizontal position for the entire journey.
Soon after we started moving, a coat swung down from the upper bunk and hit me in the face. No sooner had the owner retracted it than it fell off the other side. Later a backpack also came crashing down and that was followed closely by a bag of shoes. With no storage, keeping hold of things on an upper bunk can be tricky. Those of us brave (or stupid) enough to sit on the lower level should probably have been issued with helmets.
How Much Can the Camel Carry?
Arriving at the next pick up point it became clear that the luggage hold was already full. New rucksacks were stacked up on the empty pods leaving us short of seats for the boarding passengers. Solving the problem was easy. The driver produced a roll mat and handed it to the unfortunate person in last place giving him his choice of aisle to lie in. Continuing unperturbed, we stopped again to collect even more passengers.
Instead of offering a place on the floor, the staff dutifully cleared baggage from seats for the last two guests. Ramming each bag into the narrow aisles they built an impenetrable wall, blocking several people into their pods and completely blocking the exit. With the guy sleeping in the aisle nobody could get to the toilet either so it's a good thing we were only on the bus for a few hours.
Keeping the Aisles Clear
Departing from Hue we finally hit the open road. Outside it was chilly and wet so of course inside the air con was cranked up to full. Those not safely snuggled under the provided blanket were wearing their coats with the hoods up in an attempt to avoid hypothermia.
Shedding the Camel's Load
Arriving at our first stop, Danang, a brave, or perhaps desperate lady dared to get off the bus for a smoke. Standing by the door with her cigarette, she enjoyed one long drag before being scolded by the driver. With a series of grunts and gestures he made it very clear there was no time for smoking and she had to get back on the bus immediately. We assumed departure was imminent... Not so much.
Like the stagecoaches of old, the Camel Travel bus also carries packages, which offsets the cost of the service. Over the next 20 minutes, a team of helpers roughly unloaded dozens of boxes from the cargo hold. Checking the clipboard, there was much head scratching as they realised they were missing some packages. They double checked the cargo hold in despair and frantically re-checked the list. Finally someone had a Eureka moment. Perhaps all the boxes at the back of the bus should be unloaded too!
Bored with rolling the boxes, they decided to save time by launching them the length of the bus. The first hit me and bumped on the floor. Despite a hasty apology, they obviously had no regrets and the next box bounced off someone else. Eventually after much bashing, kicking and throwing of boxes, the job was done. The exasperated passenger with the half burned cigarette would have had time to smoke half a pack!
Who Are Camel Travel?
Camel Travel offers a sleeper bus service from Hanoi to Hoi An. Originally started as a service for locals, several budget hotels and hostels now offer it as a cheap option for intercity travel.
There were no rest stops in our four hour journey but there was a toilet on board. Alas, with the wall of luggage and the guy sleeping in the aisle, no one could get to it.
To their credit however, the Camel Travel bus actually went to its destination. Unlike other more touristy bus services we used, they did not kick everyone off and terminate the service two stops early. We also did not stop at a souvenir shop en route.
What are the Alternatives to the Camel Travel Bus?
Vietnam Railways run trains from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with several stops in between. The trains are inexpensive and comfortable and make a good alternative to bus travel. If you do book online, use the Vietnam Railways website as third party websites can be a lot more expensive.
Vietnam Airlines have a good internal flight network. For longer journeys, if your budget will stretch that far, it may be worth flying.