Is it possible to forgo two wheels for a week? Can you survive in Hanoi travelling exclusively by bus and on foot? Surprisingly, the answer is yes, so long as you allow plenty of time, do your homework and have a Plan B for when it all goes pear-shaped.
Here is my bus diary.
The destination today is Thong Nhat Park to meet up with some friends. I reach the top of my road on foot and the 41 is parked up, so I don’t have to walk to the bus stop. I meet a friend at the Long Bien bus station to catch a 43 or a 52. Neither appear to leave from the station so we walk along to the bus stop near the top of Hang Chieu. My Vietnamese friend has a long debate with a xe om driver, the conclusion of which is that we should catch a number 11 going in the opposite direction.
Set out at 13.50 and arrive on time at 15.00.
On the way home we all leave from the same bus stop and I catch a bus back to Long Bien with another friend heading for Hoan Kiem. Cross the road and we are back at the bus station and I hop on a 58 back to Tay Ho.
I decide to visit a pagoda some 30km outside Hanoi. According to Google Maps I need to get a 58 heading out of town and then change onto a 35. The bus is running late and by the time it arrives I am feeling hot and bothered. All the seats are taken even though it is after 10.30. I have to stand most of the way.
By luck I know where to hop off the 58. I have a Coke at a nearby cafe ‘till it is time for my second bus. The helpful cafe owner comes out onto the street to direct me to the bus stop.
Two minutes later it arrives. I settle down, show my bus card and then realise that instead of taking a right turn as I expected, we are making for the bridge back to Hanoi. I decide I am not getting off but will be flexible with my plans and go back into the city to run an errand I had planned for Wednesday. By the time we reach the city proper I realise I don’t have a clue where I am. I text a bus-using friend who confirms the 35 bus doesn’t go to Long Bien Bus Station.
I look at the route map display and before long a helpful, English-speaking passenger advises that if I want to go to Long Bien I should get off in two more stops and catch a 34 then a 55. I disembark as advised and within two minutes a 34 comes into view. No seat but I study the route map and realise I would be better off jumping off on Kim Ma at the bus stop where I normally catch a 50 back to the bus station after my Vietnamese lessons.
I set out at 10.20, didn’t reach my destination, but got back to Long Bien just after 12.
My Vietnamese lesson has changed venue from Kim Ma to Truc Bach. Initially I consider walking, but decide against it in the 30-degree heat as Google Maps estimates it will take 40 minutes. I catch a 58, get off at the Sofitel Hotel and it’s a short walk from there. On the way home the biggest ordeal is crossing Yen Phu to the bus stop. I get a seat despite it being rush hour.
I download the Hanoibus mobile app but can’t figure out how to switch it to English.
Later when I go to a birthday party, I walk there and back.
I plan to have another bash at visiting the pagoda after obtaining some better intel. But I wake up so sick I am forced to spend the day at home.
Out the house before 8.30 to catch a bus to Long Bien to spend the day with friends. Narrowly miss a 58. I don’t have the energy to break into a run, so I wait and get a 55. I don’t get to Long Bien until 9.03. This gives me 27 minutes for the walk from the bus station to the fountain at Hoan Kiem. I get there just after 9.30. My friends arrive late at 10am so I have time for a nuoc chanh while I wait.
After an ice cream with my friends we catch a 9 for the Ho Chi Minh Museum. I’m not convinced this is the best option as we do an hour-long circular tour of the city to get there.
We have about 15 minutes in the museum before it closes. The mausoleum next door is also closed by now, so we jump on a 50 to head for the Lotte Tower cinema.
I get home later by crossing the road and catching a 33 all the way back to Tay Ho. In the process I was able to help a 19-year-old Vietnamese kid warm up for an English test he was about to sit. His seat is subsequently taken by a nice young lady who also wants to chat. She decides to take a selfie with me.
The gastric disturbance has returned, so I am confined to barracks for most of the day. I start moving to a new apartment. Fortunately, it is only 50 metres from where I stay, but involves nine flights of stairs per trip. I make the first of four trips spurning the opportunity to bundle everything in a taxi and make one journey.
I meet up with my Vietnamese-learning classmates for an informal evening with our teachers. I set out just before six and my favourite bus, the number 41, is waiting for me. I hop off at Long Bien bus station and quickly grab a 50, which goes past the end of the road I need. I arrive at about 7.10pm, 10 minutes late. I’m pleased with how smoothly it all went.
Yet later on when I am told the 50 stops running at 9pm, I’m not so happy. I leave the cafe at about 10pm and walk to the bus stop to confirm with waiting locals that this is indeed the case. Google Maps reckons it will take almost two hours to walk home. I trudge along dark, obstacle-strewn pavements for 20 minutes or so before my dining companion flags down a taxi. I get in but relieve my conscience with the thought that she insists on paying the fare.
Lazy day, but in an effort to use the buses almost every day I catch the 41 again, get off at Long Bien and go in search of my pavement haircut guy. By now it is 6pm, but he graciously unpacks his bicycle and gives me a No.9 all over. I gulp down a quick Coke at a street cafe on the way back to the bus station where I have a bit of a wait for a 58 back home.
I still haven’t visited that pagoda. I was there last year, so I know it’s possible to get there by bus. If only I had had the foresight to take a note of the number.
Google Maps has a bus option when you search for directions. The bus times are fairly accurate but the occasional suggested routes are circuitous at best. An alternative, if your Vietnamese is at Ninja level, is the Hanoibus mobile app, Tim Buyt. It is a clean, straightforward interface that allegedly supports US English. But I had it on my phone for almost a week and no one I asked was able to change languages. You can also search direct from the bus company’s translatable website, timbus.vn. Good luck. Travelling by bus is just the ticket. Most of the time.
Editor’s Note: We’ve tried and we also can’t find how to use Tim Buyt in English. However, on the left-hand-side menu, click on Tra Cuu and then choose the tab Tuyen Buyt. This will give you a list of all the bus routes. To find out how to get from A to B, click on the top tab Tim Duong and type in your destination