The Death Bus – To hell and back
As mentioned in the previous post, I decided to take a long-haul bus to Hanoi. The Lonely Planet and backpackers call it The Death Bus. I had read about the horribleness of it: the buses were crowded, cramped etc. I had to seriously consider the merits of doing this and after enquiring about bus drivers, times and capacity, I decided it was worth it to save over $120 US dollars.
At 5 pm, I boarded a minivan which took me to the bus station. At 7 pm, the bus departed for Hanoi. Thankfully, it was much better than I could have expected. The bus was half full but I still had someone sitting next to me which made the bus ride uncomfortable. Also, the bottom part of the seat was 3/4 the size of a normal seat so it was hard to get your entire butt on the seat unless you had it straight up..
The bus was mostly passengered by foreigners. We had lots of Irish and Canadians and a few Americans. The TV played a mixture of Thai standup comedy and pop music. Across the aisle from me were a man and woman who were both sick or motion-sick. The man kept covering his mouth with his hat or hand, as if he was trying to stop himself from throwing up. The woman threw up for a good part of the ride. I thought it was just them but after they got off, a new passenger got on and covered her mouth too. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.
After driving for a few hours, we stopped at a rest stop where all the Laotian passengers ate dinner. Then we were back on the road and most of the passengers fell asleep. I also fell asleep but woke up when I realized that we had been sitting still for awhie. Pulling the curtain, I looked out the window and saw that we were in some compound surrounded by other buses and what appeared to be a hotel or building. I didn’t think much of it and went back asleep. Later, my friend whom I met on the bus told me that while the backpackers slept, all the Lao people got off to sleep in a hotel. Thank you non-English-speaking guides for telling us.
We arrived at the visa office just before it opened, at about 7 am. I was third in line, but somehow was the last to finish. It wasn’t because of pushy locals who had their own window, but pushy foreigners! After getting our exit stamps, we drove to Vietnamese immigration. We gave our passports but the stoic Vietnamese officials decided to do all the locals first. We patiently waited for them to finish. Finally, we got our passports and thought we were in the clear. But our guide told us we had to get our bags and pass them through x-rays. We did that but we still were not ready to leave. The officials did a thorough search of the bus, examing every crevice of the bus. After what felt like an eternity, we left.
Our introduction to Vietnam was a rest stop near the border. The stop was teeming with locals eating, playing cards and vendors selling useless junk. We were all starving since we had not eaten anything since the previous day. However, no one spoke English and it was quite dirty. We saw another place next door and decided to take a chance. A few Irish girls on our bus were trying to order and embarrassingly, they kept saying “No meat, No dog”. Eventually, we all got chicken and rice. But when i noticed that a chicken piece I had put in my mouth and quickly spat out was undercooked we all lost our appetites.
In front of our bus, there were a group of Vietnamese women squatting Asian-style eating sugarcane. I actually had no idea what they were eating and did not find out until days later. They were chomping like sugarcanes were going out of style! I was highly amused. When they finished, the only trace they left was a huge pile of sugarcane pieces that they chomped dry.
I spent most of our time on the Vietnamese side learning phrases and numbers. After driving for a few hours, I had to pee really bad. We stopped at a gas station and I started to walk towards the back. I figured if there was no bathroom, i could at least squat in privacy. But then the woman running the station wouldn’t let me pass and wagged her finger in the most stern manner possible. I pleaded but she woudn’t budge. A few guys also had to go but they just ran to the other side of the road. A few girls and I decided to just do it in the shadow in front of the bus. We had no choice!
At about the 23 hour mark, I felt stir-crazy. After 26 hours, we all realized that we were running late. We were starving at this point, still having not eaten anything. The guide passed a girl his mobile and on the other line was a woman who said she worked at a Hanoi hotel and was calling because she spoke better English than anyone on the bus. While it’s true her English was better, it was still pretty horrific. We were told that the bus was running late because of recent flooding in the city. We had at least another 2 hours to go! Finally, after nearly 28 hours on the bus, we were dropped off at a “bus station”. The hotel lady was there, ready to pick us up. We were still 14 km from the centre of Hanoi, so she said we could take a cab to her place, use the nearby atm and check out her hotel. If we didn’t like any rooms, we could find another hotel. We all had a feeling this was the notorious “make the bus ride longer than planned, tire out the passengers and they’ll stay at the first hotel they are dropped off at” scam but since we had no idea where we were, we took a cab with her to the city.
When we arrived, we were determined to stay at another hotel. But after examining the rooms, we decided to stay. (This didn’t work out to well but more about this in another post). At about 10:30, we grabbed dinner. Basically, it took over 30 hours for me to leave my guesthouse in Vientiane and arrive at my guesthouse in Hanoi. What an exhausting but unforgettable ride. After this, no bus journey will seem as long or tiring. I think I can call myself a seasoned traveller.