In Southeast Asia, I accepted that any overland journey would take a full day. Two hours, four hours, six hours: no matter what the travel agent promised you as to the length of the bus ride, you can kiss your day goodbye. I never had a bus leave on time, yet travel agents never fail to remind you to get there a half an hour early.
Here’s just a taste of what to expect when traveling by bus in Vietnam when I was en route to a farmstay about four hours away. Granted, I usually paid peanuts for the fare, choosing to ride with locals instead of on fancy air-conditioned tour buses.
Afternoon previously: I call the farmstay where I’m heading and he instructs me to tell the girls at the front desk of my current hotel to get me a motorbike to the northern bus station. The bus leaves at 10:30, so get there at 10, he tells me. I’m a bit wary—I’ve never seen a bus in Vietnam actually leave early, but agree. The motorbike ride will take around 15 minutes, the front desk workers tell me. I plan to be out of my room by 9:30 a.m. just in case anything goes wrong on the ride–I’m always pitifully early.
The next morning: It’s inching closer to 9:30 a.m. so I finally shut down my computer, pack my stuff up and head downstairs. It’s lightly drizzling—just enough to be annoying but not enough to call a taxi. One of the hotel workers pops outside with my destination written on a piece of paper.
9:40 a.m.: Hop on the back of a random man’s motorbike (as I’m prone to do), balancing my laptop case and tote while also holding my flimsy helmet on my head. Did I mention it’s raining?
9:56 a.m.: Get to the bus station. Motorbike driver shows someone the number of my bus. “Not leave till 11. No bus till 11.” Of course. At least there’s a room with flimsy chairs and shelter from the rain. Go up to the bus ticket counter and inquire, just to be sure. “Bus leave at 11:30. No bus here yet. You wait.”
Decide to put the time to good use and edit a batch of photos I’d been putting off. Vietnamese drivers keep coming up and tapping my laptop screen, talking to me in Vietnamese and taking my earphones and sticking it into their ear. This potential exchange of earwax with strangers actually weirds me out, and I am quite possibly the least germ-phobic person on the planet.
Two French guys I’d met at Jungle Beach Resort walk in to the bus station and exclaim my name. After a brief moment of confusion–I’d never see French Guy #1 with a shirt on!–we exchange surprised greetings, realize that we’re heading to the same place and decide to act as a joint force in finding the bus, watching each other’s bags, etc.
11:23 a.m.: At the same moment I go to ask where the bus is, French Guy #1 (I only know the name of French Guy #2—Francois) comes up and says he’s found our bus while walking around smoking a cigarette. Perrrrfect. So nice to have a partner in crime.
Walk to the bus where the driver has the card of our farmstay in his wallet. Reassuring—he knows where it is. Throw our bags in the back, and pull out our wallets. He doesn’t seem to want to take our money. Whatevs.
Hop in the back of the bus, and I laugh with French Guy #1. “It’s always an adventure,” I say. “At home, I just expect the bus to show up and take me to the right place at the right time. Here, it’s almost surprising when I show up where I wanted to go.”
I spoke too soon. An hour passes as we sit in the back of the van—our driver made some eating motions and went to buy lunch, but now he’s wandering around the parking lot trying to hustle people coming off arriving vans. Three more girls climb into the van.
12:32 p.m.: Glance out the window to see our driver drinking a coffee. Well, shoot. We have a four-hour ride ahead of us, I might as well have lunch. Walk over to get a sandwich—I spot baguettes, so I’m hoping for banh mi. Negative. I get a Vietnamese hot dog squeezed out of a red plastic encasing in a chewy baguette with a generous dash of salt and some salad. As I pay, I notice our van pulling out. Yes! Isn’t it true that as soon as you give up and leave, things will finally happen the way you want them to? I motion for the driver to stop as he crosses the parking lot, and he briefly slows down that I can hop in the back.
12:44 p.m.: We drive. And then we park. On the other side of the parking lot. SERIOUSLY. This farmstay better be bloody worth it, because if not I could have just taken a night train to Hanoi last night and been sorted.
12:58 p.m.: I get fed up. I’m not the world’s most patient person, and I do considerably worse when I’m waiting without an idea of when it’s going to end. Also, my hot dog was disgusting and I’m still hungry. The driver tells me 1:30 p.m. (or rather, shows me those numbers on his Nokia). I storm into the bus station, frustrated, and write the bus number and the time on a piece of paper, with the driver close behind. They cross out the original bus number and departure time. What? Does that mean it was cancelled? I’m on the wrong bus? They assure me this bus will leave at 1 p.m. (By assure, they write 1:30 on a piece of paper and I storm back to the bus on the verge of tears. I get really irrationally overwhelmed, and when that happens, I tend to cry.)
1:16 p.m.: The driver turns the bus on. COULD THIS BE IT? COULD WE ACTUALLY BE LEAVING? A whole 14 minutes before revised schedule? Technically only two hours and 16 minutes late?
1:20 p.m.: We’re driving down the street outside the station at about 5 mph. And the side door is wide open. Wait, does this van even HAVE a side door? Some man is hanging out the side of the van talking to people on the side of the road who are now jumping in the van with a lot of big boxes. On the plus side, he slid the side door about halfway shut. So there is a side door.
1:24 p.m.: Now we’ve stopped and they’re talking out the driver side window to two girls on a motorbike. One girl is now climbing into the van. Four rows are now stacked with at least four people in each row, in a van probably meant to have three rows of three. People are sitting on the ground in the “aisle” space.
1:40 p.m.: Van stops. Driver exits van with a pair of pliers. Not reassuring.
1:45 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.: A Vietnamese lady falls asleep on my shoulder. She starts to snore. Man enters the van with lengths of bamboo as long as the van. Another lady decides to have a very loud conversation on her cell phone in Vietnamese. Driver’s sidekick comes around asking for money, and I hand over the equivalent of $4. Lady asleep on my shoulder wakes up, promptly falls asleep again back on my shoulder.
6:13 p.m.: We arrive at our destination. THANK GOD. Some sort of miscommunication has ensued, and there is no room for the French guys. I thank my lucky stars that’s not me, and go in and order a mango smoothie. One more day of transportation, down. How many more can my blood pressure survive?