I have just arrived in Vietnam. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I would make it through or expire on the way. It didn’t start well. Upon asking to purchase a ticket from Pakse in Laos to Hue in Vietnam (after a 3 hour van ride from Don Det), the guy laughed at me and asked if I was sure. “Yea, I am quite sure,” I replied, trying to glean the humor from his sarcasm. I knew the reason for his response: the trip from Pakse to Hue was notorious for being absolute shit in every way possible. Not only were the buses supposed to be crap, old and barely functioning, but the roads were worse. Compound that with drivers, who often drive the whole 13-hours with little rest and you’ve got a recipe for an awful time. After handing him the 220,000LAK, he gave his disclaimer: “This is going to be the worst ride of your life,” which he followed by stating that he would rather not even sell tickets to this route–“but if I don’t, the others will.” I took the ticket and informed him, in my own sarcastic tone, that he really sold it. I did confess that I had already read about the route’s problems and knew what I was in for: an experience.
The bus didn’t leave until five and it was two-thirty. He offered a shower, which I accepted. The past week of Mekong-water showers had made my skin feel funny despite the liberal use of soap. Hungry, I went across the street to Jasmine, an Indian/Malay place that I frequented in Pakse and which had a sister restaurant on Don Det. I showered, ate, played with the little girl they were taking care of then then hopped on the free tuk-tuk to the bus station.
Looking back, the bus wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. Actually, I think it was pretty bad, I just have a tolerance for that kind of shit, often necessitated by my being polite to others. After all, the driver is barely to blame for the shitty route and shitty bus– a job is a job. In Thai we use the phrase mai pen rai to signify that a transgression (whether real or perceived) doesn’t matter; it’s okay! During my month in Laos I learned the corresponding phrase to be bor pen yang. It certainly helped that I was traveling alone. As I arrived to the station I asked which bus was leaving to Hue. The guy pointed to what I kindly describe as piece of crap with decals that read “VIP” on the front and sides. The driver was washing it diligently though, which gave me some hope; if he takes that much effort to wash and clean his bus, despite the fact the he is about to drive it through the dustiest of roads for 12 hours, I felt a little reassurance with he whole endeavor.
I hopped on and was surprised to see only twelve seats and none of them filled. He motioned to me, implying that I should eat and told me that we didn’t leave until eight– it was five. The lady who sold me the ticket from downtown Pakse said the bus left at 5:30. Knowledgeable of a scam in which you pay for a VIP bus and get put on a lesser bus, I walked around, asking the ticket booths and other bus drivers which bus was going to Hue. They all pointed to the scrap heap. “OK,” I thought to myself. I walked back, drank a beer, had some soup, then had the genius idea of stringing up my hammock in the back of the bus, where there were no seats, just empty space. Hello, travel-hack! I perked up, thanking myself for dragging the hammock around with me everywhere I went. The driver laughed when he boarded the bus and saw me hanging and swinging from a bright-orange hammock strung along the inside of his bus; I doubt he had ever seen such a sight.
Just before eight, the rest of the passengers arrived, all four of them. All were women, one of which always held a large stack of bills for some reason and would pull it out, count it, and return it to her bag. She must have done this a hundred times. After the first few times, I lost curiosity in the matter. While the hammock was great, swinging back and forth with the sway of the bus, it was short-lived. Our first stop was just forty minutes from the bus stop, whereupon the driver and few guys filled up the entire back of the bus with goods. There were hand-woven baskets, red bags, blue bags, and green bags– oh, and bags of charcoal. Even now, in Vietnam, I still have flour residue from the the bus. Reluctantly, I took the hammock down and sat in a seat that reclined–for the time being. Within the next six hours we made five more stops, each to pick up more goods. I had no idea a bus could be packed so tightly. The bags contained flour, sugar, and rice. Mind you that each time they stopped to load the bus, everybody had to leave and wait outside, meaning that the last two stops I was awakened to the driver yelling “You! You!” That was the signal for me to get up and out of the bus so they could load. Mai Pen Rai, I told myself. By the end of that last stop, there were bags in between every seat, and in every nook of the bus, including the top and bottom compartments. My seat no longer reclined, since I was in the far back. However, the lady in front me only had me behind her, not a hundred bags of rice, so she reclined all the damn way, forcing me to move a seat over, which was so stacked with rice at my feet that I was practically in a squatting position.
At some point, I managed to fall asleep, awoken only by the driver throwing a blanket over me, which was a nice gesture. The only time I woke up after that was somewhere in the early hours, after we had already stopped a few kilometers outside the border to sleep, waiting for it to open. My legs were cramped. I really needed to stretch! Thanks to the rice bags, my own bag, the women’s bags, and bus driver who was sleeping on the floor along the walkway, stretching was literally impossible. So, I ended up falling asleep with my legs on the top of the headrests of my own seat, upside down. To anybody who saw, specifically the lady to my left, I looked insane…
To read the rest of my trip to Hue and then to Hanoi, stay tuned– it will be up tomorrow. After all, I have to give you freeloaders something to look towards to, no? I can’t give you everything all at once!
Greetings from Circle-K in Hanoi’s Old Quarter!
P.S. Here is the little girl I was playing with in Pakse just before leaving– she really wanted to play with the phone! Reminded me of my own sister, Isabella.