On my way to Vietnam from Central Laos, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it or expire on the way.
So far, this trip was most difficult. However, I had already preppared myself based on the information given to me by an expat and long-time resident of Pakse. He owned a motorcycle-rental shop and sold bus tickets to tourists. I asked him how much to get to Hue, Vietnam, and he laughed a cynical laugh practically right in my face. He told me that the trip from Pakse to Hue was notorious for being absolute shit in every way imaginable. The only thing worse than the buses and drivers going on 14+ hours on the road, he told me, were the roads themselves.
After handing him 220,000 Chickens (Kip) for the ticket, he bluntly told me this is probably going to be the “worst ride” of my life.
Holding my gaze, he went on to say that he’d rather not even sell tickets for this route but that if he didn’t somebody else would. I told him it’s fine and thanked him for the words. In my head it didn’t matter much as long as I made it alive. After all, it would just add to the experience.
Having spent the past week on an island showering with Mekong Riverwater and swimming in it daily, I eagerly took to finding a shower in a hostel where I’d stayed previously.
After eating, I played with his little daughter before hopping on a tuk-tuk to the bus station. As I approached my “VIP Bus,” two phrases came to me. First, the famous Thai mai pen rai, the Thai equivalent to “it’s OK” in English; in Laoatian, the corresponding phrase is bor pen yang . As I approached the the bus, those two phrases reverberated in my head like a bird flitting about in a box. I was the only person on the bus and four hours later, hanging in a hammok I put up in the back of the bus, I would find out why.
As I hopped on, he motioned to me, implying that I should eat as he told me the bus leaves at eight– it was five.
At this point, already aware of scams in the area, I knew I was in it and had to find a way to dismantle the situation, figure out what’s what. . The guy who sold me the ticket from downtown Pakse said the bus left at 5:30. As the scam goes, you pay for a VIP bus and instead you get…what I got. An old, broken down bus outfitted to be stuffed with cargo. I walked around, asking the ticket booths and other bus drivers which bus was going to Hue. They all pointed to the scrap heap. I asked everybody I could and did everything short of calling a spade a spade to their face. I sucked it up, wondering what kind of experience I was about to have. I walked back, drank a beer and had some soup to regroup.
Getting on the bus, I perked up, realizing I could make better use of the seats by avoiding them altogether and stringing up my hammock in the back area of the bus.
The driver laughed at me with a snort when he boarded and saw me suspended in a bright-orange hammock at the back of his bus. Crazy foreigner.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. I was asked to move to one of the six empty seats. For an hour they loaded hand-woven baskets, red bags, blue bags, and green bags– oh, and bags filled with charcoal, which left a dark mist in the air after a bang would land on the floor. 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, I was asked leave and wait outside. For a lack of better English, the driver would wake me up, loudly exclaiming “You! You!” Yes, that was my signal to get up so they could load. Mai pen rai, I told myself.
By the end of that last stop, I was practically in a permanent squatting position.
There were bags in between every seat and under every seat, in every compartment including the roof, and my seat no longer had space to recline–or space for my feet below.We slept for a few hours on the bus just outside the border, waiting for it to open.
Follow me as I cross the border into Vietnam and kill some time in the abandoned water park in Hue as I await a train to Hanoi.
**Below is the little girl from the ticket office in Pakse, who reminded me of my little sister, Isabella.