What do you do when your 30 day visa for Vietnam has already begun, but you have 498 kilometers to bike over several tall mountain passes with few or no sketchy guest houses located in between and the weather forecast calls for rain at the top, and you’re just plain ready to move on?
It’s simple. You pay $25 to take a an overnight sleeper bus that looks shiny from the photos at the youth hostel ticket agent.
For the cost of one night at a pretty nice guest house, each rider gets the following: his or her own chair/bed that reclines 10 times farther than the economy seats on a United international flight, free wifi, a bottle of water, a toothbrush, and the use of one flower-print polar-fleece blanket with it’s own unique “eau de backpacker” to remind you why you probably got a job 40 years ago. (Mental note: use some retirement income to buy my own blanket next time).
Eric and I arrived exactly one hour early to load our bicycles and claim our seats. As it turned out, coming early didn’t matter because, even though we were first in line, we got the special “senior citizen” seats located next to the toilet. I’m sure Eric appreciated the proximity, but I wanted to gag from the smell before the 16 hour ride even started.
(For obvious reasons, I never took a sip from my free water.)
The bus left exactly one hour and twenty minutes later than scheduled, which, as it turned out, didn’t really matter because the border between Laos and Vietnam is closed from some time the night before until 7:00 am. Arriving to the border at 3:00 am like our bus did, just meant the we got to take a nap without switchbacks and potholes until 6:30 am.
Just kidding. We WERE all sound asleep including the gentle snores of the French guys behind us, and the occasional throat clearing to cough up lugies (where DO they spit them?) of the Laotians, until one of the Vietnamese passengers who thought he was a rooster and started crowing on his cell phone at 4:30 am woke us all up. Apparently the word “sssssshhhhhh!” is not universal because said “rooster” kept up a steady stream of talking for the next hour. At one point the French guys started played “La (or le, it’s been a long time since French class) Marseilles” on their cell phone. I thought it was funny and started laughing out loud. I contemplated playing “The Star Spangled Banner” but thought otherwise because I’d just learned that the “Vietnam War” is actually called the “American War” over here.
At about 6:30 am the bus driver kicked us (the French guys and Eric and me) off the bus and pointed to the dense fog in front. We eventually found a concrete building with lots of guys smoking in front of the entrance. I could spend an entire blog talking about what happened next but the short story is that we were eventually stamped to exit Laos and enter Vietnam – except for 2 of the French guys who got detained because the border crossing guard thought one of them had a fake passport and the guard was using Google to read about how to recognize fake French passports.
We returned to the foggy drizzle to watch our bus heading across the gated border while we where herded through line to have our passports “looked at” a bunch more times. Then we had to unload our bags from the bus, put them through an x-ray machine, reload our bags and run along beside the bus in the freezing rain and fog and mud until the bus driver decided to let us on. The bus driver showed special displeasure at Eric’s muddy shoes.
Bus Driver: Nga kl lwp lt hn.
(How does anyone even pronounce all those consonants together?)
Eric: Well, it’s your fault for stopping in the mud.
(Good thing the driver didn’t speak English.)
By now it was 9:00 am and we were back on the bus including the two detained French guys who the entire bus had been waiting for, and we had successfully driven about 20 meters into Vietnam. In the meantime, every other bus in Laos and every trucker from Thailand, Laos, China, India, and Russia had also made it to this mountaintop border crossing aka. one-lane, dirt-road gridlock. We sat in our bus until it was past lunchtime, when one of the Vietnamese border guards straightened out the traffic and got us moving at about 3 km/hour down the hill.
At 2:00 pm the bus driver pulled to a stop just 10 km south of Vinh, our final destination, and announced it was a “lunch stop.” I had a conversation with myself:
Me: Why is the bus driver stopping here when the bus station is 10 km away?
The other me: Maybe he forgot or didn’t understand that you want to get off in Vinh. The bus is going to Hanoi, you know.
Me: Eric, can you confirm that the bus driver is stopping in Vinh?
(a few minutes later)
Eric: The bus driver told me to go back to my seat!
After the bus got rolling again, the bus driver’s helper came back and said, “Vinh, 2 km” and he motioned for us to come to the front of the bus.
At this point, I knew two things:
The driver forgot about Vinh.
He was going to dump us on the side of the road.
Sure enough, after the driver paid the expressway toll he pulled to the side of the freeway. Eric and I scrambled to find all our panniers in the cargo hold, unbury our bicycles, and throw everything towards the guardrail.
Even with the bus ride from hell (and from other blogs I’ve read, this bus ride is a thrice weekly nightmare), we are glad we took a bus for this leg of the trip. Vinh has been for us a perfect start to our cycling in Vietnam. We’ve found a great hotel and been surrounded by nice people and food. We even found a gem of a bike store with the proper bearings to fix my failing set.