Friday, April 9, 2010

Bad Luck Buses

I was beginning to wonder if I would make it to a suitable computer for updating this here blog before I lost track of what to write about. I've finally made it to my hostel in Hanoi which thankfully has computers free to use. They are lined up against a wall about a half an inch thick, with a jack-hammer operating continuously on the other side. Delightful at 7:00 AM after an all night bus ride while I wait for my reserved bed to become available. No time like the present to bang out this post, the banging mere inches away from me acting as a constant inspiration to transcribe my fondest travel memories via keyboard.

It's been a long week of exploration and travel exclusively by bus, which is often the cheapest option. Aside from comforting the budget, traveling by bus offers spectacular views, the opportunity to meet new people, mingle with the locals and an overall experience that flying or even the train if it's available cannot always provide. As the saying goes though, you get what you pay for. This cliche can be interpreted in a few different manners, and all of them are now crystal clear to me.

It's hazy at this point what my exact line of reasoning was when I decided to forgo seeing Phonsavan and Vientiane in central Laos in exchange for moving north instead and crossing the border into Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. It had something to do with efficiency I think. Look at a map and you'll see that starting Vietnam there would allow me to move southward exclusively, no retracing my steps. There was also something about getting off the normally traversed path in Laos and having an adventure. I did the research and knew full well that it would take four days to reach Sapa, but I don't think I really understood at the time what that meant. Live and learn...right? I hoped on a local bus in Luang Prabang headed for Oudomaxai and got my first taste of what was in store over the next few days.

Let me provide a little background information. Most of the buses I took on this voyage were actually "mini-buses" but we managed to cram in the same amount of people that would fit on a typical school bus. This means that little stools are put in the aisle for people to sit on and when you - a westerner - think the bus is a full as could possibly be, there is actually room for about four more people, give or take a baby or chicken. Also, Laos people like to spit. Not in the bus or on each other. No, nothing like that at all. Just on the ground all of the time. I'm not sure what the rationale is behind this, but just about everyone does it regardless of age or gender. It seems the further north I traveled the more frequent the spitting and more vehement the pre-spit throat clearing became. Don't ask...I just thought this was a phenomenon worth mentioning. The buses have scheduled start and end points but that is hardly the full picture. Leaving or arriving on time is not guaranteed or even usual. The bus will also make many impromptu stops to pick up people who flag it down, grab cargo and bags of raw meat from villages and deposit them in others, and take smoking/spitting breaks. There is always someone in addition to the driver who I like to call the facilitator. He/she checks tickets, directs people where to sit and generally takes care of business. Despite my inability to understand anything the facilitators were saying, they were always a big help.

The ride from Luang Prabang to Oudomaxai was long, hot and uneventful. It took about six hours and we were packed in kind of tight. I remember thinking to myself that this was not so bad. If the full four days was going to be like this, then no problem! Things got interesting, though. After a good night's sleep in the finest hotel Oudomaxai has to offer I boarded an early bus to Mung Khua. That's the town where you catch the "border-run" bus into Vietnam. It was comical how many people we crammed in this bus. I always wondered what the secret to clown cars is. How do they fit all those big shoes and red noses in one vehicle. Low and behold, there's no trick to it. You just suck it in and slam the door. This trip was only three hours. Fast! With a whole day to relax in Mung Khua, I explored a bit and met some other adventurous travelers who were making the border run. I was still thinking how easy it was all going down until the following morning.

The bus from Mung Khua to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam leaves at 5:30 AM, and you need to catch a ferry across a small river first. I had discussed with some other people I met in town that it would be better safe than sorry to arrive at the river early so as to not miss the bus. I was stunned to find at around 4:30 AM that I was trapped inside my hotel. Getting out the front door was not so tough. I just had to unlock it, and chuckled to myself while doing so how funny it would have been to miss the bus on account of being locked in the hotel. The pad locked front gate laughed last, though. It took me about ten minutes of frantic pacing to accept that the only way out was scaling the wall. I found some boxes to climb on and made my getaway. My rush down to the water front was all for naught. I arrived along with about ten other people to find no ferry present. We waited, unsure if wading across the river was going to be necessary. There was a glimmer of hope around 5:15 AM when we heard the distant sounds of throat clearing and spitting on the opposite bank. Who was this person in the shadows? Was it the ferry operator? A few moments later a boat lit up and met us for the short trip across. The bus was waiting and the journey began. The two previous bus rides were merely a warm up for this one. The road from Mung Khua to Tay Trang at the Laos border is not paved at all. It's in a constant state of construction with little to no progress being made. It seems as though there are a bunch of steam shovels and trucks just pushing dirt around. We never traveled at more than 20 mph and often stopped and waited for up to an hour while dirt was moved from one pile to another. It took an hour or so to check our visas at the border and then on to Dien Bien Phu. A total of 100 km took about ten hours. Lovely! I shared a hotel room with some people I met on the bus and we all went out for some well deserved beers and dinner. We had made it to Vietnam, finally. There was one more leg to my journey, however. The fourth day was spent much like the third on a bus to Sapa, a beautiful mountain resort town in North Vietnam. The road there from Dien Bien Phu is also merely under construction and the ride that day took thirteen hours. We left at 6:00 AM and arrived in Sapa after dark.

In the end I got the adventure I was looking for at a cost of four days of uncomfortable travel. I met some interesting people and indeed mingled with the locals in some small towns that not too many tourists wander through. As I spoke with other travelers about where they had been and what they had been doing, I started to worry a little if I was using my time wisely. I met people doing interesting treks in the mountains, riding motorbikes from Hanoi to Saigon, and spending months at a time in single countries. Me...I'm simply exploring a bit and eating as much local food as I can. Seems to pale in comparison sometimes. My worries were put to rest, though thinking about this: When I was in Oudomaxai that night I was looking for dinner. The food in Laos had not really been blowing me away, especially after experiencing all that Chiang Mai had to offer. There's lots and lots of grilled meat in street stalls, most of it leathery and tough. That's just how they do it there, I guess. With all restaurants in town closed that night, I tucked in for some more chewy meat at the bus station which seemed to be the only spot near my hotel with some action that night. I pointed at the chicken, and the lovely lady nodded in approval. I sat down and watched as she put together a simple bowl of soup. I caught something that made me smile from ear to ear. She was dropping in a few herbs and seasoning the broth before delivering it to my table and she gave the soup a little taste, then adjusted it properly. You can't fake pride like that, especially if you're unaware that someone is watching. Young cooks may wonder why chefs demand every dish to be tasted before serving, even though they are repeated hundreds of times a night. If you really care about the product you are putting out, then you shouldn't have to ask why. It just means that you care. I had dinner that night made by someone who cares. It was a beyond simple bowl of chicken soup, no frills, made with a stringy stewing hen. The broth was clear, flavorful and perfect. Moments like that make me realize that simply being here is an experience, no matter how I choose to spend my time. No amount of bad luck bus rides can overshadow life enriching moments from experiencing diverse cultures and places or just having a perfect bowl of soup, made by someone who cares.


  1. David. I am loving your descriptions and can almost imagine being right there alongside. Sounds like you are getting into culture and food with gusto. Appreciate the detail and look forward to next entry.

  2. its like i never left Vietnam/Laos

    i'm glad we can have more topics of conversation once you get back. riding the bus here in the US is a cake walk.

    safe travels