The conductor leant out of the open door, whooping to attract customers. If he spotted someone with luggage – anyone it seemed – he would yell for the driver to stop, then coax, bully and drag them onto the minibus. I had been the first victim of the day and we had already been driving up and down the main street for almost an hour. The bus was still half empty.
The driver had assured me that I was on the right bus, but I was growing increasingly suspicious, not least because he had readily agreed to what I thought was a very low fare. I unfolded my map and, not for the first time, tried gleaning some information from a fellow passenger.
“Does this bus go to Danang? Danang?”
The man moved his head vaguely. Was that a nod or a shake? And if it was a shake did he mean “I don`t understand” or “Not Danang”? Or was he just trying to avoid the question.
By this time I was trapped in the back corner of the bus. If I was going to take a ten hour bus ride I wanted to make sure it was going in the right direction. I weighed the evidence – not just a surprisingly low fare but also fellow passengers (with conspicuously little luggage) who were sheepish under questioning.
Deciding to cut my losses, I climbed out of the side window and pulled my rucksack out of the boot. The driver only made a half-hearted attempt to stop me, which was assurance enough that I had made the right decision.
Stomping down the street back to the bus station I began to wonder why I insisted on taking the local transport. For the past three weeks I had stubbornly refused to get on the tourist bus, opting instead for over-crowded rattle-traps. I had had countless disputes over fares and was twice dropped at the wrong destination. Moreover, I was going out of my way to get on these buses: the local bus stations tend to be located outside the tourist centers, whereas the tourist bus will pick you up right outside your hotel.
By the time I reached the bus station I was sweating heavily, but I was already reflecting on the morning’s little adventure with an amused smile. Besides, I’m in Kon Tum in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, I reflected, and there are no tourist buses.
My amusement was crushed mercilessly by the sour faced lady at the ticket office. The one bus to Danang left at 6.30 a.m. Due to my little adventure on the minibus I was over an hour late and would have to wait until tomorrow.
Most travelers in Vietnam shun local transport in favor of a tourist bus. The tourist buses are Japanese-made, comfortable and air-conditioned. They are also faster, more convenient and safer (although you still get the thrill of overtaking on blind corners).
In Vietnam the divide between local and tourist class is particularly prevalent as ready packaged tours abound. Tourist hotels and cafes offer a range of tours of various lengths. They will happily shepherd you and your group anywhere from the water world of the Mekong Delta in the south, to the scenic ethnic minority villages of the North East.
Traveling the 2700 km stretch between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi is made easy with the purchase of an open ticket. You can take the bus along the coastal road, hopping on and off at any of the key tourist destinations. Relax on the white sand beaches in Nha Trang, have a new wardrobe tailored for you in the quaint riverside town of Hoi An, or explore the royal tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty in the ancient capital of Hue.
The tourist bus also gives you a good chance to talk to other travelers. But hang on a minute! There are only other travelers. Sitting in your air-conditioned pod, looking out of the tinted window at the Vietnamese farmers waist deep in rice paddies, you may well wonder what happened to your Vietnam experience. The comfy tourist bus can create an uncomfortable feeling of segregation.
The local bus is slow. Not only do you have to find the bus station, you often have to wait for the bus to fill up. And once you get going the bus will probably make frequent stops to overload new passengers and produce into the isle.
On one journey – traveling what I thought was a short 135km between Moc Bai and the Old Quarter in Hanoi – I experienced both an impounding and a puncture. The impounding was at the hands of the local constabulary, whose inspection methods consisted of prodding some sacks with the plastic tip of their sandals. Eventually they removed some large pieces of wood from the roof and let us go. The puncture added a further hour and a half to a trip which took 4 buses, a motorbike taxi and a full day.
But I would still rather undertake such a journey that be herded in on the tourist bus. One of the most common complaints by travelers to Vietnam is that it is “too touristy”. Travelers don’t just want to see the sights, they want to interact with the local people, to experience some everyday Vietnamese life.
On the bus you get to see a slice of Vietnamese life very close up. It can be great fun to watch the personalities emerge as the journey proceeds – the bullying conductor, the farmer worried about his chicks strapped to the roof, the businessman shouting over the noise into his mobile phone.
You will also be a part of that short-lived bus-community. People are likely to take an interest in you (sometimes you will find this more welcome than others), so it’s easy to start up a conversation. Even if communication is reduced to gestures or diagrams scribbled on a notepad, it can still be worthwhile. You are sharing an experience with your fellow passengers; you share the annoyance of impoundings and punctures and a small bond develops.
You won’t just be sharing an experience either. I’ve been offered fried chicken, gum, nuts, cigarettes, lessons in Vietnamese, a place to stay for the night and (I think) somebody’s oldest daughter.
The local bus also goes to places which the tourist bus ignores, for example Kon Tum in the Central Highlands. There may not be many sights to see but the friendliness of the people is unmatched in Vietnam. I was treated to countless coffees and in one day I had 4 tours of town with the different people I met.
Transport is not just about getting from A to B. Part of the fun of traveling is the traveling. Taking the local bus is certainly a more genuine means of so-called independent travel and you will feel much more in charge (if not entirely in control) of your destiny.
But as well as the discomfort, inconvenience and safety issues, many foreigners complain that, ironically, the local buses end up being more expensive than the tourist bus. Conductors are a bullying breed and they may well start off by asking you for 10 times the real price. Take heart – the conductors will try to squeeze as much as possible out of the locals as well, so it’s not just foreigners who will have to argue the price of their ticket. A little bartering usually gets you a cheaper deal than the tourist bus, even if it’s still a little more than you think you should be paying.
It’s a shame that foreigners often feel they’ve been ripped off. The double pricing adds to a sense of division with the local community, a division that getting on the local bus should really be helping to break. And don’t expect too much support from the other passengers. They are likely to keep out of it to avoid a run in with the conductor.
Overcharging also fuels a sense of suspicion which is difficult to break. Once, when I was in a particularly stubborn mood, I refused to pay the conductor what I thought was an unfair price. He stopped the bus and I stepped down shaking my head in despair. (He was shaking his head in despair as well). Later on that day I discovered that I had in fact been asked the local price. I felt quite stupid.
So what happened when I missed the bus in Kon Tum? As I stood at the ticket office a little old man approached dressed, somewhat inappropriately, in a thick winter coat. He asked me where I wanted to go and then told me, rather superfluously, that I had missed the bus. Then he invited me for coffee.
“Let’s go” I said, keen to get away from the scene of my failure.
Over coffee he invited me back to his house to meet the family. And when I had met the family he gave me a tour of the house. His son’s room was empty: “Would you like to stay here?”
“Sure, thank you very much”.
Spending the day and night with him and his family in Kon Tum was the highlight of my travels in Vietnam. So even missing the local bus can be a fantastic experience.
Another experience from traveler’ story
I’d never heard of sleeper buses before I went to Vietnam. I believe they’re a relatively recent addition to the tourist transport infrastructure, and are available in Laos and Cambodia also.
My first experience of this Asian people-moving phenomenon – and, I vow, my last – was an overnight journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An. I was too miserable – nay, traumatised – to record any photographic evidence of this 12 hour nightmare of discomfort, but for the sake of would-be travellers to Vietnam I feel a sense of civic duty to warn you of what awaits if you book a berth on a sleeper bus.
It’s not a bad concept, right? After all, sleeper trains have been around for yonks. Why not sleeper buses? Fully (almost) reclining seats, sleeping your way through the night and thus minimising the tedium of a long bus trip…and it’s cheaper than flying. How bad could it be? What’s 12 hours bus ride for a budget traveller?
Well, lemme tell ya, it’s a goddamned eternity when you’re involuntarily exploring degrees of discomfort you never dreamed existed. See, we’re not talking yer usual double-bunks here. The sleepers are two-tiered, sure, but there are three rows of DBs, and they’re squashed into the confines of a bus that’s not much bigger – if at all – than a normal one with upright seats. So whether you’re on the top or bottom sleeper, you can’t sit up. You have to ease yourself out of prone position as if you were doing a shallow sit-up, and careful with that forehead, Eugene.
Worse, the sleepers are hinged somewhere around your tailbone, and whatever elevation you choose from the limited options available, you’re constantly slipping down off the incline and jamming your coccyx into the hinge corner.
Worse still – much worse – there’s a coffin-like receptacle for your legs, angled downwards to save space. If you’re taller than an average 10-year-old you are not able to extend your legs. There is nowhere else for them to go, so you have no choice but to try to jam them into this coffin thingo. By bending your knees, contorting your feet and manipulating your legs sideways from the hip, wonders can be achieved – albeit at a physical cost mere words cannot communicate.
Adding to the challenge, this damned leg receptacle is wedge-shaped, tapering towards the end so that it is impossible to have your feet sticking up vertically in the anatomically natural position for a prone homosapien. Fortunately, I am double-jointed and was able to twist my feet into a spastic side-on position that somehow accommodated them, although for no longer than 15 minutes before I’d have to haul myself up far enough out of the tapered holster of torture to switch from sideways left to sideways right. If you’re not understanding, take heart, cos neither am I. And I wasn’t at the time, either.
There’s more. There’s a horizontal ridge across the bottom and towards the end of the leg coffin, sticking up far enough to dig into your shins and ankles. The naive hope that somehow, some time during the eternity you’re on board, you’ll find a position that is bearable is quickly dashed by this little detail.
Why is this cursed ridge there? I guessed it was some token safety measure, a sort of foothold to prevent short folk from slamming toe first into the end of the coffin in the event of the bus braking hard. Shame about the rest of us – any sort of road accident would inevitably result in snapped legs, broken toes and far, far worse. These sleeper buses are death traps and I’d be amazed if they are allowed anywhere outside SE Asia.
But now, the final horror, which was mine alone. The sleeper I was initially allotted was not a sleeper at all – it was closer to a fucking luggage rack! There’s only one on each sleeper bus. It’s a short straw you don’t wanna get.
Situated above the toilet, it is crammed into an impossibly confined space, and is so short there is no room even for a leg-coffin. When I crawled on to it and lay on my back, my nose was almost touching the roof of the bus. I had to bend my knees and wrench my legs to the side to fit my feet in against the butt of this crypt. My partner was on a middle top sleeper next to me. She was shocked. I was beyond shocked. I couldn’t talk. Just stared cross-eyed at the roof in front of my nose, and tried not to panic.
I’ve heard it claimed that fate or God or the universe or whatever never delivers us anything we can’t handle. Well, I couldn’t handle this. I knew I wouldn’t last in that rack longer than 30 minutes, but it was a fully-booked bus. What could I do?
I was internally debating whether to stand up in the only space I could see, behind the driver’s seat, to try to push someone’s luggage aside and sleep in the aisle, or to just tap the driver on the shoulder and demand to be let off the bus. My partner’s hoarsely whispered exhortations jolted me out of my reverie.
“There’s a vacant sleeper – just down there. Grab it!”
“But maybe the passenger will still turn up.”
“We’re about to take off. Grab it before someone else does.”
I obeyed. Thank Christ. Or fate. Or the universe or whatever.
A few minutes later, with the bus revving, the driver left his seat and loomed over me with a face like thunder.
“Better?” he enquired sternly.
“Yes. The other one – too small.”
“Happy?” (gruffer still)
He turned scowling, resumed his seat, and gunned the engine. We began to move off. I reflected that I had probably taken the co-driver’s sleeper, but of far greater concern was that I had been saved from a night of torture – this new sleeper was merely unbearable.
I was soon to contemplate as I contorted myself this way and that how mercies this great could suddenly seem so small. After 2 hours of twisting and turning and easing myself higher, lower, and every degree between, my gratitude to the universe had evaporated entirely.
It was to be a long, long sleepless night ahead, with only the countless thousands of lights from the squid boats off the coast as company.