I stepped onto the bus and the driver passed me a small plastic bag. I, just as fifteen other passengers had done before me, slide off my shoes and placed them inside the plastic. He motioned for me to follow one of the two aisles towards the back of the bus where one of the staff was seating passengers as they boarded.
I had never been on a bus like this one. It was a sleeper bus destined for Hanoi, designed for long-distance travel. Its seats are not positioned upright, as in a typical Greyhound, but stacked over top of each other like tumbled dominos, presumably to make it easier to sleep. There were three rows of these with two levels each, like bunk beds. Neon lighting on the inside of the bus illuminated its passengers, huddled with their carry-on, with a dull pink light that matched its laffy-taffyesque external paint job. Windows were present but mostly obstructed by the steel frames of the seats, but people positioned next to them could peer out and take in tiny bits of a view. In order to accommodate this vertical seating arrangement, each seat had a small ladder running along its frame so that an upper-level passenger could climb up into their position.
The conductor directed me to a spot towards the back of the bus. It was a middle seat in the upper row. I had zero space to put my back, but I was happy that I had avoided the downward sloping roof and would have all the head room in the world. With aisles on either side of me I also had ample space to strech my limbs if I really wanted.
But when I reached down to adjust my seat back, I realized that the mechanism was broken and that my seat was fixed in the recumbent position.
Realizing this, and presuming the grass to be greener elsewhere, I quickly positioned myself in the adjacent seat. One of the upper-level lateral spots. Of course I failed to notice the stack of bulky floor mats positioned behind this particular seat. When I tried to fully recline, my stomach dropped as I realized that my seat was obstructed from doing so. At that point it became apparent to me that I had traded a seat with full freedom of movement for a seat in which I could not sit up fully without hitting my head on the ceiling and in which I could not fully recline. By the time I had realized my mistake, my old seat had already been taken. Accordingly, I spent the next four hours slipping down towards my feet and boosting myself back up. Great last minute decision.
In the first 12 hours we had had only bathroom stops. And, of course, I missed the first. We were high in the mountains and we pulled over on the side of the road so people could go in the bushes. Despite it being a tourist bus, the passengers appeared to be relatively well seasoned travelers and they took it well, scattering off to do their business. When we stopped, I first made an attempt to remove the stack of pads obstructing my seat, and was successful. But by the time that I moved to make my escape, the driver was already honking the horn and waving the crowd back on to the bus. I decided that I was just happy to be able to lie down and that I could wait until the next one. I reasoned that because we were stopping four hours in, we would stop again in four hours. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The next stop didn’t come until we reached the border, nine hours later. By that time I had to go to the bathroom pretty badly. We pulled up to a structure with two concrete buildings. A high arched canopy with the crest of the Laotian government boldly nailed to its front connected them and hung over the road. Upon our arrival at these buildings we pulled over and then we sat still. The driver didn’t speak English and no one really knew what was going on, but people started getting off the bus so I got off too. I didn’t see any bathroom signs so I just entered one of the buildings and walked around a bit. Apparently they weren’t open yet as there was no one to be found inside. There were no signs of a bathroom on the bottom floor but I found a staircase and decided to take chance. I walked up the stairs past some empty offices and hit the jackpot, a hidden western toilet! It wasn’t until later, while we were still waiting for the office to open, that I noticed the public restroom sign across from where we parked. I went to investigate and was glad that I hadn’t seen it any sooner as they were in pretty miserable condition. I was pretty sure at this point that I had used the private toilet of the military officers working the outpost. Thanks guys!
When the office finally opened, as signified by a line of Laotian men in olive green and red military uniforms making their way down from their barracks to the office, all the passengers lined up for passport stamping which invariably created issues. Some people Vietnamese visas were valid yet. Some people had to pay overstay fees. Some people had forgotten their departure papers. The uniformed clerk wanted me to pay a fine as well because my visa had expired the day before. I explained that I had departed on a bus on the expiration date and that it had taken a long time to get to the border, but that I thought it should count. He laughed and said fine.
After we got past the Laotian immigration control, we walked along the Nam Can bridge, past hundreds of vendors selling cherry blossom trees in preparation for the Lunar New Year. We navigated vast crowds of people coming home for the holiday, on hundreds of motorbikes. Often there would be a mother, a father, and child all on one motorbike. The man driving with the child in his lap and his wife on the back. I also chuckled at the sight of chickens poking their heads out of the holes in the plastic bags that they were carried in. No funnier than a chihuahua in a purse, I suppose.
At the Vietnamese side of the border zone, an English girl was refused entry because of a problem with her visa. After that 12 hour bus ride she was told that she would have to go back to Luang Prabang and fly to Hanoi. The only problem was that our bus was the last one for the next five days. I’m not sure what she ended up doing, but I saw that her two traveling companions boarded the bus without her.
In the second half of the trip, I made a stupid mistake. Shortly after we stopped for lunch, I become very consumed by the Netflix documentary I was watching and mindlessly downed two liters of water in the span of one hour. Bad idea. I had to sit and silently suffer for several more hours until I finally got up and begged the bus driver for a toilet break. When we finally stopped, I was relieved to see that most of the bus agreed with me when nearly ¾ of the passengers filed out, but not nearly as relieved as I was to see that hole in the ground in a shed behind the gas station!
During the trip I passed the time by reading, watching documentaries, trying to teach myself something of Vietnamese, sleeping. I considered writing, but it was rare to find a time where I wasn’t distracted by some form of discomfort whether it was fatigue, restriction of motion, or the slow expansion of my bladder.
All that being said. After the missed bathroom breaks, the uncomfortable seat, the guy throwing up behind me, navigating the customs, and the twisty mountain roads. I’m happy I took the bus. I had read that it would be challenging, but that’s what I wanted. Bus travel gives you a glimpse into the country that you’re traveling through that you wouldn’t otherwise see, and it gives you a real sense of the vastness of the world. Crossing between countries at a land border is also and incredible experience, because you have a life-size juxtaposition of the two places, where really the only difference is how the land is governed. While a plane ride would have only taken an hour, I feel that I would have missed a lot by simply flying. The fact that I had to wait so long to get here, and that I had to jump through so many hoops makes me value being in Hanoi even more.
I’ll be in Vietnam until the end of February. Looking forward to sharing more.