Sitting on the hard plastic chair in the bus station, it felt as if it had been days since I had been to bed. Tired, and emotionally drained, the midday heat was almost unbearable. My clothes were sodden with sweat and covered in dirt and dust. Would I ever reach my destination?
Vinh was not even featured in my Vietnam guidebook, so I didn’t expect there to be much to do. It certainly was a destination both difficult to reach, and difficult to escape, which after 24 hours of traveling, another six to go, I did not appreciate much.
I set off for Vinh from Luang Prabang in Laos a day earlier. I had no intentions of visiting the city, but only to transfer onto Hanoi, due a to lack of direct buses. After waiting over an hour for the bus to leave Luang Prabang, I began what turned out to be a rather memorable bus journey.
It was evening time, and whilst meandering around the Laos mountain scape I sat watching the Asian sunset on my last day in this beautiful country. This bus journey would take me onto a new destination and a new place to explore, but little did I know that the journey itself would turn out to be such an adventure!
As the picture perfect landscape was submerged by darkness, I closed my eyes in attempt to get some sleep. Normally, I find sleeping on transport relatively easy; the gentle movements and vibrations sending me off like a baby in a car seat. The winding mountain roads however, that I previously enjoyed driving around and admiring the view, were now becoming a bit of a hindrance.
After intermittently sleeping for a couple of hours, and gaining a few bruises from being thrown around the bus in the process, the bus came to a stop and everyone got off. Being near the back of the bus, I was one of the last to disembark. I expected to get off to find a service station or something, and I was certainly not prepared for the sight before me!
Toilet? Who needs that when there’s a street to pee in? That was clearly the train of thought amongst my fellow passengers. I was shocked to step off the bus to find dozens of people with their trousers dropped by their knees using the middle of the street as a toilet! I couldn’t believe my eyes! I am always keen to experience a bit of cultural immersion, but this was a bit too much for me! Luckily, there was one other Western girl onboard, so we teamed up to find what we thought was a more appropriate place to ‘do our business’!
Slightly overwhelmed by this rather unusual lavatory experience, I resumed my place on the bus to continue my journey to Vietnam. By the time we reached the border, I had become quite accustomed to these toilet stops, with the bus and its passengers having repeated this every couple of hours throughout the night.
We arrived at the border about an hour before it opened. This was a great chance to get a bit of sleep as there was no tossing and turning, and no bumpy roads to keep me awake. But sleep did not come as easily as I had hoped; this was when I realized the air conditioning on the bus was faulty. I had been in Asia for months now, and was quite used to the heat and humidity, but the contrast between the cool mountain night air, and morning heat was huge. Sweating profusely, and having had barely any sleep, I was beginning to get a bit irritable.
After what seemed like hours of waiting, we finally made it across the border and I proudly gained one new stamp in my passport. I was in Vietnam, so I was almost there right?
Wrong. The journey continued throughout most of the day. I sat on the bus, frantically trying to fan myself to bring my body heat down to a moderate level. Toilet stops were slightly more civilized on this side of the border. I never knew how much I would appreciate a dirty old squat toilet in a wooden hut out in the pig pen! We also stopped for noodle soup, which was much appreciated after so many hours on the road.
The remainder of the journey to Vinh was quite uneventful, aside from the sick woman on board! There was a lady that laid across the aisle, repeatedly being sick into a bag. The noise of her heaving for hours was most unpleasant, and when I saw the contents of the bag spilling out and running the length of the bus I began to feel rather nauseous myself. I closed my eyes and wished the rest of the bus journey away.
I was so pleased to finally arrive at Vinh and I stepped into the bus station to attempt to purchase my onwards bus ticket. But it seems this was easier said than done. After numerous attempts, the common response from the staff at the bus station was simply to raise their hand in front of my face. I tried to remember that this is probably not rude in their culture, but after getting this response continuously for hours, I started to get incredibly infuriated.
There were hourly buses from Vinh to Hanoi, and the one person that did speak a little English told us what time to come and buy the ticket. However, each time we arrived, we were told that all tickets were sold out! Three hours later and three missed buses, I was beginning to lose my temper, so I bypassed the bus station altogether and attempted to board a bus to Hanoi.
This was like no other bus I had ever seen. It had three lanes of bunk beds and a soft, cushioned floor in between. All of the beds were taken, and most of the floor space too, so we found a space and sat down. Bring on this seven hour journey, I thought to myself as I searched for some sort of strength.
People had been squashed onto the bus like sardines in a tin. I was incredibly happy to now be on the final leg of my journey, but I would have rather not been squashed between two oversized Vietnamese men, one with his head on my feet and the other with his foot on my shoulder! This really was a unique bus experience.
Half way through the journey we had yet another eventful toilet stop. The passengers rushed off the bus, donned their footwear and headed to the toilet area. When I walked in I genuinely thought I had entered the men’s, rather than the women’s. The toilet reminded me of a typical Asian shower; no cubicle, no privacy, just a slanted floor to let the water run down.
Yet again, slightly horrified from another Asian toilet experience, I was glad that in just a couple of hours we would finally arrive at our destination. I had been on the road for around 30 hours so far, and was very excited at the prospect of reaching the hostel, taking a shower and slipping into a nice clean bed.
Upon arrival, we were approached by a number of taxi drivers. We negotiated a price with one of the drivers and were on our way. Relieved to finally get off the bus, I sat back and relaxed, and began to take in some of the sites of the city.
Being 2am, the city was eerily quiet. The streets were narrow, and easy to get lost in. There were rats scurrying across the streets and homeless sleeping along the corners. The taxi arrived at the hostel after about ten minutes, so we got out and attempted to pay.
The taxi driver, however, very quickly became aggressive and demanded a lot more money than had been agreed upon. After I refused to pay his outrageous fee, he then proceeded to take my rucksack and physically threaten us! My heart started thumping; I was in a strange city, in the middle of the night, with an aggressive local. I was glad my friend from the bus was still with me, so that I wasn’t alone.
After a long, arduous battle, we paid the taxi driver the amount he asked for, and went inside the hostel.
Before I left for Vietnam, I was told that it was very touristic now and commercialized, and that it was difficult to have a cultural experience. I had only been in the country a matter of hours, but would already disagree. If this wasn’t a cultural experience, I don’t know what is!
The journey may have been a rather dramatic and testing, but it was certainly a memorable bus journey. However, it was the beginning of a fantastic month traveling a truly wonderful country, and looking back now, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.