Thursday, August 13, 2015

Crazy $h!t that's Happened to me in Asia: Vietnam edition

I was looking through my Facebook profile and found some old "notes" (a now defunct feature on the site). This is one such note that made it on Facebook and never on my blog. It dates back to June 2008 and details yet another crazy incident that I experienced while traveling in Asia. I'm not sure if this one is more terrifying or less terrifying than being taking hostage by an orangutan. I'll let you decide!
Ho Chi Minh Statue, downtown Saigon, 2008
In Vietnam, they have this sweet little deal offered by most traveler cafes--the open bus ticket. With this ticket, for a mere US$27, you can get from Saigon in the far south all the way to Hanoi in the far north. In other words, you can travel from Vietnam's bottom to top (or top to bottom, if you prefer), which consists of some 1300 miles. You are also allowed to make stops in cities along the way. This is a fantastic price, but it leaves you at the mercy of the travel cafe and what bus they put you on.

All the way to Hue, my second to last stop, I'd been lucky. All my buses had been comfortable sleeper buses with working air-con. When I went to confirm my departure for Hanoi (my final destination) at the travel cafe in Hue, the agent tried to bully me into upgrading to a sleeper bus. My ticket was only for a sitting bus. This had happened to me once before. I had declined the sleeper bus, not wanting to shell out an extra five bucks for it. Turned out, they still put me on the sleeper bus. I was wise on their tricks. . . I would stick to my sitting bus ticket and wait for my (free) upgrade.

I was told to come back at 5:30 pm the next day and my bus would pick me up at the cafe. When that time rolled around I was feeling pretty confident, just waiting for my big, flashy sleeper bus to pull up. Instead a decrepit looking sitting bus came.

"You go Hanoi? Sitting bus? Here!" The agent motioned to me.

I looked around at the other foreigners waiting in the cafe. None of them moved. I was the only idiot who hadn't upgraded. Ah, well.
Minh Mang Tomb, near Hue, 2008
I boarded the bus, which was air-conditioned. So far, so good. It was already about a third full, but I found a window seat near the back. Window seats are essential. Great for their scenery and their head support. If luck was somehow on my side, the bus wouldn't fill and I'd get two seats to myself. Luck was not on my side though. Surely you could have guessed that much by now. A young Vietnamese woman and her small child ended up sitting next to me. They even gave people little plastic chairs to sit in the aisle. The bus was well past capacity.

By 7pm it was dark and I could no longer enjoy gazing out the window. I listened to my iPod while the young Vietnamese woman rested her head on my shoulder and her little boys legs sprawled across my lap. Personal space. . . not important. I finally drifted off to sleep sometime after ten.

I was awoken, quite suddenly by screams. Everyone on the bus was screaming and our bus was suddenly on a 40 degree angle. Oh my God, I am going to die. I am going to die with a Vietnamese woman and her son. I hugged them. The bus is going to roll over and explode. I am going to die alone in Vietnam. This cannot be happening. With my impeding death predicted, the bus came to a stop--though still at a precarious angle. I was scared to look out the window. Perhaps we were hanging off a cliff. I was at the back of the bus; I'd never make it out before we plunged to our death. I looked out the window. A field. Never have I felt such relief. We were only in a ditch, not dangling over a ledge. 

me at the Citadel, Hue, 2008
I waited for the bus to unload a bit and finally made my way to the front, shaking. The entire windshield was cracked. Did we hit someone? I was really in no mood to see the bloody corpse of a motorbike driver. I turned to exit and found the entire door and steps leading out were mangled. I managed to step through the debris and got out. I surveyed the damage. The bus had managed to go over the guardrail, into the ditch, and then came to the stop with the help of the electric pole we hit. The front tires were now gone, as well as much of the paneling from the side of the bus. What had happened?

Well, there was no one to ask. I was the only foreigner on the bus; the rest of the passengers were Vietnamese. Vietnamese who couldn't speak English. I had to come to my own conclusion on the matter--my guess is that the driver fell asleep.

Now there was the matter of getting my bag and getting to Hanoi. I motioned frantically to people standing around. "I need my bag, it's under the bus!" I pantomimed. People just shook their heads. No, No, No. I had to get my bag. Everything was in my bag. Most of my money (what was I thinking?) and all my clothes. Do you realize how difficult for a girl my size, or anyone over a size 2, to find clothes that fit in Asia? My clothes are nearly priceless! I would not leave the side of the bus until I got my bag. I would camp out all night in rural Vietnam if I had to. I was getting that bag! 

lantern kiosk, Hoian, 2008
I was nearly in tears. But crying in public is incredibly faux pas in Asia. I had to keep it together. I would ask one more time about my bag. I tugged on the sleeve of one man and did my pantomime. I pretending to be carrying a heavy backpack and then frantically pointed to the side of the bus, where the luggage was stowed. The man motioned for me to go to the other side of the bus. I went around to find them unloaded everyone's stuff. Everything was going to be okay! I was going to get my fat-girl clothes. I would get all my money! All the little presents I'd bought people, they would be mine again. I wouldn't have to camp out next to the bus in the middle of nowhere. Life was good!

I saw that a few buses had stopped for us further up the road. They were taking on what passengers they could fit, although most of them were at or over capacity themselves. There must have been nearly 70 of us waiting for a ride. But a Vietnamese man waved me over to the first bus. It was a sleeper bus full of Vietnamese. There were no beds left on the sleeper bus, but no worries, plenty of floor space. I went to lay down on the floor and spent the next 8 hours trying to sleep.

Sleep did not happen. Every bump we hit sent me into a panic. We are going off the road! We are plunging to our deaths! There are way too many bumps in Vietnam. But we did, of course, make it to Hanoi alive. Fourteen and a half hours after leaving Hue we made it. I went to my hotel as quickly as possible. I needed the comfort of a real, stationary bed. 

Have you ever taken a long bus ride? What was it like?

Hanoi street, 2008


Autumn said...

I love how you were did the whole "When in Rome" thing, letting strangers sleep on you and hanging onto them as you were about to die going over a cliff! Other Americans would be freaking out. (I kind of think Americans should have a mandatory "Gap year" abroad. It could only improve us.)

Adventures totally suck when they are in progress, but oh! What great stories we get out of them. :)

Anonymous said...

I have also done that bus ride, but the other way around (from Hanoi all the way south to Ho Chi Mihn). I agree, Vietnamese roads are extremely bumpy!! I didn't have any accident, luckily. Then, on the way back, after visiting Cambodia, I took a train from HCM to Hanoi as our plane was departing from Nanning (yep, cheaper than an international ticket, haha). The train was 30 hours!! My longest ride ever. But it was fun!