Here’s how I know I may have been backpacking for a bit too long: initially, the idea of Vietnamese night-buses did not strike me as weird. It seemed like a logical progression, I suppose, in my ever-devolving list of transportation choices: I’d started off my trip with flights, rental cars, overnight trains. Then I’d moved on to elephants and bicycles, psychotic minivan rides with drivers who thought Thailand was Monaco, and ass-numbing days on a wooden-benched slow boat. So the concept of traversing Vietnam in the dark on a bus equipped with bunk beds sounded like a pretty normal proposition.
Friends back home I mentioned it to, though, were less sure.
“Jessica!” my good friend Jen exclaimed when I told her how I’d be getting around Vietnam. She never uses my full name – I could tell this matter was already distressing her – “Is that safe?!?”
“I guess,” I started off. “I mean, I think it is. I mean – yes? It’s – I dunno! People do it all the time!”
Jen promptly let me know I hadn’t given her the reassuring response she’d been hoping for. But I wasn’t overly concerned. I’m a backpacker, I reasoned – this is what backpackers in Vietnam do.
Let me explain: Vietnam is a long country, with the kinds of hilly, windy roads that don’t exactly make for snappy travel. Not only is there a fair amount of distance to cover, there’s also quite a lot to see and do between Vietnam’s northern and southern tips. So bus companies sell special hop-on hop-off tickets to backpackers (and a surprising number of locals) traversing the whole country, by cover of night, for about $44. This, in theory, is a perfect system for those short on time and budget: your bus ticket for the entire country costs half as much as an NYC monthly subway pass, and you save valuable time (and money on accommodation) traveling by night.
Here’s how the night bus works in reality: upon boarding, you kick your shoes off into a plastic shopping bag and follow the driver, shuffling and grunting as he leads down a narrow aisle. There are two such aisles, cutting down the middle of three rows of double-decker bunk beds. This, however, is not a double-decker bus. No, it’s just a regular-sized bus, like what you’d see stopping every two blocks on Lexington Avenue. But the bunks stretch three across width-wise, stacked two high, from front to back.
The driver leads you to the very back of the bus, pointing up to a vacant top bunk and making it clear you should climb up there and stop wasting his time already. You can’t help but notice the ample number of free bottom bunks, however, and make awkward hand motions to convey the fact that you’d prefer one of those instead. The driver yells out something to effect of “seat’s taken” and you, now fairly sure you’ve incurred the wrath of the person in whose hands you’re placing your life for the next 14 hours, scramble up to your bunk and shut up.
Once you get yourself settled – which is to say, once you find a hole to shove your shoes into and manage to wedge your carry-on somehow between your seat and the window – you take a look around. You notice that the entire back section of the bus – at least the above-eye-level half where the top bunks are – is filled with westerners. Each of the bottom bunks, meanwhile, and the front half of the bus, are slowly starting to fill up with locals. You’ve all got the same ticket, you begin to realize, but the tourists have been assigned the worst seats.
The good news is, your seat folds back about 150 degrees. The bad news is, so does the seat in front of you. And so you squirm around trying to get comfortable in your too-short bed, your knees squished up at an awkward angle, the head of the person in front of you reclined nearly into your lap. Then you realize you’ve forgotten to take out your contact lenses. Screw it, you decide, one night with my contacts in won’t kill me. This sudden decision is greatly aided by the fact that your plastic arm rests, set closely enough together that they probably couldn’t contain Kate Moss, have your arms pinned helplessly to your sides.
A few minutes later, the bus grumbles to a start. The air conditioning comes on; you flop down on your seat-bed feeling defeated but ready for sleep. And then you begin to hear strange noises. It sounds like a Vietnamese infomercial, almost, but with explosions and screams and a musical score. You sit up on your elbows, squinting around the bus looking for the source of the ruckus, settling eventually on a small TV. Not a fold-down LCD screen, mind you, or a built-in display, but an actual TV set, propped up at the front of the bus. It’s playing a graphically violent war movie, which you soon realize must not actually have been filmed in Vietnam.
You know this last part because the movie is dubbed. All the voice-overs, regardless of the age or gender of the character, are done by one woman, who seems to have voice-modulation issues. No matter what’s going on in the scene – murder, torture, rape, moments that were probably meant to be real tearjerkers – the voice-over woman recites her lines as if she’s answering phones at the DMV. She’s voicing a general pumping up his army and her tone stays flat; she’s doing lines for a woman who’s bawling her eyes out as bombs go off in the background and her voice has all the pitch of Charlie Brown’s teacher’s. She’s speaking for Jaden Smith in The Karate Kid (a special encore feature) like he’s a female, Vietnamese Ben Stein.
So you pop in your ear-buds, wonder if there’s any way your iPod battery can hold out for 14 hours, and pick something mellow from your play-list. Maybe some Bob Marley or some Beirut – something that says “I’m going to let the gentle undulations of the road lull me to sleep no matter how uncomfortable I am.”
But that gentle road turns out to be as bumpy and winding as any you’ve experienced in Thailand or Laos. Your bus is taking acute turns at 60 mph, trudging up hills it has no business going near, and you’re pretty sure you can actually smell the transmission burning. The speed and the gaps in the pavement and the sudden turns are bumping you up and down, knocking you around between the window and the arm rest you’re suddenly grateful for, and you fumble for the seatbelt you’ve been laying on this whole time.
This continues for around six or seven hours. At about 2:00 a.m., the bus squeals to a stop in front of a roadside restaurant or snack shop. The locals begin to shuffle off, and you follow suit. You dash immediately for the bathroom to pee before you even think about buying food, because if you’re still trying to figure out how to use the squat toilets when the bus driver decides it’s time to leave, then the bus – and all of your luggage – is taking off without you.
Back on the bus, you try to resettle. You eat a few of the Pringles you managed to buy for dinner before the bus bolted. And then the whole process starts over again.
The next morning, you wake up as the sun starts coming through your window. You go to get up but realize you might well fall to your death if you try. So instead, you just lie there, as motionless as possible, and try to stretch out the new kinks in your neck. Eventually the bus stops on the side of the road somewhere, or in a dirt lot, and you sit there waiting. You’re not sure if this is another food stop, or a break to check and see if a tire blew on that last curve, or if you’ve actually reached your destination in one piece. And so you wait.
The locals all get off the bus. Then a few of the tourists. You feel around for your shoes, unlock the valuables you’ve secured to your seat with your crazy travel safe, and slide down off your bunk. On your way down, you realize with some embarrassment that the dress that seemed like a good choice on the humid afternoon before was not a terribly smart bus outfit. You get off the bus, rubbing your eyes, and are besieged by moto-taxi drivers, cab drivers, touts from area hotels, all wanting to know where you’re going, if you’d like to stay at their friend’s hostel, and if they can take you there for what they promise is a very good price.
And the truth is, you’re too tired to fight them off. It’s 6:00 a.m. You can’t remember the name of the place you wanted to stay. You can’t even figure out how to get across the sea of taxi drivers standing between you and the bag you stowed under the bus. And so you give the first guy who doesn’t yell at you an exhausted nod. You collapse into the back of his cab, or wedge yourself onto the back of his bike with everything you own still strapped to your back. You mumble something about a hostel, make a feeble attempt at bargaining through yawns, and wake up five minutes later in front of what you can only hope is the hostel you asked for.
And in the end, you don’t really care. No matter what, you’ll be sleeping in a bed tonight. And even if it’s in a room with 11 strangers, even if it’s a top bunk, even if your hostel’s right in back of the noisiest bar in town, it’ll be better than a bus.