Laos to Vietnam: A bus ride like no other…
"Excuse me, how much is the ticket from Vientiane to Hue in Vietnam?"
"To Hue it's USD 18"
"That's great, could you tell me how long it will take?"
"Yes, it's about 14 hours"
"What kind of bus?"
"Local bus with airconditioning"
"Great, two please!"
And so began our journey on probably the weirdest bus ride of our lives (or up to this point in our lives).
The International bus station in Vientiane (Laos) is like any other bus station. The International Bus to Hanoi in Vietnam is like any other bus.
The International bus to Hue in Vietnam is ½ goods container ½ people carrier. We arrive as the last bananas are firmly secured along the entire roof of the bus. Our bags go inside the bus as the cargo hold is for cargo that needs to be traded along the route. Other travelers show up and I ask the guy at what time we'll leave - he says at 6pm.
More people arrive and then some deals are done in cash for some things or possibly last minute seats and off we go at 19h30.
Windows open, cool breeze cools everything and we settle in. Then we stop for the first time. Need to pick up some pineapples.
After about 20 minutes we're off again. Then we stop. It's now dinner time at 21h30 and the first "commission stop" for the drivers. Whatever we buy, they get a cut. Off we go at 22h30 and then it starts to rain. Rain for anyone outside South Asia has no meaning inside South Asia. Drops as fat as little polystyrene balls come down and soon one of the bus drivers is anxiously looking for the leak in the roof where the water is coming in.
We stop for another 30 minutes as they run up and down the outside of the bus with flashlights opening and closing the cargo holds. We then go… no, we stop… we go but only for 10 metres before we stop. After 15 minutes of doing something we go. From then on we seem to stop at every place with more than two houses. Picking up something, possibly dropping off something - who knows. Actually "who knows" became Germarie's standard answer for all the foreigners in the bus asking what the hell is going on. One would ask "what the hell is going on?" Germarie would answer: "who knows?"
After about 3 hours total driving time since 19h30 we stop at 02h00. We wait. We wait some more. Lights outside go on, they go off again. The bus lights go on, they too go off again. We wait. Some people sleep. There's a few "what the hell is going on?" from the foreigners. I fall asleep around 03h30 after sitting in the dark with nothing better to do. At 05h20 the bus' engine roars into action and we all wake up startled by the fact that our bus is actually moving.
It felt good to be on the road again, chewing up miles and getting the breeze through the stuffy bus while the countryside whizzes by in a beautiful succession of… no, we've stopped again. At the side of the road we are told to get out. Why? We are at a small building bursting at the seams with Red Bull.
You can read that last sentence all you want - it is what it is.
We wait. They make a chopping signal onto the palm of their hands and tell us to start walking on ahead. We assume it's the universal signal for passport stamp and that the border must be ahead. Thinking about it now, it could also have been the universal signal for beating us up…
A short walk to the border. It opens at 07h00. It's now 06h20. We wait. We have some noodles. Germarie gets some verbal abuse for not paying the 1000 Lao Kip pee-fee. She walks back in the rain, gets the kip, walks back and pisses on the guy. Verbally pisses on the guy. I take my kip with me 'cause I had a number 2 and I still struggle with the squatters.
Outside it's a mess with rain everywhere. Inside the immigration building (Laos side) it's a mess with people everywhere. There is one orderly queue. Yes, this is where all the foreigners are lining up. The other "lines" are controlled chaos of people jostling for position with arms stretched out holding passports and waving it in front of an immigration official's nose. We queue up. As we get to the front a Lao guy pushes in and hands a thick stack of passports to the official. He proceeds to process them while we all wait. When he's finished he takes our passports. The Lao guy comes back and pushes in again, this time with a big wad of cash that he neatly hands to the official who hands back the passports.
Passports stamped we go wait outside while the customs guys eye our loaded bus/container truck and try to make out how much they can get for processing it "efficiently". The main official walks over and has a look in the cargo hold. He sees Red Bull. He asks them to take it out. They do, but there's more Red Bull than all the Vodka in Laos can handle so it takes a while. The boss of the bus (not a driver, just a guy who bites his cigarette while smoking and who has been crucial in every stop so far) laughs a bit, kicks a pack of Red Bull and then walks away with the customs guy. We are told to wait on the other side of the vehicle check point. Our bus roars into action and on we go. For about 5 minutes. Welcome to the Vietnam border post.
Here it's chaos, but controlled as the foreigners need to pay a one dollar "admin" charge that the Lao and Vietnamese don't. In effect we are openly bribing them for giving us good service, much like the Lao guy did covertly for getting good/fast service on the Laos side. So it's "same same, but different"
Back on the bus and happy to be in one of our favourite countries. Problem now is that we're on a Lao bus packed to the gills with all kinds of stuff in Vietnam. Also, the cargo hold was not enough to hold all the Red Bull, so they took all our luggage and stacked it at the back of the bus making space to pack out the legroom with cases of the stuff.
So being in Vietnam with a bus screaming "search me for smuggled goods" we stop willingly whenever we see police. One of our drivers jump out, stuffs some money in a green cargo list book and hands it over to the police who look unhappily at the at the bus, look inside the book, then look neutrally at the bus and wave us on. It has to be said that at no time do we actually stop moving, we just kind of crawl along at a pace slow enough for the briber to run back and get back on.
At one "stop" the Vietnames officials decided to get on so we stopped. They saw the Red Bull, they smiled. The boss guy saw his profits disappear…
Then we went on… to the next commission stop. Everyone off for brunch. Everyone back on after 30 minutes and we pull into a garage just around the corner as it seems our bus needs some work. Either way, this maintenance stop is right after the last bribe so maybe the "good stuff" is taken out. "What the hell is going on?" "Who knows?" One hour later we're on the road again. Now for the first time we chew up the road and speed along at one point passing 4 other buses in a single overtake maneuver (see video for the technique).
After 4 hours we stop to let off some people. In the middle of the highway. They haggle about something and then we just seem to chill as negotiations have stalled. Eventually money is taken out and then the cargo hold opens to reveal… woodchips. Lots of them. Bags of woodchips. The woodchip passengers leave (nothing in sight so we don't know where they're going, but luckily they have some woodchips should they need to MacGuyver some transportation into existence).
On we go. At this point we start looking at the clock every 5 minutes or so. It's a strange feeling, but you feel you need to see the exact minute on the clock when you've been on a bus for 24 hours, especially one where you've only been driving for about 10 hours.
Finally we see a signpost that says Hue City! Our fellow travelers are (unfortunately for them) on the way to Danang which shows to be another 115km away. As we approach a sign that shows Hue to be 18km away, one of the drivers come up and starts getting our backpacks ready - efficient chap that he is.
The bus stops, we start getting off wondering where the other 18km are. I ask the guy who helps us get the packs off the bus. Suddenly his English "disappears" and he shows he can't understand while he jumps on the bus and off they go into the darkening sky. It's now 19h30 and we're in the middle of nowhere 18 km from our destination.
Luckily a hungry pack of motorbike hyenas are right there to "help" us get into town for a mere USD 8 each!
Strap a 25kg backpack and a 10kg daypack to a crotch-rocket and then weave in and out of rush hour traffic for 18km at breakneck speed - all this for only USD 8?
We passed this golden opportunity and went with the USD 5 per person mini-van filled with people and… bananas.
As we got into Hue and walked the remaining 2 km to the guesthouse I saw a board advertising a USD 7 busride to Hanoi which is about 500km to the north…
Welcome to Vietnam!