The sleeper bus diaries: Getting to Vietnam

One of the most memorable things for me about Vietnam will be our long-distance journeys by sleeper bus, one of which took an epic 24 hours. Just imagine, an entire day on a bus! But this blog post is purely about our attempts to get to Vietnam from Laos in the first place…

We had planned to travel to Hanoi from Laos by bus because it seemed like the cheapest and most direct way to get there. At the Green Climbers camp, we found a notice board that suggested there were buses straight to Hanoi from Thakhek every few days that departed at mid-day, took around 17 hours and cost some 200,000 Laotian kip (around £20). We asked the managed of the camp, Flo, to double check for us, and he told us the bus station staff had confirmed this timetable.

So, having booked a taxi out to the station for 10am and taken out enough local cash to pay the driver, we thought we had our bases covered. When we arrived at the station we saw no signs for this particular bus or its timetable, but a local official reassured us it would arrive at noon (in very broken English, of course), pointed to where it would park and told us we had to buy the tickets on board. So far, so good.

Then, by an extreme stroke of luck, I saw an Asian couple that camped near us at Green Climbers, and asked where they were heading. It turned out – also Hanoi! Great news for us, as there is always safety in numbers when it comes to bus travel in Asia. By an even greater stroke of luck, it turned out the girl was from Hanoi herself, and therefore spoke Vietnamese. We started talked and decided to go grab some food together while we waited.

But at the restaurant, she spoke to some Vietnamese people who told her the bus wasn’t going to Hanoi that day. I didn’t really catch the reason, but sometimes in Asia a reason is very hard to discern. The bus had arrived, with Hanoi written on its side, it just wasn’t going there, end of story. The guy she spoke to, one of the bus driver’s crew (which always seem to be numerous in Vietnam), gave us the number of a driver who was headed to Vinh instead (around half-way to Hanoi), at 2pm, and told us to call him. Of course, the only reason all this worked was because our new friend (Trang) spoke Vietnamese! Alone, we would have been well and truly lost.

She called him around 1.30pm, and he asked us to meet him outside the station, saying he isn’t allowed to go into the station. By this point, having waited together for hours,  the four of us were becoming close friends, especially since it turned out her boyfriend, Tim, lived in New Zealand and went to many of the same climbing destinations as Clay. There was a lot of excitement about that, let me tell you!

The driver eventually arrived at around 2.45pm, while we waited by the side of the road in the dust and heat of Thakhek, will all our luggage and some random Vietnamese man who seemed really eager to get home quickly. The glorified bus turned out to be just a 16-seater mini-bus, but luckily apart from us there were only a couple more people, so we had most of it to ourselves. Armed with some rice cakes for snacks and a couple of bottles of water, we embarked on an 8-hour journey across the border to Vietnam.

And what a journey it was…

Laos is poor and disorganised compared to the rest of South East Asia that we had visited, but we never expected roads like that.

A couple of hours into our journey up a windy mountainous dirt road we hit a huge queue of semi-trailer trucks that was going nowhere, so naturally we tried to overtake it on the wrong side of the road. This worked for a while, until we hit a sharp bend in the road blocked by a commotion of trucks trying to make their way up the steep incline. We stopped, and a lot of shouting ensued. Then, the men in our van started jumping out to go for a pee, and since I was bursting by this point, I decided there was nothing else for it. Peeing on the side of a Laotian dirt road surrounded by trucks is one of those life experiences that will stay in my memory for years to come!

Eventually we managed to make it past the bottleneck and saw what the hold-up was: a large truck was stuck in a huge dip in the dirt road, and a smaller vehicle was trying to tow it out of the hole and drag it up the hill, while the rest of the line behind it was awaiting, presumably, a similar fate. The potholes were so bad and the bend so sharp and steep the trucks were simply getting stuck on the way up!

After this incident, the traffic got less heavy, but it had also just started getting dark, and this combined with the windy mountainous road full of the worst potholes I have ever experienced made for a scary drive. Many times I imagined the driver making one careless move and the whole minibus hurtling off the road and down the mountain side. I briefly considered fastening my seat belt, but decided that in the event of this accident it was unlikely to be of any help. As for collisions, the speed at which we were travelling was so low due to the terrible road surface, that it probably wouldn’t have caused any damage.

This road continued pretty much all the way to the border crossing, where we relatively easily got stamped out of the country and allowed into Vietnam for our designated 15 days on the visa waiver (which, luckily, we are subject to as British citizens). And as soon as we crossed over into Vietnam, the road surface immediately improved exponentially. Soon, we were driving on tarmac!

And then, we discovered another Vietnamese tradition which makes long distance bus journeys bearable, and sometimes even enjoyable (though also way longer than they really need to be)… We stopped for dinner. At a side-of-the-road sort of establishment, of course. And the driver and his crew just sort of ordered dinner for all of us to share (we paid him for it after).

As our first Vietnamese meal, it didn’t disappoint. We had some vegetables cooked in a sweet and spicy sauce, little fried spring rolls, a vegetable broth, sauteed beef with greens and fried fatty pork in a red sauce. It’s hard to remember, or even know, what it all was now, but I do remember it was super yummy! All with a lot of rice, of course, and washed down with mild Vietnamese green tea. The tea wasn’t hot enough, and it was pretty cold outside, compared to what we were used to in South East Asia, but we later learned the Vietnamese often serve their tea cold, and many local eateries have it on the table in jugs, where you can help yourself to a cup or two and pay later.

This meal was just what we needed after the crazy Laotian roads, and before the long bus ride to Hanoi. Our driver had arranged for a sleeper bus to pick us up in Vinh, or so we were led to believe (he, of course, only spoke to our Vietnamese-speaking companion). This was a couple of hours from the border, so after dinner we fell asleep. We awoke to the driver telling us to get off the bus seemingly on the side of a highway and rushing us to take our luggage out of the boot. We were extremely confused until we turned around and saw a large coach parked just behind us, waiting for us to board.

Not the changeover at a big station that we had expected! And therefore also no chance to get any local money out of an ATM…As our luck would have it, the driver wouldn’t accept Laotian kip or US dollars (which often work as a currency in Vietnam), so in the end we had to borrow the fare from our new friends, without whom we would have never got this far anyway! For any travellers doing this sort of adventure without local knowledge – bring some Vietnamese dong with you before crossing the border.

After we had settled on the bus though, the journey was so much better than expected. Vietnamese sleeper buses consist of three rows of double-decker bunk beds, with space to store shoes under the back and space for feet and bags in front, underneath the other passenger’s head. For a short person like me, these are really comfortable, and blankets are provided, so it makes for a relatively comfortable sleep. True, it does get interrupted by lights coming on if the bus is stopping to let people off or pick up more passengers, and the constant honking that permeates Vietnamese roads, but during the course of our month here we learned this is nothing a bit of Valium couldn’t combat (you can get this in any pharmacy in Vietnam).

The best thing about this particular bus, though, was that Hanoi was its final destination, so when we arrived there at 4am, the driver just let us stay on the bus and carry on sleeping until 7am. He even went around closing the curtains to let people sleep for longer! It’s like a moving hostel!

We did a whole lot of overland travel during our stay in Vietnam, including two sleeper bus experiences, but this particular trip was definitely the most memorable. And we never would have made it without all the help we from Tim and Trang!

In the end, they even let us come and use wi-fi at Trang’s place, and we met her mum, who spoke Russian (!), having studied in Moscow back in her youth. Speaking to a Vietnamese lady in Russian was a surreal experience!

And they took us out for local breakfast, where we tried our first bahn mi (a sandwich, traditionally with grilled pork, pickled veggies and herbs) and a sticky rice with bean curd and fried onions wrapped in banana leaf. They were both super cheap, and both amazing, and set a high threshold for the other foods we later tried in Vietnam! But that’s a whole different story in itself…


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