hell and back again

we’ve spent the past few days in vientiane, the capital of laos. due to a strategical error (read: numbskullery) we’ve spent three days waiting for the entry date on our vietnam visas. vientiane, meanwhile, is a strange little nowhere-nothingsville of a place – a curious bit of hellishly hot backwater suspended in a state somewhere between renewal (if you’re a glass-half-full type) and decay (if you’re not). j calls it a shithole, though i wouldn’t say that. there’s nothing overtly wrong with it – but there’s precious little to recommend about it, excepting its function as a transport hub for, oh, anywhere but here. so our days were filled by shuttling between air-conditioned oases: eating at bakeries, noodling at internet cafes, and watching world cup matches at pubs. nothing to write home about.

so once our visas became valid, we hopped on te first bus to hanoi. as i write this, we’re in the 23rd hour of what has become the journey from hell. vientiane and hanoi are probably roughly600km or so apart, as the crow flies. so how, one might ask, does this entail such an epic bus ride? let me explain.

it’s important to understand, first of all, the distinctions between the several different classes of bus journey. the highest class is what’s known as the “v.i.p. bus”. this is a tourist class coach, of varying degrees of plushness, but the commonly found characteristics include three things: tourist priced ticketing, super-freeze air-conditioning, and an on-board toilet. the natural habitat of this “v.i.p. bus” is limited to within the borders of thailand (though some may say it has a close cousin in the chinese “overnight bus”, however the chief difference is that such “overnight buses” make absolutely no pretence at plushness.) the “v.i.p. buses” are often promoted as “sleeper buses”, the theoretical notion being that one departs in the evening, sleeps through the night, and awakes refreshes at their destination in the morning. having taken several of these, however, i can safely attest that absolutley no such sleeping takes place. these buses are also often billed as “express buses”, a description which might lend one to believe that they arrive at their destination significantly faster than other buses – but that belief would be highly erroneous. a unique and entertaining feature of many of these buses is the airbrushed artwork on the side (in imitation of “old-skool” graffiti artistry) and the neon halogen lighting, creating a funky urban thai hip-hop kinda vehicle.

the second class of bus is known as the “local bus”. this is the bus which the native-born countrymen take for long distance trips. it is usually characterised by uncomfortably narrow vinyl seating (reminiscent of a classic schoolbus), and hideous decor, often consisting of leftover wallpaper remnants, children’s bedroom curtains and dustruffles. the amenities on this type of bus are usually limited to basic airplane-like ventilation (or electric ceiling fans) and overhead lighting which is turned off for the duration of the trip, rendering it decorative only. while these buses are somewhat cheaper, the ticket price for foreigners is in no way reflective of what the locals actually pay (a fun little custom called “price tiering”) and the savings are often offset by the need for in-person purchasing and navigation of the chaos which is the public bus depot. this, in and of itself, requires one to call upon unexpected depths of patience and fortitude. furthermore, the “local bus” makes all “local” stops, some of which include mr. smith’s driveway, grandma jones’ convenience store, and a multitude of assorted random intersections and curbsides. depending on road conditions, refreshment/toilet breaks, whether or not mr. smith/grandma jones is travelling, and the mood of the driver, these buses can take from 2-6 hours longer to get where you’re going.

and finally, there is the “chicken bus”, which I believe i’ve described here before, but suffice to say they are often distinguished by the presence of livestock.

our current convoy falls somewhere between a “local bus” and a “chicken bus”, inasmuch as there are a few hundred kilos of rice and fruit lining the aisles, and no toilets, but it does have air-conditioning. still i am beginning to desperately wish we’d shelled out for a plane ticket.

when we boarded the bus, nearly 24 long hours ago, i knew it would be trying, but it didn’t seem too bad. they piled all the luggage into the back rows of seats because the holds were already full (of contraband imports, to be sure), but there were still rice sacks to load so they formed impromptu aisle seating for extra locals. we waited an extra hour for a few more locals and all their accompanying luggage (also piled in the aisles). a family of five squeezed into two paid seats. the tall guy behind me protested when i tried to recline my seat. the lady in front protested when j’s knees impeded her recline. it started to pour, so the windows were shut and it because close and steamy. i was starting to feel uncomfortably claustrophobic and we hadn’t even left the car park yet. ten minutes after we finally got underway, they turned off the overhead lights – so much for finishing my book. i napped a bit and we stopped off for a few pissing-in-the-ditch breaks (never straying far from the road, in case of landmines), but we seemed to be making good time.

six hours in, however, shortly after midnight, we stopped at a roadside cafe. and that’s when j suddenly recalled that this particular route entails a six hour layover. so after a plate of noodles, the cafe closed up shop and the restauranteur family gave the driver a place to sleep and went to bed. leaving the rest of us with no choice but to pile back into the cramped, hot bus to try to sleep. we sweated and stirred and sighed – sleep was impossible. many abandoned the bus and spent the evening sitting in the cooler air outside. mosquitoes were rampant. i’ve never been so intensely, annoyingly uncomfortable.

but light finally arrived on the horizon, and two hours later we arrived at the border controls, first in the queue. only there was no queue, only a teeming mass of swarming locals shoving passports and bribes in the faces of the officials and a bunch of bewildered foreigners getting trampled in the stampede happening at the window. stamping our departures, then, understandably took quite a while, what with the piles of scattered passports and money, people constantly breaking into the office to try to personally plead with the immigration officer, etc. etc. etc.

and then we had to enter vietnam – vietnamese immigration a model of efficient communist bureacracy, if ever there was one. it took them two and a half hours to shake us down for a few u.s. dollars and stamp our pre-arranged pre-paid visas, while we helplessly watched them suffle the small red and blue books from one pile into another, take a coffee break, scan them on the new passport scanner, curiously examine all our other stamps and visas, take a call on their mobile phone, take care of dozens of local passports, flip through ours again, put them aside – all in time-warp super-slow-motion, before finally extorting another 30,000 dong to hand them over.

our passports moved less than 10 feet during the entire two and a half hours. it took supreme feats of self-control not to start screaming.

back on the bus, it seemed that was the worst of it. yet the trip continues to drag on, twelve hours hence. at lunchtime the sin read “hanoi – 350 km”. at a second lunch break the sign read “hanoi – 150 km”. the bus broke down and was fixed. i engaed in tug-of-war with the lady in front of me over control of my window curtain. i got gum on my ass. my ipod battery died.

it’s now been 24 hours and 13 minutes (12 hours driving, 6 hours “sleeping”, 3 hours immigrating, 3 hours eating) with no end in sight.

i’ll let you know if we make it there alive.

3 Responses to “hell and back again”

  1. Amity
    June 15th, 2006 10:13

    oh my god, you poor things! here’s hoping you make it through without screaming…

  2. Stacey
    June 15th, 2006 10:26

    Yeah, now, this is one of those things you probably WON’T laugh about later. So sorry to hear how crappy it is. I am imagining you are just about done with bus tickets for the rest of the trip!

  3. Nicole
    June 17th, 2006 18:59

    i must say reading these stories of travel hell that you are my hero. . .

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