I know, I know, I keep ranting on about painfully slow, sweaty bus journeys but this one takes the cake.
We bought our bus tickets from a respectable-looking outfit in Hanoi, although with hindsight it was inevitable that that pesky Vietnamese trait of ripping travellers off would come into play. We were told to meet at the tour office at 5pm, which we did. Then a guy on a motorbike pulls up and indicates that Liam and his 23 kilos of rucksack should climb on the back. We protested in vain to the driver grabbing Liam's luggage and balancing it between his legs precariously as he wobbled off into the rush-hour traffic, before returning to do the same with me, almost ripping my legs off as he zipped between cars with my legs bent at right angles like a frogs'.
He took us back to where we'd just taken a taxi to only a few minutes earlier, saying that the bus would pick us up from here now. Other travellers gathered. We were then told we should all walk to a different meeting point. We did. We waited and waited, before being bundled (all 8 of us!!) into a taxi and told he'd take us to the bus station. 2 hours had passed and we still hadn't even boarded the bus, although we had bonded with our fellow travellers. (We didn't have much choice, seeing as our sweat was being exchanged with the person next to us in the taxi, and we were clinging onto to random people's boots and carrier bags of dirty laundry.)
By 7pm we were finally being ushered onto a rundown old bus that had seen better days. Hell, this thing had seen better centuries.
The trouble began when we weren't allowed to sit in our allocated seats by the Vietnamese "conductor", we'll call her. (Although Liam also called several other names too during the course of the journey.)
She told us in harsh pigeon English that foreigners must sit at the back. We were by now quite friendly with Dieter, a South African traveller, and a French couple whose names escape me, so we all protested loudly. Noone wants the back seats as they are the bumpiest, hottest seats on the bus (the engine is at the back), and also the seats don't recline. We were completely ignored. We were all seething with the unfairness of the situation - the journey was 28hours long, we'd paid upto 10 times more than the locals for our tickets, plus we'd been shunted from pillar to post for the last 2 hours and were still the first to arrive on the bus, yet we were told we couldn't sit in the prebooked seats. This is what we'd come to expect from the north Vietnamese, but it didn't make it any easier to swallow.
The bus filled up. And up. And up, until there were 55 people on a hot and sweaty 42- seater. There werer people on the floor in the aisle, people 3 to a seat, I reckon I might have even spotted a few climbing into the overhead parcel shelf. A couple of motorbikes were also heaved aboard. The bus was groaning under the weight and effort, travelling at a snail's pace. The driver and most of the passengers spat out of the window constantly and chugged on cigarettes and ominous-smelling pipes (opium?), sending stinking, acrid blus smoke down the back of the bus, and in our faces.
We stopped continously to pick up yet more passengers and luggage, we even stopped at the evil conductor woman's relatives house, where she disappeared inside them sat out on the veranda drinking from a bowl with them and chatting whilst 50-odd faces watched from the bus impatiently. We stopped at a ramshackle restaurant for dinner, where yet again us Westerners got ignored and went hungry. Liam seethed. We all did.
Hungry, we clambered back on board, getting thrown around until 2am, when we stopped to pick up a few more locals, these ones paralytic. Just when we thought the journey couldn't get much more unpleasant, there came a whooshing sound - one of the pisshead locals had just projectile vomited next to us, sending a gush of noodle-filled spew all over the French girl in front of me. It was so hot on the bus and the stench was unbearable. The poor French girl had to stick her head out of the window like a dog and gulp air frantically to avoid blowing chunks herself. After being sick, the guy seemed to feel much better and sparked up a fag. We were grateful we hadn't had dinner after all...
We finally arrived a the Laos border at 6am, where we had to wait 2 hours for the officials to open the border and organise our visas. When the offices did finally open it was like a feeding frenzy of piranhas as everyone attempted to get to the front first. These people don't understand the concept of queuing, so us travellers did the same, pushing them right back. We had the added advantage of being 3 foot taller so managed to beat them at their own game...
Back on the bus, more bumping, sweating, gritting teeth, then...disaster! (Another one). The bus broke down. We'd been aware of ominous metal-on-metal grinding noises, and had had to get out and push a few times due to the starter motor failing, but this felt much more serious. We'd already heard a few horror stories from other travellers about brakes failing on mountains and drivers having to crash the bus into the side of the cliff to stop it. Or occasions when drivers had had to maintain a certain velocity.I had visions of Keanu Reeves in Speed, yet the Vietnamese didn't bat and eyelid as the driver stopped the bus, grabbed a few spanners and made his way to the back of the bus, flipped open the hatch where we were sitting and began tinkering away.
Liam attempted to flex his mechanical skills but the communication barrier proved too much. If only Vietnamese had been part of the syllabus on Liam's mechanics college course.
After 3 hours at the side of the road in blistering heat in the middle of nowhere, me, Liam, and our fellow Westerners (5 of us), began hatching a cunning plan to ditch the Vietnamese and their shack of a bus and get the hell out of dodge. As Liam was a valuable asset to them, we knew they'd be reluctant to let us do the off, but it was every man for himself, and besides, they'd treated us like doggy doo for the last 20-odd hours.
We surreptitiously unloaded our bags from the bus round the opposite side to where the passengers were sitting on the grassy verge, and catching sight of another bus approaching in the distance, steeled ourselves to persuade it to stop. The first bus sailed past (apparently almost every bus breaks down in Laos so it was hardly likely to offer help), but then another approached a while later and the sick-covered, desperate, French girl ran out into the road and the driver took pity and screeched to a halt. We begged them to let us climb aboard, agreed an overpriced fee, and laughed as we left the open-mouthed Vietnamese to eat our dust as we sped off into the sunset.
We had to sit in the aisle on tiny plastic stools for the rest of the way (6 hours?), but we didn't care cos we were so grateful to finally be on our way.
We eventually arrived in Vientiane, filthy, starving and tired almost 30 hours after we'd left Vietnam.
Luckily for us, our first impressions of Laos were excellent - relaxed, beautiful, with smiling, welcoming locals. The journey then seemed almost surreal as we reflected with our new mate Dieter, (the guy from Cape Town) as we relaxed over a well-earned dinner (our first meal in 36hrs) and several illuminous cocktails....