We all hear of horror transport stories – whether it’s a train, boat, plane or bus ride. I’ve certainly heard a few in my life but I never would have thought I’d live through one of them from catching a bus to Vietnam.
Before hopping on this bus, the longest ride I’ve had was a flight from Melbourne to Italy. It was approximately a total of 28 hours…but it was little more luxurious in comparison to the bus ride I’m about to tell you about.
To be honest, I didn’t do much research on Vietnam before going there. I just assumed that Vietnam would have all elements of crazy.
Until I arrived…I had absolutely no idea of just how much crazy was in Vietnam.
For me, the bus ride and process to enter the country already confirmed how Vietnam crazy was (and it was only the beginning of my journey) ~ it left me exhausted, frustrated, confused and most importantly…completely shocked.
Entering Vietnam ~ what do you need to enter the country by land?
Before coming to Vietnam, I had all these questions which I couldn’t really find easily on the world wide web. They have a very strange visa/entry process which isn’t straightforward or clear…so I thought I’d share the information I found conveniently at the beginning for you below:
- You can get a 30-day e-visa at least 4 days in advance of arriving to the country
- The visa starts from the date it has been granted NOT the date you enter the country
- You can get a tourist visa on arrival for USD$25 (for 2 weeks in the country)
- If you enter the border by bus from Luang Prabang – you need to get your departure stamp at one place, walk very far down to the Vietnamese immigration office get your visa
- The immigration office in Vietnam is very slow
- There is a HUGE language barrier – if you can’t speak Vietnamese, all people will do to communicate with you is point and yell. If you can’t speak Vietnamese, expect to be frustrated by the language barrier.
- Vietnam customs is relaxed
- If you need money, exchange or withdraw it BEFORE you cross the border
- You need to put all your bags through the customs x-ray machine when crossing the border. Take note – sometimes they can charge you for using the machine
- Sometimes you need to bribe the officer to get in and out of the country
Panda Tips and Learning Experiences
Sorry guys – my tips aren’t hyperlinked to my story this time because I didn’t think it was necessary but I’ve placed them conveniently below for you.
- Double check your valuables are with you or locked up.
- Double-check the day that you must leave the country on your passport.
- Tip #1 Plan your trip carefully if you want to maximise your time – especially if you have a 30 day visa.
- Tip #2 when you buy a bus ticket from an agent, make sure you check if you have the ticket or just a receipt. If you have a receipt, you have to go to the ticket office to exchange your receipt for a bus ticket. If you’re not sure and can’t communicate with the agent then just go to the ticket office in advance to be sure.
- Tip #3 you must take off your shoes on Vietnamese sleeper buses ~ it’s a cultural and hygiene thing
- Tip #4 most sleeper buses don’t have designated seats. The drivers will tell you to sit somewhere specific but you can usually negotiate your seat
- Tip #5 try to get back to the bus as quickly as possible because they will not wait for you, especially if you don’t have anyone to help you communicate if you’re running late. Yep, the bus driver will drive off without a care in the world!
So why was the bus ride so crazy?
Let me tell you the story, going back to Laos – I have to talk about Laos to give a bit of context but I PROMISE this is a really good story so bear with me, have patience and take the time to read it.
I’ve written this entry a little differently to the rest ~ I first started writing this while I was on the bus, going through the experience. I’ve decided to keep and use many of the diary entries I wrote in the narrative of the blog so expect to jump between my narratives and my first-person thoughts during the bus ride. I know how much you all love reading about my thoughts 😉
I hope you enjoy and don’t get too confused!
I admit it’s a little hard to follow ~ so sorry in advance!
Just note that most of the time, if there’s a sentence or paragraph in italics, it’s my diary entry thoughts 😊
Back in Laos
After slowly sailing down the Mekong River for two days, meeting some beautiful travel companions and exploring Luang Prabang for a few days, it was time to make my way to Vietnam. My e-visa already started and I didn’t want to waste the time I was given to explore the country ~ I wanted to stay in Vietnam for the maximum days I was allowed. After all, Vietnam was the country I was THE MOST excited about visiting and I stayed in Luang Prabang for a lot longer than expected (I was supposed to just pass through by bus ~ the planned less-than-a-day stopover turned into about 5 days).
Tip #1 if you get an e-visa for Vietnam, it starts from the date it’s granted, NOT the day you arrive ~ plan your trip carefully if you want to maximise your time
As much as I was dying to get to Vietnam as quickly as possible, I was sad because I had to say goodbye to all the amazing people I met and move forward with my journey…on my own while everybody else stayed to explore more of Laos.
Enjoying my time in Luang Prabang with the amazing people I met
I was also a little concerned because I initially thought the bus ride from Luang Prabang to Hanoi would be 14 hours like it said on Google Maps but then I was told something completely different from a girl I met at a bar the night before…
“No it’s not 14 hours. Expect the ride to be 25-30 hours. I just came from Vietnam and my ride took 30 hours.”
When she told me those words, my heart sunk and jaw dropped to the floor ~ 25-30 hours on a bus…on my own!?
Oh well ~ what’s done is done. I’ve already made my decision.
Diary Entry: Time to say goodbye
I’ve been dreading this ride all day because I realised that it was a 24-30 hour ride (not 14 as I initially thought). Then I also found out from this nice young American girl who told me about the bus ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang – she said it’s not the most comfortable especially if you’re tall because the seats are not long and the space is very narrow. But she sold me because she said it was fun and I always like taking the harder route even though I have to suffer – there is still something enticing about it (not to mention the savings).
Today, I did some final exploring of the city of Luang Prabang by myself to the morning market (I wish I bought breakfast there instead of having it at that shitty café next to the Mojo Guesthouse) and then I did some exploring with the group – mainly with Angela from Peru at the Old Bridge. It was pretty scary especially at first because it felt like the wooden platforms would break at any minute while we were walking across. The bridge also kept shaking with each step we took. It should have taken max 5 minutes to cross but I think took us 3-4 times longer because we were scared.
I also planned to have a relaxing day so I could sort out my life admin and get some things in preparation of the long journey (food, dinner, voting, charging laptop, Spotify premium). I just wanted to sit in a nice café, relax and do my thing. Angela also kept me company in doing this but to be honest, at this point, I was ready to have some alone time.
By the time I finished what I needed to do…it was past the time I planned to leave. I said I’d be back at the guest house by 5pm but it was already 4.50pm and I still had to get food and dinner. I rushed to the markets, got some food and back to the guesthouse. The host said that he couldn’t find a tuk tuk driver to take me so he would take me himself. He handed me my ticket. We were suddenly in a rush. I was expecting he had a tuk tuk but he was taking me on his scooter – eep! With all my luggage??? Crap!
We somehow made it work – we put my extra things in the storage compartment and I carried my shit drink bottle and didn’t realise I had my bus ticket in my hand until he had already started driving. I wasn’t wearing a helmet. To be honest – it was one of the scariest rides of my life on a scooter because I was scared the ticket would at any moment fly out of my hand or I would fall off the scooter. To top things off, he wasn’t driving the smoothest and the road was quite bumpy with lots of holes. I was also struggling to hold on the non-existent handle with my left hand for dear life but I made it in one piece!
Arriving at the bus station
Phew! We made it!
When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was that two of the girls from the boat cruise were sitting on the kerb
I couldn’t believe my eyes – Margo and Pooja (English girls from the boat) were waiting for the exact same bus as me!
When I first discovered the girls at the bus station
Huh? Could it be that they’re waiting for the same bus as me?
Me: “Oh my god, what are you guys doing here?”
Pooja: “We’re waiting for the bus to go to Vietnam”
Me: “Seriously?! I can’t believe it!”
What a coincidence and relief! It was such a nice surprise to find some company for the bus
Margo: “I’m so glad that you’re on this bus as well!”
Me: “Me too”
We waited for about 40 minutes, talking about how sad we were to say goodbye to everyone from the slow-boat and reminiscing about how amazing the experience was.
Then I brought something up which I probably shouldn’t have.
Me: “Do you guys have a visa already?”
The girls: “No, we were planning to get one on arrival.”
Me: “I thought you couldn’t get one on arrival? That’s why my friend Angela didn’t come with me. We checked on the internet a lot and all the websites said that you needed a visa before arrival by land.”
As soon as I said those words, Margo and Pooja’s eyes opened wide and jaws dropped to the floor. I felt so horrible for saying those words.
Me: “I’m so sorry to say that!”
Margo: “Well we’re going to try anyway. Hopefully everything will be ok.”
We knew it was time to go when the bus staff started yelling at us to hop onto the bus.
We were at the front of the line but the staff wouldn’t accept the ‘tickets’ we had and yelled at us, pointing for us to go to the ticket office (there was a language barrier and nobody communicated anything to us).
We all stood confused at the ticket office.
Pooja: “We thought what we had was the ticket. They don’t tell you anything when you buy the ticket.”
Tip #2 when you buy a bus ticket from an agent, make sure you check if you have the ticket or just a receipt. If you have a receipt, you have to go to the ticket office to exchange your receipt for a bus ticket. If you’re not sure and can’t communicate with the agent then just go to the ticket office in advance to be sure.
After waiting for a while, we finally got our tickets and were ready to go.
We put our large luggage bags in the compartment at the bottom of the bus and brought our small bags onto the bus.
As soon as the staff accepted our tickets and let us onto the bus, they yelled at us to take off our shoes and put them in plastic bags they provided before we went into the sleeping area of the bus.
Tip #3 you must take off your shoes on Vietnamese sleeper buses ~ it’s a cultural and hygiene thing
That was only the first shocking thing.
Next shock ~ the bus.
Ok – when I spoke to that American girl she warned me that the buses were very narrow and small so don’t expect space but I didn’t expect it to be THAT narrow and squishy.
As soon as we went into the main area ~ I remember thinking WTF? In fact, I’m pretty sure all of us ~ me, Pooja and Margo were thinking the same thing.
Nothing made sense. Nothing looked right.
The bus was divided into 3 VERY narrow ‘columns’ of seats, with two levels or berths and filled with bright, colourful neon lights.
I couldn’t even walk towards the back of the bus without getting stuck ~ my shoulders were basically touching the ‘walls’ of the seats from both sides and my bag kept getting caught between the seats.
When we first hopped onto the bus – definitely not what we expected!
One of the staff yelled at us to sit at the top in the middle of the bus but we pleaded to sit on the ‘ground berths’ and in different seats.
Tip #4 most sleeper buses don’t have designated seats. The drivers will tell you to sit somewhere specific but you can usually negotiate your seat
The craziness didn’t stop there ~ once we decided on our seats, the next ‘WTF moment’ came.
There wasn’t really anywhere for me to put my bag except for floor of the ‘corridors’ of the bus. Great!
It didn’t stop there ~ as soon as I sat in my seats, I noticed that I couldn’t stretch my legs out or sit up properly. WTF? I couldn’t understand because I’m naturally already so short and even someone like me wasn’t able to sit up or stretch my legs out straight.
Diary entry: thoughts on the bus
I’m on a long arse bus ride to Hanoi in Vietnam – a whole 24-30 hours long ☹ It’s not very comfortable, it’s crazily crammed (you cant even sit up straight) and it smells weird. We still have such a long way to go as well.
How can I best describe the bus?
It’s got neon lights on the side with curtains that need to be maintained – the neon lights shine through each gap a little bit too well and it feels a tad too bright.
The seats are like sitting in very thin reclining leather chairs but with not much space for your feet (even mine and my feet are tiny). My feet have to hang out on the side or squeeze under the seat in front of me. The bus has an upper ‘berth’/deck and lower deck. The lower deck seems to have more space but less headspace. I can’t even sit up straight (and I’m very very short). There’s absolutely no space for my carry on bag – I have to put it out in the pathway to the back of the bus. There’s no toilets on the bus and you can’t wear your shoes on the bus. The seats are set up in 3 columns all the way to the back.
And we had to deal with this for the next god knows how long!?!
What’s done is done right?
Well…we didn’t really have a choice. If I had known in advance the bus ride would be like this then I probably wouldn’t have hopped on.
The story keeps getting better I promise!
The first 10 hours involved the bus continually making the sharpest turns over and over again ~ while I was trying to sleep, I kept getting woken up because my face or body would get thrown around and squished into the wall beside me.
“The bus turned a lot so I felt like my face was being pushed against the wall or chair at some points.”
It was also really hard to deal with this weird fishy smell which kept coming through the air conditioner (no not a pun ~ the smell of fish kept smacking my nostrils)
I kept telling myself I’d get used to the smell but I didn’t.
Then to top things off ~ the driver was beeping his horn every 5 minutes and playing horrible Vietnamese techno music at full blast through all the speakers on the bus for the whole bus ride (he was maybe even playing the same song over and over again on repeat).
19:00 Diary Entry: drama on the bus
Today has not been a good day for me. After a few beautiful days being a tourist in Luang Prabang, Laos ~ a few things have happened to me which has been really shit and it’s been an accumulation of bad things as well over the past few days while I’ve been on this journey from Chiang Rai to Vietnam.
I’ve already lost my Bluetooth headphone charger…but I feel like it was stolen not lost, I got a 500 baht fine for overstaying my visa and today, I realised that USD$130 was stolen from my bag and one of the speakers from my only working headphones have stopped working so music is only coming out of one speaker. I downloaded music especially for this 24-30 hour bus ride but can only hear music in one ear ☹
I am so frustrated with myself because I left my purse with the American dollars in my bag – easy to steal and unattended all day yesterday – I completely forgot to lock it up (perhaps due to tiredness from the long boat ride and too much trust in the place I was in). Ultimately I feel like it was my fault for leaving it out in the open. And to top things off, it’s impossible to claim this on travel insurance because I can’t really report it to the homestay or the police in Laos – I’m in a different country now. It’s all because I ended up shifting some of my money to a really obvious looking spot (in a purse) argh! I’m so frustrated with myself because I’ve taken so much care in hiding my money and valuables and completely fucked up here – I’ve finally been subject to theft abroad ☹
Ultimately…it could have been worse – one of the girls from the hostel lost her go pro, another person’s ray bans were stolen. The Chinese guy at the hostel in Bangkok had all of his money and credit cards stolen. I still have my Australian dollars in cash which I have taken very good care to hide, my phone, passport and laptop – the things I hold the most valuable to me on this trip.
Lesson – double check your valuables are with you or locked up.
Lesson – check the day you must leave the country
I really need to be more organised and not rush when I pack.
Despite that…I’ve had a great experience – something I’ll never forget. It was all unplanned – I never expected to go by slow boat to Luang Prabang and traveling through Luang Prabang with all these people.
1:56am *Update ~ My purse with the American dollars has been found!!!
Somehow Pooja ended up with my purse slipped under her back where she was sleeping – it just somehow fell there So I have placed it together with my other money which is attached to me – a slightly more secure place.
I’m SO relieved and once again…grateful. I was just starting to accept it and find ways to justify the situation to make myself feel better (e.g. it could have been worse – the German girl at the hostel in Bangkok had 6000 baht stolen on a night bus to BKK or all the other examples I mentioned)
We just had a pitstop at some restaurant in the city of Phonsavan in Laos (east) after I asked one of the staff if they would stop for a toilet soon (thank god!). I was starting to bust to go to the toilet and was holding it in for a good 2 hours at least. If I didn’t ask to go to the toilet, I don’t know if the bus would have stopped at all.
Now I’m listening to music trying to make myself tired. It’s so hard to sleep on this bus – . I will try to sleep again though (I am a mix of hungover and sleep deprived). God knows how I’m going to feel when I get to Hanoi). I don’t even have any Vietnamese money exchanged yet
29 October 2018 – ~ Entering Vietnam. The journey continues…
I decided to take motion sickness pills because I just couldn’t get to sleep with all the noise and the twists and turns on the bus (not to mention the uncomfortable seats and fishy smell which was running through the bus and air-conditioning of the bus). I also gave Margo one of the tablets too because she was having the same problems.
Within about 20 minutes, I suddenly felt like the bus was becoming lighter and almost floating – I realised the motion sickness pills were working and decided to try and sleep once again. Within what felt like seconds, I passed out.
I woke up. The bus stopped
“It’s not moving at all and the engine is turned off (I can tell because the door is opened, I can’t hear anything but people’s snoring and the air-conditioning is turned off. The drivers are nowhere in sight.
I’m still very drowsy by this point so I try to go back to sleep – I don’t feel like having a pit stop just yet but then suddenly one of the staff comes up, yells some Vietnamese.”
Margo: “Should we get down?”
Me: “I’m not sure. Let’s just go down to check”
I grab my valuables, put on my shoes and head down.
We all hopped off the bus, aimlessly wandering around, half-asleep.
Me: “Where the hell are we?”
Margo: “I think we’re at the border.”
She looked straight ahead: “It says that it’s the border /immigration here”
After walking around for a little, we realised the bus had stopped at the entry and exit point between Laos and Vietnam – we were definitely at the border….
But it was so confusing…I could see an office with ‘Departure’ labelled at the top of office but nobody was working.
I decide to ask a friendly looking guy who was also sitting and waiting.
Me: “Hello, can you speak English?”
Guy” “A little”
Yes!!! Finally, someone who can speak English!!
Me: “What time does this open?”
Guy: “Eight or half eight”
Me: “Ok. Thank you.”
Pooja: “What time is it?”
Margo: “It’s 6:30. Oh if we have to wait for 2 hours we might as well go back to sleep.”
At the border early in the morning…
We went back onto the bus to sleep more because we were so exhausted (especially Margo and myself with the tablets)
Just as we were all starting to doze off again…the yelling started again ~ it was one of the staff yelling at us to get off the bus and get our passports stamped (well that’s what we assumed but we weren’t 100% sure because we couldn’t communicate with each other).
I rushed off with my backpack and valuables, leaving everything else behind (my food, scarves, towel, beanie, etc. which I’d unpacked and spread around all over my seat)
I remember seeing a money exchange place and ATM next to the Departure Office and thinking aloud: “Should we exchange our money here?”
Pooja: “I’m not sure”
Me: “Nah! There should be one across the border and the exchange rate is usually better when you get across the border.”
The girls followed my lead ~ we all didn’t exchange any money and went straight to the office. There was a LONG line but we eventually got our departure stamps from Laos.
It seemed simple enough…the officer started yelling at us to keep moving, walk forward past the exit the place so that’s exactly what we did.
But nothing made sense. We were so confused ~ where were we supposed to go next? How were we supposed to get our arrival stamps into Vietnam???
Nobody explained anything to us.
We were walking forward for about 10 meters but there was nothing ahead in site. It just didn’t seem promising to aimlessly walk ahead.
We walked back – and then… I saw a sign saying “ARRIVAL”
Thank god! We finally found it.
We walked in and started filling out the immigration form until Pooja protested: “Hang on…I’ve seen this form before. This is arrival into Laos!”
We were so confused. If this wasn’t arrival into Vietnam, where was the arrival/immigration office?
We tried asking the officers but all they did was tell us to exit the building.
We complained to each other and two English girls which were getting their arrival stamps into Laos overheard us: “Are you looking to get your stamp into Vietnam?”
Girls: “You just have to exit and keep walking down.”
Me: “Oh my god thank you so much. It’s so confusing and nobody tells you anything.”
Girls: “I know. We were looking for arrival into Laos and don’t know how many times we got yelled at by Vietnamese police.”
Me: “Yeah. It’s horrible. Thank you so much!”
Sorting out our departure stamps and getting confused how to enter into Vietnam
We exited again and kept walking for what seemed like 1 kilometre until we found another building ~ we finally found the building to enter into Vietnam!
We lined up – the line was extremely long again. By this stage, Pooja and Margo were getting nervous about being rejected entry because of what I said before we hopped onto the bus…there was also a Spanish guy who was doing the same thing as them.
Luckily..we all got our visas and arrival stamps without any problems.
Next step: put our bags through the x-ray machine ~ there was no problem either.
I put my bag through an x-ray machine and showed my passport to security. They let me through – we all got through fine but when we started to walk back towards the bus, all the security guards told us to go into the country. We weren’t allowed to cross the border back into Laos. From where we were standing, we couldn’t see the bus either. I start getting anxiety about the bus running off with our things but knew we had no other choice except to wait.
We were sitting outside for about what felt like 30-40 minutes until one of the bus workers started to run towards us, yelling something in Vietnamese, and waving his hands around to signal to us to get our bags. We followed him back across the border to Laos and to the bus. The bags were already on the floor when we got there. I frantically rushed onto the bus to grab all my things.
When I got out and looked at my bag, the first thing I notice is how dirty it is – Ugh! Where did that even come from!? Oh well, there’s not much I can do at this point.
Pooja and Margo already put their bags on well before me.
Pooja: “Oh my god, my bag smells like fish.”
After she mentioned it, I realised that my bag smelt like fish too as I’m putting my bag on my back– Fuck!
Oh well, we had no choice but to wear our bags and deal with it – at least we had all our stuff.
As we were all sadly walking with our luggage, Pooja mourned aloud: “Oh no. We’re going to stink out the whole hostel and be known as the fish girls.”
Margo: “I hope the smell hasn’t gotten inside our clothes and everything.”
That thought hadn’t even occurred to me – fuck, just what I needed….another problem!
We walked back to the arrival area and I noticed a French girl I spoke to previously was standing with a group of people at the front of the immigration office.
Me: “Everything ok?”
French girl: “No everything is not ok.”
Me: “What happened?”
French girl: “They are saying we can’t get a visa because we’ve already been in the country but it was 6 months ago but they are saying that it’s done and they won’t give us a visa. We have no sim card, no money to contact the French Embassy but we know for a fact that you only need to wait 1 month.”
Me: “Oh shit…that really sucks…”
We stood there for a bit, feeling sorry but there wasn’t really much that we could do to help.
Pooja: “Well, I hope it gets sorted out for you guys.”
We went through security for the second time with our fish bags and waited on the other side of the border again while security went to check the bus.
Then… I noticed that my phone was missing – eeek!
Severe anxiety started kicking in…my heart and mind was racing…
My thoughts at the time: Anybody could steal my phone by this point – it’s just there, waiting to be taken by anyone…
I couldn’t help but vent out to the girls…
Pooja: “Do you want me to come with you to try to your phone?”
Me: “Yes please…but I’m not sure they will let us cross?”
Pooja: “Well, we can try.”
As soon as we got close to the border, a group of policemen started yelling at us to stop and the bus workers signalled for us to wait. I raised my hand up to the bus workers to signal that I wanted to get my phone ~ one guy seemed to understand. He put up 2 fingers, indicating that he was telling me to wait 2 minutes.
There wasn’t really anything else I could do.
I nodded my head in acknowledgment and walked back to our waiting spot with Pooja.
We sat and waited for around about 30-40 minutes before the bus came…
It felt more like 1.5 hours ☹
As we were getting back onto the bus, one of the workers handed me my phone straight away
Phew! Thank god!
The girls migrated to the top area to get a better view but I couldn’t be bothered moving because it was too difficult with my big, over-filled bag ☹
We waited about 20 minutes before the bus was about to take off but then one of the passengers started protesting, telling the driver to wait because there were 2 other people from the bus which hadn’t returned to the bus yet.
Tip #5 try to get back to the bus as quickly as possible because they will not wait for you, especially if you don’t have anyone to help you communicate if you’re running late. Yep, the bus driver will drive off without a care in the world! This didn’t shock me at the time but looking back now, it’s pretty crazy that they would just do that and potentially leave you stranded.
We had to wait for probably about another 20 minutes for the other two French people with the visa problem ~ but the important thing was that they got the visa in the end even if they had to go through a VERY lengthy process of organising an invitation letter so that they could get into the country (in retrospect, I think they got scammed by the customs officers ~ I think the officers lied to them to make them buy an invitation letter).
9:13AM my thoughts on the bus…
Pitstop ~ I felt the slight urge to pee and was about to build the motivation to get up to do it but then the bus finally takes off. Dammit!
Right now, I’m crammed uncomfortably trying to write my blog but my back is starting to hurt. We still have another 12 hours to go to get to Hanoi – woo! And then I need to get to my hostel which is about another 30 minutes from the bus station.
2:07PM More thoughts…
We made a pit stop in a little town at around midday with pretty much nothing except a few food stops.
Somehow, I’ve made a few other mistakes since then.
Ugh! Why is my luck so bad ☹
At least the pit-stop gave us an opportunity to walk a TINY bit and grab a bit of food. I don’t know why but I brought my water bottle down with me.
We were all starving by this point and craving something more substantial than snacks…but I was feeling so defeated and hopeless because in my mind, none of us had any money to buy anything and we just had to deal with our hunger until we go to Hanoi…
But I was pleasantly surprised when Margo came to the saviour!
Margo: “I have some Dong. I just need to check how much I have.”
She did some calculations and realised that what her sister gave her was equivalent to about 14k Dong, which is less than AUD$1 (thanks Margo’s sister!).
Margo decided to try her luck anyway, even though the staff couldn’t speak a word of English. She grabbed out all her Dong and pleaded: “this is all I have, what can I buy with this?”
The lady from the restaurant took her money and gave her a tray with a tofu dish, a big plate of rice and soup. Wow – all that for less than AUD$1.
I was amazed.
I also thought it might be a good opportunity to look around for a money exchange place but…no luck. There was NOTHING around. We had no choice but to rely on the snacks and water we had for the rest of the trip. I used the toilet, brushed my teeth, ate some of Margo’s tofu and vegies and tried her soup which I spat out straight away because it had a horrible taste and was colder than lukewarm.
We didn’t get very long but it was enough time…but I’m pretty sure I left my drink bottle at the restaurant we were at (FML) – at least there is water in fruit right???? And I still have my handy souvenir water bottle and soda water which I bought to drink vodka with but didn’t get around to doing.
Just before, Pooja and I were sitting in the ‘corridors’ of the bus where we could actually sit up straight and stretch our legs. I just wanted to listen to music and do my own thing but just as I was about to listen to music, I couldn’t find the headphones I was using. They were Margo’s ~ she lent them to me earlier that day. Fuck I remember leaving on the seat before we left the bus – I couldn’t find them! I’m pretty sure someone stole them ☹
Looks like I have to buy 2 new pairs of headphones because mine aren’t working (sigh more money). I just hope it’s cheap enough in Hanoi.
Now we’re running behind schedule. I heard from another one of the passengers that the first town indicates we’ve covered 8 hours of our 24 hour journey so honestly – who knows what time we will arrive.
Perhaps we have 14 hours??? I have absolutely no idea because when we arrived at the border, 12 hours had already passed. Wow….
To pass the time for at least an hour, Pooja and I played a “would you rather” game she downloaded on her phone ~ a game which asks you to choose between two hypothetical scenarios which worked…but then we eventually got bored of it.
The rest of the journey wasn’t too eventful except for us seeing a baby pee in a water bottle two times while three of his family members held him up to stop him falling from the bus making endless sharp turns around mountains.
The loud techno music on repeat didn’t stop either.
Oh…and did I mention that Margo made a mistake moving to the top? The fishy-air-conditioning was dripping water onto her face every five minutes for the rest of the ride while she was trying to sleep.
In the last hours of the ride – the bus stopped. We got told to hop off and change the bus. We had to collect out fish bags again ~ ugh! They were still just as dirty and smelly as I remembered.
The drivers yelled at us again to change to a different bus so we got our fish bags from the lower compartment and rushed onto the next bus.
Margo and Pooja hopped onto the bus much faster than me. So fast that it seemed like they just disappeared into thin air. They were nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t sure if they were already on or if they were out and about exploring…I didn’t have time to look around for them because the workers were yelling at me to get onto the bus. I had no choice but to go straight onto the bus instead. After taking off my shoes, I looked around the bus to see if I could spot them but couldn’t see signs of them anywhere
Where could they have gone?
Just as I was about to give up, I saw four pairs of hands waving around at me in the dark, from the corner of my eye
“Ahh there they are!”
They were sitting at the very back of the bus on the top berth.
Phew! I was so relieved to see them.
I walked towards the back and hopped up to join them. Nobody else was there except for us. The back area had enough room for 5 people so our new seat was EXTREMELEY luxurious compared to the first bus. We could actually stretch our legs and sit up completely. It definitely felt like we’d been upgraded from a one-star bus to a five-star bus, even though the blankets weren’t as nice. There were still disco lights on the new bus but by the time we’d migrated bus I’d gotten used to having a bus with disco lights.
The ‘first-class upgrade’ we were rewarded with in the last hour of the ride
We were pretty destroyed by this point to truly appreciate the first-class upgrade but it was such a nice change it was hard not to enjoy it.
Pooja: “This one is so much better and the music is so much more relaxed. If the bus ride was like this from the beginning then I wouldn’t have minded the ride so much.”
There was nothing in Pooja’s words that Margo and I didn’t agree with. Nothing.
Things were also getting more exciting because we had a very clear view of outside and we we’d basically arrived in Hanoi by this point ~ we could see more and more buildings and lights. It was certainly becoming more interesting than seeing just bush, road and some country towns like the rest of the journey.
So not only were we more comfortable ~ we also were getting really close to the finish line…
I could cry by this point (metaphorically)
All we could do was enjoy the peaceful, much more relaxed and spacious ride.
It seriously felt like we were the hobbits from Lord of the Rings who had just finished their quest in destroying the ring.
The bus finally stopped for good! We were at the bus station in Hanoi.
Oh. My. God!
I never thought the day would come but we made it!!!
Things were happening way too fast for us to really appreciate that we achieved a 25 hour bus ride from Laos to Vietnam ~ we were kicked off with our bags pretty quickly and then had to figure out how to get to our hostels when we had no data on our phones and no Vietnamese cash. All we had was the address of our hostels.
As soon as we stepped off, we were approached by many guys offering us a taxi – I was skeptical but asked for the price anyway (even though I had no idea what was a good or bad price) – everyone offered to take all of us three for 200,000 Dong but we refused all of them. Another Western couple were also looking for a taxi but were just as lost as us. I was hoping to find a money exchange place, ATM or a place where I could buy a sim card with my credit card but after walking around for a little bit – nothing was in sight. We had no negotiating power. We all walked around for a little bit longer without luck – the only semi-reliable looking thing around us were all these motorbike drivers with their green Grab uniforms (for those who don’t know – Grab is the main taxi service App used in Vietnam and many parts of Asia).
We were too tired to search any further and succumbed to the Grab drivers – we tried communicating our addresses but it was difficult. They couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak Vietnamese. We had to just use Maps on their phones to show them where we needed to go. Margo and Pooja were staying at a different hostel to me, but in the same area (the Old Quarter). So off we went with our three different drivers.
Pooja and Margo left before I did – it all happened so quickly that I didn’t get to say goodbye to them properly.
Before I hopped onto my driver’s bike – I asked him to confirm the price.
Me: “Can you make it 80,000?”
Getting any form of a discount was good enough for me by this point – I hopped on and off we went!
Me: “We need to find an ATM or money exchange place first”
As he drove amongst the madness in the streets, I saw Pooja with her driver next to me – it turned out our drivers were friends and wanted to drive together.
We were driving for about 10-15 minutes before spotting an ATM. Our drivers pulled over but both of our cards gets rejected.
Our drivers didn’t seem phased ~ off to find another ATM.
After a while, we spotted another ATM and try the same thing but no luck ~ again! Ugh!
After driving for a bit more, we found yet another ATM but the same thing happened.
It started getting a little concerning that we might not be able to get any money to pay our drivers.
As drivers the continued driving towards our hostels, the city started beginning to look more developed and ‘posh’. Eventually, I saw a small sign above a little building which had those magic words I’d been longing to see for god knows how long
I tapped my drivers’ shoulder, telling him to stop at the money exchange place.
Words cannot describe how relieved I felt when he pulled over. I was so excited that I ran in as quickly as I could…asking the staff if I could exchange Australian money and Laos money and they happily accepted
I couldn’t believe it! YES!
I didn’t care if the rate they offered was shit, I just wanted to have Vietnamese money in my hands.
I finally got the Dong I needed to survive for at least half a day.
Once Pooja and I got our money, we drove off in separate directions.
My hostel was located in the heart of the touristic area of Hanoi – the closer we got, the busier and noisier the streets became.
I was so happy to be able to pay my driver.
After I gave him the money, he asked me a strange question:
“Do you have Facebook?”
Driver: “Can we be friends? You are really pretty.”
Me: “Uhhh…no sorry!”
Driver: “Oh ok.”
He thanked me and drove off.
I rang the bell and was warmly welcomed by one of the staff…but the hostel was so strange. It felt really small and awkward – there were no separate rooms. All the beds were in the same room which was separated by a divider and curtains for each bed. There was absolutely no personal space whatsoever. Once I did my routine bed-bug check, had a shower and settled in, I went out to get dinner – I was supposed to meet Pooja and Margo for dinner and celebratory drinks but we were all way too tired by this point to do anything.
The awkward hostel and me going out for a celebratory beer and dinner
When I got back to the hostel…ready for bed – I wanted to turn off the lights but couldn’t find any switches so I decided to ask the host.
Me: “Umm, excuse me, where is the light switch?”
Host: “Please wait 15 minutes.”
Other guest: “This guy is the light master. We have no control over the lights here.”
By this point I felt really awkward ~ I mean what kind of hostel doesn’t let you control the lights of your space?
It didn’t matter by this point – all I wanted was to rest. I hopped into their ridiculously comfortable and clean beds and passed out.
I couldn’t believe I made it through that journey. It was amazing, crazy, painful, funny and probably one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done in my life.
As horrible as the ride was, I’m SO glad I did it and endured the whole journey because it was definitely a true crazy experience and one of my best stories. It’s also made going on any long bus ride now such a breeze for me (my 35 hour bus trip from Rio de Janeiro to Salvador felt like a walk in the park in comparison to this ride).
The moral of the story? Expect shitty bus rides in developing Asian countries and give them a chance! They make you more humble and patient.