In the photo above you can see our route for the 1st overnight bus, that took us from Luang Prabang in Laos, to Hanoi in Vietnam. The whole thing took 30 hours, changing buses, waiting for hours at the border checkpoint, dealing with mean people and hating our lives. As you can see from my annotations on the map, the distances are not that big to grant a 30h trip, but half of the ride was through hairpins and constant switchbacks, which our bus was negotiating at very low speeds.
So this is what a sleeper bus looks like in Vietnam, something I've never seen before in my life. It has 3 rows of bunk "beds" - short enough to make any Westerner feel like a giant. You have to lie in them the entire time, in a semi-sleep position. The bus doesn't have a restroom, so every time someone needs to pee, they go to the driver, he pulls over, people pee on the side of the road. Easier if you're a guy, not so easy if you're a girl... you'd think. But hell no, Vietnamese women squat down on the side of the road, in plain view of all the people on the bus. No fuss, no fret, they do their business right there and then hop back on the bus.
After all the seats on the bus are filled up with people (most of whom are foreigners who pay a fat premium for their tickets,) the bus driver keeps stopping at random spots and picks up even more passengers, for small cash that goes straight into his pocket. And where do you think these people sit? They are packed tightly, like sardines in a can, along the narrow corridor between the seats. These people have to sit down on the floor the entire ride and they often stink or fall asleep and lean their bodies against you. Good luck if you're in the back and need to go outside for a pee... you have to step over many bodies to get to the front of the bus...
This is us at the border crossing between Laos and Vietnam. Behind us is Vietnam. Here's another interesting story about inefficiency and how to build up patience: Our bus was scheduled to leave Luang Prabang at 6pm. It left at 7pm. From 6 to 7 we were loaded on the bus, just waiting there for the bus driver and his buddies to smoke cigarettes and shoot the shit on the side of the road. To this day, I have no idea why we waited like that for a whole freaking hour. The bus arrived at the border crossing at 5am. The border checkpoint opens at 7am. The bus was just sitting there, waiting for 2 hours for the border crossing to open... You'd think that any logical person would arrange for the bus to leave at 9pm, so it arrives at 7am, right when the border opens. It didn't make sense, we were frustrated, and the only thing we could do is be patient with this absurd and idiotic situation.
A blurry photo I snapped through the dirty bus window. Vietnam's land is mostly hilly and densely forested, with level land covering no more than 20%. Mountains account for 40% of the country's land area, and tropical forests cover around 42%.
2 day 1 night boat trip over Ha Long Bay. This bay in the Sea of China is filled with almost 2 thousand little islands, many of which are more or less pieces of limestone jutting out from the water. It's like a never ending maze of islands and it must be wonderful to sail through all of them and discover secret little beaches. Anne did a great job at describing this trip in her blog post here.
The same day we returned from Ha Long Bay we took an overnight train from Hanoi to Hoi An. In the photo above you can see our train, meandering along the gorgeous coast of Vietnam, through tunnels and cliff sides that overlook little pockets of pristine beaches. Vietnam's primary cross-country rail service is the Reunification Express, which runs from Hanoi to Saigon, covering a distance of nearly 2,000 kilometers.We took the train a few times in Vietnam: once going from Hanoi up north to Sapa, close to the border with China, on the way back from Sapa and then later from Hanoi to Da Nang, which is close to the former dividing line between North and South Vietnam.
Vietnam's coastline is over 2000 miles long and the more south you get, the more stunning the landscape gets. The railroad goes along the coast and it's probably one of the most picturesque train rides in the world. This is right before reaching Da Nang, Vietnam's 3rd largest city. It also has a bridge that looks almost the same as San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge. Vietnam is one of twenty-five countries considered to possess a uniquely high level of biodiversity, and is ranked 16th in biological diversity worldwide, having 16% of the world's species.
Thu Bồn River flows through the city of Hoi An. Little raisiny Vietnamese grandmas row up and down this river with their little boats and offer tourists rides. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn't take a ride with one of them, mostly because I would've loved to photograph them more up close. I love Vietnamese grandmas!! They are so adorable and they've probably seen a lot of terrible things in their lives. I just wanted to hug all of them.
Look at this piece! And it still runs.
The bus seemed to have no suspension at all, so every time we went over a pothole (which was almost every minute), I could feel all my internal organs beings smashed around inside my body. After a few such hours of torture I felt as if my kidneys had been dislocated and were tossed around. My seat also was on top of the rear wheel which made things worse.
Our bus was supposed to stop at our destination town (Qui Nhan) at 2am, but the driver forgot to stop. A few kilometers later, he realized his mistake, but refused to turn around. He even had the guts to claim that "we've arrived" and was going to let us get off the bus in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, we looked around and on not seeing any lights or signs of a town, we refused to leave the bus. We had no choice but to keep on riding until the next town, which was Nha Trang.
Wikipedia has instructions on how to cross the street in Saigon: "However the true trick to crossing the road is to stay aware, and walk slowly and confidently. The motorbike riders are actually exceptionally good and will simply move to avoid you - just don't make any sudden lurches forwards, backwards, or stop for that matter. Just look for a gap or seam in the traffic, and begin a slow but steady movement. If you hear a beep coming your way it's likely a motorbike rider is about to enter your personal space. Be a alert and prepared to stop putting your foot forward until he passes."
Moped Army would be a small fraction of what goes through an intersection in Saigon every minute of the day. To me personally, this kind of traffic resembled hell. I feel sorry for the people who have to put themselves through this nightmare every day, commuting for work to make a living. I'm sure they got used to it and simply ignore the effects stress and pollution have on your body and mental well-being. For a society whose religion is primarily Buddhist, I find it strange that they turned their daily lives into such chaos. While it seems unmanageable to me, maybe it's just one of those things that you learn to live with and become part of the normal.