Friday, March 9, 2012

The buses, trains, boats and motorbikes of Vietnam

It's Friday, March 9th, 2012 and I'm chilling by the pool of our lovely hotel in Siem Riep (thanks Daniel for finding it!) Tomorrow morning our eyes are bound to be delighted at the sight of the world's eight wonder, Angkor Wat. But until then, here's a recap of how we traveled across Vietnam for about 10 days or so, with a focus on the types of transportation that took us from one place to another, and the things we saw along the way.

We met a lot of people in South East Asia who had completed or were in the middle of two-wheeled adventures. A popular motorbike trip in Vietnam is from Hanoi to Saigon or viceversa, via the windy and history-laden Ho Chi Mihn Trail in the mountains. We've met quite a few people who either did it or were embarking on it. Buying a motorbike in Vietnam is very cheap: $150 can bring you a decent bike, which you can sell at your destination for about the same amount. The trip lasts anywhere from 10 days to however long you want it to be. Anne and I were very tempted to do a motorbike trip through Vietnam. We talked about it a lot. We discussed the logistics and unfortunately, time was not on our side. We think about maybe doing it some time in the future, and recommend it to our friends back home looking for some adventure in foreign lands.

Being a long and skinny country, geographically speaking, traveling through Vietnam involves long overnight bus or train rides. If you are in shortage of time (like we were), and if you want to save some money on hotels, traveling at night is a great way to save your daytime hours for sightseeing. The only downside would be fatigue, after doing too many consecutive train and bus overnight rides. While sleeping on the train is very comfortable, overnight buses are more often than not a big nightmare.

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%.

Anne on our first sleeper bus.

Me on the sleeper bus.

After we descended from the mountains, the landscape was just rice paddies, as far as the eye can see. I think we rode for hours on end, until the town of Vihn and all you could see on both sides of the road was kilometers after kilometers of rice paddies with a few villages scattered in-between them.

The motorbike is the primary means of transportation in Vietnam. I think almost each adult has his/her own motorbike and they probably learn to ride it as soon as they can start walking. Vietnam doesn't have many cars, because they are expenses and taxes on imported cars are very high. In the photo above, the wife was waiting at the bus station for her husband to get off the bus. He brought all that stuff with him on the bus. A 3rd person helped them load the heavy metal crates on the motorbike. Another guy on our bus brought a pile of pork legs and hooves, which he loaded onto his bike, next to his wife and other luggage. Sadly, I didn't manage to snap a photo of that.

This is a random shot of daily traffic in Hanoi. Hanoi is Vietnam's second largest city after Saigon (I refuse to call it Ho Chi Mihn, which I think is a name that won't last for long...) with a population of 5 million inhabitants. Apparently, it has around 5 million motorbikes as well. We were intimidated by the heavy and seemingly chaotic traffic in Hanoi, but we got used to it pretty fast. By contrast, Saigon's traffic is a million times more intense and frightening than that of Hanoi.

From Hanoi we took a 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.

This is the deck of our boat. It doesn't look at all like what they showed us in the brochure when they sold us the trip... but I'm sure it's still a nice place to chill or party if the weather is nice. We got cold and foggy weather (that reminded us a lot of San Francisco) and we stayed mostly inside.

Many other boats full of tourists were sailing throughout the bay. At night, the lights coming from all the boats beautifully filled up the negative space around us.

I found a good spot/angle on the boat and asked Anne to take a photo of me in that place. It's exactly what I envisioned.

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.

Overnight trains in Vietnam are actually quite comfortable and we were able to get a good night's sleep. In total, we slept 3 nights on trains. It was also a good break for us to catch up on organizing and editing photos and writing copy for our blog posts.

Our downstairs berth neighbors were a Vietnamese family who were eating all the time. They woke up at 6am, bought some noodle soup and rice from a food cart and started their ongoing food fiesta.

I don't know if Daniel knows that I'm taking a photo of him and he's smirking at the camera out of the corner of his eye. Or maybe he's just daydreaming of something nice...

Train yoga at 7am.

Chilling with our laptops and guidebooks.

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.

I look like a total nerd, the kind of nerd that spends too much time cranking out blog posts.

Look how bored Daniel is. Anne, like a good friend that she is, offered to watch some movies together with him, using my headphone splitter.

Beaches around Da Nang.

Arriving by boat in Hoi An after we visited the Cham ruins at My Son.

The river 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.

Little Vietnamese grandma begging me to take a ride in her row boat.

Now on to motorbikes, since I mentioned them at the beginning. Most of the motorbikes on the streets of Vietnam are new and modern. They're all 125cc. And all the motorcycles on the road are small too, never more than 250cc. Given how chaotic the traffic is, it's probably better they don't have fast, powerful motorcycles. Old bikes are very rare, and I took photos of the few ones I saw around.

Honda Cub, the most manufactured motorbike in the world. They are like a symbol of Vietnam, and you see them everywhere, especially the khaki colored ones. Even souvenir vendors have t-shirts with Honda Cubs designs printed on them. I was tempted to buy one, but I thought it would be silly to wear an image of my own motorbike on it. All these Vietnamese Cubs have 125cc engines. I am very tempted to buy one of these engines online and swap out the 70cc engine I currently have on my Passport back home. Bret Hoffman, if you read this, I will need your help!

Look at this piece! And it still runs.

The Easy Riders are a group of motorcyclists in Vietnam that take you on the back of their moto on pretty much any trip you want, in exchange for a fee. I think the fee is about $20/day or more if you're looking for multi-day trips. You can also hire them just as guides, and ride your own rental motorcycle or motorbike. If you don't have a lot of time to afford getting lost, I heard that having one of these guys as a guide is pretty useful, as they know all the cool spots, waterfalls, markets, cool villages, etc.

At the end of yet another overnight bus ride we ended up on the wrong road. This is when the driver is trying to turn around the whole freaking bus, after he realized he went in the wrong direction. To anyone reading this and planning a trip to Vietnam: make sure you don't take TJ Border's buses and always ask the travel agency or hotel that you book from, the name of the bus company they're using. This was our worst bus ride by far. As soon as we got on the bus, an old French guy noticed two of the bus tires have a few cracks in them that seemed dangerous. Apparently the French guy was a car mechanic and he tried telling the bus driver how dangerous it was to drive with such bad tires. The bus driver seemed completely unimpressed and ignored the French guy's complaints.

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.

This is the beach in Nha Trang, where we arrived more or less against our will. We didn't plan to visit this town and we were pretty bummed that we were forced to skip the smaller town of Qui Nhan. However, we still managed to have fun in Nha Trang. The city has about 6 km of beautiful white sand beach. It's one of the most modern and luxurious places in the whole of Vietnam. Walking along the shore here, past a Four Seasons hotel and other luxury accommodations, you'd never think you're in a communist country. To top it all off, we had amazing pulled pork sandwiches at a restaurant called Texas BBQ, owned by a sweet old man from Memphis, Tennessee.

Our last overnight bus in Vietnam took us from Nha Trang to Saigon. We got lucky this time with a really awesome bus company. I slept like a log during most of the 11-hour bus ride. Woke up refreshed in Saigon, where we got dropped off at 6am right in front of a French bakery, where I had an amazing baguette sandwich and a strong black coffee.

Here we are on the street in Saigon. 10 million inhabitants and 10 million motorbikes. The craziest traffic I've ever seen in my life. Sometimes, it would take us about 10 minutes to cross the street at an intersection. Waiting for a break in the flow, bracing up to cross, or waiting for a local to cross and then tagging along. At certain areas in the city, such as in front of museums, you could see "tourist safety" agents, like the guy in the photo above. I'm pointing to the label on his uniform that says "Tourist Safety" - his job is to help tourists cross the street. Yep, it's so intimidating and overwhelming, that sometimes you need help just to cross a street. Even 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."

The biggest moped rally in 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.