It’d be fun, he said.
It’ll be part of the adventure.
We have loads of time and we can see more countryside on the way.
David’s suggestion? Take the 24-hour bus to Hanoi instead of a one-hour flight. We hadn’t booked a flight yet so we still had options. Although I had done my research months before we left home and I had concluded that a flight was the way to cover the distance, I capitulated, not wanting him to think I didn’t have a sense of adventure. And truth be told I couldn’t remember the description of the ‘journey from hell’ until it was too late.
The night before, David couldn’t sleep because of three Cokes and two Americanos. I couldn’t sleep as I wondered if there would be only one driver for 24 hours…
We set off from Luang Prabang at 6 pm in a dirty old bus full of garish flashing lights and local music. However, they were soon turned off as it got dark only an hour later. Everyone settled in to sleep on reclining seats. (They were so reclining that they couldn’t go into a sitting up position. This was your lot for 24 hours.)
Surprisingly it was rather comfortable, if claustrophobic. We had found out before we set off (but after we booked the ticket) that there was no toilet on board. I think we had been too impressed by the Green VIP Bus from Chiang Mai which was super-comfortable, air conditioned, toilet on board, and a handout of water and a biscuit. Nothing like that here.
‘Driver will stop for you,’ we were told. He did. The first one in the pitch black, in pouring rain, at the side of the road. I squatted behind the bus and will be for ever grateful I didn’t have the squits. Indeed, since you ask, after taking three Imodium as a preventative measure earlier in the week, I am well bunged up. What a blessing.
Once back in the bus my Tshirt was wet and it made me cold under the air con. Luckily they give out blankets. The bus stops occasionally to drop off or pick up people and parcels. Suddenly we were aware there was a baby on board, probably only a matter of two weeks old. Luckily though it slept most of the way. There were also people who were sleeping down the middle of the bus.
At 6 am music and lights came on. ‘Did you order a wake-up call?’ David asks.
We reached the Laos-Vietnam border at 6.15 and waited for the crossing to open at 7. And that’s when the fun really began.
The officials did not like that our in-principle visa permission said we would arrive at Hanoi Airport. There seemed to be some suggestion that we’d have to go there. David worried that we’d be sent back to Luang Prabang. I worried that the bus had left without us, as everyone else had already cleared immigration and they were nowhere in sight. Fortunately this concern was only slightly lessened as we had our suitcases with us as everything had to go through a scanner. (This was fairly pointless actually as any number of bags could have been left on the bus. I hadn’t retrieved my bag with crisps, biscuits and water for the journey.)
About an hour later, at 8.30, after much to and fro and us filling in forms we had already filled in, we rejoined our fellow passengers. That sentence doesn’t begin to explain how stressed we were getting. By now the bus was 500 metres away up a hill as the driver had used the time to get petrol, but I was just happy to see it. The irony is that we don’t think we need a visa for less than 15 days but we have one for 30 days for the price of $50.
The journey continued. The lunch stop was at a ‘very local’ roadside cafe where heaps of rice were being served with clear soup and some unidentifiable meat. But it was the smell of open sewer that made us cross the road for a packet of crisps.
After lunch the road got smoother. We were now on straighter roads so there was less sideways motion to the bus. But it got hot. Stiflingly hot. The air con was like a small puff of air you could just feel if you put your hand up to it. Luckily more people were getting off so that, and an increasing cloud cover, helped.
I had also been heartened that there were two or three drivers taking turns at the wheel.
We were just thinking our journey was nearing an end when we and half a dozen others (though not everybody) were told to get off the bus. We were at the side of a busy road and we were put on another passing coach. No explanation but luckily I had read on a blog that this sometimes happens. The bus at least allowed us to sit up properly and the air con was fierce. There was even a TV screen showing a Vietnamese farce, a cross between Monty Python and Benny Hill. Not that it kept us amused… that cloud cover became a thunderous downpour with plenty of lightning.
We didn’t reach Hanoi for what seemed an age, finally getting to the bus station at 8 pm. We were immediately surrounded by taxi drivers and various other hangers-on. Talk about intimidating. We had been told to expect a taxi fare of 20-30,000 dong. They were asking 150,000!
We settled on 50,000 with a man who kept flashing a 100,000 note. He failed to drop us off at the right address and when we paid him 50 as agreed he started shouting and gesticulating. We walked away. A helpful Vietnamese man who couldn’t speak English indicated we should seek directions with his friend, who turned out to be a charming Australian who runs the Pirate’s Den pub. He called up a Google map and, better still, allowed me to use his loo. I also used his WiFi to let our AirBnB host that we were in the area. [24 hours later, we went back to buy him a beer – in his own pub!]
We started walking down the street as directed. It was quite surreal minutes later when a young man on a motorbike asked me if I was Caroline. Turned out he was our host Richard and he led us the final 100 yards to our accommodation.
To top it all, we are on the fourth floor. With David’s heavy suitcase. Without a lift. Of course we are.
And that is how we arrived in Hanoi, sweaty, unwashed for 24 hours, teeth and hair unbrushed, hungry and jaded but alive and safe with a tale to tell. And to think we could have taken a plane in one hour…