Vietnam was a mixed bag of good and bad experiences for me. On the plus side, there was the magic of Hoi An’s lanterns at night, the newfound local friend who helped me get the right window seat to catch the most beautiful views in the train ride from Da Nang to Hue, the best halo-halo (locally known as che thap cam) I have ever tasted in my life in Hue, two delicious dinners – one home-cooked – courtesy of friends in Hanoi, and fun with my boatmates and our very friendly guide in Halong.
The unpleasant experiences, unfortunately, are just as unforgettable. There was the lady in Hoi An who shouted at me and told me to get out of her shop when I pleasantly explained to her that I was looking around at the stores first before buying (she wanted me to buy right that moment, even after I have barely looked at the items for sale), and the rickshaw driver in Hue who asked for double the amount we agreed on. And then there was the bus conductor from Hue to Hanoi who kept touching and poking us passengers unnecessarily, which I noticed he did more with us female passengers. As we arrived in rainy Hanoi and got off the bus, we found out that he had unceremoniously thrown our backpacks out into the flooded pavement, effectively soaking the clothes at the bottom of my backpack.
Hanoi was the worst. It was fascinating at first to watch motorcycles rule the roads and their drivers skillfully weave in and out of traffic, since there are no particular lanes for each motorbike. Unfortunately, drivers can be bullies. Many sped past me as I crossed the road even when the pedestrian traffic light was on. I also found out that riding a bike in Hanoi is almost equivalent to a death wish (in fact, the number of road accidents in Vietnam are alarming). Even as I biked on the side of the road, motorbike drivers rode dangerously close to me. I swerved and fell quite a few times to avoid hitting or getting hit by motorbikes. Once, I even fell on a driver.
A typical late morning in Hanoi. During rush hour, the number of motorbikes on the road double or triple.
Between the road hazards, the more aggressive vendors (one even tried to scam me by insisting that the price for sewing up my sandals for less than five minutes is 450,000 dong, which is roughly a little over $20) who are aggressive even to locals (staff of different restaurants along one road literally stopped and grabbed the handlebars of my friend’s motorbike to force us to eat at their place) and the smelly sheets and blankets at the Trip Advisor-awarded and blogger-recommended hostel where I checked in (I asked the staff to change them twice because the first time, they only changed the sheets, not the blankets and pillow cases. No apologies from the staff or manager), I was more than ready to leave Hanoi – and Vietnam – on my last day.
I had booked my bus ticket to Luang Prabang, Laos, through my hostel before I checked in. It was $5 higher than the rate I have researched, but then the hostel claims that it only works with trusted tour companies, which I read in the lobby – it was in a signage or a brochure, I think. The person who booked the ticket for me (I think he was the manager), with an oily and practiced salesman smile, assured me that I would get a good bus that is more comfortable than the usual, and also the seat I wanted. I had asked for a seat closer to the door for this bus ride because I noticed that on the bus ride from Hue to Hanoi, all the foreigners were asked to sit at the back.
From the very start, though, the experience did not look promising. I was told a taxi would pick me up – instead, I and other passengers were asked to walk with our backpacks 500 meters or more to the main road, even though taxis plied the road outside the hostel. Then, the person who picked me up at the hostel pushed me into the taxi just as I was putting my backpack inside (Did he think I was not getting in?). And, the taxi did not drop us off at the actual bus station. We had to walk 500 meters or so to get to it.
When we got to the bus station, another person assisted us and asked our destinations. I clearly said “Luang Prabang” and he bought all our tickets for us before taking us to our bus. I noticed the bus did not have a signage save for a tiny “Lao” sign, but I trusted I was headed to the right place anyway.
Our bus for Laos. See the “Lao” sign?
The promised seat for me close to the door was just that – a promise. Like in the bus to Hanoi from Hue, all foreigners were required to sit at the back. At least I was able to get a single reclining seat for myself by the window, with no stranger to sleep beside me.
I had read about other bloggers’ experiences in bus rides from Hanoi to Luang Prabang – no decent food stops from night till noon the next day, and very limited toilet stops, with the ground as your toilet. The ride can last for 30 hours or longer. So I came prepared with food and water good until the next day and an umbrella to cover me should there be no bushes when I go about my business. I had also booked and paid online for a hostel in Luang Prabang so I need not look for a hostel when the bus arrives by 1 am or 2 am.
I left the hostel at 5 pm, arrived at the bus station past 6 pm (yes, the bus station was quite far), and the bus left around 7 pm. At 9 pm we stopped for dinner. So far, so good.
Where I stayed for most of the next 24 hours
Our next stop was around 6 am at the border. It was a chilly morning, with mountains shrouded in fog. I met a fellow Filipino from my bus, whose company warmed me a bit as we ate breakfast in the food shop.
Busloads of passengers spilled into the immigration office come 7 am. The machine for scanning the passports was not working so we had to wait for around two hours. Here I talked with passengers from my bus and other buses, including a Vietnamese woman traveling with a Cambodian friend to Laos. She was drawing the map of our bus route and showing it to other passengers. I was puzzled when she drew a line from Hanoi to Vientiane, which is towards the northwest of Laos, instead of northeast, where Luang Prabang is. Weren’t we headed to Luang Prabang?
“Are we making a stop to Vientiane first before going to Luang Prabang?” I asked.
She gave me a strange look. “No, the buses here are headed for Vientiane.”
Later I confirmed that we had crossed a different border and I had no choice but to go straight to Vientiane before taking another bus to Luang Prabang. From Vientiane to Luang Prabang would be another 12 hours. Would there even be a bus bound for Luang Prabang by the time we arrived in Vientiane? And how do I communicate this predicament to the bus staff who could not speak English beyond the usual “toilet” and other basics? Even with a Lao sim card, I could not access the Internet at the border for a quick Google translate.
I thought of my paid-for hostel in Luang Prabang, the next 12 hours of another butt-numbing bus ride (plus an extra 12), and all the time I would waste. At that moment, all the unpleasant encounters I had in Vietnam flashed in my mind and I broke down.
I started bawling. Like a baby. Outside the immigration office.
I realized then that while I had some great experiences, Vietnam had mostly felt like a desert of land mines I had to navigate without a map. And so mines blew off occasionally on my face. The kindness of some locals felt like mere oases in the otherwise vast desert.
This was the biggest land mine of all. I felt blown apart, spent.
Where I reached my breaking point
Thankfully, the Vietnamese woman I met talked to the bus staff for me and explained my situation. She told me he would ensure that I take the right tuktuk to the bus station for Luang Prabang-bound buses. He made a call and gave me 100,000 kip for the bus and the tuktuk, which he said was enough for both the bus and the tuktuk. Unfortunately, I found out later the amount was not even enough for bus fare.
“I know the last bus leaves 830 pm,” the Vietnamese woman assured me. “We will arrive in Vientiane around 7 pm. So you still have enough time.” Her expression turned earnest. “If only we were in the same bus, I could make sure you ride the right tuktuk.”
I was assured somewhat but that comfort did not last long. I still had to make sure that I get to the right bus station on time when I arrive. Will the bus staff indeed help me when I get to Vientiane?
Crossing on foot from Vietnam to Laos. We walked for around a kilometer before arriving in Laos.
After crossing the border, we made a lunch stop around 1 pm, and a toilet break in the fields around 5 pm. We arrived in Vientiane around 7:10 pm. The tuktuk driver was charging me 50,000 kip to get to the bus station for Luang Prabang buses, though he would still be taking other passengers to the city first, which was far from the station. The bus staff tried to talk to him but he would not budge. The staff told me he would be back in five minutes.
Ten minutes later and he was still not back. I asked his friend to help me find a motorbike driver instead so that it would be faster, as the ride takes around 30 minutes, but the driver was asking for 100,000 kip, and I realized I had not exchanged enough kip at the border.
I tried to exchange my dollars to kip with some shopkeepers at the bus station, but they refused. The motorbike drivers would not take dollars. It was 7:20 pm. The tuktuk driver I talked to earlier had left.
Another ten minutes and the bus staff was still not back. I asked – no, begged – his friend to help me. All the motorbike drivers we talked to refused to take me to the bus station. It was 7:30 pm.
Finally, at 7:40 pm, we found a motorbike driver who agreed to take me – and, he could speak English! I was able to breathe out a sigh of relief after 30 long minutes of what felt like holding my breath. I hopped on and asked him to take me to the bus station as fast as he could.
Along the way, we passed by dusty, dark roads with no street lights. There were no establishments and just open field on either side. This was the exact moment the motorbike driver chose to ask me if I had a boyfriend. For a split second I was terrified – what if he pulled over and tried something? We were in the middle of nowhere. He could just leave me on the field for dead. But then he kept going.
We arrived at the bus station at 8:15 pm, just enough time for me to catch the last bus – if the last bus was indeed at 8:30 pm. We found out that the last bus had left at 8 pm.
On our way to Vientiane city proper, the motorbike’s engine died. We had run out of gas.
I was in Laos, but why did I feel like I was still navigating Vietnam? Or maybe, this bus ride was Vietnam’s send-off for me, so that I do not forget her. I certainly wouldn’t.