08 May, 2008

Saying goodbye to "travels with Charlie".

My last couple of days in Vietnam, before leaving for China, were spent taking a long distance 48 hour bus ride from Saigon up to Hanoi.

Now at first I thought this sounded like an exercise in masochism (reminder to oneself - go with your initial instinct, it's usually right!) but then I heard about something called a sleeper bus, and only $40 for a 1,900km journey!

Basically a sleeper bus is a bus with beds instead of seats. Each person has their own bunk and there are 3 bunks across the bus (with five in the last row) and two levels of bunks (upper and lower). In addition, the bunks have a folding back rest which allows you to sit up like a regular seat.

It all sounds great EXCEPT that the seats are designed for SMALL people (i.e. locals). Now I'm only 180cm tall, and a not too portly 85kg, but do you think I could fit in these bunks? Not a pleasant experience with your feet pushed hard against the back of the bunk in front of you and confined to a small foot compartment. Laying flat was impossible as the bunks don't lay totally flat (there has to be space for the person behind you's feet remember). Sitting up is no better as the hinge for the bunk is just too far forward (meaning that you have to bend your legs as there isn't sufficient space for you to stretch them out).

The bus was filled with approx 75% locals and 25% travellers. We left Saigon around 7.00am arriving for our first stop (lunch) at Mui Ne - a favourite resort for Australians and some very unusual sand dunes.

The bus then continued North to Hoi An (around midway) with only a single rest/meal stop that day/evening.

... brief interlude - ignore for those with queasy stomachs....

Now I have commented on traffic in Saigon but I can assure you that road manners on country roads are no better - and worse, bus drivers are the worst offenders! I chose a bunk on the lower level in the centre row, right in the middle of the bus, figuring that was the safest spot in event of a head-on collision, side swipe or rollover. Fortunately, the bus driver managed to avoid all 3 worst case scenarios although I'm still not certain how. At one point I was looking out the right window when the bus driver yelled at everyone not to look. It seems that two motorcycles (travelling side by side as they are wont to do regardless of the risks of the inner most rider being collected by either an oncoming, or passing, vehicle. Now bikes generally travel in the side (or emergency lanes) because they are usually travelling much slower than 4+ wheel traffic). In this case the emergency lane had disappeared because we were crossing the bridge, however, that hadn't seemed to stop the riders from continuing to want to ride side by side regardless. The bike was mashed into the side of the bridge and the rider was lying near it with his limbs in a fairly unnatural position and a helmet was placed over his face. The reason the bus driver had yelled, was because it is considered disrespectful in Vietnam to view the dead and he wanted people to avert their gaze.

This was not the first, nor the last, fatality I would see. In China, 150,000 people lose their lives on the road each year - a not inconsiderable number, but one which I think the government probably sees as another effective form of population control.

.... ok, back to the journey.

At Hoi An we picked up more passengers before stopping at Hue for breakfast.

This stop was a comedy of errors as apparently we were not only staying in Hue for all of the day but also changing to a different busline - something we had not been advised of prior to starting our journey.

In essence, all those continuining to Hanoi were told initally to stay on the bus whilst those stopping at Hue were told to get off. Then we were told to get off but leave our luggage on the bus. A few minutes later we were told to get back on followed by a subsequent disembarkation request 3 minutes later again.

At this point I jokingly said to my fellow travellers (who were all groaning by this point) "what's the bet we get off then get back on again?".

We were then told to walk down a couple of blocks to the new bus company. Now we all had no idea where we were going, were dazed after a fitfull night's sleep and generally feeling grubby. A number of passengers "politely" informed the bus company of their dissatisfaction with the disorganised arrangements. We all marched down the street and got around 300 metres when the bus drives up behind us, the driver toots the horn and demands we all get back on board.

We finally got to the next bus stop and spent our day till 5pm waiting for the bus to leave. I ended up lying on the floor in the bus depot resting on my backpack, and promptly caught around 40,000 ZZZZs.

5pm and we were off on our way again with only a midnight mealstop before arriving at the outskirts of Hanoi at 6.30am. As soon as we disembarked we were advised there were taxis (mini buses) awaiting us to take us into town. We all hopped in only to find out that the "taxis" had been provided by various hotels and were only free if we chose to stay in those hotels. Thsi wasn't a problem for me and I was happy with my $9 a night room right in the centre of the Hanoi artisan's district (tiny streets each filled with different types of shops / traders; e.g. one street full of tin smiths, another of wood workers ec..) and their wares.

Exhausted by my journey I did little during my day in Hanoi other than explore the neighbourhood (Hanoi was quite the city I was expecting Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to be, with elegant colonial boulevards, pagodas in lakes, much less traffic, and a general more relaxed air about the city.

That night I booked my bus to China - the following day was going to be the next big step in my journey, and an early start was called for.

The bus from Hanoi was clean and efficient. 2 British guys and 2 Danish ladies accompanied myself and around 30 locals (mix of Vietnamese and Chinese) for the 200km to the Friendship border crossing at Langson.

.... and so it was time to say goodbye to Charlie (as the North Vietnamese were unaffectionately called by American troops) .

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