I’m writing this with my heart in my mouth. My good friend Colin just grabbed my arm with genuine fear. We’re travelling on what might possibly be the most frightening journey of our lives.
We’ve had to take a night sleeper bus to Hoi An, as the night train which was supposed to take us there was cancelled after the railway line was hit by a lorry last night. Travelling around Vietnam is proving to be an experience.
I’m currently typing as we’re climbing mountain passes above the sea in the dead of night. The lights were switched off at 7.30pm, its pitch black and I’m laying in my sleeper bunk, while Colin and Ricky are next to and behind me. Its fair to say we are all clinging on to the metal railings as tight as we can, while the driver of the bus a few metres away is happily overtaking on blind bends, talking on a mobile phone and generally swerving all over the place.
I’ll admit, writing this blog entry is partly to take my concentration away from the dramas going on through the front windscreen, partly to look back on in the future and remember just how petrified many of us are, and partly so that if this laptop is found in the wilderness below one day, there will be a record of exactly how it ended up stuck in a tree.
The news that we were to change from a comfortable sleeper train to this worrying form of transport was posted on the Gap Adventures noticeboard in the hotel lobby this morning. Its news that wasn’t particularly well received by anybody, mainly as nobody was looking forward to an overnight train ride, let alone one on bumpy roads in a tightly packed bus.
Despite our annoyance, we all got onboard when it picked us up outside the hotel at 6.30pm. For most of us it’s the first time we’ve experienced a sleeper bus, and I think for many of us it could possibly be the last. Its clearly built with shorter Vietnamese people in mind – my bed isn’t quite long enough for my six foot frame, and the three abreast formation is cosy to say the least. We all ended up laughing about the situation, apart from Colin who failed to sleep a wink on the train, and knows he’s in for another sleepless night on a bus.
The bus is laid out with about 30 bunks, which are a bit like unadjustable thin hospital beds. Your feet tuck under the head of the person in front of you, while there’s a little rack to balance snacks and bags. I chose a bed on the bottom left near the front of the bus, offering a grandstand view of some of the ‘oh my God’ moments that were about to unfold in front of us.
The bus was full when we left the second pick up in Nha Trang, but that doesn’t seem to matter here. If you have money, you can have a seat, even if that does mean you’re on the floor inbetween everyone else who has a proper seat. Soon we were picking up Vietnamese locals needing a lift, until we got to a point where all the aisles were full of people. I had one man right next to me – invading my ‘personal space’ territory, happily watching as I tapped away on my laptop, giving me a cheeky smile every now and again.
The next eye-opener was when we stopped for fuel on the outskirts of Nha Trang, when many of us noticed that a large portion of the bus appeared to be held together by parcel tape.
It was a fact confirmed by Dirk, our German tour mate, who was unfortunate enough to be placed at the back of the bus, squashed between Vietnamese families and under a dripping skylight that was covered with tape. The bottom of the bus was also full of holes.
The main eye-opener was the driving. While Mongolian roads a few weeks ago were scary for their general lack of rules and order, Vietnamese drivers do at least tend to stick to traffic lights and speed limits. But it’s the increased number of mopeds without lights and a need to overtake anything in the way as quickly as possible that causes problems here, while braking is only to be done at the last moment, if indeed it’s done at all.
With no proper motorways, the end result is motorway-style driving on a grand scale along a road with more twists than the A46, and more potholes than the moon.
Quite often our bus is driving along the wrong side of the road, oncoming drivers keep flashing their full beam at us, the sound of a loud horn is so frequent it just becomes background noise. The feeling as we career around a blind bend, overtaking a van or lorry, only to see headlights suddenly appear, is quite hard to explain. And every few minutes, his stupid mobile phone ringtone goes off, to which he answers and has a cheery natter with someone.
I know road rules and driving standards vary in different countries, but this is in another league!
Its only 10pm and for those of us still awake, our nerves have pretty much gone. As we climbed up a mountain pass, with a sheer drop into the sea below us, lorries roared past with just an inch or so clearance. Slower, more careful drivers were just an irritant for our driver, who made it his mission to overtake as quickly and as dangerously as possible.
At one point, the whole bus rolled to one side after he misjudged a bend, making many of us think we were heading for the roadside barrier and a bit of a swim. That’s when Colin grabbed my arm, thinking the end was near.
“This is honestly the most terrified I’ve ever been,” he said.
Ricardo said he was genuinely contemplating getting off and hiring a car for the rest of the journey.
“The oncoming lights just keep getting bigger and nearer,” he laughs, nervously.
I keep telling myself the driver must know what he’s doing as he drives this route for a living. But theres still a nagging feeling of doubt hanging over me.
Some of the others have nodded off, blissfully unaware of all the drama around us. Maybe I should do the same. Hopefully I’ll write more tomorrow.
We survived! Thankfully, I’m able to write more – we made it to Hoi An almost three hours later than scheduled somehow. We were all just glad to have made it in one piece. Most of us actually got some sleep, although there was one moment in the middle of the night where there was a huge blast of horns, the brakes were slammed on and in my slumber I remember a swerving feeling before the distinct rumble and bumpiness of going off road.
I didn’t actually open my eyes – I didn’t want to see what was going on and decided if it was the end, I’d rather be asleep!
I did open my eyes at about 4am though, with the feeling of something crawling over my feet. It didn’t feel too small either, and with the help of my camera display screen being used as a torch, examined the area where I had my feet.
I tried to shoo it out but it wandered off somewhere, so I went back to sleep. I’m obviously getting used to living alongside the bugs here now!
This was all combined with quite possibly the angriest bus driver I’ll probably ever meet, who ironically demanded we take our shoes off before getting on to his cockroach infested vehicle. There were a number of occasions where his face scrunched up and he yelled something in Vietnamese, and with a flick of his hand yet another person had been reprimanded for taking one footstep too far in a flip flop.
It all ended in a playing field somewhere in Hoi An, where our luggage, if it wasn’t soaked already from the hold of the leaky bus, was thrown into the mud. We were dumped without any onward transport to our hotel. Someone from the bus company was shouting at our tour leader Fon, who by now was looking exasperated. I could tell it hadn’t been the easiest of journeys for her either – it’s the first time she’d had to take a sleeper bus too.
It turned out Gap Adventures had been promised a transfer to the hotel, but once the money had been taken and we’d reached the destination, the bus company and angry driver decided otherwise. We trooped around the town to our hotel, and then on for some breakfast at a lovely French café by the river.
Fon said she wasn’t too hungry.
“I had two cockroaches in my bed last night, and they weren’t there this morning. I think I’ve eaten them…I’m full of cockroach,” she joked.
It was certainly a journey few of us will forget.