It’s a little before 6pm in Vientiane, and a bright orange bus has just pulled up and parked temporarily into bay A1, partially covered under the corrugated iron roof of the bus station. Neon letters glow on the display adorning the windscreen, and for those that can’t read Vietnamese a placard reading ‘Hanoi’ is propped up against the glass.
A few yards away sits a plastic table serving as a simple check-in desk, and two women stand behind it gradually thinning the line in front of them.
I exchange our hastily handwritten written receipt for our seat numbers, and stow our bags into the hold. By the door, a small babble of people have already been congregating eager to board. It looks to be a roughly 50/50 split of backpackers and locals, either continuing their journey or returning home.
From the outside the bus almost looks like it has two decks, with two rows of windows that are all blocked out by closed curtains. When we climb up the steps to board though we can see the inside is actually made up of three aisles of tightly packed bunk-beds. Well, more like bunk-pods really. Like a thin dodgem car with just enough space for one person, slightly stretched into a lying down position. If you could turn over, you would fall flat on your face on the floor.
As I start to walk towards the pods, the driver thrusts a green plastic bag into my hands and then shouts a few words at me while pointing at my shoes. “Sorry?”. The aisles of the bus are carpeted in patterned red, and I twig from the tone of the mans’ voice that he takes great pride in keeping them clean.
Of course it is pretty hot in southern Laos in March, so my shoes today are actually sandals. So pretty soon I find myself making my way down the narrow aisles in bare feet, trying to locate our beds.
“Sweet! Our beds are the biggest on the bus!”, is the first warming thought that crosses my mind when I find our numbers right at rear. Unfortunately, any fleeting feeling that we have somehow lucked out is short lived and quickly replaced with the realisation that this journey might end up being a little.. awkward.
At the back of the bus is a single area that looks on first glance to be a sort of double bed, an area where two people can lie down side by side. On closer inspection though, and after testing, this notion of ‘bed‘ is quickly downgraded to something more akin to ‘plastic shelf that lies between toilet and window‘. If you lie down with your legs straight, your head hits a wooden box which no matter how hard you will it, it really does not want to be a pillow. If you choose to instead put your head on the actual, rather thin but supplied pillow, then your legs are now bent double and sticking out over the end of the shelf. Hopefully your feet are reasonably clean so you don’t annoy the people below you.
Still, considering the price of the bus was only 180k LAK (about £18), can you really complain?
At this point the bus starts to fill up, and as another couple starts hesitating at the bottom of our feet, we realise that this cramped pocket of personal sanctuary is actually destined for three people. Oh.
“Erm, hey… So where are you from?”
And the realisation that endless stuttered small-talk is most likely less awkward than lying down and attempting to sleep, where if you turn onto your side you end up with your head 2 inches from another girls neck, who clearly feels like she has drawn the short straw and is slowly creeping into the plastic casing in-front of her.
Looking back down the bus, one thing becomes quite obvious. Everyone at the rear is a foreign backpacker, and everyone at the front is a local. In the middle, all of the pods are empty. This is either some strange coincidence, or there is some clear segregation going on. What’s more, the passengers at the front are nicely spread out with ample space between them, while we’re all crammed in like sardines.
It seems I’m not the only one who has noticed this, as a Spanish brother and sister migrate from the very rear, on a similar shelf arrangement beneath our shelf, to individual berths in the middle of the bus.
Taking the same initiative, me and Abi quickly move into a couple of pods on the upper level also.
Much better! Each pod has a little holder with a bottle of water and a toothbrush, and on the side a hook to hang the plastic bag for your shoes. There’s also a small blanket which is welcome with the level of the air conditioning, and a pillow. It just takes a bit of skill to keep the pillow safely under your head without it falling down and sticking into your back, as there’s nothing to secure it in place and what you’re lying on is essentially a slightly slippy thin piece of plastic coated foam. But we start trying to get comfortable.
“Get off my bus!” “Off! Off my bus!” comes shouts that are quickly rising to an angry crescendo as the driver hastily makes his way down to the Spanish backpackers. At first there is a general sense of confusion as to what is happening, but it quickly becomes clear that the driver is very unhappy that they have moved from their beds. The guy tries to argue his case that these pods were free, and that there is no way three people can realistically be expected to cram into the rear. This logic seems to be lost in translation though, as back-up arrives who also make their way down the bus shouting angrily.
For a while, the rest of us on the bus are unsure exactly what to do, and in fact are not really sure what exactly is happening. The confrontation escalates to the point where one of the drivers friends leans over, grabs their bags, and starts snatching them away just as they catch a hold of them from the other side. The tug-of-war happens for a few seconds, at which point the whole atmosphere is pretty tense. Considering we’re still parked up on stand A1 yet to commence our journey, this can put you a little on edge.
Ten minutes later, and we’re finally pulling out of the bus station. The Spaniards are still on the bus, but have relegated themselves back to the shelf in order to appease the driver. Somehow, we are still in our new pods. Ok, this time we have lucked out.
As we set off down the road we get our first listen to a sound we’re going to have to get used to.
“Barp!!”. “Barp Barp!”.
There’s not really any vehicle in front of the bus, but the driver seems to like pressing the horn anyway. My guess is it lets out some kind of speed boost so he is keen to keep hitting it all the way to make good time.
Unfortunately I don’t have any earplugs, but since our journey is 24 hours and we’ll be travelling pretty much non-stop, we’ve been sure to pick up some other essentials. Crisps? Check. Loo roll? Check. Water, apples? Check.
I also have my cherished travel companion, my Kindle, and a few movies saved onto Abi’s iPad. So as initial chit-chat getting to know our fellow sardines dwindles when they start to drift off into a deep, valium-induced sleep, I’m watching Little Miss Sunshine and learning random QI facts. Did you know that in the 19th and early 20th century people used to have all their teeth replaced with false ones as a popular 21st birthday present? Neither did I, and after a few more nuggets of wisdom and another movie I finally manage to drift off.
That is, until my dreams are abruptly halted by the sound of water and a squeaky sponge. Somewhat confused, Abi peels back the curtain and gives a little start to see a mop about an inch from her face, only separated by the thin sheet of glass. Despite the fact that we’ve been driving through a storm and it is in fact still raining, it seems our driver really does take pride in his bus, enough to stop the journey mid-way and give it a little clean.
As the wheels turn and the night draws on, I’m gradually able to drift back off into a light sleep despite my somewhat uncomfortable position.
The engine shuts off abruptly around 4am, and with it the coloured lights go out for the first time. We must have arrived at the Vietnam border. Outside the window a violent lightning storm is engulfing the sky and flashes of light from all around are momentarily revealing the line of other buses lined up in-front and behind us. Despite the storm we are looking forward to tasting some fresh air and stretching our legs properly for the first time in about 10 hours.
Almost 3 hours later, when the doors are finally opened, we take our final dreary eyed steps over Laos soil. Apparently despite the border not actually opening till 7am, the busses all arrive early and camp out. Guess the traffic round here in these sparsely populated hills must be a nightmare sometimes!
The crossing is the Nam Phao International Checkpoint, which lies about midway down the Laos Eastern border. A tarmac road leads up to what looks like an ornate toll both, and off to one side is a doorway into the the passport control area. A well used toilet-block stands nearby, and a few tables and chairs littered around are drenched with rain.
Inside, we pass through a small corridor until we reach two control windows, where sitting behind a sliver of glass sits a few Vietnamese officials.
Now first thing in the morning we find ourselves playing a game that a couple of Brits are destined to lose. The premise of the game is simple, take your passport and deliver it to the officer that stands a couple of meters in front of you, and collect your exit stamp. Sounds easy enough, until you factor in your competitors. For each foreign traveller attempting to secure their own stamp, there is at least one Vietnamese bus driver who is attempting to secure an early exit for all of his passengers in one swoop. Dozens of them squeeze forward into spaces you would think only a toddler could find, clutching a twined wad of 30 of so passports in his hand, whilst simultaneously thrusting them into them into the air towards the window and shouting for attention.
It’s a scene that resembles the floor of the stock exchange in Wolf of Wall Street. As foreigners we watch as our passports that eventually reach the other side of the glass form the base of a pile whose height makes it clear we’re not going anywhere soon.
After almost an hour of playing the game, it turns out our bus was collectively awful its performance. But eventually we pick up our validated passports, and are able to walk back out into the crisp morning air, and out towards Vietnam.
“Hey, that’s my bag!”
As it turns out, in the time that we’ve been waiting, our bags have already made it a little further on and are now sitting in a large pile on the roadside at the mercy of the elements. The bus driver has apparently ejected all of the bags from the bus, to initiate a somewhat pointless exercise where we now individually collect our bags and put them back on. It seems to be some kind of last minute check that every article is accounted for before we cross the border.
On the other side of the border we wait for the bus to pass through, and I enjoy my first taste of Vietnam. A polystyrene burger carton stuffed full of rice and huge slabs of squidgy tofu like meat. Sounds horrible? You’d be right. Fortunately though, this turns out to be a complete anomaly in the otherwise delights of this country’s cuisine. Guess service station food is just bad everywhere.
Back on the bus, I swap beds with Abi and can finally, almost, stretch out my legs. It turns out her bed was slightly longer, which would have been useful to find out some hours ago! This time I’m able to drift into a deep sleep for the remainder of the journey as our next country starts to pass by out the window. I’m glad we took the bus, it’s the longest ride I’ve ever taken before and aside from a few hiccups along the way, we arrived on schedule.
So after a full day mostly spent immobile, we stumble out dreary and tired into the chaotic streets of Hanoi, one adventure complete and ready for the next one. After passing out on an actual bed for another 12 hours or so, anyway.