After taking several night buses up the coast of Vietnam, I knew that the times stated meant nothing. When your Vietnamese travel agent says it takes 10 hours, you can add on another 5. So when I booked the bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang and the man told me 24 hours, I knew it would be a bit longer. But little did I know that it would actually take an epic 38 hours (24 of them without food) to get there.
I’m sitting on the back of a sleeper bus somewhere between Vietnam and the Laos border- I don’t know where I am because all I can see is endless countryside out of the window. I’m hungry, so hungry that my stomach is gradually eating itself. My friend and I are sharing the back of the bus with 3 other backpackers, who are all munching on snacks of Pringles and other treats. But not us. No. We assumed that like all other buses in Vietnam there would be some food stops at local restaurants where you find only one thing on the menu; pho (that’s noodle soup to me and you). This overland bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, however, is clearly taking us through the middle of nowhere.
And of course, when you are in the middle of nowhere, the chances of stopping at a restaurant are slim. The driver does, however, make many stops to pick up strange packages, boxes and bags of grain that are placed under the beds and the floor. It wouldn’t surprised me if the whole bus was filled with cocaine and heroin.
At least we have good company, and soon we are all sharing the usual backpacker tales of drunken injuries and random sexual encounters.
The bus journey rolls on, and I pass the time by
taking lots of sleeping tablets, reading my Kindle and watching a movie on my laptop. Occasionally we make stops for the men to pee, but the females stay on board as none of us are equipped with a shewee and we don’t feel like crouching down by the side of the road. At this point I am refusing to consume water for fear of needing the loo and so instead I sit there gradually dying of thirst.
Eventually the following day, having had no evening meal or breakfast, we screech to a halt at what we assume is the Laos border, but no-one really knows. We stand there and wait, but there are no officials to collect our passport. No-one quite knows what is going on, and the only thing on my mind is “Please please please let there be a Western toilet”. No such luck. Instead I am presented with 2 options- a loo which has now overflown and is flooding the entire cubicle, or a dark room with a hole in the floor and urine everywhere. I choose the latter and make sure I use plenty of hand sanitizer afterwards.
When I emerge from the bathroom it becomes apparent that the Vietnamese officials have arrived and we can hand over our passports to get stamped out of the country. Yippee!
Next we go to the Laos side, where we must purchase our visas with US dollar. My Canadian friend asks why her visa is more expensive than for people with Australian/UK passports (Canada $42/UK $35/Australia $30), and the official replies “Because it is more expensive for visa when we come to your country”. Fair enough. Some of us are ill-prepared and have forgotten to bring enough US dollars, which results in everybody standing around trying to club together to pay in a mixture of Vietnamese Dong and US dollar.
I am one of the last people in the line to collect my passport, so I hurry back to the bus. I am sitting there for a while when the bus driver walks through the aisle asking if anyone has forgotten to get an entry stamp. I check my passport and realise I am the silly one. I haven’t realised that I need to go round the corner and get it stamped- and not having it stamped can apparently lead to an arrest or a large fine. So I scuttle off the bus and feel thankful that the bus driver has realised this before we depart.
Once stamped and officially inside the country, I come back to the bus. Except I am not allowed back on it because the bus needs to be searched. I don’t know what these Laos officials are looking for, but it may have something to do with the ridiculous number of suspicious looking packages that we are
smuggling transporting across the border. We seem to get the ‘OK’ and now we can put our dirty flip flops into plastic bags again and hop back on board. I ask the driver if we will stop for lunch and he has no idea what I am saying, so I mime the action of eating like I’m Oliver Twist shovelling down a bowl of gruel. The driver holds his hands up and counts on his fingers, indicating that we will eat in maybe another 4 hours…eek.
We sit there in the parking area for what feels like an eternity, and I look out of the window at the Vietnamese bus crew having some sort of debate over a problem I know nothing about. Eventually the engine starts up and we make our way towards Luang Prabang, the bus swaying from side to side as we wind through the hills.
We travel all day until the evening, when eventually the driver announces our first food break, 24 hours later. I am elated and will eat just about anything at this point, so I am watering at the mouth when I hear there is delicious pad thai on the menu. I pop next door to stock up on Pringles and cookies, and they let me pay in Vietnamese Dong, although they are killing me on the exchange rate. After inhaling my food, we are back on the bus and I am suddenly in a much more positive mood.
As I chat to my fellow comrades I realise that some of them have booked a ticket to Vang Vieng, which confuses me somewhat because my friend and I had been told there is no direct bus that goes to Vang Vieng. So we had decided to skip it since the tubing has been shut down and we were short on time. I look at a map, and from the direction were are traveling in, Vang Vieng is clearly not en route to Luang Prabang. Perplexed, I assume that I must know nothing and the travel agents/bus drivers must know something I don’t.
Eventually at around midnight, some of my new friends are told to disembark the bus in ‘Vang Vieng’…or so they think. We continue onwards to Luang Prabang, and gradually I drift into a deep sleep. Between 3 and 4am, I open one eye and realise we are stationary. The bus is pitch black and all is quiet except for the sound of a few people snoring. The windows have fogged up, but we are clearly in a parking lot. I realise we must be in Luang Prabang, but because it is the middle of the night, they are letting us sleep. What option would we have if we got off the bus? There are no tuk tuks at this time of night, and the guesthouses in Luang Prabang close at midnight because of the curfew.
The bus feels eerie so I go back to sleep, until eventually we are woken up at around 6am. A solid 38 hours later, we are in Luang Prabang, and we all sleepily haggle on the price for a tuk tuk into town (it’s hard to remember now since I was in such a daze, but I think we agreed on 1 dollar per person).
Later that day we bump into some of our new friends walking by the Mekong river and arrange to meet up at Utopia for a few drinks to celebrate our survival. We soon learn that the friends we dropped off in ‘Vang Vieng’ had actually been dropped off at the junction between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, so they were basically dropped off in the middle of nowhere 100 km from their actual destination. With no way of getting there since it was the middle of the night and the village was deserted, they ended up having to hitch hike to Luang Prabang! One of the boys in their group spoke a little Chinese, and they manage to find a driver who spoke a little Chinese that could give them a ride.
If I ever have to travel overland from Vietnam to Laos again, I’m flying! If you’re contemplating taking the bus from Vietnam to Laos, ask yourself whether you really need to save the cash. If this is all you can afford and you have the time to do it, then I say go with the bus option, but be in for a very long ride and stock up on plenty of food/drink. If you can stretch your budget a little, I would really recommend flying to save yourself the hassle.
However, it made for a good story, and gave us all the more reason to
drink ourselves into a coma celebrate at the bowling alley when we got to Luang Prabang!