We get up early and grab a simple breakfast of bread and eggs downstairs, we’re supposed to get picked up at 8 am and get a lift to the bus station in time for the 8:30 bus. By 8:20 no one has shown up and we’re starting to get pretty worried but a little minibus shows up. We load our gear into the back behind the last row of seats and cram into the thing, already a few people in there and it’s a tight squeeze. We drive around the corner and stop 45 seconds later. Are we picking someone up? What’s going on here? Oh, we’re getting off? The bus station was literally less than 200 meters from our hotel. It took longer to load our gear and ourselves on and off than it would to just walk there.
A few bus employees are loading gear into the bus’ storage compartments from the side facing the street while cars and scooters are zipping past honking, we squeeze in while watching our backs to load our gear in. There’s one compartment that seems to be mostly boxes of fruit, that’s where we want to throw our shit but the guys won’t let us, they make us put our stuff into another compartment that has a motorcycle laying on it’s side next to our stuff. It isn’t tied down at all, just lying in there loose. We’ve got a six-hour drive while it can bash the crap out of our bags, get grease on our stuff or leak oil all over the place. Gaaah.
As we’re getting on we’re forced to remove our shoes and place them in garbage bags we take to the seats with us. The bus is three rows of sleepers, we’re on the top level at the very front. Drisdelle gets the driver-side window, Murphy gets the passenger side and I luck out with the middle one. Not as easy to see anything but it means I have more elbow room. I don’t have a ladder however, so I have to climb Murphy’s ladder and throw myself across into my bed.
We’re moving and it’s excruciating. It’s through tight city roads where we’re hardly moving at all and the driver is blasting the horn at least once every five seconds. Scooter 50 feet ahead of us? BLLLAAARRRR. Oh, we’re within 25 feet now? BLAAAARRRRR. The scooter’s actually gotten off the road but the bus driver’s just letting him know he’s passing? BLLLAAAAAARRRR BLLLAAARRRR BLAAARRRR. The thing is so loud we can feel the vibrations throughout our seats. Surely it’ll get better once we get out of town and onto the open roads though…
We come to a boomgate and a dozen-plus vendors jump aboard selling all kinds of snacks, I grab a bag of hard-boiled quail eggs that come with a packet of salt & pepper for seasoning and we all grab some more water. They’re pretty delicious but I make a complete mess of my sleeper with pieces of eggshell. We don’t know what a lot of the stuff they’re selling is but they’re reluctant to take no for an answer, if you make eye contact they’ll just stand under you and point and yell no matter how many times you say no or indicate you want nothing.
In addition to the incessant horn-blaring – which, granted, does stop when we’re at the gate – we’re also graced with having a big-screen TV in front of us playing really, really bad Vietnamese ballads. Every song is by the same chick, or if she’s not going solo she’s part of a duet or a girl group. Regardless of the crew, they sounded pretty much the same. Every song is also invariably Celine Dion-level over-the-top emotional but somehow the singer only has three facial expressions over the three-hour span we watch her, a) tilted head to the side with a sweet expression in her eyes, b) staring pensively into the distance, over the viewer’s shoulder, and c) head and eyes pointed downward overcome with the feels.
Adding to the cacophony of annoyance is the bus driver’s phlegm. He’s more or less chain smoking the entire trip but he spends the intervals between cigarettes bringing up goop from the deepest recesses of his lungs, dragging along copious amounts of throat slime on the way, before blasting it out the window at a volume that puts our singer to shame.
They raise the gate and we see what it was for – our bus is rolling onto a ferry to cross a river. Shortly before we’d arrived here we’d heard on the news that a ferry had capsized, drowning 20+ people and we were kind of confused how that could happen. I suppose if you’re stuck on a bus while it’s going down it’d be pretty damned easy to drown.
Drisdelle’s window is something of an emergency exit, there’s a little hammer there to bust out the glass but the hammer itself is zip-tied into the holder, it’d be impossible to get it out unless you had a jackknife at the ready. The boys decide to go out onto the deck but it’s pretty cramped out there, I’m at the front of the bus and bigger than everyone else so if there’s trouble I reckon I can cannonball my way out to safety.
We’ve been driving for over two hours and still haven’t hit a freeway. We’re out of the city now but we’re on a narrow country road and the horn blasting isn’t abating. Drisdelle has his headphones in with loud techno music drowning out the chaos to the point he’s fallen asleep but both Murphy and myself have pounding headaches. It’s all so much that we can’t even hold a conversation, I try to get a word out and it gets cut off, stop and try again and I’m cut off again, now I can’t even remember what I was saying. What the fuck.
Reprieve comes as we hit a rest stop for a half-hour piss and food break. Nothing looks too appealing but Drisdelle gets some red and green berries with a seasoning pack and I grab the local rip-off version of Pringles, they’re nothing to write home about despite me doing so at the moment. We’re standing in front of the bus commenting on the guy’s honking when right on queue he blasts us with one. He’s trying to move forward further into the parking spot.
Back on the bus and nothing has changed, if anything he’s increased the frequency of the horn to Gatling Gun-esque levels. The music has been replaced with a series of live stage recordings that are possibly the worst form of entertainment I’ve ever seen. Fair enough, I don’t speak Vietnamese, but the actors in these skits have a range of emotion that includes extreme anger, crying their eyes out, and a complaining nasal whine best compared with the demon step-child of Gilbert Gottfried and Fran Drescher. They’ll talk for thirty seconds then just fucking scream at each other, usually with a guy threatening to smack one of the female actors. The crowd is occasionally shown to be chuckling but no one on the bus is so I don’t think our hatred is purely cultural/linguistic ignorance, I’m reasonably confident it’s actually just shit.
After six hours of honking, yelling and coughing up phlegm we’re thankfully off the bus. It’s hot as hell and there’s no taxi to be seen anywhere but thank god we’re off that bus. No more buses in Vietnam.
We’re not really sure where we are so we just walk beside a stinky river for a while until we come across a minivan with a taxi light on the top. He’s really friendly, the van is AC’d but most important he manages to drive without constantly blasting his horn at everything. It’s glorious.
Our guy drops us at the Hideout Hostel for a very reasonable price and we head in and bring up our reservation on Murphy’s phone. They have no record of us in the system, weird. Turns out they run a second hostel three minutes down the road called the Hangout Hostel and that’s the one we’re booked for. No problem, we stroll down the streets and find it.
The streets are way more hectic than Chau Doc but likewise we aren’t getting hassled by anyone, there’s action all around us, chickens in cages, people selling street food, drunk white people, neon lights guiding us to places where we can also become drunk white people, this city looks really, really promising. We get into our hostel, hike up a few sets of stairs to our 12-bed dorm room, toss our shit on the bed and head downstairs to get some beers before the 9 pm pub crawl kicks off.