Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ride to nowhere

The bus that’s taking us to Vietnam looks like a 60’s-era VW van: blue, white and rectangular, with vinyl seats. A rock wedged behind the front tire poses as a parking brake. A large sign in its cracked windshield announces the buses’ destination: “VINH,” a city on Vietnam’s eastern coast.

At a bus station in Luang Prabang, the ancient Buddhist city in northern Laos, we meet our new ridemates. First onboard were two Londoners, only 2 weeks into their very first multi-month overseas trip, and not yet cynical. Hannah wore a stylish scarf set off against a grey beer t-shirt; her boy-faced boyfriend, Tom, acted as innocent as he looked.

Broad-shouldered, barrel-chested Dave came on the bus next; though British, he was loud and excitable enough to be mistaken for an Aussie. He took a strong liking to Sally, the elegant, beautiful brunette riding back to her home in Hanoi, where she worked as an English teacher. Sally was polite, good-humored, friendly – in short, a real Minnesotan. There’s just no such thing as an unpleasant Minnesotan.

The cast of characters assembled – Hannah, Tom, Dave, Sally, and of course, Sara and I. Three Brits, three Americans, on a bus packed with Laotian men, all men, all heading for Vinh, Vietnam. We Westerners compared notes on how much we paid for our tickets – “I got quoted 220,000 kip by three different agencies, so that’s what I paid” – “Really? I only got charged 190,000” – and we contrasted how long we had been told the bus ride would take.

“We heard 13 to 17 hours,” Hannah said.

“They told me 22 hours,” Dave replied.

We place bets. Sally says we’ll reach Vinh by 11 a.m. the following day. I guess we’ll get in by 2 p.m.

Two Laotian men edge onto the bus, heaving a washer between them. This is a real, industrial washer – a Toshiba brand top-loader. As in, “washer and dryer,” but without the dryer.

Why they were carrying this contraption onto a bus was beyond me; certainly, I thought, there must be better ways to ship a washer.

The men knocked through the aisles, banging against seats and tripping over loose straps as they inched their way to the back of the bus, washer hoisted at chest level. Then they found the pile of backpacks we had dumped onto a seat and dumped the washer unceremoniously on top. It balanced precariously atop the amorphous blob of backpacks. I prayed the driver wouldn’t brake suddenly and send the washer flying.

Sally got out to have a cigarette and the washer-loading men begin to tease her. “Hey, what you do?” they mock. “What that?” Laos is a country where pretty women don’t smoke in public. They must wonder how she’ll ever find a husband.

The bus driver turns the ignition, forcing Sally to abandon her cigarette and rush back inside the bus. We pulled out of the station, rounded the corner, pulled off to the side of the street, and parked. We were 200 feet from the bus station, and we were stuck.

The Westerners had no idea what was happening, as usual. We did the only thing we could do: crack jokes. Sara looked out the window at a tailor shop across the street and quipped that we could really take advantage of this delay. “Anyone need to take your pants in?”

After an hour (“I think your 22-hour prediction was closer to the mark, Dave,”) we finally figured out WHY we had stopped: we were waiting for someone to load a motorcycle onto the bus.

After an hour of sitting by the roadside, someone pulled up on a 150 cc motobike and a gaggle of men loaded it onto the bus, balancing it in the aisle. The stench of gasoline filled the air. We’ll be riding with this fuel-soaked fellow passanger until someone discovers delivery trucks and towing.

90 minutes after our departure from the bus station, we finally leave the street we had started from. An uneventful hour passed, then another. We jumbled in our seats, vibrating from the shock of every rock and pothole on the road.

I tried to get some shut-eye, but the armrests wouldn’t rise, making for a fitful night’s rest. I looked at a nearby Laotian to see how the locals handled it. He was drinking whiskey through a straw from a plastic bag. Soon he had conked out.

We Westerners, the sober ones, were all awake at 2:30 a.m. when the bus pulled to a stop at a small town near the Laotian border. We had reached a small village, too tiny to have stores, shops or streetlights. All the other passangers were heading inside a private house. I followed them in, entering a bare, furniture-less room that held a gas stove in one corner and a TV tuned to soccer on the opposite wall. A lady was stirring ramen noodles over the gas stove, and scooping it into bowls for each bus passenger who approached.

The Westerners hung back, unsure whether this was included or whether it costs money. We had all spent our last Laotian kip before leaving. Since kip is a non-convertible currency, we didn’t want to carry it to Vietnam; it’s useless once we cross the border. As a result, all of us had empty wallets. We wanted to ask if the noodles would cost anything, but no one knew enough of the language. It’s a situation we get into a lot while traveling. Finally, we accepted the noodles. We were in a private house, after all. (Sure enough, no one asked for payment).

Sally stepped outside the house and lit another cigarette. A Laotian guy approached her and flashed a trading card – like a baseball card – featuring a naked white woman. She laughed nervously, like a polite Minnesotan.

We piled back onto the bus. The driver asked if anyone else wants a turn at the wheel.

Someone begins to drive, but the bus can’t handle the curves and slopes of the mountainous roads that separate Laos from Vietnam, and we chug along at 10 miles per hour. At 6:30 a.m., we make it to the border and everyone troops into the station to get their Laos Exit Stamp. We notice that most of the Laotian men, our fellow bus passangers, are now wearing helmets. Little green helmets.

“Do they know something we don’t?” Hannah asked.

Sara approached one of them and gestured at the helmet. The man motioned back that it keeps him warm.

We get stamped out of Laos, walk 200 yards across the no-mans-land borderplex, get stamped into Vietnam, and embark on our lumbering journey again. Around noon, we pulled into a little town for lunch.

“I think this town’s called Nokia Samsung,” Dave said, looking at all the ads. It was astounding how a place too small for a traffic light could carry so many cell-phone ads.

A bowl of noodles later, we’re back on the bus, and predicting that we’ll reach Vinh within 3 or 4 hours. We were half right. We were 3 to 4 hours from our destination. But the bus driver had no intention of stopping at the correct destination.

Instead, he pulled over about 20 minutes north of Vinh and ordered all the Westerners to get out. “You’re close enough,” he said, and then he got out of the bus himself, joined by a woman who I assume was his mother, a shrill lady with a pushy attitude who corralled us off the bus. Someone else took hold of the wheel and the bus continued north up the highway without us.

The shrill lady pointed us six Westerners, now stranded and penniless, towards a barn across the street. We all followed her in and then waited, unattended, in the barn for 20 minutes. Finally a man emerged, wielding a butcher knife in one hand and a green mango in the other. “Hanoi?” he asked. Sara, Sally and I – three of the six Westerners who intended to continue toward Hanoi – nodded yes. The other three, who intended to stay in Vinh, shook their heads no.

He pointed the knife toward the barn door and shook it. “Go,” he said, leading the way. Sara, Sally and I walked outside and saw that he was gesturing us to sit in his private car. “Hanoi.”

“How much?” I asked. The shrill lady, presumably the matriarch, grabbed my backpack off the floor and began putting it in the backseat.

“No,” I said, and wrested my backpack out of her grip. “How much?”

“150,000,” the guy replied.

“Too much,” I said, and Sally, Sara and I walked across the street and flagged down a passing minibus.

“How much are you paying to Hanoi?” Sally asked in clear Vietnamese to the passanger in the front seat. The man with the butcher knife and mango appeared behind her and said something in angry, rapid-fire Vietnamese to the passanger. The passanger paused and replied to Sally, “150,000.”

“He told you to say that,” Sally rolled her eyes. I distracted Butchie while she walked off and asked the same question, in Vietnamese, to a passanger sitting in the back of the minibus who hadn’t heard the exchange. Thank God we have her around, I thought.

“It’s 90,000,” she called to us. “Get in. I have Vietnamese dong. I’ll spot you until we get to an ATM in Hanoi.”

We loaded in. The man with the knife sat in the driver’s seat and began cruising north. I wondered who had been in the drivers’ seat before. Had he gotten out? Or was he a passanger now? And who would have driven this minibus if we had gone in the private car with Butchie? I just don’t understand the world of southeast Asian public transportation, other than that its filled with cronyism and cartels.

Our bus ambled down the highway, passing motorcycles with live pigs tied to the back, snorting and wheezing as they hung, upside-down, by the tailpipe. We passed a pickup truck with a two-story cat and dog cage filling the truck bed. We knew those cats and dogs were on their way to being someone’s dinner. It’s as common a dish as chicken here.

The three of us chatted all the way to Hanoi, and paused several times to think about our other half – Hannah, Dave and Tom, the three that got dumped only 20 minutes shy of Vinh. We knew they had no money on them, and the highway was too remote to have ATMs. The closest ATM, ironically, was at the bus station in Vinh. We hoped they’d be okay.

That’s the thing about bus transportation in these countries. Even when the ticket you buy is for “Vinh,” and the bus is clearly labeled “Vinh” on its destination sign, there’s still no guarentee it’ll get to where its going. If the bus driver is related to someone along the way, he can force you out of the bus, force you to buy a service from his brother, to complete the journey.

All you can do is note the absurdity of it. Make friends with a few Brits and a Minnesotan. And crack jokes. Anyone need their pants hemmed?