42 Hour Trip From Hell

Backpackers are always eager to share their recently acquired "expertise" about such and such country. Getting ready to leave Laos we heard alot about Vietnam, mostly pretty negative, my favourite: "the Vietnamese are liars and bastards". The problem apparently lies in their inheritant desire to screw over foreign tourists, charging them triple or quadruple the usual price, or actually downright lying and stealing. Not that this is uncommon in other countries, but apparently the Vietnamese have mastered the technique of being completely unreasonable.

Despite popular opinion, we couldn't pass up Vietnam of all places! We bought a bus ticket from our Vientiane hostel, that would take us over the border to Vinh, Vietnam. The bus ride is commonly referred to as the "bus ride from hell" but we couldn't seem to find any other (cheap) way of getting to Vietnam. After an early dinner we waited outside our hostel for our "free pick-up" to arrive. It showed up 45 minutes late and dropped us off at the local bus station, confirming our suspicion that we could have bought the tickets ourselves.

The first sign of trouble was the agressive bus drivers (there were three of them) along with some lunatic woman who hurried us to the seats in the back of the bus where they had piled all their rice sacks, chairs, luggage... (to give themselves some leg room). Thankfully Yann objected and grabbed us comfortable seats at the front that were being reserved for the possibility thatVietnamese passengers might arrive. Meanwhile the lunatic woman yelled and paced back and forth through the aisle, for really no apparent reason. Yann quickly befriended the two men sitting next to us: two Vietnamese monks returning from a pilgrimage through Thailand, Burma and Laos. Despite his terrible English, the younger of the two monks, 39 years old, (who I will refer to as young monk) was extremely eager to talk to Yann. Actually I think young monk fell in love with Yann. We had our first ally.

After multiple long, dragged out stops, where the bus drivers and their entourage would pig out while we were overcharged for a bottle of water, we arrived at a large restaurant. By this time it was past 2 a.m. and we got off the bus to stretch and pee then the foreigners (about half the bus) loaded back onto the bus, to eagerly continue the trip. About 15 minutes later, someone noticed that the restaurant doors were closed, all the lights were off, and the bus drivers and company had all dissapeared. Any locals still remaining in the bus had reclined their seats and were sleeping. After some laughing and worrying, we concluded we were sitting near the Lao border waiting for it to open. Our bus crew was sleeping in the restaurant (and hotel, so we learned) while we attempted to sleep in the bus. Its important to note that we were now considerably high up in the mountains and it was damn cold. Most of us were still dressed for Vientiane weather. Despite the cold we might have been able to sleep, if it weren't for the pair of drunk, loud, rude Vietnamese guys behind us, who had opted not to pay for a hotel room (we were never given the option). I wont even get into how much they were assholes, its frustrating just writing about it.

By 6 a.m. our monks had joined us, and young monk seemed sad to learn that we had spent the night in the bus. (This didn't stop him from describing his thick warm blankets in considerable detail for someone who can't speak English) He pulled out his bag of offerings that he had collected on his trip and began to feed us. He handed me handfulls of cookies, cakes, fruits and when I enthousiastically thanked him he got serious expression on his face "No! It's for Yann!". He spent the rest of the morning singing to Yann or sending him loving glances.

We joined a queue of other buses crossing the border into Vietnam. All the passengers rushed to the immigration office to get our passports stamped by the Lao authorities. The Lao stamping process involves hundreds of people forcing their way to a small glass window and throwing their passports through the slit. Passports are handed from the back and forced towards the front as people yell and push, the most ridiculous line I heard was "please, let me through, I only have one". To get your passport stamped a little bit quicker, you can throw it towards the window with 10,000 kip in it. The scene is absolutely chaotic, Yann sat in the lounge watching tv and left me with the two passports. Young monk similarly sat down and let old monk (60+) get their stamps. The Vietnamese stamping process was slightly less chaotic, but equally annoying, as the border guards demanded "fees" from each foreigner.By the time everyone on our bus had gone through the stamping process, more than two hours had passed. Seventeen hours after our departure we arrived in Vinh and were dumped on the side of the highway as the rest of the passengers continued their ride to Hanoi. We were greeted by the Vinh motorbike touts, eagerly awaiting us. Since we had no idea where we were, it was pretty hard to negotiate a price for a ride anywhere, so we continuously brushed them off as they tried to offer us rides on their motos. We decided we wanted to head to the train station to book tickets to Hanoi for the next day. They offered us a ride there for 30,000 dong each, which seemed high, even though we were untrained in dealing with Vietnamese dongs (not the motorbike drivers, the currency!). After following us down the street for five minutes or so, they agreed to drive us to the train station that was "very very far" for 10,000 each. Meanwhile we watched the other couple that had been dropped off in Vinh get into a taxi, also heading to the train station. We agreed to the motorbike rides. I was scared, I had never been on a motorbike before and I had my heavy backpack pulling me backwards. I had remembered my aunt Marie-Ange telling me that she had burnt her leg the first time she rode on a motorbike, so instead of putting my feet on the foot rests (which I couldn't find anyways) I stuck my legs out beside me as far as I could manage. I balanced precariously with only my crotch supporting all my weight on the seat. When we got to the train station about 5 minutes later, we got out our 20,000 to pay, and surprise surprise, the drivers accused us of cheating them out of another 20,000 "that we had agreed upon". We stood our ground despite one of the drivers pushing Yann and making a big scene. We turned our back to them and walked into the train station gates. Neither of them followed, the intimidation routine hadn't worked this time.

Not feeling so keen anymore about staying in Vinh, we booked a train ticket to Hanoi, a six hour ride. Three hours later we embarked on to the Reunification Express, the train linking Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city. A brand new train with television sets, confortable seats, and even an on board meal included in the price of the ticket. At the train station we met a young woman from Hanoi who was keen to talk to us and spent a good part of the train ride in our cabin. Before parting ways in Hanoi, she gave us her phone number and made us promise to come over to her place for dinner while we were in Hanoi.The train pulled into Hanoi in the evening and we still wanted to get to Sapa in North Western Vietnam. Our train from Vinh pulled in right as the train to Sapa was leaving. Instead of going to the ticket counter, we were ushered suspiciously to the Sapa train where we could "purchase tickets" from the train attendants. For the price of a first class ticket (which would not have purchased), we were each led to an attendants private cabin. By passing up their bed they can make a quick 250,000 dong each. Although our beds were comfortable and quiet, we slept uneasily, wondering if they would charge us more upon arriving in Sapa. They made some kind of attempt to charge Yann more, but they had written the price in our notebook, so they didn't make too much of a fuss.

The rail line doesn't actually bring you all the way to Sapa, only to Lao Cai. From Lao Cai, there is still a one hour mini-bus ride to Sapa. As you get off the train, dozens of tourist minibuses await, ready to sell you a ticket to Sapa. What they try to prevent you from doing, is walking 200 m to the local bus station to buy your own ticket for half the price. One tout told us that the bus station had closed, and the other told us that it was 5 km away. Of course at 5:30 a.m. most people don't really feel like exploring the dark streets to find the local bus station in order to save less than 1 U.S dollar. Yann and I did though! Actually, we waited for the sun to rise so that we could walk to the only ATM in town to get money before we got to Sapa. We walked the 3 km to the ATM (with a few emergency bathroom stops for me) and back to the local bus station where we haggled to get the local price for our bus to Sapa. We didn't get the local price, but we did get a cheaper price than the minibus, so we were somewhat content. We arrived in Sapa at around 10 a.m. 42 hours after we had left Vientiane. By then I was going to the bathroom every few minutes, having difficulty retaining even water. I went to bed and slept for 24 hours while Yann explored Sapa.We spent 3 days in Sapa, renting a motorbike and running away from handicraft sellers. When we arrived back in Hanoi we had an e-mail from our friend who we met on the train from Vinh. She had invited us for dinner that very night. She came into downtown Hanoi with her friend, and we motorbiked out to her home in the outskirts of Hanoi. She had prepared a veritable feast complete with springrolls, beef, fish, veggies, soup... She had also invited her family members and friends. We ate and drank beer and were welcomed like old friends. We had a wonderful time and felt that we had disproved all the backpackers who said that the Vietnamese weren't welcoming.


2par4 said...

That feast at the end looks absolutely yummy (mmmm....vietnamese food). Love the new Sapa photos (dazzling colour) and your Best of China album.

Congrats on 100 DAYS of travel! Woohoo!

Super-Mario said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Super-Mario said...


le vie n'est pas plus facile au Canada lorsque tu passes les douanes.
Un ignorant (douanier) à la sortie de l'avion vérifiant pour les ressortissants m'a fait attendre jusqu'à il est vérifié tous les passagers de l'avion. Son prétexte était que je parlais (en français) au téléphone et que ceci lui avait donné certaine difficulté à ce concentrer. Bien que plusieurs passagers ont fait la même chose par la suite mais en anglais. Je dois préciser que je passais la douane à Toronto dont l'ignorant (# 15015) était un unilingue anglais.
À la fin je lui dit ma façon de penser en français mais sa réponse était que les douaniers bilingues étaient à l'autre étage.
Je vais poursuivre la chose un peu plus loin.
Une fois que j'ai officiellement passer la douane. Il attendait à l'extérieur sachant qu'il était ignorant ce fois je lui dit ma façon de penser en anglais qui m'a fait rappeler mes beaux jours du hockey. La frustration était si élevée que je me foutais des conséquences.
L'ignorant a le numéro 15015, il n'a pas voulu me donner son nom.

La morale de cette histoire quand vous passez les douanes nous avons beaucoup trop d'ignorants qui abusent de leur pouvoir. Il faut toujours faire attention. Je suis convaincu que le Vietnam n'est pas pire que le Canada que l'on dit développé. Je dirais développé d'ignorants. Ceci était mon retour de Turin, Italie. La conférence sur la médecine du sport des Jeux Universitaire d'hiver était bien intéressante.
En revenant à mon incident, nous parlons beaucoup d'accommodement "raisonnable" au Canada. Nous ne sommes même pas capable de s'accommoder entre la culture anglais et français.

Hey! les politiciens réveillez-vous!

Bon Voyage

Margox said...

Hmmm, well the food looks amazing for sure. So, um, since I'm about to fly out to Vietnam to join you guys, um, I'm looking forward to hearing what your further experiences match more, your bus ride or your new friend's hospitality!

Margox said...

Oh, yeah, and way to go for the 100 days, too!