Traveling overland: musings from a 24-hour bus ride

Text and photos by Jesse Pizarro Boga

Travelers walk through the border, entering Laos through the Namphao International Checkpoint.
Travelers walk through the border, entering Laos through the Namphao International Checkpoint.

Cau Treo Border Pass – It is 3 a.m. and it is cold.

Our cramped sleeping bus en route back to Hanoi has come to a full stop, along with other buses that drove from Vientiane, Laos to Central Vietnam provinces.

The glass windows of the bus is covered in moist, making it impossible for me to see what it is like outside without wiping it with my musty blanket.

Whispers, coughs, and loud snores of half-awake and sleeping passengers alike are the only sounds that can be heard.

Someone from the other end of the bus has lit up a torch from his phone, beaming light against the silhouettes of reclined chairs and water bottles.

I’m expecting someone to light up a cigarette anytime soon; the temperature will continue to drop.

This scene will go on for the next few hours, until the border and immigration offices open at 7 a.m.

I am starting to have a headache – I can’t believe I have mustered enough guts and patience to take the same route back to Hanoi.

The journey in that route is what other backpackers refer to as the ride to hell.

Holding my pee (or avoiding sips in my water bottle to avoid such problem) is just one of the many things that I, among most whiny European and American backpackers, have to deal with.

And I can completely justify my whining against the fact that I signed up for the cheapest way to travel across countries. ( notes that Vietnam has over a dozen international overland border crossings covering neighboring countries China, Cambodia, and Laos).

To and fro

What did I expect from a 25-dollar bus ride? I had signed an unwritten agreement covering a number of things the moment I decided to say yes and handed my money to a travel agent.

I was going to be seated in a reclining chair that looked far different from what was shown in a picture in the booking office. I was going to deal with ruthless Vietnamese bus drivers. I was going to mourn over the death of the meaning of “VIP” and “comfortable” when used in a sentence “the VIP bus is going to be comfortable.” I was going to be deprived of personal space and sleep. I was going to breath air that comes out of a dusty airconditioning machine.

I was going to hold my pee and wait for bathroom breaks to be decided by the bus crew, the most powerful of men by virtue of control.

I was also going to be mandated to use an old musty blanket that didn’t appear to be washed for the past week.

And that was just the beginning of the ride (this story mentions slants about the bus ride to and fro the Hanoi-Vientiane route; one way covers 790 kilometers through elevations and slopes for more for than 24 hours).

Travelers walk an estimated 700 meters from the Laos to Vietnam immigration offices, through the fog.
Travelers walk an estimated 700 meters from the Laos to Vietnam immigration offices, through the fog.

As the bus descended down the city of Vinh in Vietnam, en route to the Cau Treo border, our situation (okay, my situation) became less bearable.

I couldn’t drink water to relieve my sore throat (because then I will have to deal with bathroom breaks). I had to deal with the uncertainty whether the bus was really going to have a stopover for a late dinner. And my phone was running out of battery; when it dies I’d have nothing in my bag to amuse me throughout the trip.

It was getting cold. The shaky bus woke most of the passengers when a bus crew plugged in the DVD player and started playing music videos on a large TV screen near the driver. The audio was in full volume and also woke up an English-speaking Asian diva whom I will henceforth refer to as Ms. Universe.

“Can you lower the volume? Excuse me. Hey. Mister. Can you lower the volume?” she called.

The Vietnamese bus crew was apathetic. He dismissed the girl’s plea and sat on his chair.

My travel buddies Lorie and Amor and I weren’t so bothered by the music. Ms. Universe, after all, also signed the bus agreement like everyone else.

The night went on with tacky Vietnamese music videos playing loudly.

I closed my eyes for a bit and ended up sleeping until 4 a.m.

No air, no air

By then, I was feeling a bit dizzy. The bus felt like it was moving very slowly (was it on autopilot?). It was very cold. The air that I was breathing seemed very thick.

It was only when I woke up that I realized what was happening.

The bus had stopped, along with other buses, in the border. The vehicle was sealed to prevent cold air from coming in.

And the bus crew? Yeah. They were smoking INSIDE to keep themselves warm.

Ms. Universe woke up with me and called the smokers to open the door for some air. She did so with her strong American accent.

A guy by the door answered her request but changed his mind after he realized what he’s done (and after seeing the diva go back to sleep).

He let cold air in and caused everyone inside to freeze more.

I was tolerant of the cold. The others weren’t.

Our cue to leave the bus for immigration offices came in the form of incessant Vietnamese rumblings (I should work on my foreign language listening skills). We all had to walk in the cold, into the thick fog, under the rain (okay, maybe it was just drizzling) to get our passports stamped.

The queues in the Vietnamese embassy didn’t appear like they were queues at all. The Vietnamese were pacing back and forth the counters and handing money and passports to the officers in uniform.

I couldn’t distinguish fog from cigarette from water vapor in the air. I was freezing and I was just breathing them all in.

Buses stop at the Cau Treo Border, waiting for the immigration offices to open at 7 a.m.
Buses stop at the Cau Treo Border, waiting for the immigration offices to open at 7 a.m.

I couldn’t complain. Everyone else was breathing the same air and the best way to get through it was to do our time. I was lucky that I didn’t get to experience what other Western travelers went through: being held up by non-English speaking officers and charged a ridiculous amount of money for an unidentifiable visa problem.

After some 15 minutes, we had gotten our passports stamped (and mine marked with a red pen) by Vietnamese officers.

We were ready for our next task: a long walk to the Laos immigration in the Namphao International Checkpoint.

Ms. Universe tagged along with us and the rest of the Aussie backpackers. After we had our passports processed (hooray for the ASEAN lane!), we gathered under the shade near the toilet and restaurant.

By then, everyone was smoking to keep warm. I pretended to smoke with the vapor coming out of my mouth (yeah, I’m cool like that).

When my stomach called for breakfast, I needed and stuffed myself with fake porridge that I bought using Lao Kip that I had exchanged for some Vietnamese Dong at the border.

I was tired and sleepy. But I couldn’t sleep. I never get to sleep whenever I travel. And the worse part is that I wasn’t exactly sure when we’d arrive in Vientiane.

Somewhere along the road, I learned to compromise.

During a bus stop over, after bathroom breaks, folks from another bus started to board ours – with their big bags and boxes (cue in chickens in cages and I can start filming for a movie). I was told their bus broke down and had no choice but to join our ride to Vientiane.

One guy kept coughing. One girl threw up. Another couldn’t stop sneezing. There was only one way to cope with the situation and that was to join them – by farting.

The situation couldn’t possibly get any worse if everyone will just go down and dirty. Traveling (especially on budget) teaches people to always pack a good amount of resilience, paracetamol, and a 1500mAh power bank.

I kept complaining to Lorie that I was going to take a plane to go back to Hanoi. I didn’t want to experience the hassle and the long uncomfortable bus ride again.

I changed my mind.

There’s something about cramped vehicles and long crappy rides that make me understand life lessons. Sometimes, people just have to give way and some space for others so that we can move forward.

I carried on with that cheesy epiphany as I boarded the bus back to Hanoi.

And then I started complaining again.

(Jesse Pizarro Boga is a fellow of FK Norway’s communication exchange program in Asia. He is excited to return to Hanoi to enjoy the last weeks of winter. He is on Instagram @jesiramoun.)