How I survived 18 hours on a Vietnamese sleeper bus

How I survived 18 hours on a Vietnamese sleeper bus

Vietnam is one of the many pearls of Asia, combining fantastic food, beautiful beaches and perfect weather during the summer. There is another side of Vietnam that not many see; the seedier, grittier underbelly of everyday life that consumes the city of Hanoi. My most distinct memory of Vietnam is a 18 hour sleeper bus ride from Hue to Hanoi.

Yes. 18 hours. On a bus. It featured garish music; language barriers and such ingenious randomness that to this day, I’m still perplexed as to how we survived our eventful yet humbling journey.

It started on a humid evening in Hue. Me and my partner, Cleo, were waiting patiently with some other travellers for our 6pm bus to Hanoi in a café. A panicked Vietnamese man appeared and in broken English explained that our bus was going to be an hour late. Usually, alarm bells would be ringing in this situation but we thought ‘Ahh, it’s Vietnam. These things happen!’

Where is our bus?

Fast forward to 8pm and there was still no sign of the bus. I bravely volunteered to find the man, who turned out to be our driver, and get a much needed update. I eventually found him drinking beer 30 seconds away, not a care in the world. He mumbled in drunken, broken English that the bus would be another 30 minutes. I begrudgingly accepted his story and returned to the café, eager ears waiting for news on our seemingly lost transport.

Twenty minutes later, our bus appeared out of nowhere, like a mirage from the deep, bustling streets of Hue. The bus was loud, covered entirely in psychedelic graffiti and dazzling colours, and looked worryingly decrepit and unloved. With eagle eyes, we watched our luggage being loaded onto the bus and got settled into our ‘beds’ for the evening.

Our beds were surprisingly spacious yet still felt cramped and forced. The time was 8:45pm and with the distressing punctuality still fresh in my mind, I wondered what else could go wrong with this journey. Little did we know, the fun and games had only just begun!

Finally on the move

9:00pm. We were moving and on our way to Hanoi. Or so we thought. I discovered that in order to maximize profits, the buses would trawl the streets looking for additional passengers for the long journey. This was done at a snail’s pace, with shouting, haggling and bartering all part of the system. The passengers already on the bus were readily ignored as the search for extra passengers fuelled the profit driven minds of the driver and his assistants.

It was fast approaching 10pm and I’m certain we had only travelled 10km. The search had continued for what felt like an eternity and passengers were getting restless. We decided to try and get some sleep and forget about the impending hours of travel.

In an almost physic, mystical fashion, the bus driver saw tired eyes and decided that now was the best time to play his finest collection of Vietnamese karaoke classics and techno. Full volume. Surround sound. The bus felt like a warehouse rave from the 90s,

The microphone came out and the locals were having a blast, belting out classics such as ‘Duyen phan’ and ‘Noi nay co Anh’. These songs evoked the most passionate renditions and were surprisingly catchy. Look them up and try not to keep them on repeat.

The party was just getting started

11pm and the party was in full swing. Beers were passed around and Cleo and I were invited to join in with the festivities. They were so inviting and kind hearted, encouraging the foreigners on the bus to fully embrace their often misunderstood culture. Being able to speak basic Vietnamese, I was treated like a celebrity by the Vietnamese passengers. Being tall and white also played a part in that!

3 hours later, after numerous beers, duets with the locals and hilariously misinterpreted translations and conversations with a local who could speak surprisingly good English, it was 2am and we were getting tired. The driver reluctantly turned off the music and seemingly gave his blessing to sleep. The party was over.

However, we were fast approaching the infamous hills and winding roads of the Vietnamese mountains. Channelling his inner Lewis Hamilton, the driver accepted the challenge, finally secured his seat belt and headed into the hills with speed, accuracy and a reckless abandon towards passenger safety.

Am I going to die?

It’s late. 3am late. and it’s pitch black outside. The only light you have is the dimmed lights in the bus and the driver is in full Formula 1 mode. I’m 100% certain he put on driving gloves for this stage. In an effort to beat his best time for this lap of the journey, he raced around the corners and traversed the hills with such deftness and skill that I was genuinely impressed.

The driver was having the greatest time of his life, yet we, the weary passengers, were being thrown around in our beds. Imagine being on a roller coaster with a driver, who I’m sure was enjoying the festivities as much as the other locals, fully in control of whether you end up in Hanoi or over the side of the Vietnamese mountains. It was scary. I mean really scary.

I tried to sleep at this point, and it honestly felt like sleeping in a washing machine. To my surprise, I was woken at 7am for a pit stop in a typical Vietnamese restaurant. The fresh air never smelled so good.

The toilets were dirty and the surroundings were pretty bleak but they provided us with Pho for breakfast, a welcome relief after a night of karaoke, thrill rides and beers with the locals. The rest of the journey was surprisingly muted from the Vietnamese, presumably sleeping off their hangovers and getting ready for a return to their daily routines in Hanoi.

Arrival

2pm. Arrival. We found sanctuary in the busy streets of Hanoi, weary and somewhat broken from the journey. Most importantly, we had survived.

The locals looked well rested and sprightly, everyone else not so much. After being shouted at numerous times by a obviously hungover driver, we left the bus and embraced the freedom and safe haven outside of the prison we called a bus.

We collected our luggage from the bus and took a deep breath. A breath filled with exhaust fumes, pungent aromas and the unforgettable flavour of dirt.

To say this experience was eye-opening is an understatement. I felt everything. Fear, Love, hate, anger, acceptance and a humbleness that I’ve never quite felt before.

A London bus will never quite feel the same again.


I hope you enjoyed reading about my nightmarish bus journey! If you have any stories or experiences of Vietnam, share with me on Twitter, leave a comment below or reach out using the contact page. Thanks!

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