By Jensen Lax,
When trying to get around indochina, one thing you may realize is that the odds of actually being able to end up where you wanted to go are so vanishingly tiny that you may as well hang the sense of it and just allow yourself to be pushed about by luck.
It had been advertised as a “VIP Air conditioned express bus”, and was, of course, absolutely nothing of the sort. The photograph I’d been enthusiastically shown in the booking office was clearly of a different bus entirely, presumably one that had never been anywhere near Laos and was having a fantastic time filling itself with VIP’s and chauffeuring them about in air conditioned luxury somewhere with actual roads. The monstrosity that I climbed onto was an ancient hulk of rotting metal that was utterly fed up with the abuse it had received over the last thirty years and registered the fact by screaming, backfiring and finally belching a cloud of acrid diesel fumes into the air before it had even been asked to move anywhere.
Now, before I continue, I should make it clear at this point that I did not want to go to Hanoi . I didn’t have time to go to Hanoi, I had explained at the ticket office, because I needed to get into Cambodia and going to Hanoi wouldn’t leave me enough time to do so. This utterly baffled the ticket Clerk, who seemed to be of the opinion that Hanoi was the only place on Earth that actually existed. Showing him the sign above his head that read “Tickets to Hue” or pointing at places other than Hanoi on the giant map of Vietnam on his desk seemed to do little to change his mind on the matter, but after an excruciating conversation that flowed like treacle through a straw, I managed to get him to sell me a ticket to Vinh.
The bus was filled to the brim with fifty or so travellers and their luggage, and left no spare seats, which made it all the more surprising when four hours after departure we stopped to pick up fifteen Vietnamese people, their shopping, a large fish and three baskets of live chickens. The shopping, luggage and chickens were all hoisted onto the roof whist fifteen small plastic stools were placed in the bus aisle for the people to sit on. I have no idea exactly what happened to the fish, but it made its presence known for the rest of the journey by mixing its smell with the exhaust and filling the bus with it.
We started the climb along broken roads through the jungle and mist covered mountains marking the border with Vietnam. I stared through the window in awe, and almost exactly
at the moment I was congratulating myself on managing to sit in a seat that actually worked, it broke, and I collapsed onto the person behind me. Her name was Gale, and I spent the rest of the journey apologizing to her and unsuccessfully trying not to crush her kneecaps. My back started to ache. The Vietnamese guy in the aisle decided, in his sleep, to put his bare feet on my lap. I could hear someone behind be vomiting, and hoped that they were further away than they smelt.
Somehow six hours passed without a suicide, and at four in the morning we reached the border control. Unfortunately, border control was closed for another three hours. This seemed to come as no surprise to our driver, who announced “YOU SLEEP NOW!”, turned all the lights off and collapsed onto his steering wheel. Now, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you the odds of falling asleep on a thirty year old bus in a broken seat with two Vietnamese feet on your lap, the stench of fish, diesel, vomit and sweat filling the cabin and fifty screaming chickens situated directly above your head*. I scrambled my way over fifteen people collapsed in the aisle, fought for an eternity with a purposefully stubborn door, and just managed to get outside in time to vomit over my shoes.
Laos border control was purified insanity. A myriad of unintelligible forms were thrust from small Perspex cubicles by officious bureaucratic guards who barked instructions like “PAY ONE DOLLAR!” at almost every conceivable opportunity. After an hour of form filling more complex than my Genetics finals I tenuously handed back my clutch of completed forms to the last official in the row. He eyed me suspiciously, studied the forms, and then eyed me suspiciously again. Slow incomprehension engulfed him, followed by sadness, anger, deep frustration and a sense that the world, and me in particular, had been created specifically to cause him vexation. He leant back against his chair, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Pay one dollar”, he said.
I explained that seeing as American dollars weren’t the currency of either Laos or Vietnam, that I hadn’t been to America recently and that it was ten thousand miles away from here, I didn’t happen to have any on me, but this cut no ice with him. The conversation that followed would be tedious to relate, but not half as tedious as it was to undergo. After a while, he gave up, utterly inexplicably handed me a box of twelve condoms and pointed to the exit.
Eight more hours into Vietnam, and we arrived at Vinh, my destination. When I say arrived, I mean, of course, drove directly through without stopping. I took this up with my driver, patiently explained to him that I had bought a ticket to Vinh, and that I had been expecting to get off the bus there.
“THIS BUS GO HANOI!” he said. “YOU GO HANOI!”.
It became clear that despite buying a ticket to Vinh, getting on a bus with “Vinh” written on the front of it, struggling to explain to border officials exactly what it was I was going to be doing in Vinh, booking accommodation in Vinh undergoing a hellish twenty hour bus journey to there, that the chances of me aver getting to see it had just taken a very sharp downward turn. There comes a time in your travels where you realize that the odds of things going your way have dropped into the incomprehensibly small. When this happens, it’s best to sit yourself back down, close your eyes, come to terms with the fact that it’s all out of your hands anyway, and just wait for the next thing to happen to you.
* they are, of course, one-in-ten to the power nine (1/10^9), or a “Yanksworth”.