We have become so used to them, to sleeping in the little bunks while trying to ignore the rocking and the honking and the bright lights being turned on at the oddest times. They are just part of the experience. The night buses, that is. We all have the stories that we can pull out about the worst one that we ever took.
Like the one this past week where we were the only white people on the twenty-five hour bus ride from Vientiane to Hanoi. And we were shuffled into the back seats of the small Vietnamese sleeper bus. The back seats are the ones that are all connected together, so instead of getting your own bunk you are in a little crawl space with three other people, and three above you. Of course, with there being six of us this worked out perfectly, and we spent the evening watching movies and drinking the alcohol that we had brought from Vientiane and getting yelled at by the Asians on the bus in front of us.
Or the time that Stephen and I got stuck in the Gorakhpur train station for twenty two hours overnight, and then took the lowest class of the Indian train fifteen hours across the country from Gorakhpur to Delhi. For us that is our sleeper train horror story.
But it nearly gets beat by the one where we couldn’t get tickets for actual seats on the bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang and instead bought tickets to get to sit in the aisle. And we spent the night moving from the rickety chairs in the aisle to bouncing around on the floor and sleeping on giant bags of rice that were there to finally finding seats.
Before getting on the bus we go out and we find sandwiches or Oreos or crackers. Or chocolate. Green tea for me, because I like something sweet to drink sometimes. Babybell cheeses to munch on over the course of the ride: Kateryna gets a roll with hers so that she can really make a good sandwich, and she tries to buy a can of tuna, too, but I tell her that it is going to make the bus smell and it is probably not the best idea.
I carry melatonin in my bottle of Advil, and take a couple when I get on the bus. It doesn’t always work, but it makes me feel like I am making an effort to really get some good sleep. I give them out to the others, too, sometimes, and we see whom it works on and whom it doesn’t. Ian, our newest travel companion, brings some Valium, and when it isn’t working takes another.
When the drugs do work I get the best sleep I have gotten in a few nights, the dim lighting and gentle rocking forcing me to sleep early and not to stay up later than I need to. When it doesn’t work we are groggy in the morning when we get into the new city in the early morning light and wave down a tuktuk or a cab to take us into the center of town to where a hostel is, and where we hope that they will let us take a nap for a little bit until it is a normal time of day and we can get up again and eat some new foods and explore the new city that the bus transported us to overnight.
On this bus we weren’t lucky enough to get the back seats so we are all spread around the bus, curled up in our own spaces. Jordan and I are in seats towards the front, Kateryna and Stephen are in two of the seats at the back, Ian is in another seat in the back next to a couple. Paul and Lorie, our Romanian buddies, have moved ahead of us because they need to get back to Bangkok soon for their flight home and have too much to see in the meantime. So they have left and Ian has joined and our travel group has shrunk to five.
The bus drivers never speak English, so communication is limited to a little waving and a lot of yelling. Yelling to tell us to sit in this seat, but not in that one. Yelling to tell us to wake up, or to go eat food, or to get off for the rest stop now or to get back on the bus before they leave us behind.
On the way over the border between Laos and Vietnam we are woken up at 6:30 in the morning to a short Vietnamese man yelling at us frantically. Because that is the only way that we can communicate. It takes a minute or two of groggily trying to decipher the words coming out of his mouth, trying to understand if it is broken English or fast Vietnamese, to realize that he is shouting at us that we are at the border of Laos and Vietnam and we need to get out so that we can go through border patrol.
Border patrol consists of, first, standing around in the freezing cold morning mountain air because the border doesn’t actually open until seven in the morning. Then we push through the crowd of westerners to get our passports to the window and the only person who is doling out exit visas. It takes a while for all six of us to successfully get our exit stamps, and once we finally do we can cross the border and we are in Vietnam.
Except that there is nothing there.
We try and go to our bus that we see parked by the side of the road, but we get yelled at again when we start walking towards it, so, confused, we start walking down the road. It takes maybe fifteen minutes before we finally see the Vietnamese border patrol, the next crowd of people that we will have to push through to get our passports stamped and get on our way.
And by the time we have finished with everything it is nearly 9:30 in the morning and we are yelled at to get back on the bus because everyone else is already on there and because we have taken much longer than any of the Laotians that are on the bus to get through the border, but we cant really be blamed for that because we really did try and push through to the fronts of the crowds but it just gets too hard sometimes.
So that bus ride will go down as one of the more amusing ones, and not one of the horror story ones. And we can brag, too, because we survived a twenty-five hour bus ride, shoved in the back and yelled at, across two countries, and we made it out alive. And sane.