The worst possible welcome to Vietnam and my first sleeper bus experience
To say I didn’t have the best first experience of Vietnam would be an understatement. It was a sad goodbye I said to my friends as I waved them off in their bus from Laos to Chiang Mai for Songkran while I waited for my sleeper bus to Hanoi. After travelling with the girls for two or three weeks it had become a way of life, it was just normal to wake up with them there so it felt strange to strike out on my own again. I was excited for Vietnam and the chance to experience another culture, and to get away from the partying in Laos for a bit. But it was bittersweet, I would have loved to have gone to Songkran with all my friends but I only had two weeks left on my visa for Vietnam and I didn’t want to miss out on the chance to see the country. Plus who wouldn’t want to spend 24 hours on a bus to get there? Uhh… Me.
I planned to book a flight to Hanoi to save time, but when I looked into it, not only was it ridiculously expensive but also the last two seats had just sold out! I had no choice but to brave a sleeper bus for the first time. I’d heard mixed reviews of those used across Asia, and while part of me was dreading doing the long journey myself without anyone to entertain me, but the other half wasn’t too bothered and just wanted to get there. Finally it was time to hop on the bus after a long drive in rush hour traffic across Vientiene in the back of a truck as a storm was about to break. We made it just in time, as we shoved our bags in the luggage hold and climbed aboard the black skies opened and lightning split the heavens. I should have taken it as an omen.
On that first evening we drove for hours in the dark, the rain and wind, finally pulling up at a rest stop for dinner and for the team of Lao/Vietnam guys to decide there was something wrong with one of the rear wheels and that they needed to remove it. We watched on, wishing we were back in the comfort of the bus instead of this damp, smelly, cockroach-filled rest stop. After 40 minutes of them staring blankly at the wheel, removing it and putting it back on again, it became clear there was a real problem but they didn’t bother to communicate this to us so we hoped it would be fine until we arrived. Back on the bus, we fell straight back asleep and didn’t really stir much until we arrived at the border and were rudely awakened by the driver at 7am.
After spending four hours standing around waiting in the pouring rain and cold of Vietnam, we were less than impressed at the lack of communication over why things were taking so long and why we had to unload, reload and unload all of our bags three times, check our passports about 10 times and go through five checkpoints. It was such a convoluted process and seemed highly inefficient compared to borders I had crossed previously. Finally it was over and we hopped back on the bus and were on our way, only to be stopped down the road by police twice, on both occasions half the Lao and Vietnamese people on the bus had to bride the police for some reason or another – fully endorsing all the stories I had heard about the corruption of the country.
Much later on, after we had been driving for closer to 48 hours with no explanation for why we were running so late other than assuming it was to do with the broken wheel. We were all half asleep when our driver suddenly swerved, almost tipping the bus over, then back the other way. There was a huge crash and a lorry was coming through the bus towards me, where luckily I sat near the back. Thankfully, all us tourists at the back of the bus had a split second where we saw what was going to happen before the impact where we could grab hold of something to stop us sliding forwards towards the crushed up front, otherwise we would have ended up like the guy who sliced his hand open or the other one who badly hurt his ankle.
After a second a pure confusion and panic over what had happened, people got their act together and we started to gather our things and climb out of a window at the side of the bus. The front was so crushed we couldn’t even get down the stairs. Once standing out on the side of a busy highway in the dark, we could see the full extent of the damage – as you can see from the pics it wasn’t good but amazingly the lorry was barely dented. We waited as the guys cleared the rubbish and broken bits of bus from the road and spoke to the lorry driver – we expected the police to turn up at any moment.
All of a sudden, the bus was driving off. We didn’t know what was happening, the guys hadn’t said anything to us and neither had the driver – who had clearly been drunk from the beer cans around the drivers’ seat and smell of vodka in the air. Our big rucksacks were still in the luggage hold and many people had left the money, passports and valuables on the bus – thankfully anything of value I owned I had the sense to pick up up and had with me. We walked after the bus thinking it would stop further flew the road, but it carried on so we started to chase after it until some bright shark had the idea of hailing a taxi and chasing it down. Luckily the taxi driver was on our side and pinned in the bus so it couldn’t drive off. After a lot of shouting and arguing, our bags were freed from the bus and another was organised to pick us up free of charge – a pretty amazing outcome considering how dire the situation seemed.
We finally made it to Hanoi around 50 hours after starting our journey, traumatised, confused and exhausted. Not great for a first sleeper bus experience. Why am I sharing my horror story with you? Because I had no idea this could ever happen to someone in real life, it wasn’t even something I considered. I don’t want to scare people but I want you guys to be aware that drunk and dangerous driving is a big issue in Vietnam and although you have no choice but to place your life in the hands of the driver, that you can make some checks to help you feel comfortable and safe. When travelling alone this is a must. Keep your wits about you at all times, no matter where you are travelling, and always keep hold of your passport, money and valuables.
Have you been on sleeper buses in Asia – what were your experiences like? Have you been involved in a crash abroad – what happened?