During idle time in Nha Trang I hatched a plan to return to Hoi An – a city I loved so much on my previous trip. As my budget was limited and I wanted to be able to have some fun in HA, I decided to take an overnight bus.
Here’s where life finally got really interesting again.
These overnight buses are quite common in southeast Asia, particularly with the international 20-ish backpacker crowd. I rode several overnight tourist buses on my first Asia trip. One ride was really tough, the others were fine.
A few more details about the overnight buses: in all but one that I have ridden, these buses are built kind of like cattle cars, with three rows of flat bed/ seats stacked 2 bunks high.
There are usually two aisles and a bathroom.
For a shortie like me, it’s quite possible to sleep comfortably while the bus ambles towards its next destination.
The company usually provides water and a blanket; rides are under $12 US to cover vast distances. Travelers are spared paying for that night’s accommodation.
In all, it’s not so bad to close your eyes in one city and wake up in another. Much easier than flying coach across the Pacific Ocean.
In Vietnam these are sometimes referred to as “open tour” buses, meaning that you buy a ticket and can hop on and off where and when you choose. They are also referred to as “luxury” buses which, by public bus standards here, they most certainly are.
The term “luxury,” however, can be used to describe buses that vary greatly, as I was reminded on this trip.
Accommodations that are geared more towards long-term travelers can and frequently do book these bus journeys for their guests. They receive a small commission from the bus company for doing so.
There are many bus companies to choose from; when you book a ride through your hotel you’re kind of relying on them to put you on the best one they can find. In many cases, this is the company gives them the best “cut” or the one their friends and/ or family are connected with.
Here’s where my laziness – or perhaps my fatigue from being sick – was my downfall.
The 2-star hotel where I stayed in Nha Trang has quite high ratings on TripAdvisor, and those are well-earned. $20 a night buys you
- a clean room with a safe
- a very large breakfast
- and very helpful staff
After eight nights with them I had no reason to doubt their ability to book me on a good overnight bus. I asked for a “flat bed” bus and requested a bottom bunk. The receptionist called the bus company and it was done. 7:00 that next night I would be on my way to Hoi An, watching movies on my iPad and sleeping the hours of travel away.
That was the idea, anyways…
The mini-bus that picked me up was late and filthy. The driver seemed pissed off about something. He was yelling at his assistant, into his cell phone, and at anyone else who got in his way.
My first instinct to bail on this mission was a good one. Instead I doubted myself and continued on to where the big bus awaited.
The big bus looked fine on the outside. When we entered we were given a bag in which to put our shoes – this is standard practice on these buses.
Here again is where I should have turned back: the bus porter(?) escorted me to my bunk at the very back of the bus – bottom bunk, next to the toilet. I had more sense than this and spoke up. He said that the bus was full and my only other option was a top bunk. Done. This turned out to be a very good decision.
As I settled in I realized that there would be nowhere other than my lap for my rather heavy day-pack. Not the end of the world and also turned out to my advantage eventually.
The bus made several stops to pick up more passengers and it was, indeed, very full. There were only two empty seats as we traveled on, finally heading out of Nha Trang. I can tell you that the cargo hold was full at this point. I watched it being packed and un-packed at every stop.
At our fifth stop or so I surmised that it was going to take a lot longer than ten hours to get to Hoi An. Our driver picked up about twenty heavy-looking boxes, two feet by two feet by one foot each. It looked like the boxes contained tiles. As they were loaded into the already full cargo hold, I could feel the bus listing to the side.
Several workers stood outside the cargo hold scratching their heads, seemingly trying to figure out how to fit all of these boxes. There was much re-arranging, and the cargo doors were somehow shut. We were on our way, still with two empty seats.
At our next stop (!!!) five people entered the bus – three children and two adults. There was some conversation among these passengers, the porter, and some other passengers, presumably about how to accommodate them. They were not offered the seats.
Somehow the children were accommodated into the lower bunks in the back of the bus. The adults were made to sit on the floor – the only aisle to the bathroom on the bus. They all settled in and we were on out way again.
We made several more cargo stops. I have no idea HOW this bus had more cargo space; it was literally lumbering down the road with NO chance of a quick stop or turn.
The sway and bounce over the big bumps in the road was unnerving. The thought of this bus rolling under its hulking weight as it missed a turn was a thought I had to just dismiss.
Our final stop before the long trip was in a small town considerably outside of Nha Trang. We picked up a family of six – two parents and four children – and YET MORE cargo.
Now I understood who the remaining seats were for. The six of them set up camp on those two seats, again, children somehow engulfed by the crowd.
As cargo was unloaded, re-arranged, and re-loaded below, luggage appeared in the aisle between the people sleeping in the aisle and the door of the bus. It completely blocked the exit.
The driver’s area – if you can even call it that – was stacked high with heavy cargo boxes as well.
This bus was a death trap even by non-American standards.
Thoughts of becoming a statistic on my trip had to be put away once again. Even if I COULD convince the driver to let me off the bus, I had no idea where I was and SURELY my luggage could not be retrieved from the depths below.
I took an Advil PM to get some rest, and didn’t dare drink any water – not that I was offered any. The night was uneventful – full of
- honking horns
- slamming on the brakes
- trips to the most disgusting bus bathroom (stepping over the people) and rest stop bathroom to date.
I was glad to have my day-pack as a kind of pillow/ prop. I’m sure its mass kept me from rolling out of my top bunk onto the woman in the aisle below me several times.
As we got closer to Hoi An our cargo process was reversed. Money changed hands as the boxes were unloaded along several stops. Here I learned that the bus crew made a few extra bucks by endangering our lives with all that extra cargo.
When we got to Hoi An we who looked “touristy” were abruptly ordered off the bus. Miraculously our (correct) luggage appeared on the sidewalk next to the cargo hold.
In a shocked fog, I attempted to get my bearings. The musical notes of “lady – you need motorbike!” rang in my ears.
The woman who owned the hostel where we were dumped tempted me with, “I have bigger room for you!”
Thank goodness I had been to Hoi An before. I had a reservation at a budget hotel between the town and the beach, and kind of had an idea where I was going.
Predictably, I set off in exactly the wrong direction. Eventually I had to turn around and run the “you need motorbike” gauntlet again, backtracking through the bus crowd.
Several wrong turns and the help of several lovely, kind local people later, I arrived, DRENCHED in sweat at my hotel. I was greeted with a glass of hot tea and a cold, wet towel. Heaven!
My room was fine. Aside from some road construction that diverted masses of motorbike traffic onto the sidewalk, the location was what I had wanted and hoped it would be.
After booking flights to my next two destinations – for not a lot more $$$ than the darn bus – I fell into the deepest, most satisfying sleep and was then able to have a relaxing, fun day after all.