11 Feb 2018 – Old Quarter, Hà Nội, Vietnam
You’ve been standing on the side of the road for almost 20 minutes now. Your Grab driver was supposed to have arrived about six minutes ago. You can’t check where the driver is without an internet connection, however.
You decide to walk back to the homestay you just left in order to check on your Grab driver’s wellbeing. Of course, they canceled your ride.
The good news is that the bottle of water you bought before departing the homestay, only to immediately forget about, is still sitting on that table.
You’ve lost 20 minutes of your day but gained a free water bottle…which you paid for 22 minutes ago.
Second Taxi Attempt
You walk back down the narrow alley back to the road that is actually suitable for vehicles, and reclaim your waiting spot on the small sidewalk.
The same ladies you just turned down or flatly ignored ten minutes ago come pushing into your space yet again. They are trying to sell you any number of fruits or vegetables, many of which you cannot possibly identify.
Here comes your Grab car! Finally, you are on your way to…a different place. You are heading to Gia Lam bus station, which your Vietnamese Homestay said was “too crazy, too many locals.”
The driver pulls into what is presumably the bus station, which is surrounded by a very pointy 15 foot tall fence. There is a guard gate, which seems to be permanently propped open, in order to allow a less obstructed flow of chaos in and out of the station.
As you climb out of the car with all of your belongings, whatever idea you have of an orderly bus station might look like will soon be gently ripped from the grasp of your mind.
There are people all around in front of the enclosed awning of the bus station. As you hear someone yell “Motobike!” at you, offering you a ride immediately after you got out of a taxi, an incredibly loud horn blows in your ear. It’s a bus, and it’s coming right at you.
You run into the enclosure of the station as quickly as possible, because God knows what else is going to happen within the next 7 seconds.
Buying your Ticket
Inside of the station, there are 30 different ticket windows. There are also tables around with people eating. Not a single person looks like you, yet they are all here for the same reason.
There are about 30 different ticket windows, and all of the signage is completely in Vietnamese. You quickly scan from left to right above the ticket windows your eyes, trying to figure out what the hell to do.
There is a sign that says “Hạ Long” along with a couple of other words you cannot identify towards the right end of all the counters. This is where you quickly walk towards.
It’s your turn at the ticket window. “Ha Long Bay!” The lady gives you an unidentifiable look and points to your right. She disappears.
You are now in a line again behind four other people. The sign above this window has two other city names which are not Ha Long. The window you were previously at does say Hạ Long.
You want to make sense of this, but there is no time for such trivalties.
Now you are at the window again. This time you are actually getting a ticket, and the lady seems to understand you. The ticket costs a whopping 120.000 dong, or approximately $5.20 for a 113 mile bus journey. (182km)
“This is driver, you follow him” the lady says to you. You can hardly hear her through the glass, but a man has mysteriously appeared into view behind the counter.
The Charismatic Driver
He is no older than 28 years old, about 5 foot 8, and dressed as smart and sharp as any bus driver you could imagine.
He waves at you to follow him, and you do so. Just behind the counter where you bought your ticket, you are suddenly outside again. There are at least 50 busses around in one massive row, you cannot possibly count them all.
An entire rainbow of buses is front of your eyes, without even a hint of the organization of the actual rainbow.
The vibrant driver you just met points towards the bus in which you are to board. From where you are standing, he actually pointed at six different busses at the same time.
So you quickly walk into the general area of what might be your bus. Maybe you will be going somewhere other than HaLong today, who the hell knows.
There are two middle aged guys standing in front of a bus, which by chance might be the bus you are looking for.
“HaLong? HaLong?” They simply open the door and allow you to board the bus.
Peace and Quiet
You are the only person onboard this bus. There are two seats on the right side of the aisle, and a single seat on the left side.
You head to the back of the bus and sit in a single seat by yourself. There is plenty of room, and you feel that the seat will be comfortable enough for a two hour bus ride.
The bus isn’t even running yet, but it seems you will be having a peaceful and quiet ride after all. You shove your bag into the small shelf provided above, it just barely fits up there.
A sign in the front window of the bus has a city, or perhaps as bus stop name, listed in which you cannot identify. It’s not HaLong, it’s not Gia Lam bus station where you currently are located…in fact it’s not a place you can find on the map anywhere.
You look out the window at the 57 other buses, the senseless flow of people, the inexplicably loud bus horns honking at those people, and at the generally insane chaos of a completely foreign city. You decide you will ride this bus wherever it goes, for better or for worse, until death do you part.
During the next 10 minutes, eight other people board your bus, leaving about 26 seats still open. The bus driver starts the bus, and a few minutes later you begin leaving. The doors open, and the young gentlemen who you were originally told was the bus driver jumps on as the bus moves slowly.
The bus has not even gotten completely out of the parking space yet, and the driver is already blowing the train’s horn at people walking in the area. As the bus is pulling through the gate in which you entered nearly 30 minutes ago, you come to a very abrupt stop, practically in the middle of the main road.
The Adventure Bus Has Left The Station
The doors open and two more people get on board the bus, in the middle of the road. “Isn’t this what the bus station is for?”
You fool! You have no idea what awaits you on this journey.
You’ve been on the bus for about twenty minutes now, and you’ve travelled a total of about 3/4s of one mile. The bus is barely moving at all. You look out the window and see people walking alongside the bus, some of them are even passing it.
What the hell is going on!? -TOOT TOOT- The bus’s train horn is blown for the 26th time, and you haven’t gotten anywhere yet. The young, overly energetic gentlemen pushes the door open and starts yelling out into the street. What is going on now!?
More people climb onto the bus. After several more minutes of crawling along at walking speeds, the driver is suddenly romping down on the gas.
“What the hell was that?” Somehow the driver appears to be able to rapidly honk beyond any normal human’s physical capability.
You hear this horn a few more times and completely bewildered by how this can even be possible. The young guy is yelling out of the door again.
More people get on the bus. There are basically no seats left. You have now been on the road for over an hour and you are still within Hanoi city limits.
Google says the drive takes three hours, but you are pretty sure it’s going to take a lot longer than this.
The Shark of the Highway
Looking out the window, there are motorbikes swarming all around the bus. The driver frequently honks at all of the bikes, as if the bus is a shark plowing through a school a fish.
The bikes are so close to the side of the bus. Many of them seem to disappear underneath of the bus. You begin to wonder if the shark you are inside of has swallowed the fish.
The bus comes to an abrupt stop, and more people are getting on board. All of the seats on the bus are already taken. What is this lady carrying?
Is that a mattress?
Yes, a lady climbs onto the bus with a full size mattress. Where can you put a mattress on a bus??
Next to you of course! In the aisle, resting up against your seat…and all of the other seats as well.
The lady reaches underneath the seat of another bus rider on your side of the bus. What is she doing?
She pulls a seat out and sits down. You realize there is a jumpseat underneath you too. Perhaps someone will be sitting too close for you to be comfortable in the coming hours…
This is a Cargo Bus, too. Move.
A few more miles down the road, after nearly constant horn honking, the bus stops again. A few people get off. The bus conductor, as you come to know the young sharp dressed man, takes some boxes from someone on the street.
They look very heavy, and are quite large as well. They join the mattress in the aisle, right next to you as well.
The bus is moving quite slowly again, perhaps it is due to the traffic. They might also just know how badly you want to get to Ha Long Bay already.
The conductor gentlemen is hanging out of the open door yelling loudly at people in storefronts as the bus moves slowly.
People are yelling back from nearly 30 feet away. The conductor is laughing and pointing back at the small crowd.
One Big Vietnamese Family
You realize you are in the middle of crossing a metropolitan area with 17 million people. You are from a town with 16,970,000 people less than that.
Surely, the conductor has never met the random collection of people on the street in this massive, massive, crowded and chaotic city. Unless they just happen to pass by every single day.
As the bus starts to speed up again, the conductor is still hanging out of the open doors. A woman yells out and runs up to the bus in a flash.
While the bus is still moving, the sharp conductor man and the young Vietnamese woman shout at each other. Both are fairly attractive and of prime mating age. The conductor shouts at the driver.
The girl is walking quickly next to the bus as the man is scribbling on a piece of paper that seemed to appear from nowhere. The conductor hands the girl the paper, and they are both smiling wildly.
It’s also the first time you’ve seen people in Vietnam smile to this extent. The girl shouts, points, and smiles mischievously at the man one last time as the bus takes off full throttle.
-BEBEBEBEBEBEBDEEEdededeleldel- The driver goes crazy with the magic horn yet again. The shark bus is plowing through the school of motorbike fish with no mercy.
Did they really just exchange numbers?
Yes, there is no doubt in your mind that is what just happened. It didn’t even require the bus to stop.
Vietnamese Style Hustling
Now you begin thinking about how cool the Vietnamese people are. Their country was just completely obliterated 50 years ago. Now they are navigating buses through seas of wreckless motorbikes and picking up girls outside the windows without even stopping.
Throwing mattresses and cargo around is nothing to them. Obviously they are ballers on their way to the global elite.
As you sit on the bus in amazement of this crazy country, feeling thankful and lucky to experience this bus ride, the bus comes to another sudden and complete neck snapping halt.
The doors open and the driver and conductor get off of the bus. In their place, three women storm onto the bus wearing non la (leaf hat….that’s the cone hat Vietnamese people wear). They are carrying baskets of fruit.
Oh no, not this. They are all shouting wildly and waving their baskets at the passengers.
One of them spots you. The American. The only non-Vietnamese person on the bus, and probably within three miles. Shit.
She hustles up next to you, sets the basket in your lap, and screams “YOU BUY MANGO!!!!!!” so loud that you wish you were deaf, or maybe even a liquid paste at this point.
You say no, and push the basket away. She continues to stand there and stare at you. Luckily, you know the only way to get a vendor to leave you alone is to ignore them.
You stare out the window for an entire minute–what seems like an eternity–until she finally leaves to bother other passengers. Thank the lord.
Will Somebody Please Drive?
It’s been nearly ten minutes since the bus stopped. You’ve been onboard for almost three hours and are barely halfway to your destination. You just want to get into your hotel and roll around in the sheets at this point.
The bus starts moving again, and the crazy sales ladies seat themselves practically on top of other passengers. Thankfully, you aren’t one of them. Hopefully they won’t be too annoying the rest of the trip.
They yell and shout at each other occasionally, but nothing too out of the…whatever has become ordinary. A few minutes later, they get off of the bus.
You are somewhat relieved, except now an older gentlemen is getting on the bus. He is one of the very rare elderly people you have seen so far in Vietnam. Afterall, so many were lost during the
Vietnam American War.
You are wondering what he has been through, what he has seen in this country. He pulls the jumpseat out and is now practically sitting on top of you.
Almost immediately he is sticking most of his hand into his mouth, and generally sticking his fingers into his teeth and throat. This continues for several minutes. He only stops in order to spontaneously scream at other passengers, who do not respond.
Maybe he is screaming at you? Perhaps this is not the cultural connection you were looking for…
Trapped on the Insanity Bus
You are leaning against the window, staring outside. It seems as if this bus ride will never come to an end.
There is growing tension in your lower back and neck, as there is just a little too much foreignness going on at this moment. You are starving, tired, need to pee, and really want to shower.
Yet at the same time, you are deeply satisfied and feel fulfilled, as this is why you travelled 9,000 miles to Vietnam in the first place.
As you are blanky focused on watching the Vietnamese world passby, and listening to the endless crescendo of horns from the bus, you notice a certain motorbike.
Is She a Stunt Devil?
This motorbike has 3 girls on it of different ages, and has been riding alongside of the bus for several seconds now. They are all waving at the bus and pointing at the smallest girl on the bus.
The conductor opens the doors and the motorbike gets much closer to the bus. Both vehicles are still travelling at around 15 mph.
The conductor waves, and the bike is basically touching the bus at this point. The girl on the back of the bike climbs sideways and faces the bus. Oh, no fucking way.
The conductor grabs the arms of the girl and assists her as she leaps off of the moving motorbike and onto the moving bus. She takes a seat on the bus and her motorbike friends disappear.
Your eyes widen as you turn your head robotically straight and stare at the seat in front of you. Closing your eyes, you silently yell “WHAT THE FUCK” at the back of the seat.
Just what can possibly happen next on this bus ride? You remember your Vietnamese homestay friend telling you “Don’t take local bus! Way too crazy, too many locals.” Perhaps he had a valid point.
But if you hadn’t taken the bus, how could you have such a wild experience?
Are We Ever Going to Arrive?
For the next twenty minutes, the bus cruises along at a reasonable speed and doesn’t stop. You are very thankful to be making progress.
Soon, more stops are made and people begin to get off of the bus. The elder man who has been attempting to digest his hand for the last 45 minutes gets off, and you have some breathing room again.
Remember those boxes? The conductor comes to the back of the bus to grab them. In doing so, he slams the corner of one into the back of the guy’s head in front of you. You can hear the guy’s neck pop.
That could have been YOUR head! The guy grabs the back of his head for a second but doesn’t seem to be in too much pain. The conductor looks back at the victim of the box assault, says nothing, and continues forward.
The box victim in front of you lets go of his head and goes back to reading the paper. It’s as if his skull wasn’t just clobbered by a 50 pound object.
The conductor hands the box to a guy waiting at the bus stop, and the guy walks away with this package. It becomes clear that one can ship a box to their friend on the other side of the city in a few hours by using the insanity bus method.
Burned on the Bus
You check your phone map for the 657th time on this trip and are about 20 kilometers from HaLong…12 miles!
As you stare out the window, you notice a fire ahead on the side of the road. The fire seems quite large.
While passing the fire at around 30 mph, you feel extreme heat penetrate the bus and sizzle all of the skin on your body, even through your clothes. You realize the skin on your arm is a bit red.
You’ve been burned, albeit very, very slightly.
The important fact is that you have been burned while passing a massive pile of flaming kitchen cabinets for less than two seconds on a bus–an insane local bus in Vietnam.
The bus is now in a less developed area, and you are getting closer to HaLong. There are no stops to be made, and as a result the driver holds the magic tone horn down for 30 minutes while also utilizing the train/ship horn.
Thrown onto the Road
You are within five minutes of your bus stop, so you strap on your carry-on bag and get ready to get off the bus as fast as possible.
Suddenly the bus stops and the conductor points at you. This isn’t where you are expecting to get off at all.
You stand up and say “Ha Long?” and the driver points at the doors. You grab your stuff and get off the crazy bus, with one other person.
Now you standing on the side of a highway with nothing around but grass and trash. There are buildings far ahead and far behind, but nothing near you. What else is there to do but walk forward? On your right is a small fire, you watch the flames dance momentarily before continuing forward.
After about four minutes of walking, the very small black car comes flying down the shoulder the wrong way into traffic. He stops next to you and says “Taxi?” There is absolutely no way this car is an offical taxi, but does it really make a difference at this point?
The Friendly Taxi Man
You show the driver your hotel on the map and say “How much?” repeatedly until you get a straight answer.
100.000 dong. That’s $4 for a fifteen minute ride. Get me off of this road. You get in the car and head into the city. Looking at the map, you realize you are no longer heading towards the hotel.
You clearly need to cross that huge, massive and obvious bridge right there. See that bridge? You are heading away from it now. Shit. Damn it.
The car pulls up to a hotel and the driver points to the sign…”City Bay Hotel.”
No, no. You need City Bay PALACE Hotel…on the other side of the bridge.
You show the driver the map again and he examines closely. “Oh!…………..150.000 dong…..sorry!!” he says.
A completely understandable mistake. The driver is driving fast and occasionally honking at motorbikes, but its a nice change from the bus. The road winds up a complicated hill and loops in circle in order to reach the bridge, but soon you are on the massive bridge and entering central HaLong.
You turn onto the road of your hotel, and now you can see the building. You pay the driver, thank him, and he thanks you. The bell boy opens the door and you are greeted warmly at the desk.
You made it! You survived a local Vietnamese bus! Now where will your adventure take you next?