The Road Less Expensive

Hanoi Travel Blog

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In the back of the bumpy truck to the border - boy I look rough but this Vietnamese guy is having a good time with my sunglasses on.

Seventeen hours, three buses, three motorbikes, one tuk tuk and one truck later, I am in Hanoi, Vietnam.  Time to vent.


I parted ways with my traveling companions in Phonsavan and headed for the nearest border crossing with a straight shot to Hanoi, which is Sam Neua.  This border had just opened to international travel in 2004, and the guidebook said transportation on the other side was scarce, and boy, was it right!


I hit Sam Neau at about 6 p.m. after a 10 hour bus ride, giving me enough time to find a place to stay and grab dinner.  The bus to the border left, so I thought, at 7 a.m. the next morning. I rose and caught a tuk tuk about 6 a.m., thinking I’d get there early and ensure a seat, but I found it didn’t leave til 7:40.  I waited and waited for it, and eventually a sawngthaew (converted pick-up) pulled up and the ticket girl motioned it was my bus.  However, it was already full! These pick-ups are basically a covered bed with two benches on either side.  I didn’t know where I was supposed to sit. I loaded my bag on top and stood there motioning about sitting up front, which the driver said no, pointing to a bench they threw in the middle that was currently covered with men’s feet.  I almost wanted to cry thinking about sitting there three hours, but nonetheless off I went, me and local men’s feet (actually, Vietnamese I later found out).  At first I was ignored, but eventually the men began poking and prodding at me, looking at my rings and tattoos and one asked for a kiss and wanted my age.  I put on my sunglasses at one point, which was received with much enthusiasm.  One put them on and posed for pictures.  That entertained the crowd for about five minutes.  Eventually the seats thinned out and I got off the loose bench.  This turned out to be a nice way to say goodbye to Laos as I stared out the back, waved to the children and passed through villages amid the beautiful landscape.


We hit the border and it turned out to be a smooth process.  The Vietnamese side was intimidating with their uniforms and stern faces, but after they started typing me in, one spoke to me in good English, asking where I was going and telling me the bus to Hanoi would be waiting for me on the other side and even exchanged my remaining Kip into Dong for me (and only screwing me out of about $2-3).  While my bag was searched, he asked if I had an American newspaper, but I told him I hadn’t been home in a long time.  He even apologized for the search, saying an American brought a gun to this border four years ago.  I set off from there with a great impression.


From there I walked into the town to the “waiting bus.”  By this time I was drenched in sweat and walking in this town of absolutley nothing really, except friendly people.  Everyone was asking just where I thought I was going and I soon found out there were no buses this day, one saying I’d have to wait until tomorrow.  Then someone pulled up on a motorbike, asking about my intentions, and he told me I had to get to a town 55 Ks away in order to catch a bus to Hanoi.  Upon asking him how I was to get to this town, he indicated his motorbike. I didn’t think it possible given my enormous bag (I keep trying to get rid of stuff only to buy more!).  He seemed unconcerned.  I ended up giving him all the Dong I just got (mistake #1) and off we went.


About this time I was really digging Vietnam.  The border patrol was great and I had just arrived and I was already touring the countryside on a motorbike!  Like Laos, the terrain was very hilly, so a few times after chugging up hills, we had to stop and throw the water I was carrying on the engine to cool it, but we kept pushing on.  It was getting past the 1:00 p.m. departure time for the bus, though, so I was worried I’d miss it.  Two hours later and almost 2 p.m., we arrived in town. I saw the bus and thought I had good luck in not missing it.  However, no one was on it waiting, nothing loaded.  My driver brought me to the house the bus was parked in front of, and the people received me, giving me water, a chair and so forth.  The driver said that they were the bus owners and the bus would be leaving soon.  I inquired of the man of the house, the apparent bus owner, the price for the bus, and he wrote down $40.  I thought him crazy and motioned no way.  I was told before arriving in this country that the Vietnamese always give you prices 4 times what you should pay.  I tried to negotiate him down, but somehow during the course of this exchange he acquired a bong, and was busily smoking that while holding to his $40.  He knew he had the only game in town and I was screwed.  I was literally in a town in the middle of nowhere and this was THE bus out.  I tried to figure out a plan, but I had no bargaining power.  Plus the bus was empty, so I thought, are they taking just me?  I finally relented and asked if he was the bus driver, worrying about his current state.  He said no, and pointed to a group of young men who had just approached.  One said, or rather motioned, that he was the bus driver and promptly asked me for a kiss.  I was at least glad he seemed sober, that is until he enjoyed some of the bong.  Now I’m not sure what they are smoking in there, but it wasn’t tobacco as far as I knew.  With my worries high, and frankly just pissed off at the price, they loaded my bag and I got on the bus.


A crazy thing happened.  The driver honked the horn and soon the entire town came out of nowhere and loaded on the bus.  I recalled what the border patrol had said to me:  a bus will be waiting for you.  Soon I realized what a scam this had all been and how I was subsidizing the entire town’s journey.  Seething about this as everyone happily boarded, I plugged in my iPod in an attempt at escape.


Off we went, with our driver honking the horn the whole way, alerting everyone to jump aboard. The thing got packed!  At one stop, they loaded a scooter on the roof and I caught sight of our driver enjoying some more of this smoke from a bamboo pipe.  He saw me notice him and laughed, then motioned for them to give me a bottle of water. 


Most of the journey I spent wondering why I do this to myself, namely, off the beaten path border crossings. I know everyone wants to get out of the so-called touristy areas, but there is something to be said for well-traveled areas.  There is organization and you don’t get screwed as there is usually plenty of transport available.  This was the second time I’d done a border crossing where I was the only tourist and somehow lost about 20 bucks in the process.


Eventually I told myself get over it, you’re in Vietnam, and this is an adventure.  Then at one of the stops, I looked out the window and noticed them pulling my bag out of the storage compartment. I yelled out, asking what they were doing, and they told me I had to change buses. I was furious thinking they wanted to screw me out of more money. I unloaded and some guy told me he was taking me to a new bus, that this one was broken down and it would cost me no money.  I seriously doubted this, but I didn’t know if refusing to leave this bus was a good idea.  The driver made no move to assure me he was still going to Hanoi.  I had no choice in the matter.  He loaded my bag on a motorbike and off we went, riding to some place unknown but at least we were in a city.  I thought at least there are services and resources in this town if need be.  We reached a seemingly random corner and he insisted a bus would come by for Hanoi.  He asked me if I was a tourist, and after indicating so, he said I should be happy then.  I realized he was right and told him no, I wouldn’t tell my country(wo/)men Vietnam is crazy as I originally indicated I would.  A few minutes later, he flagged a bus down and they said they were going to Hanoi.  He gave them a bill (it looked like about 20,000 dong, $1.25!), and off we went again.  This bus was nicer at least and had some goofy videos playing.


It was about 7 p.m. by then, and I finally saw signs for Hanoi.  I thought maybe I’m on my way for good, but we hit another city and stopped alongside another bus, and I was told again to get off.  I thought, no, not again, and I’m not paying anymore money!  It turned out okay, and everyone got off and onto the new bus, again, headed to Hanoi.


About 11 p.m. we made it to a bus stop outside Hanoi and I could see the motorbike taxi drivers all lined up outside the bus door waiting.  I wasn’t sure where to stay, although a friend recommended a place I forgot to get the address for, so I just opened my book, picked out a place, and after many negotiations for price, I was off again on a motorbike to a hotel with a/c and cable.  Heaven. 


I grew to both love and hate this country along the way, but I know this is only the beginning of my Vietnamese adventure, so I’m wiping the slate clean and taking it as it comes.  At least there is internet aplenty so I should be able to blog about it along the way!   

chrisrae says:
It's been 7 years since this adventure, and this is by far one of my favorite stories to tell! At the time it was stressful and frustrating, but now I love reading this entry and laughing about it all. Enjoy!
Posted on: Jul 20, 2015
RTW_Wannabe says:
Sounds like a nightmare! I'm so excited about visiting Vietnam so I hope the story has a happy ending! haha x
Posted on: Jul 17, 2015
6troopers says:
Classic SE-Asian bus journey, you have to love it!
Posted on: Dec 02, 2008
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In the back of the bumpy truck to …
In the back of the bumpy truck to…
photo by: mario26