As in life, not all days of this crazy adventure of ours are going to be full of amazing experiences, great conversations, and mind-blowing scenery. Some days are boring or purely functional, just getting from one place to another. And other days are full of tedium, conversations where I’m pretty sure neither party understood 10% of what the other party was saying, and lots of puke bags. This post is about those pukey days.
We are way off the beaten track up here in northern Vietnam. I haven’t seen another white person besides Matt in 3 days! There are very few tourists or other travelers, and thus, very little infrastructure for those of us who do make it up here. Most tourists head a little bit to the west to Lao Cai and Sapa, which do have a lot of infrastructure. But for us, there is very little information about how to get around or how to get where we want to go.
We found ourselves in Cao Bang in Northern Vietnam a few days ago. Cao Bang is the biggest city near the Ban Gioc (bahn zhock) waterfall on the Vietnam-China border, so it was our base for a couple nights. Our plan was to get from Cao Bang to Ha Giang (ha zhahng) the next day so that I could Skype into the Molly Brown roast back home. For the most part, every city we have been to has had excellent cell phone service (3G! I have better service here than I did with Sprint back home) and decent Internet access, and Ha Giang is one of the biggest cities up here, so I wasn’t worried about not being able to get a connection. Even going through these winding mountains and over passes, I had 3G most of the time, so it seemed silly to worry about access.
But it turns out not very many people, travelers or locals, make the journey from Cao Bang to Ha Giang. The much more common route is to go all the way back to Hanoi and then back up to Ha Giang, and it requires at least one overnight bus. Matt was convinced that we would be able to find a more direct route, and so we looked into cities along the way. We came up with a list: Bao Lam, Bao Lac, and Meo Vac. We got up early to see if there was a bus to any of these, and we were told there was a bus to Bao Lam at 12p. It wasn’t yet 7am, so we decided to try our luck at hitchiking. We walked across the city and plopped down on the road we thought would lead there.
Shortly after we set up shop, locals approached us and tried to dissuade us from our plan for several reasons: most of the traffic to Bao Lam passed by on a different road (not the road we had chosen that Google Maps had suggested), no one in Vietnam hitch hikes supposedly, and why not just wait for the bus that would pass by at 11? I gleaned all of this info from the 20 different people who stopped to talk to us throughout the morning — we attracted quite a bit of attention. My Vietnamese being atrocious at best, it took a lot of gesturing and piecing together memories from my childhood to figure out what people were saying. None of those language phrasebooks tell you how to tell someone that “we’re just going to try hitch hiking for a while, and then we’ll go wait by the bus stop.”
I ended up really just running interference and keeping all the locals away from Matt holding the sign so that it didn’t look like we had 10 people hitch hiking. I was asked lots of questions (funnily enough, even in Vietnamese, the #1 question I’m asked is, “is he your husband/boyfriend?”) and ended up figuring out a fair amount of Vietnamese from the several hours I spent with these people. We eventually hopped on a bus at 11:30, with the help of the locals who waited around with us to make sure we got on all right. Finally, we were on our way!
But the way was not easy. We were in what they call a “passenger vehicle”: part public bus, part courier service. They transport people but also take payment to transport packages from one village to another. This bus had chairs for 27 people, including the driver, but we had well over 40 smashed in there with us and packages underneath our feet. The path was over winding mountain roads, though the drivers consistently take the turns much faster than would be considered safe in the US. The drivers here are pretty aggressive, taking blind turns at full speed with only a blaring horn as warning for on-coming traffic. Indian driving was worse, but this is definitely (a distant) second.
Packed in like sardines, we’re constantly swaying back and forth into our neighbors and bouncing with the rough roads. Personal space is non-existent, and people sleep on strangers. There isn’t really even enough room to lift your arms without forcefully moving your neighbor. My ass fell asleep numerous times, and I got whiplash from the few times I tried to sleep but was jolted awake by a hard bump or particularly hard turn. The guy next to me was holding his baby, and he made me put the kid’s socks and shoes on without so much as asking or a thank you! It’s just expected that everyone does what they can to help out the group as a whole. We’re all in this mess together.
The crazy driving up and down the mountain roads causes a lot of people to puke, though Matt and I are fortunate enough to not get motion sickness. There are piles of little sick bags in the backs of all the chairs, and people are constantly reaching for them. It’s funny how when you tell yourself NOT to hear something, that suddenly becomes the only sound you seem to hear. The sound of puking became the soundtrack of my miserable little existence. And then that person handed me their sick bag to chuck out the window. I became very adept at knowing when to pull the window open for my neighbors.
The buses are loud, too. Despite having great cell service everywhere, it seems customary to YELL as loud as possible into your phone. It’s a modern technology… I’m not sure why yelling is necessary, but at any given point, at least one person on the bus will be screaming into their phone.
We didn’t reach Bao Lam until 6pm that evening, several hours later than we thought we would. By the time we arrived, it was dark and there weren’t any buses going anywhere until morning. After a futile search, we had to choose between the two hotels in town. We obviously chose the one with wifi, but even that wasn’t working. Somehow, on the day I needed it, we had found the one town in Vietnam with terrible cell service and no good internet access! There wasn’t a taxi to be found, and I’m pretty sure Matt is the first white person most of those people had ever seen. I vowed to be on the 6am bus to Ha Giang so that I could get somewhere with better access for at least part of the roast.
In the end, after another brutal early morning bus ride, we made it to Ha Giang by 9:30 the next morning, and I was able to Skype in for the entirety of the roast. All in all, it wasn’t the worst possible day that could have happened, but it was certainly frustrating and painful. Fortunately, in our first month of travel, that was the first really tough day for me. I know bad days will happen; it’s just a fact of life. But I’m hoping they’re as few and far between as they have been so far.