There are some interesting things about catching a bus in Vietnam.
In Australia, intercity buses are a fast, cheap and efficient way of travelling. These are the only three things that Australian buses and Vietnamese buses have in common. Except for the sleeper buses (with lie-down-and-sleep beds instead of seats), Vietnamese buses are a hundred times more fun and entertaining than other buses.
This and other differences can be explained with the experience I had recently of catching a bus from Hoa Binh to almost Hanoi. This is a trip of about 75 km that takes 2 hours. Ah-ha!! You’ve already spotted a difference – Vietnamese buses are slower than buses in places like the US, Australia and Europe. There is so much more time to enjoy the trip, and your photos aren’t so blurred. The buses are smaller, too – the Hundai 29 seater that I’ll be on today is very common. They comfortably fit 15 to 18 people plus my bicycle, three bags of corn, a box of electrical appliances, and some hypnotised chickens in a bamboo cage. We are a parade.
Arriving at the bus station in Hoa Binh I am disappointed to learn from the local experts that nobody will take my bicycle on the bus. I explain that it has been on buses many times before (an exaggeration). They say I should take a taxi to Hanoi. They ask me how much I would pay, and I say “50”, which is short for 50,000 dong (US$2), the price of a bus ticket to Hanoi. The driver says “50 – US” and I say “that’s why I’m catching a bus”. Now that I’ve passed the test for not being an ignorant westerner, we can have a chat about cycling and children and travel and all sorts of stuff.
A bus arrives with a MyDinh sign on the front. The driver wants 150,000 dong for me and the bike. Outrageous. I tell him that I’m not interested, but do the maths and realise that it won’t take long for me to drink 150,000 dong worth of drinks if I stand in the sun any longer. It’s only $7, so I cave in to the driver, who does a really nice job of putting my bike across the back seat of the bus. The bike seems to taking the space of 4 passengers, so maybe the price is well justified. The reason why the bus has MyDinh on the front is that MyDinh is the big bus station about 10km from central Hanoi. There isn’t much truth in advertising in Vietnam, but this is an example of being very truthful (if a bit confusing for people who wonder why there are no buses going to Hanoi).
And we are off.
Barely one km up the road we stop. The catcher jumps out of the bus. The catcher is the most important person on the bus, whose job it is to pick up and off load cargo, sometimes to people standing in the middle of a freeway. Or down the back of a long, dank, mossy alley. How do they know the address? Or remember it? Perhaps more importantly, the catcher watches for people on the side of the road, tells the driver to stop, and jumps out to have an instant personal discussion that explains to the potential customer the low prices and special features of this bus. On this trip there aren’t many customers to catch, and I get the impression that we only get one or two unplanned “extras”. This is despite what appears to be some excellent spriuking by the catcher.
The lack of timetable and variable price and ability to throw a bag of corn or a bicycle on a bus seems chaotic in terms of western travel. It looks potentially unreliable to the untrained eye. But it is completely the opposite. The buses leave every 10 to 20 minutes during daylight hours. You can negotiate almost anything for a reasonable fee (by which I mean very cheaply, as demonstrated by my bike and I costing $7 for a 75 km journey). These buses are very reliable, and on good roads like these, there is little chance of a breakdown. But if there was, we would be put on other buses in no time. He fibres of a rope are individually weak and unreliable, but together they are very strong and reliable.
We stop for fuel at the servo, and they buy about $15 worth. This is probably enough to get to Hanoi and back, meaning that my $7 fare pays for the fuel for the one-way trip. The $25 of fares from the other passengers and the cargo pays for the driver and catcher and the rent on the van. Could the rent really be low enough to leave a good wage for two people? I get the impression that many of these buses are rented by the driver and catcher, who then drive and catch all day and night trying to make a profit.
Before we leave the servo, there’s time for a very fast toilet stop in the bananas. Back on the bus, we wait for a minute. The driver is getting a bit cranky when a woman comes out of the proper toilets and gets back on the bus. She must have been in there for two minutes for heavens sake – an amount of time that the driver feels is excessive.
Maybe to calm down a bit, the driver turns up the music. All of the bus drivers have the same taste in music. Maybe it is the same album? Except for the language difference, you can close your eyes and see Michael Bolton right there in front of you. On continuous play. Sometimes in a duet with a female a Vietnamese Michael Bolton. Every third song is “I want to know where love is”. I exaggerate of course. Then a Vietnamese Clarence Clements does the saxophone solo. The wailing guitar solo is straight out of the 1990s and is ok to listen to, but then it just goes on too long and is repetitive and goes on too long. And it reappears in every song. Oh yeah, oh yeah, I almost forgot to say that a lot of these songs are western, translated into Vietnamese and done in the Michael Bolton style. It is difficult to convey the annoyance caused by this – it is like going around and around on the slow cycle in this musical washing machine. If I EVER hear that fifteen minute long version of “Love lift us up where we belong” again I WILL scream. A pity, because I have quite liked the original, and all of the rest of Joe Cocker’s stuff. Of course I’m being a bit hysterical – there are much worse things than crying over “big hair” music.
There is always something going on in the bus. A passenger climbs over my bike to sleep on the back seats. Should I get a discount now? Just kidding! Another gets a quick phone call and suddenly needs to get out. On the freeway. What? How does she get anywhere from here? Did I mention that the passengers always shout on their mobiles. I have no idea why, but you get to listen in on the tone of a lot of conversations. Next, the catcher opens the door, sticks his head out and tells an old lady to hurry up and park her electric bike, or they will leave without her. She seems like such a nice lady too, though her zebra-pattern pyjamas are a little out of style. Leopard pyjamas have almost totally replaced zebra. But I’m really glad they wait and let her on.
Anyway, that was the first hour of my two hour bus trip. The second hour was so excellent that it would be too long to explain.
Where are the best carnival rides in Vietnam? Now you know.