Thursday, November 24, 2011

Getting From Point A to Point B in Viet Nam

Transportation in Vietnam is like a box of chocolates... 

After two days traveling further into the Vietnamese highlands on the rear of a motorbike, all I wanted was to chill and get to Hoi An. My butt needed a break, those bikes on those roads make for one good long vibration.

Back in Da Lat I took a leisurely last stroll around town after reserving a ticket on the 6pm bus to Da Nang – a reservation which means nothing if the bus driver decides to leave 45 minutes early. 'No problem, I put you on another bus' says the girl at the desk. She makes a couple of phone calls. I so wish I understood Vietnamese. Finally her eyes brighten and she hangs up. 'Okay, no problem. Only driver, you and one more person,' she tells me. ‘To Da Nang, you get off at Hoi An.’ Sweet I figure. Plenty of room to stretch out for the overnight trip.


To clarify – I’d been in Viet Nam long enough to know to always be suspicious – I ask the girl what kind of bus. First she tries to explain but that’s useless. So she pulls me out into the street and points at a passenger van parked (or possibly abandoned) at the end of the crumbling street. 'That one, same same but different' she tells me. Same same but different. I’d heard that one before.

I end up in a clunky red mini van with a guy named Home. There’s enough front seat leg room for a full-grown Chihuahua. At least I can tell him to stop when I need to pee. 'Da Nang?' I say, as enthusiastically as possible since it would pretty much be the end of any manageable conversation between us. 'Da Nang!' he says back, then proceeds to floor it across town to a gas station where a bunch of guys are climbing all over the boxes packed onto the back of this big truck with a tarp for a roof. 'Okay, you go them!' Home-boy says, pointing. This is my ride to Hoi An? It was so ridiculous I had to agree.

I take my bicycle apart (I was traveling by tandem – solo, which is a whole nother story) and a few of the guys heave it in three pieces onto the mountain of cardboard cartons. My panniers go up too, disappearing in a crevice among the cargo. I keep a firm grip on my waist pouch, making it obvious to twenty strangers where all my cash is. One guy slaps my shoulder and hands me a box and points at the truck. So now I’m part of the work force. I hand it up to some guy who’s laughing at me. Some woman in a mask (presumably because of the dust) comes up to me, demanding 200,000 Vietnamese Dong for whatever I’m getting into. No other apparent option, I pay.

An hour later I'm sitting in the front of this truck with one big driver and his pint-sized buddy; they speak English as well as I speak Vietnamese. We’re bouncing along in the jet black night, down some road that is paved, then not paved, marked with houses and storefronts then with nothing but the woods of Some Where, Viet Nam. Wondering when my companions are going to stop the truck and demand more money from me for not throwing me out the window, I offer them some of the dried sugared apricots I bought in Da Lat while my original bus driver was leaving without me.

Soon the little guy, shiftiest character I’d seen in Viet Nam which is saying something, falls asleep. My head bouncing rather violently against the window, I fail to doze off. When we finally hit the main road I think maybe I’ll get some shut-eye.

Until we come to a stop in some little town at who-knows-when-o’clock. A man emerges from a dark doorway. My friends pry a box off the back of the truck and dump it on the curb for him. And we drive off. Twenty minutes later, the same. At the next stop ten minutes later the little guy tells me to get down and help.

At 7am we pass a sign for Hoi An. I point, at myself and out the window. ‘Hoi An!’ Shorty nods and gets back to staring at the road. ‘Hoi AN!’ I say again. Junior waves a ‘shut-up!’ hand at me. I try again. ‘Da Nang!’ he snarls at me. ‘HOI AN!’ I yell back. We pull into this huge parking lot to unload some boxes at this outdoor market and it is all I can do to not take my friend by the shirt and start shaking him. ‘HOI! AN!’ He looks ready to rumble, Lord knows why he insists on keeping me hostage but he is bent on taking me all the way to Da Nang. Fortunately his driver friend enjoyed the apricots; he shakes his head at his little friend and throws a thumb at my bike.

My tandem parts and panniers come off the truck coated in dust. We’re ten miles past the sign for Hoi An. The town is another ten toward the coast. As I begin putting my bike together it starts to rain.

Hoi An, thank God, is a really nice place.