Monday, August 23, 2010

buses. oi choi oi.....(oh my god!)

After a particularly traumatic bus journey yesterday I thought I'd put my experiences of Vietnamese buses out here for you all! Enjoy....

Now obviously I'm not talking about the Korean or Japanese tourist buses that whisk people north-south or vice versa. These air-conditioned, reclining-seated, well curtained, shock-absorbing, speed-monitored ghosts slip up and down the country as if the parts of Vietnam outside Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Saigon don't exist. If I try to flag one down it's as if I'm invisible.

So if I want to go anywhere that I can't get to on my feet or my bike, it's the local buses. Now these are all privately owned and operated, and it's a ferocious world. There are no overt bus wars (as you find with taxis in other parts of the world) because this is Vietnam and everyone is lovely to everyone, but there is a lot of competition. This is worth knowing when they try to charge you 5 times the normal price... 

Buses on my stretch of the highway are 16 seater minibuses. The vehicles themselves are pretty modern, which is a small relief. They'll have a driver and a sharp-elbowed... conductor? (I guess that's the best word) in the back.

There are no timetables, and the way to catch one is to stand at the side of the road and wait. Soon enough one will scream up with mister or mrs sharp-elbows yelling the destination. They'll go past you, notice you waving, slam on the brakes, and reverse back into into the oncoming traffic for you. This scooping people up from the side of the road means that, as a driver, you have to perfect the last minute overtake-and-squealing-brakes manouvure to ensure that you get to passengers before the bus dude in front of you.

And then two minutes later he does the same to you.

And then you do it again.

And so on.

I'm developing a grudging respect for the drivers. It's quite common for us to hurtle along at well over 130kpm, around and between motorbikes and lorries, with only a loud and insistant horn to clear the way. How they pull out from behind a line of 3 lorries and buses, into an outside bend, up a hill, with a doubly loaded minibus, see a truck coming the other way, and still overtake, is beyond me. The driver doesn't even pause in his conversation, and might change the track on the radio at the same time. Every time I think we're going to get creamed, and every time we seem to make it. No-one else even notices. I still sit there shaking a little. I guess I have fairly good reason to be worried - within two months of being here I'd seen 3 fatalities on this small stretch of highway, and there are two buses in my village with their fronts smashed in.


A few things I've learnt about taking buses....

1) Never get on an almost empty bus. Whilst you can luxuriate in a seat to yourself, your luxuriating will be done whilst you go back and forth through your town for as long as it takes for the bus to be full enough to move on. The other morning I was still outside my guesthouse an hour after I got on.

2) Never get on a completely full bus. When I mean completely full, I don't just mean that all the seats are full, I mean that every available square cm of space from the floor to the ceiling is full. You'll feel the full quality of the elbows as they squash you into a ball and ram you into a top-left corner like something they're trying to hide in a wardrobe.

3) Never sit with women. Rural Vietnamese women very rarely travel in cars. They are unused to being in a moving box. They vomit. Frequently. They're quite organised about it - packing small plastic bags and tissues, but when they've deposited their lunch into the bag they tie the top and throw it past the other passengers and out of the window. (Extra note to self.... watch out for flying bags when cycling on the highway....)

4) Never expect a seat to yourself. In fact, never expect a seat. When they happily squeeze 35 people into a 16 seater, you do well just to be inside. I've been on buses where they've had to bang the walls and ceiling to get the driver to stop because someone's passed out in the crush. The following picture is at the beginning of a journey. I haven't yet been able to take one during a journey for two reasons - a) I can't move my arms enough to get at my camera, and b) the conductor and driver get mad and throw you off. I guess they do have some regulations then....

5) Think carefully about accepting a seat in the front. Whilst you might get marginally more space (5 is the most I've seen in the front), you also get a view of the road. Which is terrifying. My mental health suffers less crammed in the back.

6) Never sit next to the cute child. They will be on your lap and throwing up before you know it.

7) Never sit next to the very red-faced man. He will be drunk, on your lap and throwing up before you know it

8) Never try and take your bike on the bus. It causes chaos.

9) Never get separated from your stuff. Not because it would be stolen (things are very safe here), but because getting off means throwing yourself off whilst the bus is moving, and the chances of gathering everything together are slim

10) Always look for an older driver. If they've survived that long....


In some countries I'd recommend travelling on local buses as an experience. Here it's just very uncomfortable, and really quite dangerous. I'd recommend the train, if you can. Or a big ghost bus with a fridge, cool drinks and a loo.