Xe Do to Sai Gon
It's late morning in Ha Noi, and I find myself at the southbound ben xe looking at a forty-eight hour marathon ride to Sai Gon on the Vietnamese Greyhound, a xe do which, to be honest, looks more like a stray from the pound. The festive jitney-like colors on the outside can't quite mask uncovered wooden seats meant for bottoms one third my size or the three times normal capacity number of riders, their kids, chickens, smuggled electronics, smelly durian and every other kind of saleable item this festive and energetic mob could cram inside the bus and strap onto its roof. I've got a local friend with me whose vacation cum family reunion in the south I'm funding in exchange for being my guardian angel day and night. Though I couldn't afford anything more than a bus ticket for a similar trip back home, I'm easily the richest person on board. A quick consult between my friend and the driver establishes that I'll sit between them - on the front THREE passenger seats - a fact which produces general merriment for the first hundred miles out of Ha Noi. I try talking to the driver, but like underpaid workers everywhere, he's got better things to do. My friend and our audience of laughing, stunned peasants are another story. One of my Vietnamese teachers calls it "the talking dog syndrome": "How did you learn our language", "Where are you going (and why)?" "Are you married yet", then the inevitable "Why not!?" All this takes an hour or so. Then I fall asleep to the soothing sounds of Vietnamese bubble gum pop and the not so sonorous tones of a workhorse long distance bus engine in a country without noise emission standards, my bottom already wondering if we're almost there yet. The first night out there's not much to do except pass the time the way everyone does on the bus: in conversation. None of my hundred and fifty new friends have gotten over the fact that I can speak Vietnamese, or that I've chosen to ride the bus with them. Several are standing in the center isle, and I decide to join them. We pass by a village of montagnards (the PC term is "National Minorities", of which Viet Nam thinks of itself as being a family of fifty four). They're practicing the age old nomadic technique of slash and burn agriculture, the common thorn in the sides of all Southeast Asian governments. At first I'm frightened by the smoke. But as we pass by and see a tiny line of villagers bent double in the fields though it's after dusk, everyone smiles and nods. They've seen this before. I get talking about this to a lady who says she's a schoolteacher, and (after prodding me to hurry up and find a nice Vietnamese girl to marry) teaches me a "folk poem" for travelers she may just have made up on the spot: Because we love each other, how many fields we cross, how many mountains we climb! Oh so many lakes and rivers between us, but they can't keep us apart! Some highlights of the next day include crossing the Truong Son mountain range, a cliché of misty alpine beauty straight out of the storybook of imagination, more languid conversation, another afternoon nap and a stop just outside of Vinh - a town notorious in guidebooks as a poor provincial backwater where train conductors have to shut windowns to keep passengers safe from rocks, insults and relentless child touts and prostitutes. Indeed, when I passed through here on the Reunification Express some time ago, I got my first (and only) rude welcome in over a decade among the Vietnamese, then ate train kitchen food which made me sick. But this evening I munch warm watermelon and laugh with the grandmotherly vendor with a picture perfect sunset as a backdrop. Then it's back on the bus to continue the neverending slog southwards. Tonight for some reason there are no colorful nomads, and no sonfest in the aisle. All anybody wants to do is get to sleep, and I drift off wondering why I ever got myself into this. We won't even get to go through Deo Hai Van Pass (one of Viet Nam's most famous natural attractions) during the daylight. What a waste! It's not until 3:30 in the morning that my attitude improves. Groggily I fade back into consciousness the way long distance bus passengers with little to punctuate the long hours do - to our closed-mouthed driver calling out our latest stop in an unexpected and endearing fashion. Ha Noi was the capital from the tenth century until 1802, and Sai Gon laid its own claim for a while. This part of the country is working class all the way, and desperately poor. All sorts of revolutionaries and hard headed, practical modernizers and reformers throughout Viet Nam's history have come from here, and it sometimes seems as though only foreigners and overseas Vietnamese get misty eyed about what despite the recency of its stint as capital, nobody ever fails to call the Co Do (or "Ancient Capital"), so it comes as a refreshing (though drowsy) shock to hear our no-nonsense driver cum luggage handler intone "Hue mong mo, Hue, mong mo" (Dream City, Fairytale Capital). I've been here before, and it is indeed all of that. As I drift off again, I promise myself I will return. For now, we've got another thousand kilometers to go. Something must have held us up overnight, for just at dawn my friend nudges me awake. We are to be treated to another spectacular mountain vista along with our sunrise this morning. We are passing through Deo Hai Van (Pass of the Ocean of Clouds) after all! The sickening chances we are doubtless taking with sheer cliffs and the infernal racket of our badly overworked third world engine are completely forgotten as we gape, one and all, at of of the most spectacular scenes to be offered any traveler at any price (much less one under ten dollars!). My friend and I are nevertheless exhausted by the time we pull into Da Nang's southbound bus station, and we decide to break our trip. We find a hotel nearby, wanting only to fall into a real bed. But we're right in the path of landing jets (near the airport too!), and five minutes after we draw the curtains and hit the sack, hotel security comes to demand my passport "as security for the local kid you've got with you". Thoroughly embarrassed (it's still his country, isn't it?) I fork it over, but we sleep only a few hours, then head back to the station and get on the next southbound departure. I'd wanted to see the Cham museum, but that'll have to wait. We're still a whole day away from Sai Gon. That night we find ourselves someplace other than Nha Trang (another place I want to stop off, but only with a girlfriend) when I have a sudden attack of the trots! Never get on a long haul bus in Viet Nam without several rolls of your favorite toilet paper! I find myself squatting lamely under a tree in full view of the village; it's the only place there is. Still, I'm not sure which was worse - this pit stop, or the one we made outside Thanh Hoa (was it really only two days ago) where I had to pay ten cents to stand on a rotting wooden platform ten feet over a foul smelling pit behind a local restaurant. I'll be more than glad when this infernal trip is finally over! Our last morning on the road starts in a desert, Viet Nam's only aird region around Phan Thiet, whose only saving grace is its beloved nuoc mam industry and apparently a thriving industry in table grapes. We stop for lunch at what can only be called Viet Nam's answer to the ubiquitous truck stops favored by busses everywhere: dry fried rice and the overpowering smell of fish sause in production nearby. It's hard to believe overseas Vietnamese seek out fish sauce from here, that along with Phu Quoc Island, this place is considered a culinary Holy Grail among all Vietnamese. I guess next time I'll have to bring my nice clothes and make a reservation somewhere. A shower would be nice first, though. Inexplicably, we end our journey at Ho Chi Minh City's northernmost bus station, and have to rent a motorbike for the trip into the city. I climb on behind my friend (even if I didn't have such bad vision I can't drive myself anywhere, I wouldn't risk riding a motorcycle in this traffic!) and we cross over an unremarkable bridge and into Viet Nam's most populous city, the real capital of commercial and tourist Viet Nam. By early afternoon, we are installed in a comfortable place to stay with two soft, clean beds, air con, TV and stocked fridge. But though I ask him to take a load off, my friend is eager to get straight to the task that has brought us here. A few weeks ago I had started what I thought would be an extended period of study and work at Sai Gon's Open Dai Hoc Tong Hop (Unified University). I'd hit it off perfectly with my private instructor, but my plans had changed completely after I asked him about being a guest speaker at the south's premier school for the disabled. "You don't want to do that", he advised. "Our country isn't ready to plow enough money into rehabilitation. You'll just make them sad". The University also wanted ten dollars an hour from me for Vietnamese lessons. I demurred, and headed north. I had a couple of my teacher's books to give back, and I wanted to say I was sorry. While I sleep, tired more by my forty eight hour sit than by a triathlon, my friend heads across town to take care of my errand before I realize what's happening. "You saw him?", I ask incredulously. "Of course", he replies. "What did he say", I ask? "Was he disappointed I left?" "No, he said it was the right thing to do. He said you don't need to study Vietnamese anymore. You speak great as it is". I lie back and a bittersweet feeling washes over me. I'm not sure where my friend and I will go next. Only one thing is certain. Wherever it is, we will not be going by bus!
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Want to do this yourself? Traveling by bus in Viet Nam doesn't have to be this hard. I did it like this both for the experience of traveling with locals and to save money. These days there are plenty of "backpacker's class" options, including an "open ticket" any café can sell you, which allows you to get on and off wherever you want without having to buy a new one. Also, the south/north run from Sai Gon is more popular since there are more things to see earlier on. Try to stop at Da Lat, Ca Na rather than Phan Thiet (quieter, with a beach you can swim at and simple bungalows to spend the night), Nha Trang, Hoi An (rather than Da Nang - unless you want to do the Cham Museum), Hue, the DMZ (and Ben Hai River, wartime border between North and South Viet Nam), Dong Hoi (for Phong Nha Cave), Vinh Moc (for the tunnels - much more interesting than the ones at Cu Chi) and perhaps Phat Diem (for its fabulous church) before you get to Ha Noi. I've done this by plane and train too, but the bus is the most intimate, most local way to go. Avoid the more tin can-like minibusses if you can, though on this run there's probably no option. You may pay slightly more ($20-30, probably) and you'll be traveling with other foreigners, so remember to stop off whenever and wherever strikes your fancy, so long as there's a place that can accommodate foreigners in town. Viet Nam's thirty day tourist visa is not nearly long enough for the sort of leisurely road trip the country deserves. Lobby your local Vietnamese embassy to relax the rules, search out top class local restaurants along the way and REMEMBER TO BRING YOUR OWN TOILET PAPER!
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