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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The long journey back to Vietnam

I had been in way to good of a mood for the past week and I knew things were sure to come crashing down soon. That's the way it is when you travel. When things are good, they are really good. When they are bad, they are really bad. Having had such wonderful luck working out my Chinese Visa and then following that up with sorting out a Vietnamese visa in no time at all, I knew I was destined for a downfall. I had bumped into old friends, enjoyed every minute of every day, and found a good price and time for every bit of transportation that I took. The food was great and the beers were cold. My jokes were funny and women half way around the world were falling in love with me. Things couldn't get any better! It could however get worse.

I said good bye to three new friends I had dinner with in Savanahkett, Laos, picked up my bags and walked out the door of the guesthouse where I spent the day waiting on a night bus to deliver me across the border and on to Danang, Vietnam. While the woman at the bus station had told me that the trip was fifteen hours, I definitely believed her but I couldn't figure out where in the world all that time was coming from. Looking at the map and knowing the distances in Vietnam, it seemed like the trip should only take half as long. Oh well I thought, fifteen hours on a night bus is usually not that bad.

After flagging down a tuk tuk driver and being dropped off at the bus station, I promptly paid my driver the 10,000 kip he requested with one of my only three Laos bills left, a 50,000 kip note. He put it in his pocket and handed me back a 10,000 kip note. I looked at him and realizing that he didn't speak English, held up four fingers signifying that he owed me 40,000, not 10,000. We began to argue each in our own language and for the first half of the argument I assumed he was pretending like it cost 40,000 for the ride although we had agreed upon 10,000. I began to raise my voice, yell out into the bus station if anyone spoke English and proceeded to call the man a thief. As I stared him in the eyes with a threatening and extremely angry look to convey my point, he then began to yell something else and discuss the matter with a man standing beside him now. During the discussions, he began to point at me and laugh. Not pleased at being ripped off and now laughed at, the man again pointed his finger at me, extending his arm close enough to grab and grab I did. I grabbed the man and yanked him out of his tuk tuk and onto the ground. At this point, I think he realized how serious I was and that he wasn't getting out of here with my money.

The man began to pull money from his pocket and put it into my hand. When he got to forty he stopped and I said thank you, still madder than hell though. He then held up a 20,000 note and waved it in my face, I think to say what he may have been arguing the entire time that I had only given him a 20,000 kip note instead of the 50,000 kip note. I turned my back on him while he tried to show that he had no 50,000 kip note and knowing how much the two look alike, I had a moment of doubt. Earlier in the day, I tried to pay for something that was 20,000 kip and I didn't have anything but three 50,000 notes. A girl that was with me paid the money as the person we were paying didn't have any change. We settled up our debt at dinner. My meal was 30,000 and since I owed her 20,000, I gave her a fifty. I then proceeded to check my funds to make sure I would have enough to buy some water, get a tuk tuk to the bus station and a snack in the night if I needed it at one of the stops along the way. I am positive I only had two fifties left. Walking away, with that slight moment of doubt and then the thought that what if I had given him a 50 and he thought it was a 20? What if he really wasn't trying to rip me off and I had really given him a 20? With that slight doubt in my mind, I turned around, still angry and threw all of the change back at him including the fee for the ride. He began to pick up the money and departed shortly after. The ride cost me five times what it should of in my moment of rage but I decided he needed the cash worse than I did no matter if he was ripping me off or if I had made the mistake. I would hate to have taken the money out of the hand of an honest man for a mistake I made. I felt bad for my behavior but in retrospect, I am confident that I gave him a fifty originally. Five dollars will make a big difference in that man's life and if he was ripping me off, then maybe my yanking him from his tuk tuk to the ground will make him think twice before he tries it again on someone else.

I boarded the bus at 9:30 to give my bag to a man inside which at first seemed odd as my bag usually goes beneath the bus. Upon boarding I quickly realized that this might be a really really long bus ride. All of the seats in the back of the bus had been removed and in there place was a massive stash of enormous white rice bags and brown cardboard boxes carrying god knows what. The normal seats seemed strange in some respect and it took me a minute to realize that they were actually raised up higher to accommodate more cardboard boxes from beneath. You might think that this would make it hard for your feet to touch the ground but you have to realize that there were also cardboard boxes stacked up to the level of the seat itself, and in some cases even higher on the floor where your legs would normally go. The seats were filled with other miscellaneous things and as I looked around trying to choose a seat, the man who took my bag and tossed in in the back amongst all of the other cargo directed me to get off the bus. At this point I began to feel a bit of relief as he must be moving all of the stuff in the seats to the back, I hope.

A few minutes before ten, something came over a speaker in the bus station which obviously signaled that it was time to board our bus as everyone ran for the door in a mad chaos, actually, more like a complete panic. I stood up and joined the back of the line from where the man who was checking tickets waved me to the front and pushed everyone aside to let me through. I am not sure why I was getting special permission, I can only think that it had something to do with the fact that I purchased my ticket earlier in the day and had probably paid a bit more for the privilege of one of the actual few seats on the bus.

Once on board, I found a seat that had the least amount of cargo stored in front of it and as I was making my way to the window seat, a man who had obviously claimed that seat with the bag on the floor nearby climbed over me and left me in the aisle seat. No place to rest my head. Great! I would shortly learn however that it would not matter in the least bit.

11:30 and the bus had not moved an inch. The seats were full and the top of cargo area became like a massive human storage compartment. People were lying down in the aisles and sitting on boxes everywhere. Cell phone radios played and the heat, the heat was unimaginable. The only time I have ever been in Sauna was as a child at the local fitness club. This heat was ten times worse than that ever felt. Sweat poured from every bit of my body and there was no relief in sight. Imagine if you can that this would be the way I would feel until about three o'clock in the morning.

12:00 and we were finally on our way. Five minutes from the bus station we did the typical Asian stop for gas as soon as you get started. Another five minutes and we did the next official stop which was for everyone to enter into the woods to pea as the bus stations charge you about twenty cents to use the toilet. The toilet break ended and I thought we would finally get going. With all the operable windows on the bus closed as the locals fear being cold worse than anything, I along with everyone else on the bus continued to sweat profusely. As I tried to find a comfortable position to adjust my feet atop the cardboard boxes in the floor and spread my knees around my backpack, the bus came to another stop. I had no idea why we were again stopping but when the bus driver turned off the engine, that was the signal for most people to take another pee break or just stand outside and smoke. Seeing as how it was 12:30 in the morning and we had been going for only a half hour at an extremely slow pace, this could not be another toilet break.

A man with a flashlight in his hand, a big gut beneath his shirt, and a pistol in his pocket came on board shining his light at everyone and all of the cargo. Now I am sure there was plenty of illegal stuff in the bus, rice, or alcohol or drugs or something that was taxed more heavily in Vietnam than Laos, but I really have no idea what we were actually carrying. Another man came on board in a uniform shining a flashlight and asking lots of questions. When I looked outside again, I realized that they had emptied a bunch of baskets from under the bus and were looking through those as well. I decided I couldn't take the heat any longer and would stand outside with the others who had decided to disembark until the matter at hand was solved.

Packages came out of the window for the next twenty minutes until the ground had about half the stuff that was on the bus lying around. When the forces who had stopped us felt they had emptied whatever it was they didn't want on the bus, we all re-boarded. I expected to see cries and pleas from some of the people on board because they were having to leave all of their stuff on the side of the road but the cries never came. Everyone promptly returned to their seats , boxes and designated spots on the floor and we continued on our way in the slowest moving sauna you can ever imagine.

You would think the half emptying of the bus of all that stuff would have made a bit of room but it looked just as crowded as ever. You couldn't even tell that anything had been removed. We had now been underway for a solid fifteen minutes this time and I thought we were finally on our way when the bus began to slow down, again coming to a complete stop. This time, we were in a very dark spot and five men quickly ran from the bus to a tree where they began picking up boxes and loading them onto the back of the bus. I again have no idea what was in those boxes, but I am pretty sure they knew that we would be boarded where we were and we were now picking up the really illegal stuff.

Now, 1:30 a.m. and we were finally moving along the road, still sweating but at a decent pace now. We rode on until 3:15 with only a few quick stops in between and I felt that other than the heat inside the bus and the sound of ten cell phones all playing different tunes, I was going to survive this journey. Just as I said that, the bus came to a stop, the engine cut off and everyone began to disembark. I thought this was just a routine food stop as they seem to do them at all hours of the day here and everyone always seems to be hungry and ready to participate in each and every meal. At first I thought I would just wait on the bus and try and get some sleep. After a while, I noticed people weren't eating but were just standing around. Some had even walked off down the road and had yet to return. Could we already be at the border? Surely not. The border isn't supposed to be open until 7:00 in the morning. Why in the world would we leave so early to get to the border three and a half hours before it opened? That question will never be answered but that is exactly what happened.

At the roadside stall I found another white person who was experiencing the same trip as I from a different bus that had originated a few hundred kilometers further away than mine. She informed me that after lots of work she determined that we were at the border. She had been there since 2:00 a.m. and it didn't look like anything was happening till sometime between 5:00 and 7:00. We chatted for a minute about how miserable we were both feeling and I finally said I am sorry but I need to get some sleep and I put my head on the table and tried to recall the wonderful art I had learned in high school of how to sleep with your head laying on your arm on your desk.

I think I got a full hour or so of sleep and I have to say that made a huge difference in my mental state this early in the morning. It was now 5:45 and I gathered that pretty soon we would make it to Laos immigration. Around 6:20, the bus started and drove us the five minutes to Laos immigration where there was already a horde of people gathered around the window that read departure. For some reason, Asian people have no idea how to form a line or for that matter any concept of what one is. Even if there is a group of people standing in line, the sweetest of people here will barge their way up to the front and cut everyone off. Now, imagine there are several hundred people trying to do this at three small windows. Complete and utter chaos. After a thirty minute fight, I managed to get my passport into the window where a few minutes later, I watched the officer flip through the pages, find my Laos visa and put a stamp inside. After completing this process, he threw it off to the side in a pile with all of the others he had taken. Fifteen minutes later and still no passport in hand I was confused and beginning to worry about receiving my passport again. I went around to the arrivals side where there was not a line yet as the border wasn't actually opening for another five minutes or so and she informed me that at 7:00, they would begin handing the passports back out.

Sure enough, at 7:00, they began placing passports against the window showing the picture and name. People struggled and fought to see the faces of each passport. This is the most ridiculous process I have ever seen at any border anywhere in the world. Eventually, my passport showed up, I threw a few elbows here and there and made my way to the window where I retrieved one of the most important possessions I have over here.

From there, I walked 500 meters across the border where I was again amazed at the spectacle before hand. The same mass of people was now mobbing the Vietnam arrivals window in the same fashion that they were in Laos. Fortunately, the Vietnamese immigration officers didn't approve and waved and yelled everyone into a cue. This didn't stop people from cutting into line with every given opportunity. I even took the liberty of pulling a couple of people who stepped in front of me back out of line and directing them to the end of the line. When I had finally neared the window, a little old woman broke in line in front of me. Everyone including her smiled at me, and I think those who had seen me pull several men from in front of were quite surprised that I could let a woman do the same thing.

Finally through immigration and customs and the bus was again rolling. I boarded the bus as quickly as possible and decided that I was taking the seat next to the window this time. I wanted control of the window and no one was going to take that away from me. With the sun now out, the bus had the potential of becoming an oven on wheels, cooking the flesh off of my body. No one, was taking me out of that window seat! The man who sat by me and who by the way made frog sounds in his sleep, how he could sleep I will never understand, came and sat beside me. He pointed to his window seat, and I shook my head, gave a few jerks to the front of my t-shirt, wiped my brow and pointed at the window. I think he got the point and sat down.

Rolling along with the wind in my face, I thought now that I might somehow manage to survive this ordeal. Ten minutes later the stops began. We began to stop constantly to unload all of this cargo we were carrying and ever so slowly, the people also began to depart. By ten o clock, we had probably not traveled 30 kilometers, but the bus was getting to be pretty empty. Most of the cargo in the back and beneath my feet was now gone. The man beside me had left as had most everyone riding in the back. Things were looking good! We rolled on down the road and I was determined to try and get some rest. The bus and my seat were determined to not let that happen. With the emptying of all of the cargo that had my seat smashed into a nice vertical position, it changed the whole nature of the stiff and stubborn seat to which I was riding in. It now felt like I was riding on the biggest spring that had ever existed. My seat squeaked and was set into harmony with every bump we went over. At times, it felt as if I was floating in the air, suspended between the bumps until my seat would again tap me and shoot me back to the air as I settled back down.

By noon, the springiness of the seat had not settled down but we had managed to pick up an old woman who was selling some form of food wrapped in banana leaves on the bus along with some baguettes. Unable to identify the food in the banana leaves, I purchased two baguettes which I promptly devoured like they were the last morsels of food on earth. The woman came back around for a second time and having no clue as when we might actually stop for food as we had yet to do so far, I purchased a second round of baguettes and devoured those as quickly as the first two. Five minutes after I had eaten the bread, the bus came to another stop. Everyone stood up and the woman sitting nearby me looked at me and made a signal that it was time to eat. Still hungry, I was happy to eat but needless to say four large baguettes in my belly might make it difficult to fit much more in.

Lunch ended and we were now what I knew to be a five hour journey in a normal bus away from our destination as was written on the ticket in my hand. We bounced on down the road and with some food and my belly and the wind upon my face, I felt good enough to pop my headphones in and enjoy the rest of the days journey. Around 1:45, we entered into the city of Hue and the buss pulled into the bus station. The driver promptly told me to get off the bus and handed me my bag. I tried to explain that I thought we were going to Danang but it was quite clear it didn't matter. All said and done, I was hoping to get off this bus in Hue anyway and catch a much better bus further on.

At the bus station, everyone wanted me on their bus. It was quite obvious that I was white and to them that meant I was not only rich, but a sucker as well. I boarded one luxury bus and when they tried to charge me twice the going rate that I knew of to get to the next town further South, I jumped right back off. The ticket people weren't making any sense either and fortunately a security guard who spoke great English stepped in and offered help. He helped me get a ticket on a mini van that left in ten minutes. I grabbed the front seat and with only a few people in the back, we pulled onto the highway. We were on our way and I might actually be able to catch the night bus to Nah Trang that I hoped to get in Danang. Once on the highway, the bus pulled to a stop. The driver and his assistant spent the next forty five minutes packing people who must be getting some sort of a discount for not going to the bus station into the back. The mini bus was as full as any I have ever been on and the AC was working about as well as most as well.

We finally pulled off towards Danang with our packed mini bus and although the AC was on full blast, I was again sweating profusely. I attempted to crack my window and place my hand out of it to direct some of the air towards my face but the driver didn't seem to like this and decided to roll the window up on my hand. Ouch! Nothing to him. He just kept driving. What a bastard!

We arrived in Danang and were of course bombarded by the motor taxis. I told them I wanted a bus and one took me to his friends bus that he must be getting a commission from. The bus was headed South, leaving in just a few minutes and would reportedly arrive in Nah Trang at five in the morning. I asked if there was a bit later one so I could get some food and the motor taxi man and the bus ticket hawker reminded me that the bus would stop for food in a couple of hours. I thought it to be a good point and agreed to buy the ticket. The price started at about 400,000 dong. Way too much. I had made a similar journey on a similar bus for half that price and wasn't going to pay a penny more. It took persistence and hard negotiating but I managed to get the cost down to 200,000 dong or about $12. A fair price on an all night bus that is complete with full size beds!

Aside from the blaring loud music and comedy show that was on the tv, the bus was perfect! Air con blasting so hard that I needed the blanket provided and my ipod with sleep timer allowed me to sleep through till our dinner break a few hours later. After dinner, I fell back asleep and didn't wake except to shift my position until a man poked me at around 3:15. He said we were in Nah Trang. I gathered up my things and knew that nothing was going to be open, but who cares, I had finally made it to my destination!

When I disembarked from the bus, I was greeted of course by a motor taxi driver who showed me a card for a hotel and said it was only 40,000 dong, the same price he wanted to take me the “very far” five kilometers across town. I got him down to 10,000 dong for the ride and we rode into the dark streets of Nah Trang toward the hotel. The hotel had a security staff and receptionist who were actually awake. I immediately had my doubts to the 40,000 dong this was going to cost. I asked about a room and how much it would be and she replied 400,000 dong! Shocked, I walked out the door. The best price I heard on my way out was 350,00 dong. I do actually think my driver mis understood their prices and had not maliciously brought me there. I told him to take me to the original place I had requested which I knew would not be open but it at least put me in the vicinity of other hotels that I wanted to check out in the morning. He dropped me off at the dark and closed up hotel and of course asked for more money. Entertained by his proposition I just laughed at him and waved him off. He didn't put up much of an argument and left me there on the street. I turned my bags into the bed that they have become so many times before and fell asleep on the ground on the dark and empty streets of Nah Trang. I was finally there after thirty hours of miserable hell and bed or not, I curled up with my small backpack in my arms and fell asleep.

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