There are few things worse than taking the bus from Vientiane to Hanoi. Scooping your own eyes out with a rusty spoon? Drowning in quicksand? Or watching the sequel to 50 Shades of Grey perhaps.
When it comes to our worst ever transport nightmare, nothing compares to our 25 hour, overnight sleeper-bus from Vientiane (Laos) to Hanoi (Vietnam).
We’re no strangers to long journeys. We’ve been on a 32-hour bus from Peru to Ecuador (not quite a journey from hell – more like a journey in purgatory), countless 8+ hour flights on a variety of decrepit airplanes, grubby greyhounds down the east coast of Australia and more recently a tortuous two-day slow boat from Thailand into Laos. It seemed logical then, that a 22 hour bus journey (where you can simply lay down and sleep for the night) would be a piece of cake! So we had no qualms about booking our tickets the night before we were due to leave Vientiane.
The main reason we opted for the overnight bus to Hanoi rather than taking the 2-hour flight is quite simple – cost. The bus from Vientiane to Hanoi costs £22 whereas the cheapest flight we could find was nearly £90. We each saved over £68 by taking the bus which easily paid for our accommodation in Hanoi.
It really is quite expensive to fly out of Laos, especially considering how cheap other south East Asian counties are – but I’m pretty sure they still get many takers, especially those who have experienced the Vientiane to Hanoi night bus border-crossing from hell…
It all started so well! We were picked up from the hostel on time and dropped off at the bus terminal (which was a good 30 minutes outside Vientiane city centre) with about 20 minutes to spare. Sarah was rather ill from the other end of her system (probably due to our own cooking class!) but things were settling down and a lie down on a nice soft seat bed for the night might be just what the doctor ordered.
Upon arrival we were placed in front of two buses, each were perhaps 30 years old, definitely past their prime and both going to Hanoi from Vientiane. The bus on the left was sagging on its wheel arches, the suspension not bearing up well under the weight as box after box was loaded into the luggage space, whereas the bus on the right looked as though it had tried to play chicken with a large tree and lost miserably.
The whole front-right portion of the screen was caved-in and splintered with cracks spreading the length of the windshield. It reminded me of an iPhone screen that had been smashed at the corner and the resulting cracks now distorted the keyboard so much so that the English characters looked more like Chinese symbols.
The bus station was definitely not the nicest place in the world, but there were plenty of food vendors around and about so we made sure to stock up on carbohydrate snacks, water and some extra toilet paper (for Sarah – just in case). We then waited for the bus to leave on it’s terrible journey from Vientiane to Hanoi which was perhaps only 45 minutes late – not bad for SE Asian standards.
We much preferred a small jolt to the spine every now and again to almost certain death
You can imagine our delight as we were shown onto the bus on the left! In our hearts we much preferred a small jolt to the spine every now and again to almost certain death from a driver who might mistake road signs for dancing dragons and swerve off the road into a mountain.
We took our positions on two lovely bed-seats towards the rear of the bus (a good place to be). Across the aisle from us was a rather cheerful monk, dressed up in his traditional orange he was constantly grinning and obviously enjoying his journey. We set off into the approaching night at the start of our 22 hour journey on the Vientiane to Hanoi bus.
It was like sharing a bed with a cave troll
It was after perhaps only 3 hours of driving when our relaxing journey started to slowly unravel. The snoring from the back started slowly at first but 5 minutes later the decibels had steadily increased to biblical proportions. It was the kind of snoring you just couldn’t ignore. It was like sharing a bed with a cave troll. It was after 11pm and I was contemplating sleep but the noise! It was just unbearable! I turned around to have a look and sure enough, I could see a large head in the darkness slumped forward at an odd angle, clearly oblivious to the tortuous sounds issuing from its own face.
Fortunately, we only had to put up with the snoring for another 10 minutes when (thank the lord!) the entire row of front-left tyres blew out – all at the same time! The initial explosion and resulting grinding noise (as the driver accidentally continued driving for a further 100 meters) woke the sleeping giant and the abusive snoring immediately stopped!
Unfortunately we now had another problem, our bus had stopped in the middle of the road in the pitch black and it looked as though it wasn’t going to be repaired any time soon. Rather than going to sleep, I stayed awake worrying about whether we’ll be going to Vietnam at all! I could see the staff members of the bus (they seem to have about 5 per bus) gathering sticks and branches and placing them up and down the road in the direction of traffic. It took me a while to realise that these branches were to ward off other motorists, a primitive line of cones if you will.
Perhaps an hour and a half later we were told to get off the bus. Thinking a backup vehicle had finally arrived, we happily and sleepily picked up our bags along with the 30 other people and wandered outside into the pitch black night. Parked up rather neatly behind our broken bus was another ready to pick us up. Although this bus looked as though it had tried to play chicken with a tree and failed miserably. Sure enough, under closer inspection it was the bus on the right from Vientiane bus station!
Rather than worry too much about this we were instead rather glad that we’d actually be able to continue our journey to Hanoi. We deposited our bags and climbed inside. To our horror we walked onto an already jam-packed bus! Every seat was taken, every space was covered. Every head on those comfortable looking beds peeked up from their pillows and glared at us in disgust! We were inconveniencing them. We had interrupted their 1am slumber and they were not happy about it.
Sardines have it easier than this
Obviously this is some mistake we thought. Obviously they can only take a few here and another bus will come to our rescue? These hopes were dashed when the staff started to indicate that we should sit down. Sit down in the aisle.
We were now 60 people packed into a bus meant only for 30. All the newcomers, Sarah and I included, had to sit on the hard floor of the isle cross-legged as we desperately tried to figure out how the hell we were going to survive the next 15 hours. Sardines have it easier than this!
And so began 4 hours of one of the most horrendous bus journeys we’ve ever experienced. From wherever we were in Laos to the Vietnam border. This was by far the worst part of our Vientiane to Hanoi bus trip… in fact, of any bus trip we’ve taken.
The roads alone were terrible, but combine that with the fact that you’re lying on top of a rock hard floor with a knee in your back and a hand across you’re ear while two other people are competing over who gets to use your feet as a pillow it soon gets even worse.
The unjustness of it is even more frustrating. We paid the same as everyone else on this bus. All the sleeping people in their comfy beds on the top bunks, with their plump pillows and warm blankets and enough space to stretch their tires limbs. Yet there we were, concertina’d like a folding fan, cold, blanket-less, pillow-less and where Sarah and I lay, over 7 abreast in a space designed for 4. Every twist and turn on the road resulted in either an elbow to the eye or an inappropriate brush against a strangers groin.
In a word it was uncomfortable, and it was with great relief that we finally stopped at the border along with over 50 other buses at around 4am. We used this time to catch some sleep, perhaps an hour – at the most two.
At around 6:30am we climbed out of the bus, stepping on, as much as over our fellow unfortunate slumbering passengers and searched for a toilet in one of the miltitary-esque buildings that form the very serious-looking Laos-Vietnam border.
The border opened at 7am, so it was actually good fortune that we found ourselves in the immigration office at 7:02am before many of the locals. That’s didn’t help however when all of the local bus drivers handed stacks of passports through the window completely with a little monetary sweetener. We found that our position at the head of the queue counted for absolutely nothing. We were told by some helpful locals that us westerners were better off piling our passports together and handing them in one big lump. Still, we were the first time not the office and the last to leave with our passport stamps.
As many people have mentioned previously in blogs about their Vientiane to Hanoi bus experience, the Laos-Vietnam border is very discriminatory against foreigners. Or perhaps I should say racist against white westerners. Even though our battered bus had made it over the Laos border exit, the 8 of us who were white European had to walk a good 20 minutes in the freezing cold across no mans land to get the the Vietnam border, all the while the SE Asian passengers were riding the bus. At first we thought it was policy for non-ASEAN passport holders but two fellow Brits who couldn’t speak a word of Vietnamese but who obviously had Asian blood in the family were given a free ride.
We found ourselves at the Vietnam border and paid the two dollars to get the stamp and then proceeded to wait for our bus to be declared. This took approximately 3 hours. In fact, we had to watch every other bus, truck and car pass us by as the customs officers poured over every single box of coconut milk they found hidden between seats and stashed under spare tyres. You see it wasn’t just passengers they were cramming on like sardines. For some reason there were over 200 boxes of coconut milk and various other strange items such as Tefal slow-cookers that were making their way into Vietnam. The customs officers did not like this at all and so kept us waiting the full 3 hours while they tore open every single packet.
Needless to say we thought they were looking for either drugs or hidden people but after the full 3 hours they let us continue on our bus journey to Hanoi without a word.
At this point our luck turned and we found out that a lot of locals had (sensibly) spurned the bus at the border which left two seats for Sarah and myself! (Albeit in the Aisle again)
11 hours later and we pulled up in Hanoi. Our backs aching and stiff but thankful to be there at all. Stepping off the bus in he dark we were immediately surrounded by taxi drivers offering their services. Too tired to argue and not having a Vietnamese SIM card we didn’t know where we were – we only had a hotel name so we had to agree to a taxi.
The first sign we had that we’d made a mistake was when the taxi driver led our group of westerners down an alleyway across a road and under a bridge to his waiting car. He then whistled to 4 other drivers and our group of westerners was split up into 4 different cars. We didn’t like this one bit, knowing that we were going to be overcharged but the taxi driver insisted that it was going to be charged by on the meter. Like fools we agreed and Sarah and I climbed into the taxi for the 25 minute journey that cost us 700.000 dong. Which is roughly $25. It should have cost us $6. We were ripped off by a seriously rigged meter.
However when he dropped us off we were too pissed off and tied to argue and just wanted to go to sleep. It was the 13th February. Valentine’s Day and our anniversary was tomorrow and we splashed out on a £20 a night luxury hotel for the occasion. So we paid up in full (like fools) and stepped into the Hotel.
It was nearing 9pm when we walked into our pre-booked hotel only to be told by the receptionist that our room wouldn’t be read until gone 10pm. At this moment I blew up somewhat and demanded all sorts of things that I simply can’t remember right now. The end result being that she offered us a room in a sister hotel across the street. This is a known scam in Vietnam and we were despairing that we were going to be scammed out of money twice in as many minutes.
Thankfully this hotel swap in fact turned out to be genuine and at the end of our stay there was no overcharging or anything untoward. We actually ended up loving our stay in Hanoi and our hatred for Vietnam soon mellowed into a reluctant liking then blossomed into an infatuation.
So there you have it – a bus journey from hell capped off with a lovely stay in Hanoi. It would be enough to stop anyone from taking a sleep bus again but as I write this we are steadily speeding down the east coast of Vietnam from Nimh Binh towards Dong Hoi, split up and crammed into small beds. Why? Because it was cheap of course! Our advice if you’re not penny pinching though would be to avoid the Vientiane to Hanoi bus at all costs!