We were in the city of Hue in the middle of Vietnam. We were trying to get to Hai Phong in the north to meet our friends, Jay and Bill, who were visiting us from the United States. We were to meet them in Hai Phong and then take the morning ferry to the island of Cat Ba where we would spend a few days exploring. The plan was to book a couple of berths on the train to Hanoi and then take another train to the coast and Hai Phong. There was only one problem. It was the week before Tet and we were having trouble finding space on the train.
Tet is Vietnamese New Year. It is the biggest holiday of the year in Vietnam. It’s like combining Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve into one, multi-day holiday. There are two things that happen every year: In many parts of the country damn near everything shuts down and everyone goes home for the holiday. Now, this isn’t like Thanksgiving in the US where people drive or fly home a couple of days before the holiday. Folks head home weeks in advance. Trains fill up fast.
We had arrived in Saigon three weeks ahead of Tet. Our first stop was to the ticket agent to book our berths for our trip to Hue and then onward to Hanoi. There were a couple of problems. The only sleeper berths available were for tickets that went all the way to Hanoi. You can’t jump on and off. We decided to pay the extra money and would just get off when we got to our first destination. The second leg from Hue to Hanoi was slightly more problematic. None of the larger sleeping berths were available, only the smaller ones as well as regular seats. Not the best prospect for a long train ride. Since there were plenty of seats available we didn’t feel the need to hurry up and make a decision. We figured an opportunity would present itself and if it didn’t we’d book a seat and make the trip.
While we were working our way up the coast we took buses for some of our shorter trips. The buses weren’t bad. They had these little compartment spaces that weren’t exactly seats and weren’t exactly beds. I didn’t fit, but they could have been worse.They had a row across the back where it appeared I would have more room. I started to wonder if there was a bus that went straight from Hue to Hai Phong. Instead of screwing with two trains and getting from one side of Hanoi to the other we could take one bus straight to where we needed to go.
After some time researching on the internet I found that there was one company that operated a bus on that particular route. Hoang Long had a bus that covered the distance in just over 12 hours. It would leave in the late afternoon and arrive after breakfast. And if that wasn’t enough, I could book tickets and choose our seats online. It would be a shorter trip and we wouldn’t have to bother with maneuvering through Hanoi. I booked the tickets and to be extra careful we went out to the bus station the day before we were supposed to leave to ensure we had seats and everything was hunky dory.
The red flags began almost immediately. There were phone calls made. I’m not sure if our bus was canceled or running late but our bus would now be leaving at 7:30pm instead of 5:30pm. No problem. We were going to check our bags at our hotel and wander around the city until it was time to leave. This gave us a couple more hours. We would still get to Hai Phong with plenty of time to spare.
We spent the day touring temples outside of Hue. We grabbed dinner and then our bags and took a taxi to the bus station. The sun was setting but much of the station was already closed for the evening. Most of the ticket offices were closed and the lights in the lobby, which opened up to the outside on both sides of the building, were off. Some people were scattered waiting, perhaps for our bus. Some buses from other companies came through.
7:30 came. No bus. 7:45. 8:00. The Hoang Long ticket office was one of the few with an employee still working. I went in to ask about the bus. I showed him the ticket and he shook his head “no”. It now wasn’t going to arrive until 10:00. We had all of our gear. We didn’t have anywhere to go. There was nothing to do but wait. Julie read and I walked laps around the building.
10:00pm arrived. No bus. 10:15. 10:30. I went back into the office. The bus wasn’t going to arrive now until 12:30am. 7 hours after its originally scheduled time. The chance of making the morning ferry in Hai Phong was fading fast. There was a second ferry in the afternoon.
The station bathrooms were closed. The office had one and the young man working was nice enough to let us use it. More people filtered through the station as a handful of other buses came and went.
12:30 finally arrived and shortly thereafter our bus. There was one other passenger waiting. The three of us made our way into the parking lot looking forward to finally being on our way. The bus driver seemed surprised by the presence of two giants and their backpacks wanting to get on the bus. I think he was trying to argue that there wasn’t room. The guy who had been working in the office was having none of it and disappeared onto the bus. He emerged a couple minutes later telling us to climb aboard and bring our backpacks. I pointed to the luggage bins under the bus and asked if we could put our stuff below. No, there was no room.
That’s when it dawned on me. Finally. If the trains are jammed pack full of people because of Tet, why wouldn’t the buses be as well? The other buses we had taken were only regional buses. This one ran the length of the country. All of the seats were full. And so were all of the aisles. I had booked seats in the back row thinking that it would allow more space for us. We had to walk down the left aisle of the bus more or less in the dark carrying all of our gear and tiptoeing trying not to step on any of the half-awake folks lying in the aisle. Worried that one of my massive hiking boots that were tied on my backpack would swing and hit someone in the head.
Upon reaching the back we found our area that was three seats across. It was far tighter than I expected. There was more room on Apollo 11. There were no overhead racks so we piled our backpacks on the already existing pile of luggage leaned up against the bathroom door. The toilet was out of commission so the luggage wasn’t going anywhere. I felt bad for the dude who was in there with us. When he boarded the bus he wasn’t expecting to have to sleep next to Lurch.
Julie was not happy. I wasn’t exactly thrilled. I was glad to be on our way, but I was having a hard time picturing being in such a confined space and unable to move for over 12 hours. The roads were bumpy on the way out of Hue which was great if you were lying over the back axel of a bus with bad shocks. I settled in and tried to prepare myself for the journey.
Fortunately the first hours of the trip were the worst. I was trying desperately not to fall asleep as I was using all my faculties to keep my body within my space. Whenever I started to nod off my limbs wanted to spread out. I didn’t want to roll the wrong way and curl up on the poor bastard next to me. The seat/bed was at an incline so with every bump I would slide down and would have to constantly push myself up to unbend my legs.
After the sun came up we made our first stop: A restaurant way station. There was no front wall or door, it just opened onto the street. Tile floors and wooden tables leading back to the kitchen and some bathrooms. Everyone piled off the bus. Since we were in the back, and I had to unfold myself out of our seating area, we were the last ones off the bus. It was dark and most people were asleep when we got on so this was the first time a majority of the passengers got a good look at us. Looks of disbelief and confusion. Why were these people on the bus? HOW were these people on the bus? These people are HUGE!
The first order of business for everyone? Brushing our teeth. Try to picture me and ten Vietnamese guys who are mostly a foot shorter than me standing together at a large L shape wash basin brushing our teeth together. Curious glances upwards in the mirror. Me with a big dumb grin on my face, “Hey, how’s it goin’?”
At least the meals on the ride were free. Everyone sat down at the restaurant and the workers brought out breakfast which in Vietnam is a big bowl of noodle soup. No complaints here. It was average for Vietnam but that’s still pretty damn good.
After breakfast we got up from the table and headed to the front to stand outside and stretch for a bit. A guy sitting near us got up from his table and ran after us. He grabbed my arm, stood next to me, put his hand on top of his head and slid it over to mark the spot on my arm. He then stepped away to observe, looking back at his friends in astonishment.
Luckily this was the final destination for some of the passengers. The guy next to me was able to move up top with his friends and we had a little bit more space to stretch out. The sun was up. We had eaten. We had used the bathroom. Twice. Things were looking up until I looked at my phone. While we had been on the bus for over six hours, what would normally be half way from a time perspective, the little blue dot on Google Maps told a different story. “I don’t think we are going to get there in 12 hours.”
The rain and gray clouds sapped the northern Vietnam landscape of its usual green vibrancy. As the day dragged on and the delays mounted the bus began to clear out a bit more. After a while Julie was able to move out of our capsule and into one of the regular seats. I was able to spread out across all three capsule seats.
Did I mention that our friends meeting us in Hai Phong were a surprise? I knew. Julie didn’t. I had known for weeks and hadn’t slipped. I had been texting Jay and Bill to let them know that we would be arriving late and wouldn’t make the ferry. They were already in Hai Phong so they set about finding accommodations. All I could tell Julie was that I had found a place to stay online.
I was able to keep my phone charged through the day with brief fill ups when we stopped for food. A thoroughly modern moment: when we stopped for lunch nearly everyone exited the bus with their phone in one hand and the power cable in the other. We all scrambled to the nearest wall in the restaurant prospecting for outlets. Fortunately there were more than enough for everyone. Power oases formed at tables every twelve feet or so.
I had tried to find the name of the bus station where we would be arriving so our friends could meet us. Because after a nineteen hour bus ride what you want to hear is, “Welcome to Hai Phong, Honey. By the way, surprise! Jay’s here!” There were several miscommunications and they were not there when we arrived. It was dark. We were hungry. There was a main street a few blocks away with taxis. But I had to find a reason to stall. Bill sent me a text that they were en route.
“Why are we waiting?”
“There should be a taxi along.”
“From the hotel?”
I saw a taxi stop a block away and two people get out and look around. It was Jay and Bill. Their driver had taken them to the wrong address. I wanted to get their attention but running down the street shouting seemed like bad form so I hoped they would continue down the street. They did a U-turn and left. Another text arrives. “We can’t find you. Take a taxi.” We walked a couple blocks and grabbed a taxi to the hotel.
The big reveal began with a grand entrance on the large staircase that occupied the middle of the hotel lobby, followed by short salutations and Julie’s understanding of my behavior.
“It was supposed to be a surpise,” I said shrugging my shoulders.
Hugs and greetings. They had paid for the room so we didn’t have to go to the desk. They escorted us upstairs and showed us in. On display were their gifts: A large bag of Q-tips. My request. A bottle of bourbon. Also my request. Hotel soap and slippers from the airplane.
Too exhausted to be excited, our party increased from two to four and we went out in search of dinner and drinks. Our night ended in the most traditional of Vietnamese ways, with us sitting on tiny plastic chairs on the sidewalk drinking beer. Content with the relief of being with friends and the realization that our next several days would generate some stories to tell. The next morning we caught our ferry to Cat Ba.