I abandoned a bus today, getting off it at the first opportunity. In a land where the highways are generally unsafe – where overtaking on blind corners is considered a right not a risk – I found this driver so certifiably insane that I could not stomach another minute of his madness.
The large town of Dien Bien Phu in northwest Vietnam is very historic but not very attractive. It certainly wasn’t a great place to begin my brief taste of Vietnam, as I fear the bus station experience will be repeated at every vaguely touristed part of this country. The second the doors of the bus from Laos flung open a dozen men crowded the door, and like seagulls chasing a fallen packet of chips they were constantly cawing “motorbike!”, “hotel!”, “where you going?” and sometimes even grasping for my bag. I resolutely pushed through and out of the terminal, knowing that cheap but functional rooms could be had just across the road. After finding somewhere to stay I headed off again to find an internet cafe, a long journey which got me somewhat acquainted with the streets of this place. It wasn’t long before the second sour moment: many kids here call out “hello!” to you when walking past, and I always reply with a cheerful “hello!” and smile in reply. Usually there are smiles all round, perhaps a giggle, then that’s it and we all move on happily. But within minutes of my stroll a young boy calls out “hello”, I reply, then he says “money?” while holding out his hand. It’s unfair to judge a place on such few experiences, but they do put you on a cautious edge quite quickly. At any rate it’s a far cry from the laidback and innocent charm of most of Laos so far…
The military history sights are few and we actually passed some of them on the bus into town, so I was in no mood to hang around longer than one night. Getting up early this morning I went to the bus station and found that a local bus was going all the way to Sapa and beyond, leaving at 6am. Perfect I thought, so I went back to my room, gathered my things and boarded the bus. I was put on alert immediately by the driver’s (let’s call him Satan) pace: it was too fast for the conditions, and we had only just begun. What conditions? Still dark, very foggy, driving down narrow unlit country lanes teeming with dark bicycles and darker pedestrians. Of course you’re going to go as fast as you can in those circumstances.
It wasn’t long until we were out of town and heading up into the hills, where the Overtaking Test would soon tell me what Satan was really going to be like. You inevitably come across slower vehicles and a driver has to make a choice about when to overtake them. In this part of the world, I’ve noted, there is a strong tendency to overtake even if you can’t see very far ahead of you. When we came up behind two army jeeps just as we were approaching a bend, I wondered when Satan would choose to put the foot down. I was stunned to see from the corner of my eye another bus hurtling up from behind us to overtake, in other words it was pulling to the other side of the road to overtake three vehicles in one move, while entering a sharp left-hand bend which you couldn’t see around. Amazing, I thought… then choked when Satan pulled out behind that bus as it swept past and overtook the jeeps as well. Also into a hidden corner.
Don’t these guys have any imagination?? Don’t they wonder that, just possibly, there might be another vehicle coming around the bend towards them as they overtake while entering a blind corner? That’s exactly what did happen to us after just half an hour. Satan pulled out to the left to overtake two scooters that were travelling side-by-side (cars drive on the right here, so pulling to the left is crossing to the other side of the road) just as we were entering a left-hand corner. We were travelling fast and you couldn’t see more than ten metres around the bend. Suddenly a large blue truck appears, heading at speed into the corner and coming directly towards us. By some miracle both drivers manage to feather their brakes and swerve enough to avoid a collision, but it was very, very close. Did this moment cause Satan any pause, did he let up his hellish pace? Nope. We continued to carreen around bends, overtake at will, and hurtle through villages without even slowing down despite numerous kids and cyclists on both sides of the road. I resolved to get off as soon as possible, which unfortunately was not straight away because we were in remote hill country at the time. Another half hour, including a couple more near misses, until we finally hit the village of Muong Cha. As the bus stopped to pick up some more goods I gathered my bags and got off. Satan’s reign of terror was over. And his recklessness didn’t make much of a difference to our travel time: just two minutes after we stopped those two army jeeps puttered past.
I was fully prepared to wait until the next through bus passed by, and didn’t give a damn if I didn’t make it all the way to Sapa in one day. I’d rather get there in one piece, comfortably, than spend another seven hours on a razor’s edge just to save a measly $10. But as I was waiting I started to think “why am I going to Sapa anyway?”. Because it was nearby was the only real answer, but that ignored the fact that at this time of year it’s very cold and often shrouded in mist. The main reason to go there is to enjoy the view, and if you can’t do that then why bother? It also entailed more time on the road, a couple of nights in a relatively expensive tourist town, plus a long overnight train journey down to Hanoi. As I stood in the Muong Cha mist, so thick it felt like rain, I made a snap decision. A slow local bus back to Dien Bien Phu chugged past so I flagged it down and headed back to where I came from. There’s an airport there, I thought, I can hop on a plane and be in Hanoi for dinner. Bugger Sapa.
Unfortunately today’s flight was booked out, but I’ve got a seat tomorrow morning. Rather than spend another night at the dreary but cheap place I stayed last night, I wandered around checking out a few allegedly better places before heading a couple of kilometres out of town to the Him Lam resort hotel. Huge room, fast wifi, restaurant, bar and even a sauna/massage onsite (though it also features karaoke). If I have to spend another night in this place at least it’ll be comfortable. I’m trying not to let my experiences so far colour my opinion of Vietnam in general, but it’s hard. I definitely want to visit Hanoi and also Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay, but I know that whenever I’ve had enough I can be back in Laos within two days. I think it’ll be sooner rather than later…
PS: just in case you think I’m being too cautious about the roads, the latest Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam (July 2009) makes several comments about bus travel here:
“Until recently, few foreign travellers used [buses] because of safety concerns” (p.502)
“Road safety is definitely not one of Vietnam’s strong points … High speed, head-on collisions between buses, trucks and other smaller vehicles (such as motorbikes and bicycles) have become a sickeningly familiar sight on the major highways” (p.505)
“Trains are considered safer than the country’s kamikaze bus fleet” (p.507)