It has been said that life is about the journey, not the destination. I would like to add an asterisk to this statement, as it does not apply if the journey involves a long-distance Vietnamese bus ride.
I’ve traveled through Vietnam on nearly 20 buses to and from Phnom Penh, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Sapa and more. Each experience has been a unique test of my mental breaking point.
As a frequent passenger of the Greyhound and Megabus, I thought I had conquered every imaginable horror of the long-distance bus experience. Little did I know that the stale smell of greasy rest stop aftermaths and really pissed off babies was just an introduction to the discomforts of traveling via a budget bus.
First, there is the ordeal of locating the pickup station. Each one is more illegitimate and random than the next. Rarely is there an actual bus station. “Bus stations” may be found outside of a photocopy store, next to a landfill or inside a random resident’s personal garage. If you get the sense you’re in the wrong place to catch a bus, chances are you’re in the right place.
Everything in Vietnam is small by U.S. standards, so limited space on a bus is expected. But certain buses take making the most of a small space way too far. The “sleeping bus” crams three rows of reclined bunk “beds” separated by two narrow aisles into the space of a normal bus’s interior. There is no room to sit upright and even my 5-foot-1 frame can’t fully stretch out.
On one occasion, I was thrown into a panic by the thought of spending six hours in such a small space and bolted out of my seat into the even more cramped aisle, screaming that there was no air. I endured a silent panic attack for the remainder of that trip and by no coincidence found the fetal position to be the most comfortable.
But I’m not alone in my bus anxiety. Everybody sits — typically repulsively smelly and painfully sunburnt — silently in his or her own private hell.
One friend who suffered bladder pain from holding it for too long was denied a roadside stop and intentionally wet himself in the bus seat out of desperation and spite for the unsympathetic drivers. Another shed a single tear when she was assigned a seat in the back row, where passengers lie shoulder-to-shoulder, closer than twins in a womb.
The buses themselves are paradoxes of technology. They teeter from side to side as if a mild gust of wind could send them tipping or the wheels might fall off at any moment. Yet, the speaker systems are top quality with a bass adept for blaring Vietnamese EDM — better known as “doof doof” music — which always seems to turn on in the critical moment of limbo before sleep comes.
Some buses require passengers to remove their shoes before entering. In one instance when I was particularly eager to get off the bus, I had the audacity to put my shoes back on before reaching the front of the bus to save time.
The driver’s eyes grew wide and full of fury. He grabbed a plank and started smacking my sandaled feet. I weakly apologized, “xin lỗi,” which didn’t help my predicament. Unsatisfied with hitting my feet, he whacked my legs and knees with increasing rage. I stood there, stupefied, taking it because it was clear to me at that point that I had violated a cultural norm. I felt somewhat deserving of the beating, although to be fair, it was a bus, not sacred grounds.
The buses violently cruise through traffic, up mountains and around nauseating turns, making motorbike drivers visibly upset. Roads often limit buses to about 40 mph, so lengthy trips pass by excruciatingly slow.
But then the bus pulls over to some obscure side street, signifying its arrival. Hostile passengers step off and gradually regain the will to live after realizing they have made it. Finally, there is fresh air and freedom and personal space. Locals reunite with family, and travelers feel the rush of being in unfamiliar streets. All is forgiven. And in a few days, paying $5 to $15 to take another 4- to 10-hour bus ride home or to the next destination seems like a fine idea. After all, the journey is not the destination, at least for cheapskates.