A few days ago, we came to the realization that cycling the entire length of Vietnam was not only unappealing to us, thanks to the non-stop traffic, but also infeasible due to the duration of our visas. So, having made it to the coast as planned, it's time to hop a train to the Unesco World Heritage city of Hội An.
Inside the train station, we've reached the front of the line at the ticket counter. "Yes?", a lady says, impatiently glaring at me from behind a pane of glass. "We'd like two tickets to Hội An please, and we have two bicycles," I say, gesturing towards our two fully loaded companions, resting against a bench outside.
The lady stands and squints, eying them dubiously through the window. Then she shakes her head.
Train Lady Train expensive, you go by bus!
Me That's okay, we're willing to pay a bit extra.
Train Lady No, you take bus! No train!
Me No, we'd like to go by train. Can we buy tickets please?
Train Lady (smirking) Tickets for you, but no room for bicycles. Maybe room in a week.
*sigh* A week? Really?
After a half hour of trying various tactics with our smirking ticket seller, we are stymied. Just like that, our grand plan for riding the rails up the coastline has been thwarted. Instead, it looks like we'll be joining forces with the enemy: the enormous, honking monstrosity that is a Vietnamese bus.
Pedaling through the coastal city of Na Trang, we roll into the bus station and check the time. We wanted to arrive early to ensure that we'd get our bikes on the bus, and miracle of miracles, we manage to do just that! After a bit of bumbling around, we find the right bus and motion for our bikes to be stowed deep inside the huge, empty belly of the beast.
With the go-ahead from the driver and luggage-handler, I begin the process of loading everything into the undercarriage. The guys are friendly and patient, lending a hand with the procedure, making what could potentially be a nightmare into a total non-issue. In the end, I have to remove our front wheels to make the bikes fit, but outside of that, loading is a breeze.
Grasping a tiny plastic bag with my sandals inside, I pad down a narrow aisle in my socks, picking which pod I'd like to inhabit this evening. This is the strangest bus I've ever seen! I'd sort of hoped this sleeper might resemble Harry Potter's knight bus…
…but the coach on wheels is of a different fantasy variety altogether. This is more like what I'd imagine a space bus to feel like. The beds are short and narrow, and the foot area doubles as luggage storage. It's a good thing we're not tall!
The cabin reeks of mothballs, and is quickly filling up. Laying down in our plastic beds, we settle in and try to get comfortable for the overnight ride.
As we hurtle down the road in a manner strikingly similar to Harry Potter's ride, our driver lays on the horn at every opportunity, and blasts music videos on stereos and TVs throughout the bus. In an effort to combat the cacophony, we plug in our headphones and listen to ambient music that only adds to the trippy atmosphere of our transport.
Hey Sis! 03/22/2011
Remember that time a few months back, when we chatted on Skype, and I told you I was on a weird space bus? Well, this was it, and here I am in the photo, talking to you! I was way more thrilled to talk to you than I appear. :p
I can't wait to get home so I can see you in person and give big fat hugs to you and Paul and Eli.
The rest of the night is a blurry cocktail of slumber, fleeting wakefulness, and exceedingly strange dreams. Everywhere around us, in their own little sleeping modules, in the aisles, and on the floor, people drift off under a faint blue glow cast by the lights in the bus.
A few times during the night I awaken to find we're high above the sea; the ocean is shimmering under alien blue fishing lights that radiate out on the water. It reminds me of the squid boats of Phú Quốc. The next time I wake up, we're stopped at a restaurant, open just for night buses like ours, at the late hour of 1 AM.
I take the opportunity to breathe some cool fresh air, a nice change from mothballs, and then find a quiet place to pee that isn't the one-foot-square cubicle of our bus.
I'm roused from my stasis pod by the rustling sounds of packing, and the touch of the driver who roams the aisles, nudging people, saying Hội An Hội An Hội An. Groggy and bleary-eyed, Tara and I grab our things and shuffle outside, shoving our feet clumsily into our sandals and taking stock of the situation.
We've been deposited in front of a hotel whose lights glow yellow in an otherwise pitch-black, pre-dawn world. Swarms of motor-bike touts descend on our sleepy herd of backpackers with their incessant mantra of "where you go" while the hotel's proprietress makes the rounds, boasting the merits of her accommodation.
I have no idea where exactly we are or what time it is, but it doesn't matter. We have a GPS and our own transport, and as soon as we get the bikes put back together, we'll be out of here.
While I reassemble the bicycles under the dim light of a fading headlamp, Tara unloads all ten pieces of our luggage from the belly of the bus. Meanwhile, the proprietress hovers, insisting that we stay at her guest-house. When our bikes are ready to go, I am glad to be finished politely refusing her offers.
Cycling away from the space bus, thankful to be under our own power again, we ride a few kilometers towards the center of town. By the time we arrive and begin keeping our eyes peeled for places to stay, the skies have turned from black to gray to pink. A new day begins.