After some long discussions and lots of hypothetical mapping, we've decided to catch another bus. This time, we're headed all the way to Hanoi. While we could likely ride there before our visas run out, it wouldn't leave us much time to renew them—assuming that is even possible. Once we arrive in the city, we'll find out of we can get another extension, then decide what to do next.
There must have been some miscommunication; the bus was supposed to pick us up at the hotel, but there is a minivan parked outside where a giant, diesel-hogging people carrier should be. A few backpackers are busy loading their gear into it, but there is no room for our bikes whatsoever, and there wouldn't be, even if we were the only passengers.
This tense moment is eased by the driver agreeing to drive very slowly so we can follow his lead to the station. Thankfully, we only need trail the van for two kilometers, before everyone piles out of it at what is apparently the bus stop, but looks to be any old curb.
An enormous bus is rumbling at a stand still, and we can see as we ride up that it is full. A crowd of at least thirty people is attempting to board the vehicle, and most are being turned away. There are a lot of unhappy, exasperated faces in the mob.
When we join the fray, trying to figure out what is going on, an older, graying Italian man shakes his head in frustration. Then he turns to Tara and confesses: "Thees is the worst-a vacation I have ever had!" Poor guy. As soon as he says this, the bus pulls away, leaving us all behind. We're left wondering if we've just missed our ride to Hanoi, until an attendant appears to tell us that another will be along shortly.
After about ten minutes of waiting, another space bus pulls up to the curb. It too looks mostly full, but we're determined to get seats on it. Quickly mobilizing, we begin loading our panniers and bikes into the undercarriage with the help of someone running the bus.
While the crowd of backpack-toting travelers jockey for position, squeezing and maneuvering through the narrow aisle, vying for their own seat, the attendants helps us finish loading our bicycles and then usher us onto the crowded vehicle in front of everyone waiting. We're awestruck. For once, having bicycles actually helped us get on board something!
This time around, we're placed, not in individual spacey lounge chairs like everyone else, but in a three-person shelf at the back of the bus. It's a little weird at first, and it feels awkward that we can't sit up, but in the end we decide we like it better than the regular lay-back seats. It's secluded here, more comfortable for sleeping, and we can stretch out next to one another.
There is a middle aged Vietnamese man laying next to us, but being crammed into small spaces with strangers seems like part of the territory when we're not traveling under our own power. Also, we get the impression that privacy is not Vietnam's strong suit. But, we have a full length window at our side, and all in all, our little den is quite comfortable.
While we settle in for an evening in our little cubby, the bus is rumbling out of town, honking all the way. Prepared for the 8+ hour ride, we snuggle up together, plug in our headphones, and zone out into a marathon viewing of our new favorite show: Victorian Farm.
Carefully climbing over numerous sleeping people, I arrive at the tiny onboard bathroom and slip my socked feet into the plastic sandals provided. Opening the hatch-like door, a foul stench of ammonia assaults my face, causing me to wince and gag. And then I see it: the toilet is FULL of bright yellow pee, sloshing around with every minor adjustment of the bus' steering wheel.
Urine spills out onto the floor, splattering like ocean spray. As the walls rock around me and the pee churns in its porcelain, I feel like I'm no longer on a bus, but on a small ship in the raging sea during a violent storm. I hold onto the doorway, gagging at the site before me, trying to keep my footing as the driver veers left and right.
The floor is flooded with a half an inch of urine. If the ride were smooth, this wouldn't be so awful, since the plastic bathroom slippers provided come with a bit of a heel. Instead, the turbulent ride turns the liquid into a three-inch tidal wave that crashes back and forth, over an over and over. Each time a wave approaches, I cringe and squeal and whimper like a puppy, lifting my legs to avoid it.
It's the frigging Titanic in here, and it's all I can do not to lose my balance. At one point, one of the tidal waves splashes over my sandals, soaking into my socks. I almost break into tears, utterly disgusted by this entire experience, traumatized by the fact that I now have a cocktail of other people's pee soaking into my feet.
I feel dirty and tainted and defiled, but what is there to do? I exit the closet-sized, pee-filled hell hole, kicking off the sandals in disgust. Then, I carefully remove my socks, keeping my fingers only on the dry parts.
It is the middle of the night and we're barreling down an inky black highway towards Hanoi. At the front of the bus, I can see the windshield wipers gyrating wildly, splashing back and forth as they fling away the sheeting rain. Watching the road through a tunnel of upright supports for the sleeping pods all around us feels a bit like looking through a pair of binoculars backwards.
Feeling woozy, I lay back down and try to fall asleep while a man snores softly to my right. To my left, Tara fidgets, mumbling something unintelligible, and then settles in to sleep once more. Even though everyone seems to be asleep, Vietnamese music videos are playing loudly throughout the cabin; they've been going non-stop since we got on. With a sigh, I plug in my headphones and try to get some rest. Dawn will come soon enough.