We've hardly been on the road an hour when our bus executes a wide left turn into a roadside restaurant parking lot. Lit up like a beacon in the night, the place has drawn a herd of giant coaches just like ours. They've all stopped here to fuel their passengers in preparation to fan out across the country, delivering them to distant destinations
Neither of us is hungry, so we're tempted to stay on-board. Our driver has other plans, however—before we can get too comfortable, he shuffles down the aisle and shoos us off the bus with this halting command: "Stop 20 minute. EAT!" Too exhausted to contest much of anything, we smile and acquiesce, following him back down the aisle, into the open-front restaurant.
The place is packed to the gills with customers from different night buses, but the overall atmosphere is surprisingly quiet. Vietnamese men talk in hushed tones at one table, their smoke hanging in the air, while a group of girls eye us, the falangs, and begin to giggle. Not knowing when our next stop will be, we decide it would be wise to take advantage of the food while we have it.
We don't have much dong (Vietnamese currency) left, having changed most of it over to Lao Kip earlier in the day, but luckily, we have just enough for a plate of chicken and rice, or guhm ga. As always, we pronounce it wrong and wind up with something altogether different.
We end up with a bowl of fish in a broth that sincerely smells more of feces than anything we would identify as food. We've encountered this once before, as long white strips of something, maybe fermented bamboo shoots? Whatever the vegetable, it is in this broth, and it makes it unappetizing, if not inedible.
Having encountered stranger meals, we're unfazed—we pick at the fish and joke about the poop-flavored food, happy to know this will be our last bungled Vietnamese meal. Before we leave, we take the opportunity to use the bathroom, since our overnight bus doesn't have one. The dingy hole-in-the-ground squat toilet stalls smell just about as inviting as our food did.
I can't sleep. Tara is passed out across the aisle, mouth hanging open, bouncing around like a rag doll while our bus navigates uneven roads through the mountains. Vietnamese radio (or is it Lao?) is playing loudly; a relaxing, carnival-like tune. It is raining fiercely, and nobody but the driver and I are awake, hurtling through the night towards the border of Laos.