Saigon to Da Lat, Vietnam!

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Fellow Misadventurists! Greetings from Da Lat, Vietnam.

Why are we in Da Lat, an eight hour bus ride up into the mountains, so soon after arriving in Saigon?

To quote Senor Inigo Montoya, let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

After our long flight from Hong Kong to Manila; the afore-mentioned sleepless overnight layover in the stinking basement of the Manila airport watching bad 1970s Filipino exploitation movies; the subsequent, even longer flight over the Pacific from Manila to Saigon; the wait at the baggage carousel in Saigon only to discover that the airline had misplaced the bag with all of my clothing back in Manila, meaning I would be stuck in the reeking clothes I had worn since Hong Kong (sorry Stax!) while they tracked it down and sent it to the airport in Da Lat three days later; the local bus ride from the Saigon airport to the Pham Ngu Lao district and the near loss of my camera on that same bus; the ensuing fifteen minute chase after said bus on the back of a hired motorbike in the oven of midday Saigon, careening over traffic-swarmed bridges and bombing through pedestrian-swarmed riverside shanties, barely clinging to the rear handle, only to find the surprised bus driver lounging at his lunch stop miles away (he had stowed the camera safely behind his seat when he found it) – needless to say, this 24 hours of abject boredom and restless excitement has left us pretty much exhausted, and we need a break in a cooler climate.

So, back in Pham Ngu Lao, we pay the moto driver a few bucks for his trouble and then jump aboard a giant red Phuong Trang sleeper bus to Da Lat.

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Your typical sleeper bus in its wild habitat (parking lot). Image courtesy http://www.sleeperbusvietnam.com

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For those unfamiliar with the various species of Southeast Asian bus, a sleeper bus is the variety with three long rows of seats, top and bottom, which fold out fully horizontal into makeshift bunkbeds, allowing the rider (theoretically) to snooze away the long hours of the trip.

Relaxing, right? Wrong. DEAD WRONG. Image courtesy noplacetobe.com

Relaxing, right? Wrong. DEAD WRONG. Image courtesy noplacetobe.com

Notice I said “theoretically”. This theory – let’s call it the General Theory of Sleep on a Sleeper Bus – holds true only under one condition: if every human element present upon the sleeper bus is somehow controlled for.

For kicks, let’s enter one or more of the following variables into the experiment: the driver barrelling around blind corners directly into the path of giant cement trucks, barely swerving back into the correct lane in time to avoid collision and the fiery demise of all “sleepers” aboard; the driver’s cohorts blasting at top volume (I mean eardrum-splitting, cranked-up-to-11 volume) a musical concoction of pure excrement posing as Vietnamese EDM out of speakers that are conveniently located a foot over the “sleeper’s” prone bodies; the driver steering (I’m only assuming he was steering) with one hand while keeping the other hand constantly pressed to the ear-splitting air horn to helpfully warn motorbike drivers that he is about to run them over; and the fact that most foreign travelers on sleeper buses must settle for the higher top bunk (they tend to give lower seats to locals), meaning that every swerve, sudden brake, and crunching, bottom-out pothole is amplified to crisis levels.

Stax, true to form (as anyone who knows her will tell you), falls asleep almost immediately and barely stirs henceforth. I, with my control freak tendencies and hyper-awareness in moments of extreme danger, have to force myself to find brief moments of rest amidst the barrage. If I am to get any sleep for the rest of our extensive travels, I’ll have to learn to relax in these situations.

The sweltering lowland humidity gives way to the alpine air of the highlands. We glimpse dark forms of mountain ranges. The traffic has let up and and we now pounce upon only the occasional motorbike and bicycle (most leaping suddenly out of the blackness into our view because they have no lights on their bikes in front or in back). I’ll say this about rural Vietnamese commuters: they have some balls).

We manage to arrive in Da Lat at around midnight in one piece.

Well, I say “in Da Lat” loosely, because in one final raised middle finger to the passengers before he drives the cursed bus back down to the Netherworld from whence he came, the driver has dropped us at the farthest bus station, approximately 3 km from where most of us are staying.

For several moments the hapless foreigners stand with their huge bags beside them in the empty station, eyeing the unmarked taxis that wait like silent predators (and which we have been warned to avoid as they have the habit of scamming foreigners outrageously), wondering how we’ll get somewhere we can finally sleep.

Belatedly, help screeches in in the form of a free shuttle (which suspiciously does not bear the name of the bus company, and which nobody from the bus company thought to tell us about), a shuttle that will supposedly take us to our various guesthouses. We load our bags into this van and follow the driver’s finger to the seats. But all the time, my built in scam radar is bleeping wildly due to the warning signs I mentioned before.

I needle the driver:

“Free?” I ask. No answer.

“Free?” I say again, louder, losing precious face by the second. Again, no answer.

“Free or I get off the bus!” I say even louder, thinking that impossibly, he might not have heard me, or that he’s just hoping I’ll give up so he can get a good fare out of us.

Finally someone else – not the driver, who is scrunching down in apparent shame – turns to me and nods.)

In Vietnam for less than 24 hours, I have already managed to shatter the unwritten code of Southeast Asia – the one where everybody stays calm and doesn’t raise a fuss or a holler no matter what, even if heading at that moment over a cliff. I have lost face irretrievably for myself and my entire family past, present, and future. But at least I saved a couple bucks, and I am assured now that this is the right shuttle and not just an opportunist taxi posing as the shuttle.

All is dark at the guesthouse when we arrive. I help the grim-faced driver (who practically spins all the way around to avoid eye contact) unload our bags and he’s off, presumably to a bar to tell his drinking buddies about the horrible American he was just unfortunate enough to pick up.

Luckily the guesthouse owner has waited for us, even though our bus is over 2 hours late. We thank him profusely and head up to the cool and spacious guest room. Sleep overwhelms us seconds later.
TO BE CONTINUED. Next Post: Da Lat!