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Hacktreks 2

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Hacktreks in Asia

Take The Bus
Joe Sinclair in Vietnam

The conductor leant out of the open door, whooping to attract customers. If he spotted someone with luggage – anyone it seemed – he would yell for the driver to stop, then coax, bully and drag them onto the minibus. I had been the first victim of the day and we had already been driving up and down the main street for almost an hour. The bus was still half empty.
The driver had assured me that I was on the right bus, but I was growing increasingly suspicious, not least because he had readily agreed to what I thought was a very low fare. I unfolded my map and, not for the first time, tried gleaning some information from a fellow passenger.
"Does this bus go to Danang? Danang?"
The man moved his head vaguely. Was that a nod or a shake? And if it was a shake did he mean "I don`t understand" or "Not Danang"? Or was he just trying to avoid the question.
By this time I was trapped in the back corner of the bus. If I was going to take a ten hour bus ride I wanted to make sure it was going in the right direction. I weighed the evidence – not just a surprisingly low fare but also fellow passengers (with conspicuously little luggage) who were sheepish under questioning.
Deciding to cut my losses, I climbed out of the side window and pulled my rucksack out of the boot. The driver only made a half-hearted attempt to stop me, which was assurance enough that I had made the right decision.

Stomping down the street back to the bus station I began to wonder why I insisted on taking the local transport. For the past three weeks I had stubbornly refused to get on the tourist bus, opting instead for over-crowded rattle-traps. I had had countless disputes over fares and was twice dropped at the wrong destination. Moreover, I was going out of my way to get on these buses: the local bus stations tend to be located outside the tourist centers, whereas the tourist bus will pick you up right outside your hotel.
By the time I reached the bus station I was sweating heavily, but I was already reflecting on the morning’s little adventure with an amused smile. Besides, I’m in Kon Tum in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, I reflected, and there are no tourist buses.
My amusement was crushed mercilessly by the sour faced lady at the ticket office. The one bus to Danang left at 6.30 a.m. Due to my little adventure on the minibus I was over an hour late and would have to wait until tomorrow.

Most travelers in Vietnam shun local transport in favor of a tourist bus. The tourist buses are Japanese-made, comfortable and air-conditioned. They are also faster, more convenient and safer (although you still get the thrill of overtaking on blind corners).
In Vietnam the divide between local and tourist class is particularly prevalent as ready packaged tours abound. Tourist hotels and cafes offer a range of tours of various lengths. They will happily shepherd you and your group anywhere from the water world of the Mekong Delta in the south, to the scenic ethnic minority villages of the North East.
Traveling the 2700 km stretch between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi is made easy with the purchase of an open ticket. You can take the bus along the coastal road, hopping on and off at any of the key tourist destinations. Relax on the white sand beaches in Nha Trang, have a new wardrobe tailored for you in the quaint riverside town of Hoi An, or explore the royal tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty in the ancient capital of Hue.
The tourist bus also gives you a good chance to talk to other travelers. But hang on a minute! There are only other travelers. Sitting in your air-conditioned pod, looking out of the tinted window at the Vietnamese farmers waist deep in rice paddies, you may well wonder what happened to your Vietnam experience. The comfy tourist bus can create an uncomfortable feeling of segregation.

The local bus is slow. Not only do you have to find the bus station, you often have to wait for the bus to fill up. And once you get going the bus will probably make frequent stops to overload new passengers and produce into the isle.
On one journey – traveling what I thought was a short 135km between Moc Bai and the Old Quarter in Hanoi – I experienced both an impounding and a puncture. The impounding was at the hands of the local constabulary, whose inspection methods consisted of prodding some sacks with the plastic tip of their sandals. Eventually they removed some large pieces of wood from the roof and let us go. The puncture added a further hour and a half to a trip which took 4 buses, a motorbike taxi and a full day.

But I would still rather undertake such a journey that be herded in on the tourist bus. One of the most common complaints by travelers to Vietnam is that it is "too touristy". Travelers don’t just want to see the sights, they want to interact with the local people, to experience some everyday Vietnamese life.
On the bus you get to see a slice of Vietnamese life very close up. It can be great fun to watch the personalities emerge as the journey proceeds – the bullying conductor, the farmer worried about his chicks strapped to the roof, the businessman shouting over the noise into his mobile phone.
You will also be a part of that short-lived bus-community. People are likely to take an interest in you (sometimes you will find this more welcome than others), so it’s easy to start up a conversation. Even if communication is reduced to gestures or diagrams scribbled on a notepad, it can still be worthwhile. You are sharing an experience with your fellow passengers; you share the annoyance of impoundings and punctures and a small bond develops.

You won’t just be sharing an experience either. I’ve been offered fried chicken, gum, nuts, cigarettes, lessons in Vietnamese, a place to stay for the night and (I think) somebody’s oldest daughter.
The local bus also goes to places which the tourist bus ignores, for example Kon Tum in the Central Highlands. There may not be many sights to see but the friendliness of the people is unmatched in Vietnam. I was treated to countless coffees and in one day I had 4 tours of town with the different people I met.

Transport is not just about getting from A to B. Part of the fun of traveling is the traveling. Taking the local bus is certainly a more genuine means of so-called independent travel and you will feel much more in charge (if not entirely in control) of your destiny.
But as well as the discomfort, inconvenience and safety issues, many foreigners complain that, ironically, the local buses end up being more expensive than the tourist bus. Conductors are a bullying breed and they may well start off by asking you for 10 times the real price. Take heart – the conductors will try to squeeze as much as possible out of the locals as well, so it’s not just foreigners who will have to argue the price of their ticket. A little bartering usually gets you a cheaper deal than the tourist bus, even if it’s still a little more than you think you should be paying.

It’s a shame that foreigners often feel they’ve been ripped off. The double pricing adds to a sense of division with the local community, a division that getting on the local bus should really be helping to break. And don’t expect too much support from the other passengers. They are likely to keep out of it to avoid a run in with the conductor.
Overcharging also fuels a sense of suspicion which is difficult to break. Once, when I was in a particularly stubborn mood, I refused to pay the conductor what I thought was an unfair price. He stopped the bus and I stepped down shaking my head in despair. (He was shaking his head in despair as well). Later on that day I discovered that I had in fact been asked the local price. I felt quite stupid.

So what happened when I missed the bus in Kon Tum? As I stood at the ticket office a little old man approached dressed, somewhat inappropriately, in a thick winter coat. He asked me where I wanted to go and then told me, rather superfluously, that I had missed the bus. Then he invited me for coffee.
"Let’s go" I said, keen to get away from the scene of my failure.
Over coffee he invited me back to his house to meet the family. And when I had met the family he gave me a tour of the house. His son’s room was empty: "Would you like to stay here?"
"Sure, thank you very much".
Spending the day and night with him and his family in Kon Tum was the highlight of my travels in Vietnam. So even missing the local bus can be a fantastic experience.

© Joe Sinclair June 2003

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