Hacktreks in Asia
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 mornings little adventure with an
amused smile. Besides, Im 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
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 dont
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 its 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 wont just be sharing an experience either. Ive been
offered fried chicken, gum, nuts, cigarettes, lessons in Vietnamese,
a place to stay for the night and (I think) somebodys 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 its 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 its still
a little more than you think you should be paying.
Its a shame that foreigners often feel theyve 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 dont 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.
"Lets go" I said, keen to get away from the scene of
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 sons
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
Lights - Big City
Joe Sinclair in Japan
Journeys in Hacktreks
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