Our destination out of Hanoi is Sapa, Vietnam and our intended means of travel ends up being a night bus. Now David is spooked out about the night bus because he has read about how dangerous they are in Vietnam, how wheels fall off buses and they crash in the mountains. As for me, I have made a trip to Sapa a priority, but we are on a budget. You can travel by night train which is much safer and costs $45 per person, but the night bus is only $14. If you do the math you will notice that the savings is $372 for a round trip for our group of 6, so there is no question which way we will travel. After all, I don’t really believe that wheels actually fall off buses. That only happens in comic strips.
I guess one of the things that I neglected to consider is that we purchased the bus tickets from the lousy hotel that we stayed at. We told the gal at the reception that we wanted the “best” bus, and she assured us that it was indeed the best, and even had a toilet on board…..you know in case you get travelers diarrhea or something awful like that.
Sapa is a mountainous region in northern Vietnam that is essentially bordering China. There are several ethnic minority groups in this region who farm rice on these incredibly beautiful terraces. Our plan is to take the night bus there, spend a day motorcycle touring, stay the night with an ethnic local family, continue touring the second day and then take the night bus back.
A dingy van picks us up at our hotel to bring us to the bus departure location, which ends up being just a dodgy storefront. We are rudely instructed to sit on small plastic chairs on the dirty sidewalk to await the bus. When the bus arrives I push past the locals who know how the game works, and I hop on board to reserve our 6 seats. It ended up that we were towards the back of the bus, which seemed to be okay. Everyone seems reasonably pleased with their night bus seats (beds). The bus lumbers out of the dingy bus stop at 10:30 pm.
There are three rows of bunked seats/beds with two narrow aisles between. Aundrea chooses a bottom one in the middle.
David is too tall, clearly. There is a little compartment in front of the passenger (under the seat in front of you). It’s not high enough for David’s feet, but he makes do. We did make sure to get some Dramamine patches because he gets motion sickness, so he puts one behind his ear before we hit the road. He picked a lower seat so that there is less motion.
There was not enough seats on the bus, so a few people settle in for the night on the floor. I wondered if they had purchased legitimate tickets, or if they had paid the bus driver a tip for taking them along. I wonder what would happen to them when the wheels fall off.
Soon after we leave I hear some unusual noise coming from the back of the bus. At first I think it is the gears grinding as we snake our way through the dense traffic of Hanoi. Soon, however, I realize that the bus is backfiring every five minutes or so. About an hour into our trip I notice a commotion in the back of the bus. The two back window seat passengers had moved onto the floor. Before I can stop myself I blurt out, “Why are you on the floor? Did you pay for a ticket?”
The woman knew English well, and she explains that the reason they moved onto the floor is because their seats were too hot. I offer her my blanket for extra cushioning. Then I started to wonder and my mind started racing! Those two rear seats were probably right over the tires that might fall off. He tires are probably overheating. Or worse yet, they are right next to the bus engine, and perhaps the engine is ready to catch on fire. Here we are in the back of this bus that might catch fire at any moment, and to be sure we will never be able to maneuver our way off the bus in time if there’s a fire, especially with people lying in the narrow hallway. I have visions of my children burning. I look for something I can break a window with in case of an emergency.
I see David stir in front of me, and I tap him on the shoulder. “Do you think the bus is going to start on fire?” I ask. He reassures me it won’t, so I close my eyes and try to sleep. The bus works its way up the winding narrow mountain road, stopping and starting, slower then faster, careening on curves, all the while with the worrisome backfiring sound disturbing my rest.
At 05:00 we arrive in Sapa. As I peer out the window I lock eyes with a woman named Hong. She is the Sapa guide that I hired, and she is there to greet us. I feel an immense sense of relief, and an immediate inexplicable bond with Hong and her captivating beautiful smile.
Soon enough they shooed us into the town while they got our motorbikes ready. Hong was to show us around Sapa on motorbikes. We want to do some trekking as well, so maybe we will have a chance at some point. We love this quaint town right away.
Since the traffic chaos has increased it seems like a perfect time to start our motorbike tour, perfectly stupid that is! None of us have ever driven a motorbike before, so what seemed like a good idea before, now sounds really dumb! We are right in the busiest part of the town with trucks and buses and taxis and pedestrians and cars and tuk tuks and motorbikes whizzing by, a constant horn blowing festival blasting into our ear drums, and construction workers digging up the sides of the narrow street. Never fear, Hong and her husband give us a short tutorial. The throttle seems counterintuitive, but somehow we manage to get on the road…..and somehow we manage to avoid getting hit by the volley of vehicles madly circling about us in a chaotic fashion. One thing I have to say is that drivers in Vietnam are hyper alert. They need to be in order to survive, and you have to bleat your horn to make your presence known and to establish your right of way. So I pulled down on the throttle and bleated the horn, and we climbed higher and higher on a curvy mountain road with the other vehicles which all had mismatched speed capacities.
Soon it begins to rain, so Hong stops to buy some rain ponchos. The rain should make the roads more slippery, but I try not to worry. Luckily we had the foresight to bring along our cozy pack able down jackets so we don’t get cold. We stop for a photo on the first beautiful sight of rice fields.
Hong has a treat in store for us. We zip past a big waterfall that has more tourists than water droplets……
We cross a narrow footbridge with low railings that are below U.S. safety standards, and Annika almost tumbles over.
The water calls and beckons us to come for a swim, and so we take an impromptu dip even though the air and water is chilly, and a light rain is sprinkling down upon us. The swim was not really that impromptu if you consider that we had our swimming gear along with us. We were the only westerners at these falls, and soon we became movie stars and models as cameras snapped photos and a handful of people videotaped us plunging into the icy mountain water.
When we are done we hike back out and go across the street to enjoy true Sapa style street food at a roadside stand. At first I think that this is chicken, but I learn it is some other kind of small bird. The woman shakes her head and tells me it is not what we want. Thank goodness, I don’t think I could eat it anyway!
The woman at the booth prepares food for us. We have eggs roasted on the coals, sweet potato, and sticky rice cooked inside of a bamboo stick.
The rain does not let up, but we must get heading down off the mountain to Sapa. So we hop back on our motorbikes and begin a treacherous 15 km descent down the mountain. I really do mean treacherous. The fog and mist is thick and I can’t see through my fogged glasses, so I take them off. The truth is I kind of need my glasses. The traffic is lighter by now, but there are still many vehicles large and small to contend with. Trucks lumber past blasting their horns so loud we practically jump out of our skin!
When we arrive at Hong’s shop we are cold, wet and incredibly relieved. We huddle around a small space heater to warm up and enjoy some more Vietnamese coffee.
Bjorn suddenly now has the same rash that Kristoff has. His face gets ruddy and leathery looking. When he was on the motorbike he was crying because it hurt his face so much. Honestly, I don’t know what to do. I give him some Benadryl that I had brought along. I wonder if the rash is from the malaria pills, or some kind of late reaction to the vaccines they got before we left on this trip? I don’t think they could help us much at the local health center either, so I tell him to suck it up, and we move on – what an awesome mother!
Soon it is time to take off for our homestay. I was thinking about how foolish we were being riding these motorcycles in such treacherous conditions, and I was just about to suggest that we take a taxi. But no sooner had that thought entered my head and we were packing up and on the bikes — we were on our way for the most memorable and incredible stay with a native Red Dzao family home in the gorgeous mountainous region of Sapa (rash or no rash). The adventure that is about to ensue is second to none…..