The Dreadful Truth About Vietnamese Night Buses: Sapa to Hanoi

We left our homestay family behind with fond farewells, and return back into the chaotic Sapa town traffic. Before we head back to Hanoi on the dreaded sleeper bus we still have some motorbike touring to do in the hills on the   other side of town. So we drop our luggage off at Hong’s place and press on in the rain. I push my glasses onto my forehead again, my vision grossly impaired by the rain and fog. I am getting the hang of this motorbike driving though, so I feel a little more confident than I did yesterday when we were flying down the mountain highway.

Before we head out of town we stop at a market to buy food items for our upcoming cooking lesson. I can not see a single thing since my glasses are so fogged from the rain. David got a chance to get around the market to explore a bit with Hong as she shopped. I stayed behind with Bjorn who was crying because the rash on his face hurt so bad. I am almost glad I didn’t go in when I see this……disgusting live silk worms for sale……ish!


Once we get out of town the traffic thins again, and we are not longer maneuvering around trucks and buses and cars, but rather pedestrians, chickens and motorbikes. It seems this part of Sapa hill country is busier with tourists. In my heart I know that I have a favorite place in this countryside, somewhere over there with the Red Dzao.
As we ride along, the road suddenly clings to a cliff edge with a drop off into a vast abyss.  With the fog I cannot see the bottom, but I drive more cautiously and stick to the middle of the narrow roadway. Soon we are far off in the hills and pull into a home belonging to another tribal family. This home is a bit fancier. We pay $5 rent to use their home for Hong’s cooking lesson.

  
Within seconds Hong has our soaked souls warming up by a little fire. 

  

Hong handles a knife deftly 

Every home seems to have this type of butcher block for cutting meat, and Hong chops up our chicken lickety split.

  
Only the best produce will do….fresh but slightly green pineapple, green mango, carrot and a veggie I don’t recognize. 


Come to the table, my children….Hong has prepared some fresh spring rolls! And some delicious fish sauce for dipping!

  
Don’t worry, the vegetables are safe to eat! They were washed in fresh spring water flowing down the mountainside!

    

We take all the delicious market fresh ingredients and roll them up in a fresh rice noodle…..that’s one way that the people of Vietnam are more advanced than us….they eat primarily local produce and meats. No artificial preservatives. In fact, the unrefrigerated chicken that we just bought was probably slaughtered just this morning…..

A Hmong woman attempts to sell David her wares


As we prepare to leave we find the homowner preparing a big bird. It is actually a cock that died in a cockfight.  The meat might be a bit tough, I wonder.

A bloody mess.  

We hit the road again. The weather is a little better.


There is a rice wine making operation at the roadside.   

If you don’t like the rice wine maybe you might like a little of this…..of course I tried neither. Hong says they don’t use the weed for smoking but rather hemp for weaving.


The women have set up a vat to soak plants in to create an indigo dye.


Vat full of indigo dye made by the locals  

Beautiful linens made of hemp and dyed with indigo. The temptation to buy was significant, but my backpack is heavy and full.

And so our Sapa tour comes to a close. It has been the most awesome adventure, even though it rained. I tell Hong that means that we will have to come back again later, so we can see Sapa when the weather is clear. The glimpses that we got were awe inspiring as it was, I can only imagine how it is under a cloudless sky. I just hope that the increasing tourism doesn’t ruin Sapa and the lifestyle of the beautiful people that live here and work the land, that their lifestyle can withstand the onslaught of modernism and that the younger generations will carry on the skills and knowledge and traditions of their forefathers.

We ride the motorbikes back to town. Now it has started raining heavily and darkness is settling in over the mountainside. We take quick showers at Hong’s place, pack up our bags, and trudge through the downpour to the bus station.

The loading of the bus is chaotic. No one seems to know where to go, and the drivers don’t speak English. Finally we are directed to the correct bus, and I grab the five seats at the very back of the bus, because we discovered up there David will have enough room for his feet.


For some strange reason they won’t turn on the interior lights as we load the bus. Our departure is delayed and it seems to me like the bus driver is negotiating payments from passengers who didn’t have tickets. I am getting restless because we have a tight timetable. We are supposed to arrive at the Hanoi bus station at 05:00 and we have to navigate our group from there to the company that sold us tickets to Halong Bay. Our bus leaves to Halong Bay at 08:30.

Finally, albeit an hour late, we are on our way back to Hanoi. Perhaps the driver will drive extra fast down the mountain to make up for lost time? I hope not! There are several people settled on the floor again.

Goodbye Hong and Aart….goodbye beautiful Sapa….goodbye to our lovely Red Dzao family…..I promise myself that one day I will come back.

Soon we are hurtling down the narrow winding mountain road. From the back of the bus I can only catch glimpses of the road as we approach other vehicles in the black night, so the best strategy is just to close my eyes and attempt to sleep.

The ride consists of a distorted variation of braking sharply, careening, swerving, accelerating, engine braking, bouncing…..I had read that the new highway to Sapa is great, but since it’s dark out I have no way to evaluate it other than the ride that we are getting. To me it seems crazy and wild. The only thing a person can do is have blind faith that everything will be okay. Somewhere along the journey I fall asleep, intermittently jarred awake by loud horns, or the bus careening on a sharp corner or braking hard. My last thought is, “It’s going to be all right.” At least this bus was not backfiring.

I don’t know how long I slept, but suddenly I awaken to a loud sound of metal crunching. All I know is that we have been in some kind of accident. Everyone is okay, in fact not all the kids even awaken to the collision. I notice the time is about 05:00 am. I peer out the window into the semidarkness and notice that we are straddled across two lanes of traffic and the median, and it looks like we are in a town or city. Oncoming drivers bleat their horns loudly even though they can clearly tell that our bus can’t move. From my perch in the back of the bus I can’t tell what has happened and I find myself getting annoyed that the driver provides no information at all. I see other vehicles pass us with astonished looking drivers and passengers. I wonder if we hit someone and if they are okay. After about 10 minutes David says he is going out of the bus to see what has happened.


The rest of us still have no idea what has happened, and I am getting increasingly impatient and irritated. To make things worse we are on a tight schedule, since we have to get to the pick up location for our bus to Halong Bay. At great long last David boards the bus again and tells us what he has seen!
 

Indeed, the axle broke, and the tire fell off! I can’t believe my eyes, and I can’t believe how fortunate we are that the axle did not bust when we were wildly careening down the mountain roads! It would have been certain doom or serious injuries! Fortunately it happened when we were taking a turn at a relatively low speed.

So to answer the question if wheels fall off night buses in Vietnam, the answer is a resounding yes! Might it happen when you are on board? I dunno. It happened when I was onboard!

They tell us that another bus is on its way by 06:00, but I have little faith in their timetables. We exit the bus and go to grab a taxi, only to discover that we don’t have enough Vietnamese dong to get to town. David has discovered that we were near the airport just outside Hanoi. We have enough to get to the airport where I can get money from an ATM. It’s hard in this town to find ATM machines that work with our Visa bank card. 

By now it is a race against the clock. Can we get back into old town Hanoi to our pickup location before 08:30? Or will we miss our bus to Halong Bay and the budget busting cruise that I have already paid for? I doubt they give refunds, and we certainly can’t reschedule. 

The trusted counter at the airport from which we ordered our taxi van earlier when we had first arrived in Hanoi is closed at this hour in the morning. We look around trying to decide what to do.  Suddenly a man appears and offers us a ride to town. Clearly he runs an illegitimate taxi….we settle on $20, which he tries to raise to $25. I have read that in Hanoi you should not use illegitimate taxis, but I am not afraid. What I am afraid of is missing our bus to Halong Bay. We pile into the taxi and off we go.


 

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