Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hellish bus ride to Vietnam

John Newton wrote the great Christian hymnal "Amazing Grace". He was a 19th Century slave trader who worked on African slave ships and he was inspired to conversion as he heard the slaves, locked away in desperate conditions in the hold of the ships, praise their Lord with songs during the long, horrific trip across the Atlantic. Eventually, John Newton would become a key part of the small but great corps of men who, under the leadership of the great William Wilberforce, helped overturn slavery first in England, and then in all English possessions, long before the same cancer metastasized in America as the Civil War.

I was reminded of those slave ship conditions, to a much lesser degree of course, during our overnight bus ride from China to Vietnam.

The day began when Helen and I rode the 5 hour bus trip back to Kunming from Dali. After arriving in Kunming in late afternoon, we immediately purchased tickets for an all night bus ride (~12 hours) to the Vietnam border. From there, we would take a 1.5 hour shuttle bus to Sapa, a great trekking location and former French hill station in North Vietnam. Plus, we would pay no hotel bill this evening, since we would be on the bus. It all sounded so good in theory. But, alas, as the saying goes, the difference between practice and theory is greater in practice than in theory.

After a wonderful dinner in Kunming during our three hour layover back at Muslim alley, we returned to board our overnight bus. Unfortunately, Chinese bus tickets are not very informative about the class of bus you will be riding. When we got on, I could see right away this was going to have a bad ending.

The bus had beds and ours were in the very back, with only a super narrow aisle to get to the front of the bus. And unlike the beds in most of the bus, the beds in the back had five people laying side by side across the top in the back. The width of my space was almost exactly as wide as my body. And the length was more suited to someone about 1.6 meters tall (5 foot 3 inches). I switched spots with Helen so that I could at least hang my smelly feet over the ledge, a luxury afforded to two of the five seats. Next to me was a Vietnamese lady who wanted to take up part of my space with her "stuff" and she was not happy when Helen asked her in Mandarin (which the lady also spoke) to get out of my little space. But she did move over, for the most part.

OK, now there is this guy on the bus, and he immediately approaches me. He asks Helen and I to pay the overage amount for our luggage, 30 yuan (4 US dollars) each, since our bags our overweight. This is all in Mandarin. We look at our tickets, and there is indeed a maximum weight of 10 kilograms or, it says, you might have to pay more. I knew that my bag under the bus weighed about 14 kg. The bus was about to leave, we could not get back to the front to verify anything, the guy was demanding the overage money, so we paid him. Well, guess what, it was a scam! He goes around the bus station looking for foreigners to take advantage of, and he got us for 60 yuan (~8 US dollars). We should have asked the bus driver, but our shoes were off, we were trying to negotiate our space way in the back of the bus, and the bus was about to leave. Of course, the scammer knew all this, and knew we would be way out of town and unable to report the scam if we discovered it later (which we did by talking to the driver in our final destination -- we think he was probably in on it -- I will have more to say about this mentality later in a Vietnam post!).

So now we are packed like slaves in the back of the bus, and starting our journey to Vietnam. After a couple of hours we realize that this is actually a 2 lane road the whole way (one lane each way) over a series of high mountain passes! And the road is so bumpy that my body is bouncing several centimeters high at times. And there are very few bathroom stops. Near the end, there were people almost jumping out at quick stops to even go to the bathroom on the road.

We finally arrive at the border, completely battered, and an hour later we are in Vietnam! We are promptly scammed (sort of) as we pay about $5 each instead of $3 each for the 1.5 hour shuttle from the Vietnam border to Sapa. Well, we finally arrive at our destination worn out but much wiser. We secure a great hotel for $6 per night. That is our last overnight bus ride for awhile!!

Below is me at the Vietnam border that morning, much worse for wear -- Good morning, Vietnam!

No comments: