Mandy and Jon's Journey 2005 travel blog

Only a face like this....

... Could make a face go like this.

You know you're in trouble when the Vietnamese woman selling you your bus ticket hesitates, smirks and says, "Are you sure you don't want to fly?"

We had heard that the ninety dollar plane ticket from Hanoi to Vientiane was the best ninety dollars spent in South East Asia travel, but for a fraction of that price, we thought, we could take the over-night bus - no problem. Vietnam had made us well adapted to this procedure and we thought one more for good measure, and anyway, twenty-four hours will always come to an end. We thought one more little masochistic push would find us in the serenity of Laos and all the insignigicant pains of Vietnamese travel would be behind us with a laugh.

"No," we tell the kind ticket agent, "We cannot fly. And the bus is okay, right?"

"Yes, yes. The bus is fine. Nice seats, Air-conditioner, but really the weekend busses are better if you can wait. They are 'very' nice."

"No, we can't wait. Our Visa expires tomorrow and we'll just make it in time."

The journey goes like this:

We've arrived in Hanoi early that morning on the overnight train from Sapa. We spend the day loitering around the city, getting laundry done, securing funds, and trying to spend the last of our Vietnamese dong at the internet cafe. By the time our bus is suppose to pick us up we have out-worn our welcome in the over-priced restaurant where we stored our bags. Forty-five minutes later a man appears and says, "Follow me to bus. To bus. To Laos. Yes. Follow me." So we follow. Down the street, around the corner, to some travel agency we've never seen. Here we wait for some minutes while the man who has brought us disappears. Okay.

Next we are in a cab, now driving across the city where we are then dropped off on a curb next to a toilet shop. Okay. Glad enough to see that other travellers have also convened at the 'toilet' station, we stand around with with our hands in our pockets and packs on the ground. Twenty minutes later a rickety, old, formerly glorious machine known as a bus pulls up. Okay. Based on the ticket-sellers warnings I didn't expect much. So we get what I expected. The growns, however, from some of our compatriots are more distinct. As we pile on, our backpacks stuffed underneath, you hear the grumblings of those who have paid, not the twelve dollars that we had, but rather $18, $20, or even $25.

"Mandy, does your seat recline?"

"No, Jon, does yours?"




"I love you."

"I love you, too."

So it is nice to be in love, but the upright seat is not so nice. It becomes less nice when the seat in front of you does recline, because not only does the instinct to loath another's good fortune begin to manifest, it also tends to bruise your thighs. Okay.

As we bounce off and out of Hanoi the smiles are forced, but possible and the air-conditioner hums a cool breeze from above which makes the pain more bearable in your cramping legs.

The overhead lights come on, the books come out, and we prepare in our minds for the next twenty hours as Hanoi disappears behind us. The time is eight oclock.

A half hour outside of the city the air-conditioner goes off. First, a hush. Then the warmth. You put your hand to the vent. Ah, yes, they've switched it off by accident, you realize. The buzzing as other people share your experience. Then one brave among the others (in this case a young Dutchman) strides up to the front as our representative.

"Could you please put the air-conditioning back on." He asks.

There is a grumble and he repeats the same sentence. "Could you please put the airconditioning back on."

The air-conditioning comes back on. Many hands go up to check many vents above them, order is restored, and smiles abound as people return to their books, their music, or their dreams.

Ten minutes pass before the air-conditioning goes off again. The dutchman, named Magnet, unhesistatingly marches back to the front of the bus.

"Could you please put the air-conditioning back on." He asks.

There is a grumble and he repeats the same sentence. "Could you please put the airconditioning back on."

The air-conditioning comes back on.

Four minutes pass before the air-conditioning goes off.

I tell the dutchman that I will go this time. And thus begins a very comic exchange that will be hard to recreate for you readers. I march to the front where the driver, of course, sits in the driver seat. Next to him, in what you would call a bucke seat that folds away from the front dash section, sits an woman of indiscernable age with bulging eyes and cheeks and belly to match. My assumption is that the driver is in command of the A/C, and that this woman is a mere bystander to the spectacle of seeing this western (sweaty) tourist harrass this poor bus-driver.

"Very hot in back," I tell him in self-imposed broken English. "Can you please put Airconditioning on for us."

He waves me off. "Please." I say. "Very hot." And then he looks at the woman who is now between us as I lean on the back of this bucket seat. She now, as he looks to her, shakes her head "No" at him. At this point my new friend-in-struggle, Magnet, has come to re-inforce me.

"Please put the air-conditioning back on." He pronounces.

"Please," I concur, "It is too hot back there for everyone." You can see I am a man of and for the people.

Now the driver does not speak English, although Magnet is convinced that he understands it very well. I can't be sure so I tell him carefully the situation, that even though the front door being open might feel good for those in the front, the people in the back cannot benefit from the wind. In addition, I explain, they have all paid exorbitant prices for a bus that has air-conditioning. And this is rather the crux of the injustice. It's one thing to get stuck on a bus where the aircon goes - these things happen in remote places - and its one of the things you just live with while you travel on a budget. What was inexlicable, and therefore, frustrating in this situation was that the reasoning seemed so off. Everyone is hot, the airconditioning system does work, but there is a refusal to use it. The woman in the shotgun position has now exposed herself as the driving force behind the decision maker, and the driver is only doing her bidding. As we try to negotiate the situation she begins violently waving us off and yelling insane diatribes to the Laos and Vietnamese passengers who are the only ones who can possibly understand her.

And now there are two foreigners standing at the front of the bus as we drive through the night. I, with one strategy, try to both to reason with the driver (who doesn't understand a word I'm saying) and find out from him (or anyone who can tell me) what the reasoning for the refusal is. Magnet has a different strategy, and it comes in the form of a mantra. He thinks he can annoy them into submission. It goes like this:

Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on Please turn the airconditioning back on ....

Meanwhile the smiles are breaking on my face as I understand the clear absurdity of this situation we have found ourselves in. Finally, a young Laos woman about three rows back grabs me by the arm and tries to explain what the woman's reasoning is. She explains that, so far as she understands, the old woman owns the bus and says that the A/C eats up too much fuel, and because there are no gas stations from where we are to the border it is important to conserve fuel. Okay. A bad answer is better than no answer. Although poor reasoning is sometimes more frustrating than unreasonable. But anyway, this explanation is enough to send me back to my seat. Besides, I had a creeping suspicion that the driver was getting ready to use his free foot to kick me out of the open door of the moving bus if I kept up my crusade any longer. Magnet, I'm afraid, was abandoned by his only sidekick, and it was many more Please-turn-the-airconditioning-back-on's before he tired.

So we sit in the heat and begrudge the witch at the front. Roll on, Vietnam, roll on.

The next glory comes when we stop for a midnight pee and snack at none other than a twenty four hour gas station. People, then, are pissed to realize that the excuse given is a bit unfounded. My own personal irritation only rises as I watch this miserable faced woman shovel noodle soup down her gullet in big snorts and slurps. It was rude of me to watch her eat, but I think you can learn alot about someone by the way they eat soup - not to mention soup with noodles in it.

Two hours later Mandy's laughter stops cold when the bus pulls into yet another gas station. The only difference this time is that the bus pulls in, stops, and once the driver is out and gone are we told that we will be sleeping here until the border crossing opens in, yep, four hours. So now there is no wind to cool the capacity-filled bus and as sweaty tourists and locals compete for fresh air the temperature and smell rises in the cabin.

I decide to forego even the attempt at sleep. Others of my persuasion set up a card game by the gas pumps to pass the time. Those inside the bus, including poor MJ, do their best to sleep through an evolving misery.

At seven a.m. we refuel, of course.

At eight we hit the border. Here the devil woman again shows her colors. The bus unloads as at one side of the building, where we file through the exit office. She is at the head of the line and is therefore the first one back on the bus. It is about two kilometres from here to the Laos entry office. Because she has no patience for those still being processed she takes the bus from the first office to the second without waiting for those others. This both confuses the hell out of them and forces them to walk the 2K to catch up with the bus. Those of us on the bus try our best to get her to wait and stop the bus, but she screams at us and tells the bus driver to go-go-go as she shoos him with her hands.

On the Laos side chaos continues. The customs and immigration officials are overwhelmed and understaffed for the three large groups that are passing through as we are. Mandy and the devil-woman end up right next to one another as they await the return of their passports. I have gone back towards the other border to make sure those left behind know where to go and that the bus didn't leave them (totally) stranded. When the official behind the window has the gall to process Mandy's passport before this other woman's she reaches out and slaps Mandy across the arm. This has happened just before I return and the woman is lucky I didn't see it with my own eyes or I would not be writing about this experience as much as trying to be sure no one ever found out about it.

Back on the bus my evil eye is sharply focused on this woman. As the morning heat rises in the bus and the sun rises on the dusty and bumpy roads of Laos most of us are sure that the airconditioning will be provided. Magnet gives it a few more shots, but in the end all he can do is smile at it all.

We find out that all of the Laos travellers are as upset with her as we are and although I don't get a chance to use it, one of the Laos passengers teaches me to say 'Bo me malanyat' which means 'you are very rude.'

The airconditioning never does come on, but it's alright in the end. The nice treat about absurdity is that it infuses the comic into every crack and the longer we sat in that hot and dusty bus the funnier it all became. Outside the windows the beauty (and poverty) of Laos began to reveal themselves. Inside, pettiness seemed to be contagious and, in the end, easily cured. You just smile with the idea that can get you through all temporary miscomforts, "Time only moves forward."

And soon enough - at five oclock in the afternoon - it was all over and we were free in Vientiane.

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