May 29, 2020 • 7M

Couchfish Week 9: That day the bus would have been a better choice

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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Tim and I walk out of our guesthouse in Bac Kan, northern Vietnam. It is 7:30 am, early 1995, and we’ve spent the previous few weeks hitching Vietnam’s northwest. We’ve now turned to the far north and while parts of the northwest were challenging, the far north is moreso. We don’t really talk to each other much anymore.

* Note: An apology on the photos in this piece. All my pics are on slide, so I had to take pics of them with my phone. Accidentally retro!

We take a four kilometre hike out of town then throw down our bags and wait. Silently. A dirt truck picks us up, and we sit on a pyramid of soil on the tray as we clatter to Phu Thong, maybe 20 kilometres north. We don’t speak.

The view from the back of one of our many trucks. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Phu Thong, we figure, is our best bet for Ba Be. The truck drops us by the market and we start asking around for xe om to Ba Be and back. I don’t remember this bit, but my diary reads:

“Watch out for the motorcyclists in Phu Thong trying to rip you off on the trip to Ba Be. We eventually got two bikes there and back on the same day for 100,000 dong, though the starting price had been 200,000 dong each one way.”

In the annals of Phu Thong market, there is probably a corresponding entry:

“Early January 1995. Two tiresome foreigners refused to pay a fair rate, and in the end we took them almost for free just to be rid of them.”

Xe om drivers of Phu Thong, I apologise.

The trip takes two hours one way to cover the 40km, in my diary I describe the road as “ghastly,” though I don’t remember it. What I do remember is the forested last stretch, I write: “Elfish”.

How can you wash your bike in this? At Ba Be Lakes. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The lake is lovely, and it seems offensive that the xe om guys wash the caked mud off their bikes in these waters. We dawdle and are offered a boat trip. We refuse, “too expensive,” and just sit by the edge throwing pebbles and soaking up the view.

At a smoke break on the way back, our drivers ask where next, Hanoi?

No, we’re going to Cao Bang, we say, mispronouncing it so badly we need to write it down. Much confabbing, then they ride faster, skip the market and leave us at a mate’s house who is driving there—he’ll take us for 25,000 dong each.

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The drive is as spectacular as it is shocking. Mountainous, but as in the northwest, brutally deforested. Imagine a mountain getting a Brazilian—every nook and cranny, smooth as smooth can be.

Bye bye trees. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We reach Cao Bang after nightfall. We’re delivered to a truly appalling hotel, and our driver explains he’ll be back in 30 minutes to eat.

Back to my diary:

“The hotel is a horrible place. Gross toilets, cold water, so rude.”

For me to say the toilets are gross means they’re on par with the ones at Istanbul bus station that had shit on the ceiling.

Yes, that bus is coming towards us. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Our driver returns, drunk. Into his Jeep we head to a booze and food joint. Everyone gets hammered. Of course he drives us back afterwards, but when we try to escape to the hotel, it’s “no no no,” and we’re back boozing and eating—just opposite the hotel this time.

Morning comes—68 hours too early. We grab our passports off the desk (taken for security), where they’ve sat all night. First ride is on a brick truck to Thach An, an hour south of Cao Bang, but there we get stuck. We stand by the road for hours. Kids stare. We don’t speak much. When hitching, eventually you just run out of things to say.

Simple living. You can see the road on the left. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Then who should pull up, but our Jeep friend from the previous day. He looks and smells like he never stopped drinking and sure enough, once we get going, Tim says he’s drunk. We stop to eat—food and hair of the dog.

Then, a little out of town he hits a dog, killing it. The party stops.

He pulls up, opens the door, falls out, then walks back to talk to a man on the street. The dog is between their feet, dead. They talk. He walks back to the Jeep and gestures to us, rubbing his fingers together.

We need to pay for the dog.

I don’t remember what we paid. I do remember us handing him some money, being asked for more, more again, then “ok ok”. He walks back to the man and gives him the money. We’re done.

One of our rides. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

His driving settles, then the road gets mountainous—we’re clipped to the side of a ridge. There is no safety railing and it is scary. He drives, half watching the road, half leering left and right looking for something. When he spies it, he lurches across the road—a food shack. We eat, then the shots come out again. One round, two rounds, three rounds, four. Jesus.

Back on the road. It’s no longer scary, it’s terrifying. My memories are foggy—I remember sheer cliffs, demented driving, no safety barriers and him talking in Vietnamese non–stop.

I’ll never be as happy as I am when we reach That Khe.

After the previous day we forgo hitching the last leg to Lang Son. The three and a half hour trip in a local bus costs 7,000 dong. The bus is so crammed I can’t fit inside, so I hang out of the door for the entire trip. The road is awful. When we hit a bad patch the railing I’m holding onto simply snaps off. The second on the bus gestures at me—just throw it away.

The train to Hanoi, at Lang Son. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Lang Son by early afternoon, there’s a 3:30 pm train to Hanoi. Waiting, we meet four British women who’ve just crossed from China—they’re the first Westerners we’ve seen in at least a week.

Later when we’re all hanging out together in Hanoi, one of them remarks that they thought when they met us we were really odd.

“All you did was talk. It was non-stop.”