OK, so we expected to take some really hellacious buses in SouthEast Asia. We had been lucky thus far and our experiences were surprisingly pleasant. Apparently, we were due for a beating.
The evening we arrived in Nha Trang, we asked the reception if we were able to get a night bus to Saigon for the following night. She told us the bus was full, so we ventured out into the streets to try our luck at the travel agencies. One travel agency said there were 2 seats left, but not together because it was Sunday and a lot of people return to Saigon after a weekend at the beach. John set off to try another travel agent nearby who said we could have seats together. I had read to avoid the company TM Brothers because they were an awful organization with unreliable buses, so I asked the agent what the name of the company was. He told me (something like Huang Vang) and proceeded to ask me if we were trying to avoid a specific one. I told him about TM Brothers and he informed us that this bus was the same company, just under a new name because they had their license revoked and had to take steps to get it back. He said the bad reviews were true but more like 3 years ago and things are different now. I felt uneasy about it but remembered the reviews I read were from 2011, so his story seemed to check out. John was in the mindset, “how bad could it be?”, so we took a deep breath, paid the man some dong, and returned to his office to wait for our bus the following evening.
So, what went wrong? Well, there was definitely some foreshadowing before we even stepped foot on the bus.
The first sign that something was wrong: Big comfy night buses continually drive by the road you are waiting on with papers that say “Saigon” on the front but yours is nowhere to be found. Second sign that something is wrong: You are waiting on a curb for almost an hour before the “bus” shows up. Third sign: The “bus” that we were told would pick us up and take us directly to Saigon was actually a mini van to the “bus station”. Fourth Sign: The mini van was packed with young white backpackers. Fifth Sign: We were not taken to a bus station, we were dropped at another travel agency to wait another 30 minutes with about 40 other backpackers. Sixth Sign: We were given new tickets that did not have seat numbers (so much for the promise of sitting together?).
Now these may not seem like odd signs to you, but we learned very fast that if we take any mode of transportation with zero locals on it or any bus which does not pick up from where you booked the ticket or a legitimate bus station, it is bad news. Nothing we could do about it at this point, we would just wait to see what happens.
We locked up our bags and made sure they were safely on the bus before getting on and going through the usual night bus motions of placing our shoes in a plastic bag. At this point we were smacked in the face with stale, hot air. We looked around until we saw our seat numbers (we forced the lady at the last travel agent desk to write numbers for us) and climbed up to begin sleeping, or should I say profusely sweating. John carefully situated himself in his bed as to not place his hand on the metal rail next to him which was broken and sticking out to form a nice human spear. We sat there looking at each other and hoping out loud that the A/C would get going quickly once the bus started. We were soon bombarded by several young Russian women who had been given the same seat numbers as us (surprise, surprise!) and we eventually convinced them to just sit in one of the free seats so we didn’t have to move. Once everyone was on, a crazy cracked out bus driver got behind the wheel and began to head South. To our dismay, we felt no air coming out of the vents above us and the windows on this bus did not open. After sitting in the sweltering heat for about 30 minutes, I got off my bed and went to ask the bus driver to turn the A/C on. He smacked the unit and pushed a button (which revealed it was 29 degrees Celsius, or roughly 90 degrees Fahrenheit inside) and proceeded to shout at me that it didn’t work. About this time, one of the young Russian girls begins to vomit next to us and proceeds to do so about every 10 minutes for the next two hours. She kindly piled her vomit bags behind John’s bed as time went on. Many thanks…. Since the bus didn’t have a toilet (although we were promised one), the same girl had to use the bathroom and couldn’t get the driver to stop. She threatened to pee in the aisle (and almost did) until he stopped on the side of the road for her. The rest of the passengers started taking turns going up and demanding some air flow from the driver just to be shot down the same as I was. The temperature seemed to continually rise as time went on and despite the fact that we watched a walking dead episode on our laptop, we were generally miserable. Just when we thought things couldn’t get much worse, the driver pulled over on the side of the road next to a mechanic shop and a few other small shops and a few people got to work on the engine in the back of the bus. We were officially broken down on the side of the road. Not wanting to spend another minute on that demon bus, John and I got out to find a toilet. And a toilet we did find. A squatty potty like we were used to in SouthEast Asia, but a extremely filthy one in which the door was a beat up wooden fence that had to be picked up and removed completely to open or close. No big deal though, it just added to this whole experience.
As I replaced the fence door to the bathroom, I hear John yelling at me to get my bag – we were changing buses. My first thought was that everyone on our bus was being transferred, so I ran on the bus and collected my belongings. John asked the bus driver to get our bags out from underneath and two men walked over and “pulled” on the door hatch and insisted that it wouldn’t open. John was furious and went to the next door and pried it open to free our two backpacks. Through all this madness, I learn that John flagged down one of the super nice night buses on the side of the road while I was in the bathroom and asked the driver if we could hop on to Saigon. The driver agreed to let us on if we paid again ($10 each). We got on the bus to find it dark, nice and cool, and full of sleeping Vietnamese people. It even had a really nice toilet in the back. All the beds were full, so the driver placed two padded mats in one of the aisles for us. We laid down head to head so that our feet and legs were hanging off and slept the entire way to Saigon. It was some of the better sleep we had had in a while! I hate to think about the poor souls still on that horrible broken bus with the vomit queen and the thick, hot air. I wonder if they made it to Saigon the next morning and how much worse it got. One of the guys on the bus had to catch a flight a few hours after we were supposed to arrive there, so I hope they actually made it. That heroic switch was the best $20 we ever spent!
Lesson learned: Always believe everything you read on the internet, ha!
Side Note: We apologize for the lack of photos of this horrible bus ride. As you may guess, it wasn’t something that inspired us to document at the time…
The good news is that we arrived safely and on time in Saigon and spent the day relaxing at a hotel rooftop pool in the city. We asked several people if we needed to pay for the pool since we were not staying there and no one told us we had to, so it ended up being a really nice, free treat. The bell man even held our bags for us in the back room as if we were staying there. It was a nice change from the crazy bus experience. We successfully picked up the rest of our stolen meds (thanks Vietlink and moms!) and headed out the same night on a 18 hour night train to Danang, the jump off point to Hoi An.