I don’t know why we did it. Common sense dictates that even the most budget backpacker should fork out that little bit extra to fly from Laos into Vietnam, instead of braving the notorious, pothole-ridden roads on an equally notorious sleeper bus. Yet at 4pm Thursday, as we boarded our accommodation for the next 24 hours following a pleasant stay in Luang Prabang, more than a hint of naivety underpinned our assessment that the ensuing journey to Hanoi would be an ‘experience’.
Do you remember on school trips when the cool kids would take residence in the five seats at the back? This was where me and my four pals settled, except that there was no dash for the rear of the bus this time; we had occupied these elevated recliners purely for the purpose of convenience, being the only group of five people. This would be a decision we would come to regret, for, packed like sardines almost on top of one another, the paucity of space meant that we couldn't stretch out our legs or even sit fully upright due to the minimal distance between us and the ceiling.
If this didn't set alarm bells ringing then the first two hours of the trip did, as we realised to our horror that our position at the back would only accentuate the bumps of the third-world Laotian roads. Any sustained sleep was impossible; deprivation could only be avoided by snatching pockets of shuteye when the nightmarish dirt track led onto good old tarmac, thus providing brief respite from the savage jolting. With no toilet on the bus, the stops (around every four hours) resembled vital time during which to relieve yourself, but the toilets at these stops ranged from grim to none at all, compelling us to make for the side of the deserted road in the hope that the bleary-eyed, bong-ripping driver (who didn’t exactly inspire faith) wouldn’t pull away without his full cargo.
Having somehow made it to the Vietnam border by 3am, we were required to wait there until it opened at 6am, which passed indescribably slowly as we chain-smoked cigarettes and occupied ourselves with an eventually outlawed game of catch, unable to face remaining in our cramped, increasingly sweaty hideout at the back of the bus. Any feint hope that the border crossing would be anything less than shambolic was shattered by the belated appearance of only one staff member at the kiosk, heralding an excruciatingly long process of checking two bus-loads of peoples’ passports and visas.
And that was only the Laotian side. Our wander over to the peculiarly empty bus, now stationed on the Vietnamese side of the border, was halted by a confrontation with a security guard wielding a rifle with an attached bayonet. ‘NOT GOOD!’ he yelled in broken English as we were escorted back towards border control, which we had absent-mindedly walked past in our desire to get back on the road. In fact, our eagerness was misplaced; the roads in Vietnam were no better than in Laos, and neither were the stops. Indeed, one filthy, rubbish-strewn shanty town occupied by leering locals can lay claim to the dubious honour of being the worst place that I’ve ever been to. It was centred on a café in which the insect-covered food looked inedible, a common theme that reduced my entire sustenance for the 30-hour trip to a packet of seaweed-flavour pringles and some coconut wafers.
Hours passed until another dodgy stop-off (it was dark again by this point), where – hallelujah! – we, along with our bags, were moved out of the dreaded sleeper bus and into a minivan. But instead of ending it the transfer merely amplified our torture, as piercingly loud Vietnamese music, commercials and propaganda blared from the front of the van for a further two hours. On arrival at the remote bus station we were pestered by illicit taxis, but, clinging to advice received in the Lonely Planet guide we took a shuttle bus into Hanoi, where, after another hour’s walk we eventually reached our hostel at 10pm Friday, a full 30 hours after we’d set off. Luang Prabang to Hanoi by sleeper bus was undoubtedly the worst journey that any of us had ever had to endure, but one, nonetheless, that will be looked back upon as one of those character-building travelling rites of passage.