I had no choice but to allow the weight of my sizeable rucksack to tip me off the back of the motorcycle that had brought me from the hotel to the bus. I laid there like a beetle, arms flailing, and tried to use momentum to get back to a less compromising position. What made it infinitely worse was that we were the last ones to board. Our hotel had called ahead to delay the driver who, along with every passenger on the manifest, had witnessed my less than graceful performance.
It was just after 4pm and we could visibly see the driver getting antsy, pumping the accelerator and revving the engine so he didn’t have to show his hand. We had no objections to boarding, having already had enough of the heady mixture of heat and diesel fumes.
“No problem driver, do you have a biohazard bag into which we may cough our lungs?”
We knew all too well about the standard of the driving and roads in Vietnam and, as I followed my partner past the cockpit and down the aisle to find our beds, I recognised the familiar silhouette of Jesus Christ on the dashboard adorned with various prayer beads and acknowledged it as a symbol of protection.
“I bet He didn’t snigger at my calamitous misfortune” I muttered, immediately feeling redeemed.
Shuffling through what amounted to a dormitory on wheels, it was disconcerting to feel like we were invading the personal space of every fellow passenger we passed, such was the close proximity of each bed, and I felt obliged to apologise uncomfortably for the inconvenience.
Reaching our upper bunks, we climbed up to explore our berths for the next eleven hours, our heads narrowly missing the roof as the driver’s lead foot pulled us out of the layby.
The last thing I imagined upon booking our tickets was a Queen-sized divan, but I didn’t anticipate the other end of the extreme. 2ft by 5ft and clinical-looking, I half expected a visit from a nurse with an unaccommodating bedside manner to read my notes and insert a drip into my arm.
Strangely, the foot of the bed comprised a plastic box, which encased our lower legs up to our knees and made us look like we were lying in open matchboxes.
As the darkness fell late in to the evening and draped the bus in black, I gave in to my heavy eyelids and fell asleep, only to be awoken with a start shortly after. For the next 6 hours I suffered through a range of persistent and torturous sleep deprivation methods skilfully applied by the erratic ability of our driver, who clearly failed to appreciate the concept of the word smooth.
Attempting to sleep in a bed too small for my frame was challenging enough, but every left turn took all of my strength to prevent my dead weight from rolling off and hitting the deck hard like I did from the top bunk on a Belgium-bound ferry when I was seven. I didn’t fare much better on right turns either, as he repeatedly created enough momentum to sucker my face to the window like a child’s backseat toy.
I would have been more accepting had I known his was an isolated driving style. But I have never witnessed anybody drive a bus any differently in Southeast Asia and remain convinced that everybody learns to drive at the same school.
It did, however, make me feel better that I was not alone in being victimised. Sharp and persistent braking continually awakened with a start those on the upper bunks, who collectively sat up like it was a choreographed Asian pop music video, their white sheets making for zombie-like silhouettes. Given the minimal bed-to-roof clearance, the repeated and unified thud of twenty-odd passengers desecrating their foreheads with a waffle-printed Vietnamese tattoo turned the surreal bizarre.
“Ah”, I exclaimed triumphantly to my partner, “now I know the purpose of the plastic box! It’s to keep our bodies contained in a neat pile when they crumple to nothing under the weight of excessive braking.”
We eagerly disembarked the bus in the early hours of the next morning, its mass shrinking in the distance. Searching for positives, I was at least grateful that we had arrived safely, concluding that it is an oxymoron of the highest order and wondered how they had the audacity to call it a Sleeper Bus. Never again.