Vietnam’s slender shape, like a singular rose wilting away from the edges of the South China Sea, lends itself to linear travel.
My original idea to ride the country’s Reunification Express, a train just as much a history lesson as a mode of transport, was quickly thwarted by reality. My timescales and my newfound freedom, which led me to draw my own lines through the countries I visited, meant that buses were simply more practical.
As I boarded another night bus in coastal Nha Trang, I held my day pack tightly around my chest, only too aware of any unwanted result of all the confusion of bodies and boxes. I waited my turn to board but equally didn’t take prisoners in choosing a seat – another trick of Vietnam’s roads.
Night buses, while an acquired taste for a female alone, fascinated me.
I started each journey nervous about the road ahead and my potentially troublesome fellow passengers. For endless hours I then became empathetic to their suffering. A melee of businessmen with what sounded like bad sleep apnea and fragile old ladies bringing their guts up into sick bags with the gusto of a drunken rugby team. When we arrived, I always felt exhausted and inflated in equal measure. Another successful night shift completed.
In just under two weeks, night and day, I travelled from Ho Chi Ming in the south to the northern capital of old Hanoi. My route was an infectious mix of cities, smaller towns and countryside. I spent time in Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue. A concoction of misty mountains, hot beaches, crafty culture and oriental citadels that filled me with thoughts that I needed time to digest. And for that too, I was grateful for the buses.
Of course there were challenges. Long bus days and unexpected delays, like the sloughing of a chocolate cake mountainside onto the road in Ninh Thuang province, were tiring. The nights I slept for more than four hours were medal worthy and at every stop, there was always the danger of losing luggage. Although what the buses lacked in service certainty, they made up for wholeheartedly in the destinations they visited.
I was so neatly delivered to hostels and backpacker promenades that riding Vietnam’s buses opened my eyes to a slice of life that I rarely experienced elsewhere. Cultural connections on board felt real and useful. I was regularly taken up on my offer of a secondary sick bag and suited gentlemen would hold out bags of sweets for me through the gap in my stumpy curtains. Other exchanges were more subtle but undoubtedly a sign that we were in it together: A knowing eye roll shared at a roadside wheel replacement; A unified grumble at the stench from the toilet; The collective rush to grab snacks as sellers walked the isles.
For me, buses were the key that unlocked the door to Vietnam.
And while the romantic idea of proceeding more calmly by vintage train never really left me, I didn’t regret those nights in slippery leather sleeper seats listening to rambunctious bodily sounds. Perhaps if only for the fact that I’ll never, ever forget them.