For those of you who have never been on a 24-hour sleeping bus in Southeast Asia, allow me to explain. My friends Megan, Henry, Jonathan and I took one from Luang Prabang, Laos, to Hanoi, Vietnam recently. Let’s just say, it was a trip.  

 

28 Hours on the 24-Hour Bus (Luang Prabang, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam) --- The Borderless Project

 

First of all, it did not take 24-hours, but it didn’t take more than 30-hours, so that’s good. We didn’t have any idea of what to expect when we first climbed up and were asked to take off our shoes (that policy produced some fun smells by hour 26). The worn, ruby leather seats, the fake-wood accents, and the rainbow lights lining the ceiling gave the impression we were in the back room of a cramped 70’s night club. On either side of the aisle were two beds side by side on the floor and two beds on top of them at about elbow level.

 

Bus Luang Prabang Hanoi Vietnam
This adventure is about to kick off: Smiley faces

 

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My spot was on the top. My first thought was: This. Is. Tiny. There would be no fully sitting up in these next 28-hours. The reclining position we were relegated to is what Megan and I began calling the “one mode: lounge”. We were going to have to kick up our feet (or rather, shove them with our backpacks below the headspace of the reclined seat in front of us) and relax for the entire ride, dang it.

 

Bus Luang Prabang Hanoi Vietnam

 

I had met Henry and Jonathan just the week before, and I was beginning to realize that we were going to be getting real close, real fast. The night bus was no place for strangers to stay strangers, since we would all be sleeping on top of each other.

Literally. The aisle-way between the beds was about a foot and a half wide, but that space was designated to 5-6 men and women and a child or two, squished in head to feet. Impressively, they would sleep there, against all odds, on and off throughout the ride. Sure, it might have been inconvenient for the bathroom stops when the aisle way people didn’t feel like getting off. But only us foreigners seemed surprised by this economical use of space. I’m sure there are some people who would be just as baffled by all the wasted floor area on public transportation in the US, and I was the crazy one for thinking this couldn’t be real. Who’s to say what an aisle way is for, really.

If one thing is for sure, it’s that the chaos that comes with tight quarters developed a community between us bus-goers that I’ve never quite experienced before. Of course, this had to be developed sans a common language. But I truly hoped “so sorry for stepping on your face” could be felt, if not understood. Even when hit by the occasional water bottle or backpack that would fly down from top bunks with a jerk of the bus, our fellow passengers’ expressions were impassive, not phased by this experience that I took in so wide-eyed. I now had to question the times in my life I had complained on public transportation when someone had, for example, hogged the armrest.

This commercial passenger bus was not only packed to the brim with people, but also various imports that were unloaded by bus attendants throughout the ride. Strapped on top of the roof were boxes and trees. Potato sacks of something heavy as well as sticks and roots were stored underneath the tiny aisle-way and packed in the back corners of the bus. Every nook and cranny was used for storage, so much so that I wondered if the passengers were, in fact, an afterthought. But it wasn’t until the border that we discovered we weren’t the only living cargo being transported. Stored underneath with our backpacks and luggage, was a giant black hog…alive…and not happy with his seat.

I would say the poor soul got the shortest end of the stick, but things weren’t looking so hot up top where the people were stored, either. Laos and Vietnam are not, in fact, two countries known for their smoothly paved roads. Luckily, our bus driver was excellent at sharply swerving each and every pothole, totally unphased by the top-heaviness of the bus. He was a confident driver who knew his place on the food-chain of the road. Cars and motorbikers were reminded of their spot in the pecking order when he would drive up within inches of their tails, blare his horn just long enough so they knew he meant business, and then barrel past them on the wrong side of the road to get ahead.

At night, it was like sleeping on a boat in a hurricane, if the captain was drunk. One thing I’ll say, the swaying puts you right to sleep if you let it (that, and the sleeping pill your mom gave you).

As rain dumped from grey skies outside, the climate inside wasn’t much better. We had been warned about the aggressive use of air conditioning that seemed to have a personal vendetta against the passengers on these buses, so we shouldn’t have been surprised. But my friends and I were adorably naive and hopeful that we could change all that.

Henry called from the middle row to our driver: “hey amigo, I don’t think we need the air con!”, but that didn’t get us anywhere. He had also used the term “amigo” loosely. If our seats were set to “one mode: lounge”, our bus driver’s voice could only be registered to humans as “one mode: yell”. It didn’t make him seem like a person you could bring a personal problem to.

 

Bus Luang Prabang Hanoi VIetnam
Henry is not happy at all

 

Even so, I climbed over about 5 people in the aisle to get to the front (I’d be lying to say I didn’t stick my toe in an ear along the way). I asked the driver if we could get the bus closer to a temperature humans usually enjoy functioning at. I was unsuccessful and had to hop-scotch my way back through the bodies to my seat and hunker down on thinking warm thoughts (not about the driver, though).

On the bright side, the attempt did make me famous amongst our tight bus-life community. I overheard the girl from Amsterdam telling her friend that while he was sleeping, “one girl tried to get him to turn the air off!” She said it conspiratorially, like a soldier from a battlefield spreading tales of heroism within the unit. “He just yelled at her in Vietnamese!”, she laughed. But I felt the solidarity in our shared experience.

 

Bus Luang Prabang Hanoi Vietnam
28 hours and an alive hog later …

 

In the end, there are two sides to every coin. My idea of personal space and having room on public transportation will never be the same. But the laughter that comes out of cramming in tight awkward spaces with old friends and new friends you’re already comfortable with is some of the best kind. In our 3 months of backpacking after that ride, my friends and I would travel on plenty of cleaner, newer, and more spacious overnight buses, but we never met or got to know any of our fellow travelers in quite the same way. Surviving the unexpected, it seems, is the quickest way to bond a group of people who might otherwise never have known each other, and that’s what made it all worth it.

 

 

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