Our Asian Bus Travel Honeymoon is Over

For the past month, I’ve been writing mostly about how easy it is to get around in Asia. Our experiences with bus travel have been remarkably pleasant. We had heard so many horror stories about buses that we kept wondering what all the fuss was about. Well, after our experience on the tiny bus from Mui Ne to Dalat, Vietnam, we get it. Bus travel is totally a mixed bag; you never know what you are going to get.

Let me first say that Mui Ne was a complete disappointment. We went expecting wide, clean beaches, and instead got narrow, littered ones. The water was murky, and the beaches were mostly private. So much for a relaxing beach weekend. So when we went to buy bus tickets to our next destination, we wanted out.

Lunar New Year was finally coming to an end, so most of the tourists were heading home that weekend. That also meant they could jack up the prices since demand was so high. We had seen a price online with our favorite bus company, Sinh Tourist, for 129,000 Dong ($6) per ticket, and went to the bus office to buy that ticket. Instead they quoted us at twice that rate. The second time we tried to buy a ticket, they were sold out. So we had two choices: wait two days to leave, or go with another company, whose rate was exactly in between the two prices we got from Sinh Tourist. We opted for the latter.

Sometimes, you get what you pay for.

The guy who sold us the ticket, from the Fu Ta office in Mui Ne, said to be at our bus stop at 12:15. Dutifully we arrived three minutes early, and there we waited for an hour and a half until our tiny bus arrived. Turns out that the buses that go from Mui Ne to Dalat are half the size of regular buses because the roads are so narrow and hilly. We were third to last getting on the bus, so the only seats that were available were in the far back, with no leg room (even for my short frame). The guy who got on after us was 6’2″, so he sat in the aisle back seat with his legs stretched out as far as he could, which wasn’t very far.

The air conditioning was broken, so though we had paid for a bus with A/C, there was none. Plus the windows didn’t open, so the only fresh air we got was from the roof escape hatch, which did little but suck dirt into the bus from the  outside. I could barely breathe, but opening my mouth to gasp was out of the question, since then I would only be inhaling dust directly into my lungs. (If you had seen the contents of my handkerchief, you would have thought I had been digging in a coal mine.)

The roads were half-paved, half-dirt, and had the biggest holes I have ever seen. Of course our old bus had completely ruined struts, so every time we went over a bump at any speed, Rebecca, our Belgian friend and I got anywhere between three and fifteen inches of air between our butts and the seats. One particularly hard bump caused us all to hit our heads on the roof of the bus, prompting our enraged Belgian friend to scream at the laughing bus driver. Needless to say it did no good.

The two respites from the 90-degree-plus bus were for a bathroom break and a snack stop. The bathroom break was at a river; the women squatted to the east, the men stood (grumble) to the west. The second stop, ten minutes later, had an actual toilet, so why we didn’t just wait to stop there for both bathroom and snacks is a mystery. At least we got a chance to leave the bus, which reeked of body odor and diesel fuel.

My bag spent the ride inside the cabin, being trampled on by people trying to get out of the hot bus. Rebecca’s bag sat in the luggage compartment beneath the bus and wound up covered in fish oil. It smelled so bad that we had to wash it in the shower of our Dalat hotel room with shower gel twice, holding our noses.

All in all, it was a delight (the cheapest sauna experience I’ve ever had), and one I do not intend to repeat. Of course, they don’t care if we do or not. This is not a company who is concerned with customer loyalty, keeping customers happy and turning them into frequent riders; they are in it for the quick buck. And unfortunately, it is difficult as a tourist to punish the company, since after that ride we will probably never see them again. All we can do is warn future travelers against them (if we can figure out just which company it was) and to promote the services of the company we have been happy with (Sinh Tourist) online and via word of mouth. Then we can prevent others from having the same terrible experience we did, helping them to get the most out of their trips to Vietnam.

So happy travels, everyone, and make sure you always travel with water, moist towelettes, a fan, and a good book. That should cover you for most of life’s little travel disasters.

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