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The Sleeper Buses of Vietnam

Today’s post will be a love/hate letter to a very specific part of travelling, especially in Vietnam.

I’m no stranger to adventuring and financial compromise; when backpacking, one can hardly expect to live a life of comfort throughout the entirety of the trip – indeed, if you are perfectly comfortable whilst moving through country after country, I would controversially posit that you somehow aren’t doing it properly.

Over the last month-and-a-bit of mostly-purposeful wandering, we’ve experienced a sliding scale of accommodation quality. Most of our bedrooms haven’t had monstrous insects scuttling along the walls; some have. Most rooms have been free of suspicious stains and/or smells; some haven’t.

Generally speaking, we’ve been able to sleep in most places thanks to/despite the quality of the room, knowing that we can always extend our stand or run for the hills the following morning. In the case of the latter, it’s usually not too long of a journey to reach the next town, at which point we once again roll the dice on how liveable the hostel will be.

The Philippines’ geography requires travellers to choose between boat and plane for most journeys; if the trip covers more than a single island, most people would simply opt for a short, cheap flight. We’d prefer not to waste money or burn ozone on flights if possible, however, so it’s trains and buses for us.

As of writing this post, I’ve yet to experience a train journey in Vietnam, though that may change in the next few days. What I have experienced, over the course of just five bus trips, is over 40 full hours of long-distance, usually overnight travel.

Sleeper buses are as notorious as they are practical. If you were to Google some second opinions before traveling, you might find yourself being a bit put off – such phrases as ‘coffins on wheels’ and ‘you couldn’t pay me to get on one’ seem to come up a lot – but 200,000VND (about £7) to cover the 14-hour slog from Hue to Hanoi is more than a little tempting.

We first encountered sleeper buses on the five-hour journey from Hô Chí Minh to Mūi Né, all those cities ago at the start of the Vietnamese leg of the trip. We were picked up from the Hanh Cafe travel agency near Bùi Viên at 8pm, thrown unceremoniously into the back of a van (no seats but a few thoughtful loose cushions) and driven right to the door of the bus – a large, coachlike vehicle with more curtains than the average bus. We threw our bags underneath, removed our shoes (as per custom) and prepared to find our seats.

‘Seat’, however, would be a questionable choice of word. Sleeper buses don’t so much have seats as narrow bunkbeds, crammed into the bus in a manner not entirely unlike a battery chicken farm. Closer to shelves than actual beds, you’ll end up feeling like a Toy Story extra scrambling back to your designated spot whenever the bus is about to set off again. A gentle aroma of ‘old socks’ permeates the air and, rather like being awake on a long-haul flight, you’re suddenly very conscious of the fact that there is *always* someone coughing at any point on the journey.

I’m not freakishly large for a human – 187cm, or a little over 6’ – but I will warn my fellow tall-ish people: you *will* spend a large portion of the journey with your knees somewhere around your nostrils, or bent into the foetal position. The hardier narcoleptics among you may manage to get a few winks at some point on the drive, but for me the ‘sleeper’ part of the bus was in name only.

Generally, the bus will stop every 2-3 hours to allow for leg-stretching and cigarette/bathroom breaks. This may either be at a designated stop, or on the hard shoulder of the motorway in the middle of the night – and applies to both the male and female passengers, with little other than a few metres of dark road either end of the bus in the way of gender-separation.

For the longer trips, you’ll get a ‘dinner rest’ sometime around nightfall at a roadside restaurant, giving you 20 minutes or so to get in, get fed and get back on the bus. The driver will usually disappear immediately into the ‘VIP’ bus driver section of the restaurant, leaving unfamiliar travellers (c’est moi) to wonder how the hell the diner system works. There will usually be a makeshift menu to point at on one side of the room, at which point you pay and run to the other side to grab your tray, inhale your pho and return quickly to your shelf on the bus.

I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories surrounding the bus industry in Vietnam, but so far haven’t encountered any especially bad conditions; I gather that conditions have improved drastically over the past few years, and if you book through a tourist travel agency you shouldn’t have too much trouble with dodgy drivers.

I would argue that taking a Vietnamese sleeper bus is one of those traveling experiences you just have to have, like ordering unidentifiable/inedible food or apologetically avoiding eye contact with a sex worker. It’s inarguably the cheapest way to traverse the country (with the possible exception of riding your own bike) and – touch wood – so far not a calamitous experience in my own travels.

You might not be particularly comfortable and there might be a couple of bugs on board (they were only very, very small cockroaches and that was only one bus, promise), but you’ll stagger off the other side with more than enough leftover money for all the coffee/alcohol you’ll need to get over the journey.

Guests at the Four Seasons need not pay any heed to this post.

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Waiting & Wading Through A Cebu City Stopover

Our time on the western coast of Cebu Island had been one of sun, sea and slightly soggily sandy sandals, but it was time for a change – a decision we apparently shared with the ever-indecisive Pacific weather.

When we finally boarded the bus from Badian to Cebu City, the ground was scorched by midday sun. Twenty minutes into the journey, someone apparently annoyed the local gods and the entire sky dropped on our heads. Sheets of horizontal rain pounded the passengers’ faces while the conductor fought with rusted window latches; meanwhile, I endeavoured to take photos with rain filling my eyes, camera and undergarments.

After a few howling hours of misted mountains and tropical downpour, we emerged on the other side of the island into Talisay, a city area latched onto the outskirts of Cebu City itself. Our intention was to spend a few spare days with a base in the city to allow Meg the opportunity to get her rock-climbing fix before heading to our next destination, the climbing haven of Cantabaco – though the weather was already starting to raise concerns about the feasibility of doing so.

Talisay was something of an in-country culture shock for us. After a few weeks of roaming the brilliant beaches and dense jungles of the Philippine countryside, we were left reeling when the bus dropped us at the side of a screaming highway in a densely-packed urban landscape. Unfortunately, we were also left a few kilometres from our hotel with heavy bags and tired bodies – and a misread maps app led me to believe it was too close to bother getting a (presumably overpriced) taxi. Thirty minutes later we both agreed that 200 pesos was perfectly adequate for such a journey, but we’d already walked two-thirds of it and were too stubborn to give in.

Having survived enthusiastic motorcyclists, bloody-minded jeepneys and a number of spontaneously non-existent pavements, we finally dropped our luggage at the hotel and gave in to the allure of a Korean restaurant in a nearby mall. We were dusty, bedraggled, missing the cerulean beauty of Badian and ready to fall over on the bed in preparation of Meg’s climbing expedition the following day. This was the plan.

As we left the mall, we came up against a wall of people looking out at some pretty nasty-looking rain. We were convinced in our stubborn Englishness that a little drizzle wasn’t going to keep us from getting back to our hotel just across the street, and strode into the road – into two solid feet of flowing water that hadn’t been there an hour before.

The road was a black river, knee-deep at points and full of standstill, vaguely bored traffic. Meanwhile, the two palest people on the street were overjoyed to find purpose in the pack-a-macs they’d brought with them and waded happily onto the scene, taking photos and giving ironic thumbs-up to slightly-amused jeepney passengers. We had a great time until something unidentifiable brushed past my leg, after which point we stuck to high ground.

One of the additional effects of this torrent, however, is that it almost certainly meant that the climbing trip wasn’t going to happen. Despite my occasionally simian behaviour, I’m not yet much of a climber – but the gecko-like Meg was mortified. As such, we allowed ourself a lie-in with the promise that we’d find an indoor climbing gym elsewhere in the city; when we woke up to glorious sunshine and a bone-dry city, it became apparent that we should never make assumptions about weather in the Philippines.

Before: Cebu under water, 10pm.

After: Cebu, the driest city I’ve ever seen, 10am.

The next few days were devoted to attacking the climbing wall (for Meg) or wandering vaguely around Cebu City trying to write this blog. The daily downchucks of torrential rain made any ambitious adventures unlikely, and we were whiling away the time before flying to our last destination in the country: the lauded beach paradise of Boracay.

Towers, Bears and Geese

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Under this mystique of sophistication, wit and impeccable gramm(er)ar, it may surprise you to learn that, deep down, I can, on occasion, be profoundly lazy. I’ve never been one for footing balls or chasing steeples – anything where there’s the slightest chance I might embarrass myself in front of large groups –  but have come to love the rare, glorious moments where I can experience the suicidal joy of snowboarding. If ever I were to find myself plummeting down a sheer mountainside, I’d like to at least be strapped onto a fibreglass spatula. On the slopes, I can at least be assured that falling over and embarrassing oneself in front of large groups is a commonplace event.

Living in the green low(ish)lands of Somerset, mountains are a bit sparing to come by – so this pastime, while immensely fun, has had a habit of occurring roughly once every two-to-four years:

2006: Lapland, Finland; -25° in the Arctic Circle, with the Aurora Borealis above and a swearing, pre-bearded Benjamin falling over a lot under the watch of an ex-military snowboard instructor

2008: Wanaka, New Zealand; having already blown the backpacking budget on skydiving and hostels, went all-out on the Treble Cone slopes in Wanaka. Got stuck in a white-out on the mountainside, managed not to fall off the mountain

2011: Ehrwald, Austria; never one to actually pay for anything if I can get away with it, managed via Mum/’s magazine to blag a travel-piece on Ehrwald & Mt. Zugspitz. Brought brother along, drank weissbeer, managed not to fall off the mountain

2015: Bear’s Town, Namyangju, South Korea; two years after I’d previously lived 20 minutes away from Bear’s Town ski resort, I travel across the entire bloody country to finally get there. Confidently avoided any potential falling-off-mountain scenarios.IMG_7572

Swallowing the guilt of leaving Millie in the care of our fellow dog-addicts for one whole night (pathetic, I know), we occupied ourselves for the 4 hours to Seoul on the now-familiarly-far-too-hot bus – Meg by sleeping 80% of the journey and myself by discovering Banner Saga on the iTunes store.

After a now-familiarly obnoxious reunion with Lori (the only remaining Namyangju-based member of the obscene Osan Crew of 2012/13), we detoured back to Jinjeop via the astonishingly shiny and alarmingly tall Lotte World Tower – the name given to the work-in-progress tower we watched grow in Jamsil when we’d pass through on a weekly basis. I remembered it as a wee bairn of a building, all scaffolding and catherine-wheel blowtorch embers in clear view of street level. Understandably, I feel, I initially failed to recognise the looming, perspective-distorting behemoth of a skyscraper sticking out of the ground when we arrived. Already 94 storeys high, it’s still got another 29 to go – and will be the fourth tallest building in the world, after the Burj Khalifa, Shanghai Tower and the Abraj Al-Bait – and will be the single tallest building in the OECD (ie. Western economic world).

It's a big 'un.

It’s a big ‘un: still another third to go.

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I’m throwing out these statistics to try and convey the whoah, cor blimey, f**k me effect the place had on me. Of course, being Seoul, the bottom seven or eight storeys have already been devoted to a top-class, glass-plated, esculator-bound shopping mall with no possibility of convenient escape. Giving in and lending our custom to a Hard Rock Cafe on the top floor, we ate our burgers, experienced all-American (read: incessant badgering) treatment by an entirely bilingual and very lovely pan-cultural staff, considered self-harm while waiting outside H&M for a full hour and finally, somehow, managed to get back to Lori’s home castle.IMG_7632 IMG_7639 IMG_7636 IMG_7631

Hard Rock Cafe - just in case you accidentally find yourself abroad.

Hard Rock Cafe – just in case you accidentally find yourself abroad.

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I’m already over-budget on words and I haven’t even got to the cold bit.

Bear’s Town was a surprise in a number of ways. Firstly, the journey from Lori’s to the slopes took a total of twelve minutes (a fact which I would have exploited far more beforehand, had I known). Secondly, for three of us to get everything – snow jacket/salopettes, boards, boots and lift pass – cost a total of 170,000 won, or 50-60,000 each: about £35 for all I needed to go snowboarding for a day. For anybody not familiar with ski prices, that’s laughably cheap. Thirdly – and best(ly), the nature of ‘slow mornings’ in Korea meant that for practically the entire day we could slide around the mountain with relative freedom from crowds, and nip back up the mountain lift in no time at all.IMG_4352

Seriously damn stylish.

Seriously damn stylish.

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Meg always finds a new friend.

Meg always finds a new friend.

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Before I describe the day, I’d like to point out that Meg is now not only willing, but suggesting we go back for Round Two. I emphasise this point in contrast to the stream of profanity which flowed from my beloved girlfriend’s mouth as she passed through the inevitable ‘falling over and swearing a lot while you hate everything’ phase of snowsports. However, less than an hour into the experience, thanks in no small part to Lori’s expert guidance and my ability to not fall on Meg while I helped her balance, she was braking and manoeuvring like a star. I took this as my cue to try out the full stretch of Big Bear (comprising both the smaller Little Bear slope and the remainder of the immediate mountain) – which, I’m egotistical enough to admit, I managed well enough without actually falling over once, and somehow succeeding in doing that quick ‘zig-zag’ thing (shop talk) which speeds the board up but, more importantly, looks cool. The girls would have been so impressed but, sadly, had been diverted by churros and chocolate dip by this point.IMG_4355

It wouldn't be Korea without some form of dwarfish mascot.

It wouldn’t be Korea without some form of dwarfish mascot.

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'F#@k.'

‘F#@k.’

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It’d been a long day’s slipping, sliding and swearing, and we were all feeling the après-ski, pre-galbi glow of a good day’s farting around. We’d been waiting at the highway-side bus stop for a while when we heard the group of jindo guard-dogs barking at something interfering with them behind our shelter and, upon peering through the scratched plexiglass pane, it became apparent what was riling up the previously silent hounds.IMG_7684 IMG_7689

'You from round here, stranger?'

‘You from round here, stranger?’

Murderer's eyes.

Murderer’s eyes.

I wasn't the only victim.

I wasn’t the only victim.

I like to think I normally make a point of avoiding unnecessary profanity in this blog, but trust me when I say that these feathery sons of bitches were goddamn mean. Two rough-as-arseholes geese seemed to be making a point of harassing the guard-dogs, hissing and honking, for no apparent reason other than their own avian satisfaction. I made the fatal mistake of leaning round our transparent hut to try and get a shot of them, and the bastards rushed me. I wasn’t the only one – a fellow Korean Bear’s Town-goer tried to get a few snaps but was himself harangued and honked at as we both tried to get away from their jabbing faces. The bus miraculously arrived just as I was wondering if geese somehow had teeth as well as beaks, and we left the flapping psychopaths to further torment the poor canines.

Shaken and terrified.

Shaken and terrified.

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I can't do Dalk Galbi's food-pornography justice.

I can’t do Dalk Galbi’s food-pornography justice.

We consoled ourselves with the somewhat predictable choice of dalk galbi (how I love thee), gathered our stuff, bid adieu to Lori and found our way back to Dongseoul Bus Terminal. One sauna-bus and The Grand Budapest Hotel later, we were back in Gwangju; aching, goose-traumatised and tired, but home.

hur hur hur

hur hur hur