Two Seats on the Vietnamese Bus Ride from Hell

Posted on by Skip Yetter


Never mind the boat ride from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc, which started an hour late and stuttered through two “Ooops! We’re out of gas” delays before depositing us ashore in Vietnam.

The boat trip was late, ridiculous and at times alarming (particularly when the three Chinese guys sitting next to us started to light up cigarettes while the crew pumped an open container of fuel into the boat’s tank a couple of feet away.)

But our bus ride from Chau Doc to Can Tho was without question the day’s Most Memorable Moment, the most harrowing, worrying and worst transportation experience of my fairly evolved and travel-savvy life.

It was to public transportation what the first 15 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” is to film: a nauseating, pulse-pounding, deeply troubling and nightmarish experience.

It had taken us awhile to find the bus to Can Tho, deflecting the appeals from motorbike drivers who wanted to charge us way too much money to take us nowhere we wanted to go.

But we found the station, bought the tickets and – after sweating through a delicious “hot pot” lunch of pig’s bladder and dog toenails, we headed back to the bus station early so we would get a good seat.

They saw us coming, excitedly spirited us into the minivan and unceremoniously departed half an hour before the scheduled liftoff.

So there we were, sitting beside one another in the third bench seat of a groaning mini van that clearly had seen better days. Twenty minutes later, punctuated by constant blaring of the horn, manic full-throttle sprints into the path of oncoming trucks, buses and motorbikes followed by abrupt swerves back into our rightful lane, we glanced at each other and confessed our truth: “This sucks”.

And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, when my normally calm and collected wife turned to me with an uncharacteristic quiver in her lower lip and said she was really scared, the kid in the seat in front of me started to throw up.

Then the woman to the right of her joined the fray, reaching for the small plastic bag knowingly handed to her by the crazy wingman in charge of onboard festivities. Shortly thereafter, the woman to her right – apparently wishing not to be left out – reached for a bag and made it a trifecta pukefest.

I stopped pointing out the atrocities to Gabi after she confessed that my chronicling of the events as they unfolded were only making things worse. So I put on my sunglasses as the sun went down and lowered my head so I wouldn’t see the women tossing full carsick bags out of the open window and reached for yet another to resume the purge.

I looked away as an elderly woman perched two seats to my right glared at me, indicting, convicting and sentencing me (presumably with lethal injection, judging from the hateful look on her face) for some unknown violation.

For awhile I resisted the temptation to shout at the driver, whose manic exploits surely must have been a product of pschotropic drugs, an overdose of methamphetamines or a miserable childhood.

He was a terrorist behind the wheel, an uncaring, thoughtless boob with one hand on the wheel, the other diddling with the radio and chain smoking (inconsiderately bellowing smoke through the back of the van, certainly adding to the misery of the poor kid in front of me.)

Figuring that no one spoke English anyway, I shouted out a trial balloon to see what reaction I’d get.
“Hey, Mario Andretti. It’s OK to keep it under 150. It’s not a damned race.”

No response, so I upped the ante, turning to the driver’s wingman, who alternated between shouting epithets out the window at motorists who failed to get out of the way fast enough, answering his cell phone and chain smoking while passing around carsick bags – long live the pukefest!

“Hey, Nostradamus. Do you understand that tromping on the gas pedal followed by crushing the brakes doesn’t actually get us there any quicker?”

He was silent, too, ignorant to my insults. Meanwhile, the meth freak behind the wheel was laying on the brakes yet again to avoid an oncoming enormous truck. It occurred to me: This guy must go through brake pads like Larry King goes through wives.

But our faith sustained us, as any good TV evangelist or Sarah Palin might have said, and we miraculously found ourselves standing by the side of the road with no idea where to go, no grasp of the language, no mode of public transportation in sight and the sun going down in a land very much far from all that we know.

And very, very happy.

Skip Yetter


Footnote for the wary and forewarned traveller: The bus station is about 3k outside of Chau Doc, so take a trishaw or a taxi to the actual bus station. Our mistake was walking to the “bus stop” run by the hooligans masquerading as bus drivers.

At all costs avoid the Kim Ngan “bus/taxi/road warrior” transport. While I’m grateful to them for giving me fodder for this post, I am equally motivated to help others avoid the unpleasant experience.

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4 Responses to Two Seats on the Vietnamese Bus Ride from Hell

  1. scoffer says:

    Ha, Ha, you just reminded me of a few of my earlier journeys when I was much younger.

    Great post.

  2. Bruno Starrs says:

    Hi Skip,

    I like your writing style on K440. Have you written any major works such as a full-length novel? I, too am a writer, with my teaching experiences in Thailand and Morocco leading to the publication of 2 forgettable novels. If you’re in PP I’d like to buy you a drink!

    Cheers, Canberra (Bruno).

  3. andyinasia says:

    Years ago I blogged about a similar journey in India. I entitled it, “Seeing India through closed eyes”.

  4. PenhMan says:

    I’ve taken the boat (Blue Cruiser or Hang Chau) back and forth between PP and Chau Doc 10-12 times. It’s OK, never had similar problems. But it is expensive and they lie about how long it takes: 4 hours. Well, it’s about 5+ hours down river and almost 6 hours up river.

    Minibuses in Vietnam are pretty much the worst form of transportation.

    FYI: There is a bus station off the east-bound main river road (Trung Hung Dao/Le Loi) in Chau Doc. The red bus service operated by the huge transport company Phoung Trang offers very good intercity coach service all over, including Can Tho. Tickets cheap.

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