Wednesday, 27 March 2013 · bus, cambodia, laos, train, transport, vietnam

Transport in South East Asia - overview

by Aleksandra Czernecka

Of course I'm not going to describe every possible way of travelling, but here are some of the stories we experienced.

Flight with Jetstar Pacific: Ho Chi Minh to Danang

Jetstar Pacific is Vietnamese version of Wizz Air. Same, same, but different (as they tend to say here in South East Asia). It was Airbus 320 (same as Wizz Air aircrafts), but a bit more used (e.g. some seats would not stay in upright position). Food on board however was even better than the one we got in Vietnam Airlines. At least it looked and smelled like that - we didn't have it (fried noodles) because we ate some crappy and more expensive baguette at the airport.

Fun fact about these airlines: you never know when you're going to fly, as they have the right to change the schedule (our flight was rescheduled for 20 minutes later).

Local bus in Vietnam: Hoi An to Danang

In South East Asia they tend to employ more people than you would normally expect to have. However, sometimes they are quite useful. On many local buses other than a driver you get a guy for special tasks. Some of them are down to earth, like selling invisible tickets (by which I mean you pay and you don't get a ticket, saving paper). Other tasks are more interesting, like e.g. luggage management. The guy tells you where your luggage should be put and you have to obey and don't even think about putting it at different place, as he will relocate it.

One other task is helping people get in and out of the bus without the bus actually stopping. So if you are an old lady and have a basket with you, this guy will jump out of the bus, run towards you, take the basket from you, hold you under arm and help you run and jump up the stairs to the bus (then of course he will put the basket in the best possible place and do the same kind of help ritual when the lady is getting off).

Local bus from Hoi An to Danang. The guy in yellow shirt is a special tasks guy.
There is one other thing about local (and less local) buses - they tend to torture you with karaoke style love video clips. I say torture, because that's how I feel about them now. At first, they are kind of nice way to learn about local pop music. After you've seen couple of them they get silly funny. After couple of hours, when you notice that there are only two types of these clips:
  • old, plump guy with hairy chest and gold neckless singing plus very young, skinny and smiling girls dancing in the background
  • a guy and a girl either getting together or breaking up (depending on their status at the beginning of the clip you know how it's gonna end)
you start not to belive how unimaginative these singers are. Finally, after being on couple of buses for couple of hours you have probably seen most of the popular clips (and if not, you know how they're going to end anyway), so if you can't read on the bus (motion sickness) or see anything outside (scorching sun) you are bound to get sick of these clips. Unless of course unlike me you'll enjoy them even after so many.
Example Cambodian video clip.

Train in Vietnam: Danang to Hanoi

The sleeping train in Vietnam is quite comfortable and we both had enough sleep not to feel tired after we arrived at Hanoi. That might be because we took soft sleeper class, where you get 2 bunk beds in a compartment (4 people), with softish mattress. Other classes are hard sleeper, soft seater and hard seater. Some of them have air-conditioning, which worked perfectly in our compartment for 75% of our journey.

The first impression of the train wasn't too great unfortunately. The train was coming from Ho Chi Minh and someone else had our beds on a way to Danang, which means we got to use their sheets and blankets. We solved that easily by unpacking our sleeping bags, but comparing this train to Ukrainian sleeping train we were on some time ago, Ukrainian one wins. When boarding it ticket inspector gives you a little bag with sheets, towel, refreshing tissue and shoe polish tissue. Additionally, if you get lower bed on Ukrainian train you have a trunk underneath it (the cover is your bed), so you can safely pack all your belongings and go to sleep. Vietnamese train doesn't lose in other categories though - they have sinks with mirror at one end of the carriage, so you don't have to use smelly toilet to brush your teeth. And, on the other end of the carriage, a tank with cold and boiling water can be found. This is very useful, as I don't think there was a restaurant on the train.

Sleeping Lao bus - Hanoi, Vietnam to Luang Prabang, Laos

Well, where to begin? First of all, when buying tickets we were informed that the bus should take 24h to get to the destination, but we should expect more like 26h. It ended up being 40h... It started weird with a pick up service, where normally it is a taxi, tuk tuk or a minivan, here it was a guy on a motorbike telling us to follow him around to pick up more tourists until finally we got to a place where small bus took the whole group on to take us to the bus station. Personally, I'd prefer them to tell me to be at this place on a particular time instead of running behind a motorbike for half an hour.

The bus itself looked fine, there were 5 other tourists boarding it with us. They packed us all at the back, we wondered why, but soon it became obvious. The seats-beds where a little bit too narrow, but after a while you get used to it and a blanket, they provide you with, comes in handy when air-conditioning kicks in.

Sleeping bus in Laos
Interior of sleeping bus in Laos (when the bus is almost empty).

After leaving bus station in Hanoi we stopped couple of times to get more people on and all 29 beds were taken shortly. We thought that was when the bus starts pushing towards destination with less stops. We couldn't be more wrong... We stopped numerous times to pick up even more people with more luggage than you can imagine. First, they dismantled a step in front of us and packed the space created with some hats, T-shirts and wooden boxes. We were hoping it is just clothes in this contraband. After half an hour of packing and screwing that step back, they've put an extra bed on top of it (so to leave a bus we'd have walk through it) and placed a young couple with a small child there. At that point I thought I shouldn't complain about my narrow bed, as theirs was even narrower and there were two of them with a kid on it!

Following that the stops involved ~10 people getting on and their rice, cabbage, baguettes and God knows what else being packed into every hole of trunk, roof and shelfs of that bus. Whenever we thought that the bus is full they packed next group of people and it seemed like never ending story. All this extra passengers where sitting, lying on top of each other underneath proper seats, where I thought is a space for extra luggage.

When the bus was packed with ~80 people for some unknown reason we stopped in what looked like a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. It was night already and various vehicles where "parked" there in both directions. We were not moving for couple of hours and the driver decided to turn the air-con off. Fortunately, we found a little window next to our heads that let us survive this steamy stop. This incident was part of 12h without stopping for a toilet. Even Vietnamese started to shout at the driver when we finally got moving through a dirt track village shortcut. He did stop for like 5 minutes, so I literally managed to get out of the bus and run to the toilet (it takes a while for 80 people to get off especially when everyone is ordered to take off their shoes and put them in the plastic bag).

After that the driver felt like he has to catch up (like it mattered at that point anyway, we weren't even at the border yet with the delay of at least 8h already) so he sped up through the dirt track village road and on one of the bumps everyone at the back jumped to the ceiling (one Vietnamese guy was smaller and ligher than us heavy tourist and he hit his head). That implicated another stop to fix the bus... All local passengers have spread around villages and when the fix was ready we drove back and forth to collect them all.

Sleeping Lao bus
Our sleeping bus being repaired in some random village.

To summarize, that was quite an experience and if you ever decide to take that route don't book hotel in Luang Prabang as we did, as you will probably lose money for the first night.

VIP bus in Laos - Luang Prabang to Vientiane

Don't be tricked by VIP in the name when buying ticket for a bus. They are VIP compared to some local buses, but not necessarily all of them. VIP buses tend to be higher. They look like double deckers, but they just have more space in trunks and there is squatting toilet underneath as well.

VIP bus in Laos
Interior of VIP bus in Laos.

Just as for any other bus in South East Asia (and especially in Laos) here as well you need to add 10-20% of the time they told you it's going to take to get a real journey time. Ours was supposed to take 10h, but it took 12h and instead of getting to a decent bus station in the city, they left us on a bus station 2km away from the airport, so we were forced to take an overpriced tuk-tuk to get to the city. Fortunately, with some haggling we managed to get a decent price. A tip for this kind of situation is to stay behind and when there is not many people left the remaining tuk-tuk drivers have a choice of either taking you for lower price (lower, but probably still more than locals pay) or going back empty/waiting an hour for another bus.

One thing that actually made this bus feel like VIP is that we received a bottle of water when boarding and there was lunch included in the price of the ticket, so overall it wasn't a total rip off.

Ticket for VIP bus in Laos
Ticket for VIP bus including coupon for food.

All in all, if you want to be at your destination on time, choose plane or train, otherwise be prepared for some delays and any other surprises that might come along the way.