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Neck breakers
Vinh (Vietnam), August 12th 2009

Today we plan to make the bus journey from Ninh Binh to Hue in Vietnam. It will be a long day. The total journey is 650 kilometres and the bus company told us that it will take approximately fourteen hours. We have chosen for a renowned bus company; at least that is what we think, because they won three times the ‘gold star award’ for the best product in Vietnam. So, this day must be a success.

The bus initially starts in Hanoi at seven o’clock in the morning, but because we board the bus in the town of Ninh Binh, the bus company asked us to be stand-by at their office at eight-thirty in the morning. After we arrived at the office, they ask us to wait for a while and serve us a glass of water. We wait and wait and when the bus still didn’t arrive a quarter to ten, while the expected passing time through Ninh Binh was nine o’clock, Ivonne decides to start writing in her diary. We again conclude that it will be a long day. Add fourteen hours for the bus ride and you know that we won’t arrive in Hue before midnight. Soon after, the bus arrives. It is almost ten o’clock.

Our backpacks are neatly labelled and are loaded in the luggage compound of the bus. When we want to enter the bus, the driver asks us to take off our shoes. “Take off our shoes?”, is what we ask again just to be sure that there is no Vietnamese-English language misunderstanding. And indeed, it is no misunderstanding so we have to satisfy the wish of the driver and take off our shoes. This is the first time that we have to do this in our long, long bus career. He gives us small plastic bags to put our shoes in. That the bags are not big enough for Edwin’s shoe size thirteen is something that we can not blame him for.

The berths of a 'comfortable' sleeper bus

After we took off our shoes and walked further into the bus, we understand what is going on. Without knowing it, we bought tickets for a so-called sleeper bus. That means that there are no seats in the bus, but only berths. These kinds of buses are very popular in countries where the distances are vast, like here in Vietnam. There are three rows of berths in the linear direction of the bus, and there are two levels; a lower berth and an upper berth level. The bus can take in total 39 passengers. We wring ourselves through the small aisle of the bus till we reach the berths with numbers 11 and 12, both of the type ‘upper berth’. We look at each other and without saying anything we know that this will be a very uncomfortable ride. We ask the driver, in pre-school English, if it is allowed to take the available lower berths, because the lower berths have much more head space. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but we think to understand that we can take them till the moment that somewhere ‘en route’ the persons with the tickets for these berths, will board the bus. Somehow disappointed, we fold ourselves in two available lower berths. We will see how long it takes because they kick us to the upper berths. By the way, it seems that the Vietnamese people have no problems with the small size of the berths, because here and there people are already deep in dream land.

After a little bit more than an hour, the time has come. The bus stops along the road in a small town to pick up two passengers. And indeed, these guys have the tickets for the berths that we presently occupy and that caused us a backache in a record time. The beds are not only short, but there is also no backing. That means that if you do not want to lie down all the time, and that is what you want because you can’t lie down on your back for fourteen hours to look to the ceiling of the bus, you have to take some unnatural positions. When the two new passengers arrive at our berths and look at us with question marks in their eyes, we know that it is time to move to the upper berths.

Edwin on one of the upper berths with his head against the ceiling
We clamber to the upper berths and try to find some kind of a comfortable position. Sitting is not possible anymore because the head space is too limited. We finally find a position that can be described best as a position somewhere between sitting and lying. But even in this position, Edwin still has to hold his head a little bit oblique, because of the spherical corners of the bus. The bus started driving again and with a speed of between forty and fifty kilometres an hour, the driver steers the bus through the chaotic traffic. This is highway 1A and connects the capital city Hanoi in the north of the country, with Ho Chi Min City (formerly known as Saigon) in the south. But do not expect a highway western style. On this highway you will not only find fast motorised traffic, but also ox carts, slow motorcycles, pedestrians and the picturesque Vietnamese ladies with conical hats on their bicycles.

Some hours later, we make the decision to leave the bus in the first bigger sized city. We do not only have enough about the uncomfortable bus ride, but we are also aware that this bus is dangerous. Because of the lack of head space for the upper berths, every speed bump or hole in the road can be a neck breaker. We remember a story of an Italian girl that we met in India. She was also travelling by sleeper bus and because of the fact that the driver overlooked a speed bump, she slashed with her head against the ceiling of the bus, causing her a neck injury. Eventually, we leave the bus after a ride of five hours and find ourselves in the city of Vinh. Tomorrow is a new day; the day that we will process our journey to Hue, hopefully in a normal bus.

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