This post is part of the Sleep Less, Dream More series in which we share uncommon sleeping places and circumstances travelers encountered during their trip.
Written by Kevin Kato.
Except for the guy who chucked a mangosteen at me as I cruised through a roundabout in Mỹ Tho I hadn’t encountered any real malice on the streets of Vietnam.
Chaos was the first word that came to mind when I pedaled my tandem bicycle across the Cambodian border into the southern Vietnamese town of Xuan Bien. Cars growled past each other, four or five across on a two-way two-lane road. Scooters cut into traffic from the side streets without slowing or looking. The sound of honking filled the air. People shouted in the din, a sporadic gunfire of words.
By the time I was passing through Chau Doc I understood the normalcy, the lack of malice underlying this everyday riot of noise and movement. You don’t yell and shake your fist at the guy on the scooter speeding and swerving down the wrong side of the road. You just move out of the way and get on with things. That’s just how it works.
“Bus to Da Nang is six o’clock,” said the girl with the soft face and the unsure eyes. “You come here before six o’clock.”
It was four-thirty. I pointed out the window, at my seven-foot aluminum frame serpent.
“My bicycle on the bus is okay?”
“Okay,” she said glibly. As I headed out the door for a stroll and something to eat I wondered if she’d ever sold a bus ticket to a guy hauling a tandem.
I didn’t want to go to Da Nang, but this girl didn’t know of any buses going straight to Hoi An. But no matter. Riding 30 kilometers from Da Nang was much more palatable than riding 650 from Da Lat, with or without flying mangosteens.
It was quarter to six when I returned, full of dinner and armed with snacks for the ride. The bus, the girl told me, was gone.
“You said six!”
She shook her head. “Bus driver, wanted to leave.”
“No problem, I get another bus,” she said, and for the next ten minutes she dialed up a dozen different bus companies or travel agencies or maybe a few friends, looking for someone who could get me to Da Nang.
On the thirteenth phone call her eyes brightened and she started scribbling something on a piece of paper. Then she hung up and looked at me. “Okay, bus to Da Nang. Driver, you and one more person.”
A whole bus for two people? “What kind of bus?” I asked.
She tried to explain but that quickly proved futile so she led me out the door and pointed at a dirty white passenger van parked at the end of the short crumbling street. “That one. Same same but different,” she said as if that should explain everything.
Five minutes later I was pushing my bike into the back of a dirty red van with the help of a guy named Home. The passenger seat had plenty of leg room for a full-grown Chihuahua. “Da Nang?” I said, one of the few words we could both understand.
“Da Nang!” he replied, and began driving through town at breakneck speed. I was just beginning to get used to it when he veered and pulled into a gas station at a large intersection. To one side men crawled all over a mountain of boxes, high as a wooly mammoth on the open back of a truck.
“Okay, you go,” Home said.
I looked at Home. He looked at me and pointed. “Da Nang!”
What could I do but agree?
Home was rocketing off into the darkening evening when a woman approached me. She was short and thin and told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to pay her 200,000 Vietnamese Dong – twice what the bus would have cost though with a much greater potential for adventure. I asked if she’d take a personal check – to no reaction – and handed over the cash.
The woman said something to one of the men who smiled, turned to me and motioned to me to help load boxes onto the truck. Meanwhile a few of the other guys had stopped working and were tinkering with my bike’s mechanisms. I stopped helping with the boxes when one of them climbed onto the front seat.
My bike and my panniers would end up on top of the mammoth, for better or for worse. Then all but two of the guys disappeared, leaving the driver and the ‘one more person’ making the trip, the driver’s paunchy five-foot assistant. He motioned to me to get in. I waved my hand for him to get on first. I wasn’t about to sit in the middle. He said no and pushed me toward the open door. I pushed his hand off me. He tried again. I pushed him off again. We might have come to fisticuffs if the driver hadn’t taken my side.
“Hoi An,” I said to the driver. “I go to Hoi An.”
The driver looked at me. “Da Nang.”
I tapped the dash with my finger. “Da Nang.” Then I pointed to my chest. “Hoi An. Okay?”
The driver put it in gear and we were off.
The last glints of daylight were fading as we lumbered through town. The night had turned jet black by the time we were rolling down a dirt road, the lights of civilization gone from the side view mirror. I offered the guys some of my dried apricots, a sort of proactive bribe in exchange for them not demanding more money from me and/or tossing me out into the trees.
We bounced and jostled along the dirt road for an hour, maybe two. The little guy fell asleep, I have no idea how. When we hit the main road I settled in, comfortable at least in the idea that if the guys were going to do something bad to me they would have done it by now. I thought I might even be able to get some shut-eye. But when we came to a small town the driver pulled over.
Get out, he motioned with his thumb.
Outside my window a man appeared from a dark doorway and started walking toward the truck. The driver got out. I got out – slowly. The man walked toward the back of the truck. I followed him around to see the driver pulling a large cardboard carton off the pile. It hit the street with a heavy thud. The driver exchanged a word with the man, motioned to me to get back on the truck, and we drove away.
Twenty minutes later we pulled over again. And ten minutes after that. And thirty minutes after that, all night and on through sunrise. No paperwork. No payments, not that I witnessed. Just people stepping out of pitch black buildings in the middle of the night to unceremoniously receive their boxes.
In the haze of the misty morning and my sleep-deprived eyes I saw a sign for Hoi An. Then we passed another. Then another, this one with an arrow, pointing right.
“Hoi An,” I said to the driver, pointing out my window. “Hoi An.”
By now the little guy was awake. He shook his head no. Then to punctuate the sentiment said “No.” Thinking maybe they would be driving through Hoi An, or closer to it, I waited. But the signs for Hoi An stopped coming.
“Hoi An,” I said louder. “Hoi An!”
The driver looked over. The little guy smiled. “Da Nang.”
“No! Hoi An!”
Again we went back and forth until the driver told the little guy to shut up. He pulled over into a sprawling paved lot, already inhabited in this early hour by a couple dozen other trucks and countless people moving and shouting and moving things around.
“Hoi An,” said the driver, tossing me another thumb that meant Get off and, at the same time, Hoi An is back there somewhere.
He was nice enough to climb up and hand down my bike and panniers. They were coated with a damp film of dust. The driver and his buddy said nothing as they climbed back into their truck and pulled away.
At times I wanted to yell and shake my fist – at the bus driver who left early; at the girl back at the hotel when Home dumped me off at a gas station; at the driver and his buddy for not pulling over at that sign for Hoi An.
But in Vietnam you go with the flow and you get on with things.
That’s just how it works.
As I pedaled back down the highway, searching for a sign for Hoi An, it started to rain.
All photos, with exception of the featured image, are taken and owned by Kevin.
About the author
Kevin Kato is an avid writer and incurable traveler. Since pursuing an advanced education in forensic science he has hiked, biked, boated and otherwise locomoted through forty countries across six continents, mostly in legal fashion. When he is not on the road Kevin plays husband father and writer in Japan. Make sure to check out his books and his website KevinKato.com!