There are people in this world that were born to be unhelpful. When coupled with Vietnam’s almost complete lack of accountability displayed by its government staff – it creates a fearfully dumb and dim witted human whose job, without question, could be adequately done by a monkey.
Hanoi’s bus station counter employees are hapless infuriating creatures. Time and time again we were directed to a different empty looking human being – who would lazily raise the eyes a good one minute after we began standing in front of them. They would mumble a few words and just about summon the enthusiasm to raise their hand to direct us to somebody else; before collapsing back in their chair as if the entire interaction had not only exhausted them but also ruined their day – before 7.00am.
The bus rolled sleepily out into Hanoi’s streets. We had filled up within the bus station so was spared the ignominy of curb crawling to find extra passengers. We were soon flying along with the usual brashness and computer game driving displayed by every bus drivers in Vietnam.
We switched buses in a small dusty looking town. The new one was smaller, filled with boxes rather than people and a man from Saigon who magically seemed to be able to link every word together in bewildering torrent of Vietnamese. Minh Anh leaned over to me.
“From the South” she whispered. The forest was thick and impenetrable as we entered Ba Be National Park. The road weaved through to the lake, where there was a small establishment, consisting mainly of government run guest houses and a tourist center. A series of identical small metallic boats were sandwiched together, with all the order that a five year old would give their toy box.
One such boat whisked us across the lake – the clouds hung low in the sky, grazing the tops of the mountains circling the lake – a truly spectacular setting. On the other side it was just a short walk through the forest into the village, and our guest house which was cheap and simple – without a 5 star view out of the lake.
We walked through the village as the sun set. It struck me just how little it was driven towards tourists. The village was simple, mainly consisting of stilt houses either side of the road. There were no restaurants – and only one shop which placed a bowl of onions at the center piece of the table in front of it. The children smiled shyly, while extraordinarily young looking women carried their young children on their backs. Tomorrow was Independence day and it seemed every pig in the village was being transported on the back of a motor cycle to meet its grizzly end. Plump chickens raced backwards and forwards across the roads, their chicks desperately trying to keep up. The water buffaloes stood next to the road, chomping away at anything green within reaching distance. Staring emptily ahead like, like the complete imbeciles I’ve always suspected they are. It was a serene setting that I’m sure will change dramatically in the coming years
The morning dawned early even by the roosters standards, as the large group also staying at the guest house began crashing around like drunks at 3am. The Vietnamese tolerance for unacceptable noise at unacceptable times is commendable – and complete alien to me. I began screaming “shut the fuck up” and banging my fist against the wall around 5am. I believe they understand the meaning.
A few hours later the initial promising path into the woods vanished almost immediately and we were left scrambling up the soggy side of the hillside. It soon became apparent we were in a cemetery, old and over grown but still looking out majestically over the lake. Mosquitoes dived bombed from all directions. It wasn’t quite the stroll in the woods I have envisioned. Minh Anh dealt with it superbly. I’ve had girlfriends who would have quite literally erupted under such conditions. But she kept her cool and her smile
A boat took us around the lake and up to the waterfall. The hills loomed around us, thick with foliage so dense it’s almost impossible for the human eye to comprehend what it is seeing. It reminded me of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon and feeling completely inadequate attempting to take it all in.
The rains lashed down furiously then the sun reappeared again. Our boat moored next to a tiny settlement and we clambered out. The locals looked at us with a mix of curiosity and awkwardness – a sharp difference to other better trodden paths in Vietnam. A quick round trip up to the waterfall and we were back on the boat. As we were pulling away a girl strutted her way into the settlement. Screeching away into her I phone, she spotted a mini skirt and obviously had equated a muddy path up to a waterfall with high heels. The locals stared in disbelief. I’m not sure who they found stranger that day.
We hired a motorbike in the afternoon. Living in Vietnam may not always be as you picture it – but speeding along the tiny road through tiny old wooden settlements, through rice fields and along rivers – shouting ‘up’ every time we approached an enormous puddle that may or may not have swallowed the bike whole – it was exactly as I pictured it. It was actually one of the happiest moments I’d had in Vietnam. The scenery was spectacular, and thanks to the recent rainfall, glowing.
We began the next day at 4.30am. We jumped on the bike at 5am and crept out into the darkness. We were quickly consumed by the forest as we made our way between villages. At one point I thought I felt something hit my knee. I felt around and to my horror the key was no longer in the ignition. I slowed to a halt and told Minh Anh.
“Just keep driving” she hissed, and then once we were going she added “we can’t stop because we’ll be stuck in the forest”. I thought it best not to mention that the engine had in fact died when I’d stopped – and by some mechanical miracle, it had started again. My heart pounded for the next ten minutes until the lights of the village came into view. Incredibly the key had fallen and become lodged in the bike.
The first bus ride was a nice one. It meandered slowly through little towns. Sleepy people lined the roads waiting for the bus. Many others waved warmly to the bus driver. There was an nice close knit atmosphere.
We were dropped just outside Thai Nguyen at a rest stop. Half an hour later our next bus arrived with people quiet literally hanging out of the doors. I was stuffed (again, literally) into a seat at the back, Minh Anh beside me with an unacceptably fat sweaty man on her other side. I counted the seat. The original bus had twenty one seats. An additional eight had been added, mainly in the aisles. When we left the rest stop there were over forty people on the bus and not an inch of room.
The gap for my feet was so small that my right foot had to be constantly twisted at a 45 degree angle. A series of people were sick into see thru plastic bags which were then hurled out of the window regardless of people being around outside. Picturing somebody out for a walk being hit by a bag of vomit made my situation seem a little better. By far the worst thing on the bus were two conductors who strutted like peacocks around the bus. The hairstyles I believe have been outlawed in some countries since since 1989. They usually held their smart phones above their head – in case those at the back couldn’t see – while barking at the passengers to close the windows, even though the air conditioning was painfully inadequate.They screeched to one another at the tops of their voices while standing right next to each other. Complete fools – the world can do without types like this.
An awful two hours followed. If experience has told me anything it is to zone out and let it pass. If anything you really had to admire how magnificently terrible it was. I was kept entertained by the young woman in front of us becoming increasingly agitated with the drowsy dribbler of man who seemed determined to use her as a pillow. She repeatedly knocked him back, until she herself slipped into oblivion – and their heads nestled together in the middle and both appeared utterly content.