When we were in Ho Chi Minh we noticed these buses unlike any other buses seen to date. Vietnam’s version of the sleeper bus is three rows of bunk beds with small aisles in between each row. The rows of bunk beds ran 5 beds long. At the end of the rows were 5 bunk beds running the width of the bus (thus, 40 beds total). The beds recline nearly all the way down, which is far superior to any of the buses in South America. The seats were more like a low-budget business class airline than your typical bus seat. For our journey from Hue to Hanoi, we decided to give these buses a shot since it’s a twelve hour trip. There were only four seats left when we booked the tickets. None of the seats available seemed all that great. We had our pick from two on the bottom in the very back row where we’d be forced to cuddle between three other passengers (no aisle space) or two top bunk beds directly in front of the last row of 5 bunks. We wanted to be on the bottom but sleeping right next to a stranger and climbing over someone (or being climbed over) to get out didn’t appeal to us. We decided to opt for the two top bunks despite our feeling that they could be less stable and more prone to swaying. It was crazy when we actually boarded the bus, people climbing into their bunk beds like we were all in summer camp again. Friendly chatter with neighbors lightened up the atmosphere on the bus. Leaving Hue we passed small villages and rice fields as the sun was setting for the night. It made for spectacular views as people began to settle in for the night. Not everyone slept soundly (including me) due to the condition of the roads up to Hanoi. Giant potholes seemed to litter the road going north, jarring me awake just as I drifted off. There was also the occasionally screech of brakes and lurch forward as the bus driver avoided hitting motor bikes and semi trucks.

Eventually we pulled into our bus’ location in Hanoi, only to be met by touts wanting to either take us to an “excellent” guesthouse or offer a taxi ride further into the city. We’ve become big fans of travelfish.org for Asia, and Jodi wrote down a top three list of guesthouses from their site. All seemed like nice little places in the heart of Hanoi. With our top pick’s address in hand we started negotiations with one of the cab drivers. On our last visit to Hanoi, we experienced one of the many cab scams that make cab riding in this city so dodgy. The meter was unusually fast and within minutes shot up to ten dollars. We knew that this was way too much so we ended up paying him a fraction of the price and jumped out of the cab. This experience taught us not to trust the meter on non-affiliated hotel cabs, so we decided to negotiate a flat rate to the guesthouse this time. He started out at US$8 (140,000 dong), which was met immediately with Jodi laughing in his face (she was a bit cranky from the sleepless night). We countered for 30,000 dong (just under $2). He finally came down to 50,000 but we held steady at 40,000. When we started to walk away, he quickly accepted our price of 40,000 dong (just over $2). The only problem when reaching our destination was that we only had really large bills on us. Jodi handed over a 500,000 dong note (nearly $28) and the cab driver promptly gave her back 10,000 dong (50 cents!) and headed for his cab. I thought he was going to get more change out of his cab but the ever vigilant Jodi knew something was up and quickly yelled and snatched the money out of his hand. I quickly caught on and realized that this guy was totally trying to rob us blind with the whole foreigners are stupid and can’t tell a 500,000 from a 50,000 note. Luckily Jodi was quick and got to the guy before he got into his cab. The guy feigned surprise and ignorance, but quickly came up with our change. At least to us, Hanoi really seems to be the home for the most scams in Vietnam, and this was just a clear reminder to keep a constant watch as we head further north.

We’ve been to Hanoi before, and on our last visit we toured the main sites of the city. This time we just spent a few days wandering the streets of the old quarter and planning out our next leg of our journey up north. We knew that our next destination would be Bac Ha, which is known for their amazing market. The best way to get up there was by a night train. We decided to save a few bucks and buy our soft sleeper, a four person compartment with a soft mattress, at the train station. We read some forum post that told us exactly how to buy the tickets but reading about it and actually implementing the directions are entirely different. The foreigners ticket booth that we relied on to be open was not so we had to try to deal with a woman who spoke absolutely no English whatsoever. Fortunately a young girl offered to help and be our translator. With her speaking to the ticket booth lady, she tried to explain that we wanted a soft sleeperĀ  for the next night. People started gathering behind and beside us, crowding us in. They didn’t seem to get the whole “it’s our turn” thing as they kept trying to buy their tickets as we were talking. Our translator explained there were no soft sleepers available for the next day or even the day after that. This seemed kind of odd since there are three large trains that leave every day. We knew this was wrong but there wasn’t a whole lot we could do; we thanked our interpreter for trying and left the train station feeling utterly defeated.

On a whim we decided to hit a travel office that advertised train tickets and of course plenty of tickets were available. Our best guess is that agencies buy out the sleeper tickets to resell to foreigners thus forcing tourists to go through travel agencies. We eventually just bought the tickets through our hotel, costing a few extra bucks, a few hours of wasted time, and a bruised ego. At least we tried and got a taste of local life so I can’t call it a complete failure.

Boarding the train, I imagine this is what it will be like when we take the trans-Mongolian railway. It reminded me of when I took a train in East Germany, back when the wall first came down. The car was a light lime green color, everything seemed just a bit dirty and old. It took awhile to figure out the numbering system and find our berth but we eventually did and walked into a compartment with three people already in our four person compartment. A Vietnamese couple were sharing one bed; we figured he paid for a cheap seat then came back to bunk with his girlfriend. We also shared the cabin with a Canadian who has been living in Japan for the last five years and was planning to bike around the south for a few weeks. The ride was nice, smooth, and comfortable; it was much nicer than any bus ride that we’ve ever been on. Laying on the surprisingly comfortable mattresses, the gentle swaying of the cars and the clicking of the rails rocked us to sleep. The day soon broke and the five minute call sounded so we hurriedly packed up our stuff and headed out into the morning fog of Lao Cai.

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