Minibus from Pakse to DanangMike - 16 December 2016
If you are thinking of travelling from Pakse to Danang by minibus, don’t. Fly, cycle, skip Vietnam and go to Cambodia instead; just don’t get on the minibus…
Need more of a reason? Okay, here is the long answer…
After doing a four day motorbike loop of the Bolaven Plateau in Laos we finished in Pakse and planned to travel on to Hoi An in Vietnam. The cheapest way we could find was to travel by bus to Danang and then get a local bus for the last bit of the journey. There were two options for getting from Pakse to Danang. A minibus journey from hell or a VIP sleeper bus. We’d heard stories about the minibus journey so opted to pay the tiny amount extra and accept the journey would take a couple of hours longer. While it was a long journey at least we’d be able to read, sleep or write up some articles. We booked through a travel agency called Ketmany and paid 480,000 Kip (2 * 240,000) + a 3% credit card fee. A total cost of around £50 for two people. This included hotel pickup at 5:30am the next day.
We didn’t have a particularly early night - we were travelling on a sleeper bus the next day so why not just snooze on the bus! This mindset made the 5am alarm even more brutal. After packing our bags and heading downstairs I observed a slight issue. We were locked inside our hotel. Metal shutters, padlocks and all. With some force I managed to pull open one of the metal shutters, but there was no arguing with the padlocks. Rattling the metal like a caged animal, I inadvertently made enough noise to rudely awake a member of staff. They padded over in their nightie and blearily set us free. 30 seconds later a fancy-looking car pulled up and we hopped inside. It was all going surprisingly well so far! Evidently we should travel ‘VIP’ more often!
Unfortunately this is when things took a swift turn for the worse. 20 minutes later we had been driven out into the middle of nowhere. We got out and found… a minibus. What's more, four guys were working together to try to get the door to open. It took them ten minutes before it gave up and clanked open, and we were gestured to get inside. After trying to explain that we weren’t getting in their deathtrap of a minibus, but were going to wait for our VIP sleeper bus to arrive, it became very clear there was no VIP bus. Left with little option but to get on board, we sulkily climbed in. The minibus was so full that stools were placed onboard to provide additional seating.
The journey started off just as we expected. Terrifyingly. I could barely see out of the front of the vehicle as we were sat at the back, but I could see enough to wish I couldn’t see anything. We’d heard that lots of people who braved the minibus journey were scared because of the driving. I can see why. The driver was trying to kill us. Not in a fun rollercoaster kind of way - I’m convinced he had a death wish and didn’t care if he took all of us with him. Blind corners at ridiculous speeds, forcing other drivers off the road, anything was fine. The lack of seatbelts added to the realisation that we were about to die.
Emma commented on the burning smell that was starting to fill the bus and we figured the brakes were having a hard time keeping up with the rapid deceleration going on. Given the aggressive driving and harsh braking, it seemed quite likely that they'd be burning. Ten minutes later, when Emma noticed that the bus was actually filling with smoke, I was able to reassure her. “Don’t worry - the driver has started smoking a cigarette.” One by one most occupants of the bus lit up, making the air hazy with noxious cheap cigarette smoke.
I closed my eyes and wondered if there was any chance of drifting off to sleep. My head immediately slammed into the side of the bus. Hard. A few corners later I was starting to feel like a hamster which had been placed in its ball and rolled out onto a football pitch. Every corner was a jarring experience and it felt like things just couldn’t get any worse. Then the driver put on the Asian trance music and turned it up nice and loud. Just what you need at 6am…
We were the only English speakers on the bus and everybody else was Vietnamese. I’m not sure what they paid for the bus, but I’m going to guess it was a lot less than us. Maybe we had unrealistic expectations, but we weren't enjoying our VIP journey so far. Emma gets travel sick when there's no way to see the road ahead, and our seats at the back of the bus were the worst possible place. Although at least she didn't have to watch the terrifying driving. Instead she spent the entire journey determinedly looking at a single spot on the ceiling to avoid feeling ill. The person sat next to her had a different approach. He closed his eyes and sipped fluorescent energy drinks. It became apparent that this wasn’t working literally five minutes into the journey when he started vomiting on the floor next to us. Brilliant.
Once Vomit Guy stopped emptying the contents of his stomach onto the floor, he wiped his mouth on the minibus’s metallic khaki curtains and crawled to the back of the bus to make a nest. By nest, I mean using everybody's luggage as a bed. Emma’s backpack became a pillow precariously balanced on a seat above a floor covered in sick. We both looked at my watch and to our horror it wasn’t even 7am. Only another 10 ½ hours to go. Ah, what a nice relaxing journey this was turning out to be on our VIP sleeper bus…
The vacant seat next to Emma was opportunistically filled by one of the people who had previously been perched on a stool. He lasted about ten minutes before starting to be sick. He’d had the foresight to bring some plastic bags and as each one was filled, it was jettisoned out of the window.
The journey to the Laos/Vietnamese border took forever. I don’t know what time we arrived, but when you are aboard the “vomit comet,” you can’t get there fast enough! All of the Vietnamese people got off the bus, but it was gesticulated that we were not to leave. After being driven 100m further down the road we disembarked and showed our passports to the Laos border police. This process didn’t take too long and we were stamped out the country and were back on the bus.
Sat alone on our stationary bus, a group of 10 children came up to us. It wasn’t clear if they were trying to sell us vegetables, practice English, beg money or just stare at us. A very awkward half an hour went by before they lost interest, the other bus passengers rejoined us, and we were finally on our way to the Vietnamese border! At no point so far had anybody checked we have visas. We had arranged these in Luang Prabang a few weeks earlier, but if we’d got this far without them I have no idea what would have happened. Getting stamped into Vietnam, was a drawn out process, but absolutely no problems with the border crossing otherwise. Hello Vietnam!
The winding mountain roads in Vietnam were even worse than in Laos. Despite knowing otherwise, I did briefly question whether they drove on the left hand side of the road. It seems safe to conclude they drive on both sides whenever they feel like it.
We made a few stops to drop off various parcels which the bus was carrying. Some car parts, vegetables etc… As we pulled into Hue, the two of us were abruptly ushered off the minibus and rushed towards a different bus. The drivers exchanged some money and we were aggressively shoved towards the back. As the new driver was shouting at us in Vietnamese he was pushing me towards the back of the bus and simultaneously standing on my flip flops. A stumble forward and some broken footwear later, we were at the back still being shouted at. After incorrectly assuming we were meant to put our bags on the shelf he was pointing at, he moved them under they shelf and pointed at where we should sit.
Phew, a seat on a real bus. The bus wasn’t too full and we were sat at the back with plenty of room. All was great until we discovered the bus didn’t leave until it was full. This included people sitting on the shelf where our feet were. Five minutes later Emma had somebody sat on her feet and I had my knees by my ears. The hour and a half long journey on this bus was like an exercise to see how much discomfort I could endure. After already spending a substantial amount of time in an uncomfortable seat I couldn’t bear not being able to move. My mind flashed back to the buddhist meditation day we did in Chiang Mai and I wondered how Phra KK would deal with the situation. Nope, sorry, no amount of meditation is going to make me feel better. The only satisfaction I can get is the thought of ringing Mastercard and filing a missold services complaint!
Arriving in Danang we had one further bus to get us to Hoi An. We knew the bus cost 20k VND each, but were also expecting to be told it was 50k. This is exactly what happened, but knowing the correct price we refused to pay 50k. It probably helped that the sum total of our money came to 85k so we wouldn’t have been able to pay the rip off tourist scam rate anyway. Begrudgingly we settled for 30k/each for the convenience of not having to wait for another bus. There was no price on display anywhere so we couldn’t prove we were being ripped off even though we’d checked the price in advance. The fact that saying ‘no’ to 50k caused this price to drop is a fairly solid indicator they thought they could charge us whatever they wanted!
Stressed and tired we took up the last two seats. For this hour and a half journey I had a window where I could see out the side and Emma was up front with the same view as the driver. Once again, the guy behind the wheel was a nutjob. He was constantly on the deafening horn (moving between the four noise settings) and forcing other road users out of the way. Emma seemed to have damaged hearing for the rest of the day which isn’t surprising given just how noisy the horn was.
We eventually arrived in Hoi An 12 hours after we left Pakse, which is actually pretty quick! But it felt like days. The sleeper bus might be a much better journey, but who knows what bus you’ll end up travelling on. If you do decide to take the minibus from Pakse to Danang, don’t complain nobody warned you - it is going to be hell.