Not our ride. Ours came in as dusk fell, and got twice as loaded.
Hoi An can be dazzling. But it was not on our list when we were dithering about the next destination after hue. That seed was planted on the 18hr bus lug out of Pakse east to Vietnam. By an couple named naomi and bobby, who were american but spoke very fondly of their home in okinawa. And who were the perfect complement to each other’s sensibilities (she: dry wit and calm reserve; he: friendly humour that tended towards m18, and easy openness), and to a long bus ride. Both were unaware that the ride into vietnam will be that long (not 6h), which got us amused, until we realised it was cause for strife and concern in their relationship.
First, the bus,
for it enabled the semi-bonding over the previous night’s near-death experience. The local bus is cheaper, in line with our principle of ‘authenticity’ and travels during the night. Lulled to sleep on the thailand train breathing the fresh country air was something i remembered and loved (minus the cold) so i thought this was a no-brainer choice. We forgot laos can surprise.
Like the tourists that we were,
we arrived 1h early for the 630pm bus that arrived at 715pm. On board were metal canisters lining the entire floor space under the seats. Which meant the ride will only be comfortable for legless creatures. Part of the deal, we thought, and stepped aside to witness the loading of the onions. Laotian men may be smaller in stature standing next to caucasian visitors, but they are fit and very able. Sinewy arms heaved and piled onion sacks as big as themselves, up onto the roof of the bus, and through a back window filling up 1/3 of the bus. From a far, the bus took on a metallic bulbous form on squat tyres. I imagined it could flip with one wrong swerve.
But being asian,
we weren’t overly afraid. Interesting, we thought in our seats, feeling the power of the wall of onions. That was how we met naomi and bobby, the only other two tourists good enough to buy the local ticket- eyes smarting and throat seizing up. The onions were an exotic experience for a while, until we clarified with them that the bus-ride would indeed be 16 hours (arrival in hue at 7pm).
They decided it was an improbable manner to travel and left, taking the last tuktuk at the station. Naomi wished us good luck. Night fell, the loading continued, and we lingered on. Around 830pm, hc turned a watery smile to me and said he thinks the cans might be containing petroleum (me in the fresh air enjoying the buzz of the locals waiting at the coffeeshop nearby, hc on the bus holding both our seats and his breath). An elderly man had got on board, looking disgruntled and appalled, waving his cigarette bud at the onions, at the roof, at the rows of metal canisters under the seats.
Cigarette and oil connected in hc’s head
to form an image i could not get out of my head: a burning inferno of crammed bodies and laotian onions. I was miffed at the rather belated, severely inconvenient, change of plans, but i could not bet our safety. The locals eyed us as we hauled our bags off the bus- the bustle around them and cans under their feet like water off a duck’s back.
We found a tuktuk out of pure luck, and got cheated on our tuktuk ride back into town. Triple the price at 50,000 kip.
Still miffed, we went to the travel agency just down the road from the royal pakse hotel (that was still bustling, with a couple of same faces we saw earlier that day!) to book the morning bus- VIP this one will be. Hc tried his best to illustrate with fingers the onions and the suspicious cans and the many people crammed into it. The clerk, clearly puzzled and wary at these two customers returning when they should have been safely packed off by now, remained so until i snapped. He brought his boss out who gave us a refund and assured us we will have seats on the VIP bus in the morning.
I’m still not sure whether the travel clerk got the picture. We did nothing but wait and observed; we didn’t even try to hand-illustrate to question what actually was in the cans. We didn’t know the language, and we couldn’t figure out the norms. It was back to town humbled for me. And i felt respect for the locals who brave the journey as the norm for them. For the potent power of onions.