If I thought I had cleverly missed the bus ride from hell by flying here, I was today sorely mistaken. The bus left at 7 a.m., and not knowing how difficult or otherwise it was to get a bike to haul me and my gear up there, I actually decided to leave the hotel at 5 a.m. ! You could never accuse me of under-anticipation. Anyway, I arrived at 6 a.m., but managed to change my ticket to leave on the bus to Lai Chau departing there and then. It seemed nice and empty, and fortunately we were not relying on the prehistoric air conditioning system installed.
We stopped within five minutes and five people got on. Five minutes later, another five…you know the score. Within half an hour we were nicely sandwiched. Every cloud has a silver lining, though…I was sandwiched between two hot Vietnamese babes, if you can call them that. And they were refreshingly open after five years of Czech babes. Every silver lining has a cloud, however. As we drew up into the hills, one of them, wearing a saucy white denim cap, began to vomit unceremoniously into a plastic bag. Now I know why the ticket collector was handing them out as we got on. I thought they were for the rubbish.
Then the bird on my other side started throwing up as well. As she convulsed with the aftershock of retching, she lay her head on my shoulder and sobbed. Every ten minutes she would summon up the effort to throw a bag of yellowed gastro-intestinal fluid past my left ear and out of the window…we were past the solid stage by now. Vietnamese stomachs and their wonderfully scenic mountain roads clearly don’t agree.
Suddenly, we drew into a hard shoulder somewhere and all the vomiters got off, as if in a wave of unilateral sympathy. Eventually we drew into Lai Chau, where I would get my connection to Sapa…assuming there is one, that is. It’s getting too stressful, this mode of travel. I ordered brunch, inevitably another bowl of Pho, the noodle soup, and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to take photos of my neighbouring diners in a covert, undercover way.
I had been told it was another 8 hours to Sapa : imagine my astonishment when I read it was only another 18 km after we’d been going for 90 minutes. It was my lucky day. Mind you, after this morning, it needed to be. This time, I was stuck at the back, next to some drunk nutter, who kept telling me to photograph him. I pretended not to understand, but I kicked into action at Tran Ho pass, admittedly stunning even on my scale.
We pulled into Sapa around 4 p.m. and I managed to unbend myself from the seat. I discovered the predictable backpackers’s Mecca and after briefly checking into one hotel, decided to change when it emerged they didn’t take VISA. (A slight cock-up on the cash flow front) The management looked a bit dodgy as well. I found an excellent (French) bakery up a hill and sat outside stuffing my face. I carried on to The Red Dragon, which reassuringly described itself as an English pub on the noticeboard outside, where I talked to an English couple who actually seemed as eager to talk as I did.