Bus ride to Hoa Binh

While in Northern Vietnam, my friend had a classmate from Hoa Binh, a small hill town outside of Hanoi. My friend went in the morning and other three of us were going to join up with her that afternoon (after a doctor’s appointment– see that Misadventure here.

Just as we were about to leave the hostel, my phone downloaded one last email from my friend in Hoa Binh. She warned us that we would be the only white people at the bus station and no one spoke English. We made sure to write down our destination in Vietnamese and she described that the bus stop we should look for was in a roundabout with flowers and there was a hotel with giant yellow arches (like McDonald’s). She even told us how much the bus should be because she almost got ripped off by the driver trying to charge her three times the amount.

My two friends and I had no problems getting to and finding our bus, and the driver let us on-board without paying. All locals paid upfront (this should have been a clue). After a 2+ hour drive, we arrived in Hoa Binh and I kept watch for our stop. Sure enough, I spotted the pretty roundabout with golden arches and pointed them out. But the driver passed it. We again showed him our paper with the name of our stop and his assistant motioned that they would turn around. A block up, we stopped at a bus depot and several people exited. We thought to exit, but the driver and assistant told us to stay on. Sure enough, they turned around and went back toward our stop. I pointed at the corner as we sped passed. More people were let off the bus, one by one, at various stops around town. Each time we tried to signal that our stop was behind us, the driver’s assistant would explain through minimal English and sign language that they had to get through some kind of checkpoint. Since they didn’t speak any English, my friends and I talked openly about what to do and I reassured them that it was fine, they were just going to drop people off and then go back. But suddenly, we were the only ones left on the bus and starting to head OUT of town on a quiet, country road.

Before I knew what was happening, my friend started yelling that she needed to pull over to use the bathroom. When the driver refused, she feigned that she was going to be sick and started gagging. The driver pulled over, but the assistant wouldn’t open or unlock the door and stood in our way. We pushed our way past him, and while my friend faked puking on the side of the road (thank goodness her long hair hid what she was doing), I shouted for our other friend to get bags out of the back (who happened to be on crutches), and I scrambled for money to pay. I threw the money on the seat, grabbed our backpacks and we all started quickly walking down the road in the opposite direction.

The bus left, and then turned around and drove passed us; we were afraid that they would try something else, but they didn’t. The first house we got to was a family who didn’t speak English, but somehow we asked them to call a taxi. I’m sure our panic-stricken faces told them we were in trouble. Apparently, their brother had a taxi, so within a few minutes, he picked us up and we showed him our paper, and he took us directly to the golden arches we had seen earlier.

I’m not sure what the two bus drivers were planning to do to the three of us, but we weren’t going to stick around to find out. We were feeling pretty disappointed with Vietnamese attitude toward foreigners, but luckily my friend’s classmate made up for it. We had an authentic Vietnamese family dinner, sitting on the floor of their living room, eating mysterious traditional dishes with her very nice extended family.