Indulge me a six hundred or so word introduction: I am riveted by the aspects of a culture, different than my own, that the people in that culture consider normal. What constitutes normal is a gamut, it consists of the mundane, silly, or peculiar. Normal is a broad designation that covers clothing styles, habits, ways of being. It’s how citizens of a country eat—the actual way they utilize utensils, for example—or order food, or transport themselves. Things that are culturally normal are: an American school kid eating a PB&J for lunch, a British teen of 16 ordering a beer, a Turk drinking chai delivered by a street delivery guy, an Aussie putting on R.M.s with stubbies, an Iranian waking up to the adhan. The myriad acts and habits that make up “normal” interlace to make up a country’s culture. I am willing to stand behind a statement that says a country’s staple breakfast food hints at that country’s history and defines its culture more than its natural landmarks do, or its tourist destinations, or—stretching it here—the onomastics of the names you might find on those kitschy, souvenir store license plates.
Normal is fascinating, in part, because normal is often so normal to its practitioners that they wouldn’t think to step back to consider the potential abnormality of their normal in the eyes of foreigners. They hardly think that the act of getting into a car on the right side (or beginning a book by starting from the first page’s top left) marks them as belonging to a particular cultural entity. Maybe this has to do with how nations, with their macro, nationalistic views, attach particular symbols to define lofty principles. What I’m thinking about is how America and its obsession with liberty and freedom uses its flag as a cultural identifier. Or how Australia seems quite keen on its cultural exports being kangaroos/koalas, Vegemite, and the correct definition of a knife. These types of symbols don’t always (though they can) reflect what a nation’s citizens value while living their normal days, yet they are often the bridge to which a foreigner comes to understand those citizens. Putting that into plain English, I’m saying that cultural symbols become stereotypes that attach to a nation’s citizens with no regard to how they view themselves or live their lives. When I ask people what it is they miss about home, their answers in some way derive from what is normal to them. For Leonie, she missed riding around the horse trails in Germany. For Fenna, a Dutch girl, it was her ability to bike anywhere in The Hague. For a Canadian couple, it was squeaky cheese.
The indulgence period is almost over (if you’re even still with me), and since I’ve saddled Vietnamese bus travel with undue poetic/existential baggage already, I’ll cut to my point: what a person considers normal interests me because understanding what that normal is is the entry point to empathy. Normal marks the parameters of a person’s idea of what home is and what is comforting: it’s what they miss when they are away. When I fly into San Diego, seeing its skyline accounts for but a part of my euphoria. Another part? The color scheme of an I-5 highway lane. Strange, sure, but the scheme is normal to me, so when flying over and seeing one streaky dark stripe centered between a very pale gray—a gray that’s possibly on every highway in America but when I see this one I inherently know it belongs to my hometown—I feel my return home in a visceral way. People everywhere have a normal that’s something similar to “the highway’s color schematic” as a way to determine they’re back. It’s likely to be just as silly, just as specific, and just as overlooked to everyone else. So, when I routed through Vietnam on a bus I thought: “This is a terrifying as fuck sort of normal, I should write a thing about it.”
On the morning Leonie and I were to take a bus the five hours south to Can Tho, a rooster began crowing at pre-pre-dawn. Whoever portrayed the rooster as crowing to a rising sun deserves to be roped to a tree and shot. It’s such a flagrant fib that it makes me think an ad agency was contracted to devise a quaint and cute fact to push product because, no, roosters crow whenever they damn well please, and it pleases them between 3am and late afternoon. Or, maybe I’m wrong, maybe the saying is true but Saigon’s perpetual building lights and the bulbs on motorbikes that scooter around all night confuse all the city’s roosters.
The (non-rooster) activity surrounding us came from Saigon’s chronically without sleep backpacking district. Locals call it “khi tay bay lo,” which means…well it means “backpacking district.” The most famous, borderline nefarious, street is Bui Vien. It falls short of being a red-light district. No hookers or lady men wander about, open as to what they’re selling. This isn’t to say a guy can’t find a poke if he’s looking for one, but it’d be a backroom or alley kind of arrangement considering it’s illegal for a non-Vietnamese person to bring a Vietnamese woman back to a hotel room. The street is, more notably, a place to get smashed: bars are multi-level affairs, floors are often open to the street, fans inside whirl about the smell of spilled beer, acerbic spirits, and sweaty bodies. Blasting music and polyglot chattering are more or less constants. Young Vietnamese and Western backpackers get lured into establishments, many of which have Western themes, by incredible drink specials: three or more whiskeys for the price of one or obscenely cheap vodka, which, side-note, is in some cases rumored but not confirmed to be bootlegged then siphoned into brand named bottles. Drinking, eating, and karaoke go on into wee hours with traffic rifling down the street, the honking as boisterous as the partying.
And, yet, a rooster was what woke and kept us up.
Leonie took a few minutes to pack because she is fastidious, orderly, and consummately German. Clothes she sorts by type into mesh laundry bags. Toiletries have their own color coded carrying cases. Snacks go there. Drinks here. Shoes slip into that. My bag is total disorder. Whenever I unpack it my room corner turns into a Bush era FEMA disaster area. My trekking bag is a bit like a narrow, fabric barrel with straps. Shoes go to the bottom, then rolled up clothes go above them, toiletries, sleeping mat, etc. It’s a laundry trifle, really. Whenever my hand pulls something buried in it, everything above burps out.
Once we’d packed, perched our glasses on our noses, and aborted the drying of our jandals and boat shoes, we headed to the nearest bus station. While I had been packing, Leonie was looking up the location of Saigon’s main bus terminal. “It’s forty minutes away by car,” she said. When we confirmed with the hostel receptionist, she said no need to go so far, there’s a bus station around the corner and that we could go there.
No buses idled in the street when we arrived. I matched the address we were given with the one on the building facade. Passengers waited in a cramped room. Across the street was an identical looking bus station run by the same company. I asked the ticket agent for two tickets to Can Tho.
“Not here. You go to another station. That man take you.”
Twenty minutes later that man dropped us off at another, similar looking bus station. Nothing seemed to have changed. It was as if the driver had just spun the camera angle on a Google Map’s street view: there was another bus station across the street, no buses idled out front, the tiled offices were cramped and filled with passengers and sweat polished adults answering telephones, making change, and stamping bus tickets. “Can Tho?” I asked one.
“You buy here,” the ticket agent said, “But in fifteen minute you cross street for van to take you.”
I turned with a kind of slow, deliberate trepidation and pointed to the office opposite, the one across a four lane avenue clogged with traffic. “There?”
“Yes, yes. Fifteen minute,” he said.
Ten minutes later an unmarked van pulled into the office we waited in (not the one across the street). People who’d been waiting hustled to the sliding side door, rammed through its opening, and tossed their luggage over the center console into a pile on the passenger seat.
The driver stood by, passively herding people through. I went up to him and showed him my ticket. “Can Tho?” I asked. He peeked at the paper, maybe enough to register an understanding. He nodded.
“What about crossing the street?” Leonie asked me.
Once inside I hoped to pick “Can Tho” from the passing words of other passengers. Having a local with the same destination would have eased my worry. Leonie fanned herself next to me. She worried the van, which was a brick of heat, would be the one to take us the five hours south. People stared at us. The staring was close to goggling, frankly. Being unsightly tall white people made us curios. One man in particular stared at me so intently from across the aisle that I felt obligated to nod and smile to him. “Where you go?” He asked.
“Can Tho. Mekong Delta.”
This pleased him immensely. He was in his thirties, possessor of a wide, gregarious face. He smiled and began to respond. His English was slow, searching, painstakingly difficult to understand, he spoke it like he had to wrangle his tongue around English’s crude syllables and they made his tongue supremely heavy. And yet his English was eons, eons better than the one Vietnamese phrase I’d been trying to master for three days yet still had a weak grasp on.
“Me, Bang Lang,” he said.
Leonie said, “That is the place for bird watching.” (Leonie educates herself up to the level of astute, conscientious traveler. Regional and city maps are at the ready in her phone, and during her idle time she reads through guide books about an area’s history and primo cultural sites.)
The man, again supremely pleased with how the conversation was unfolding, said, “Yes, many birds, I can take you!” He had me drag out my notes so I could take his email address.
“Perhaps,” I said, “We have one full day in Can Tho, but hope to take a boat up the Mekong Delta.”
“Yes,” he said, “That is very nice.”
Here I employed that aforementioned Vietnamese phrase I was learning. “Come on,” I said. When the man registered negative understanding, I said, in English, “Thank you…Come on…Yes?” Leonie shook her head.
“Oh,” he said, chuckling, “Cảm ơn, thank you, yes, yes.”
The van would not be the vehicle to take us to Can Tho. After half an hour in it we got dropped off at Saigon’s main bus station, chock filled with buses as colorful as piñatas. The bus station is a bit like a mini-mall. There are buildings that form a three-sided square around a middle-sized asphalt lot. The station has two waiting rooms. People inside were packed in, geometrically bent over seats, luggage, and other people. Men smoked, women fanned themselves. There were a few screens showing upcoming departures. No PA system announced times or gate numbers: the bus station had no gates, just a curb. A bus prepared to take on passengers parallel parked at this curbed. Over fifteen or so minutes it took on the people who were ready. Then it began to inch forward, entrance and luggage doors still open, regardless if people still waited to board. The stragglers had to sidewalk shuffle with oversized luggage in their bid to get on.
Leonie and I happened to be the first people to board our bus. The driver sat acrobatic on his seat with legs crossed over the steering wheel, back wedged into where seat back meets seat bottom. He looked up from his newspaper at me standing at the top step, ticket held out for his checking. He pointed to my shoes and then to a stack of plastic bags. With vague understanding I removed my shoes. The odor was incredible: I’d been stomping around Australia with the things—sockless—for a few months, and had been doing the same in Vietnam where the rain soaked them so throughly that the leather had stained my toenails brown. Still though, the man graciously—without watery eyes or suffering nose—held the plastic bag out for me to put the shoes into.
Inside, it seemed to me that we had our choice of seating, but all the seats were flat, way passed a fully reclined position. I was not expecting this. To an American, bus travel is getting on a bus (with shoes on), picking whatever unassigned, upright seat is available, and then spending the next X hours jostling with your neighbor for armrest control. This was a sleeper bus. Truth to be told I’d never seen a sleeper bus before or considered that such a thing existed. The seating was on two levels, the seats like bunkbeds. Three seats made a row, with each seat in a row divided by a walking aisle. So the set up was like this: bus window, then a line of bunkbed seats, then a walking aisle, then a second line of bunkbed seats, then another walking aisle, then a third line of bunkbed seats, and then the other bus window.
I squeezed into a ground level seat. Leonie slunk into the one next to me, near enough that I could reach across the aisle and tap her if need be. For someone of my height, the seat was teensy. My foot space was a small, boxed cavity under the seat in front of me that I could fit into if I angled my knees outward. I crammed my odiferous shoe bag into it and kept my backpack on my lap since there was no overhead or other storage space. While I tried to settle in, the driver turned in his chair, pointed at me, and began to yell.
“I think he wants you to move,” Leonie said.
I had to flop out of the chair into the aisle. The driver was up and moving towards me, and when I began to bend into a different chair he pointed and yelled again. I showed him my ticket, and he pressed his finger onto a number scribbled next to an incomprehensible Vietnamese word. “Gotcha,” I said. I pointed to the seat with the correlating number. He nodded.
Leonie sat, placid and bemused. We were two thirds of the way in the back of the bus. I was looking around when I felt an arresting, almost crushing, claustrophobia. My head pressed on the bottom of the seat above, and I began to wonder how the hell I’d escape in case of an emergency: windows had no safety latches, those pointy hammers capable of shattering glass were conspicuously absent, as was any language that purported to guide an evacuation. Considering the labyrinthian angles, the bars between seats, and the sprite, light agility of the smaller Vietnamese people, I concluded that I would most certainly and conclusively die. When I glanced over to Leonie, who, I’m sure, read the scribbled terror on my face, she smiled. “What?” She asked, with an added on and drawn out second syllable.
Horizontal bus travel is not the worst I discovered: you do not get that dull feeling of blood stagnating in your feet bottoms or the stiff pinch that affects your joints. Part of this, for me at least, had to do with the fact that my legs almost immediately fell asleep. Shifting around until my blood flow corrected and the unnerved static feeling dissipated, I realized I could stretch better while reclined than if I’d been in a typical upright chair. I used the foot cavity base as a platform to push against, so I made myself ram rod straight, head extending over the feet over the wondering Vietnamese guy behind me.
An hour into the ride I tossed my backpack into the walkway and eyed the bus attendant to see what he’d do about it. Nothing is the answer, just stepped over it when he needed to.
Vietnamese buses operate with two employees: there is the bus driver, whose role is obvious, and the bus attendant. He sits, unbuckled, on the bus steps next to the driver. At the beginning of each trip he goes through the cabin handing out water bottles. When the bus pulls at a stop for a break, the attendant yells out the layover time, then exits the bus and puts a bin of sandals out for disembarking passengers to slip into in lieu of removing their own shoes from the plastic bags. Towards the end of a trip he goes up and down the aisles with a note pad and takes your hotel information so the company can arrange a drop-off van that is included as part of your ticket. And, during the umpteen hours of a trip, he, I assume, provides moral support to the driver. Or—and this is pure conjecture—yells out the scoring potential for the many hittable targets that the bus whirls past: other buses, motorists, bicycles, rickshaws, yapping dogs, scattering chickens, peddling youngsters.
Moral support is more likely; during each trip I witnessed the attendant chattering while the driver nodded, not saying too much. The moral support thing is, I think, necessary as well: Vietnamese bus travel is no short, light hearted endeavor. For starters it’s comically economical, and thus buses are stuffed. Our tickets to Can Tho were about eight USD each, and no seat went unclaimed. During one journey, I shared the way back of the bus—five seats laid right next to each other with no arm rest or space in between—with six other people (the spare people were children who shared seats with parents). Secondly, Vietnam is a deceptively long country. Take a look at a map. That bundle of southeast Asia that’s a bit like a fist of clumped fingers includes some long, long countries. Thailand sprawls from thin to fat the way a river might pour into a lake. Laos looks like a mace. Even Myanmar has a descending tail. Vietnam, arched and on the outside like it’s big spooning the region, is a 43 hour car ride from tip to tip (measuring from Dat Mui in the south to the Chinese border crossing at Lao Cai and staying entirely within the country. Point of comparison: San Diego, CA to Houlton, ME at the U.S./Canada border takes 49 hours of driving and is ~3,000 kilometers longer). The distance and grueling travel times make bus trips perfect candidates for overnight drives. Vu warned us against these overnighters. With overnight drivers you run the risk of them being pepped on stimulate drugs, he claimed. Drivers must stick to time tables—or attempt to—so they drive too fast. Not long ago, an overnighter en route to Sapa (a mountainous area in north Vietnam) careened off a cliff and killed dozens of passengers. One traveler told me, “Google image search Sapa bus accident and tell me if you want to get on one of those things.” The pictures reveal some complex, metal carnage: the bus is twisted amidst flattened jungle, a few still bolted on seats have the same dual colored leather of the one I was sitting on. One photo showed a corpse. Another, a few body bags. The bus roof was shorn off, which I guess I was ambivalent about considering my earlier freak out about being trapped within the bed-seat prison.
And yet, driving at night might shield you from the day light terror of looking out the front window. I felt guarded sitting where I was near the back of the bus and watching pass the grounded concrete block homes and wooden lean-tos. I watched the Vietnamese people inside the bus watching TV programs on tablets, sleeping, or playing cellphone games with the sound turned to its loudest setting. I felt guarded because Vietnamese people manufacture ease amidst chaos, and it’s possible to believe in their protective powers. Then I leaned into the aisle to see what was going on out the front window. This was a “fucking shit” moment. The chaos outside was a your rambunctious 12 year old nephew is playing Grand Theft Auto: Los Angeles Rush Hour by driving backwards at full speed against on coming traffic sort of chaos. Chaos was doppler effecting. Beyond the inside-the-bus phone app ring-a-ding and jingles and the coughing failures of the A/C, there were, outside, clattering engines beating against death, our bus unzipping the traffic before it, four-cylinder Toyota sedans antsy to pass 125cc Honda motorbikes laden with hefty sacks of rice that could double as McDonald play pens. Every vehicle was honking (this doesn’t necessarily have to do with imminent accident avoidance; in Vietnam it’s common practice to honk when overtaking a vehicle. It’s more a tap-tap, FYI, I’m right behind you, but the frequency with which it occurs can make the sound sound malicious or threatening, it also makes me think that car horns are replaced with the same frequency as oil.) When we arrived in Can Tho and made it through the throng of taxi drivers vying at the exit door for our fares, I wanted to lean to the ground and kiss it.
It’s too judicious to say I became enamored with Vietnamese bus travel then and there, or even that my affection rose with each trip. I’d take more though: Can Tho to Rach Gia; Saigon to Mui Ne; Mui Ne to Nha Trang; Hanoi to Sapa. Each trip was a slivered still-life (no pun) of Vietnam: the airplane hanger sized rest stops where people ordered full meals or napped on hammocks or shied away from the ladies who sat outside bathrooms to collect piss tolls, the free-for-all ingress and egress, the transmutations in landscapes. Vietnamese people were always eager companions, too. In one bus—the one where I sat in the back with the family—parents egged their kids to pepper me with questions to test their English. This is how an eight year old asked me if I had a girlfriend, and how I made her turn twelve shades of scarlet when I asked if she had a boyfriend. People delighted to know where I was from, what my story was, and what I thought about their country. But, as for the travel aspect—the being on the bus—how did I start to love it? It definitely did not begin while I was in the country having to plan another overland trip. But, at this moment, why not love it? Vietnamese bus travel is a normal thing now.