I’d never heard of sleeper buses before I went to Vietnam. I believe they’re a relatively recent addition to the tourist transport infrastructure, and are available in Laos and Cambodia also.
My first experience of this Asian people-moving phenomenon – and, I vow, my last – was an overnight journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An. I was too miserable – nay, traumatised – to record any photographic evidence of this 12 hour nightmare of discomfort, but for the sake of would-be travellers to Vietnam I feel a sense of civic duty to warn you of what awaits if you book a berth on a sleeper bus.
It’s not a bad concept, right? After all, sleeper trains have been around for yonks. Why not sleeper buses? Fully (almost) reclining seats, sleeping your way through the night and thus minimising the tedium of a long bus trip…and it’s cheaper than flying. How bad could it be? What’s 12 hours bus ride for a budget traveller?
Well, lemme tell ya, it’s a goddamned eternity when you’re involuntarily exploring degrees of discomfort you never dreamed existed. See, we’re not talking yer usual double-bunks here. The sleepers are two-tiered, sure, but there are three rows of DBs, and they’re squashed into the confines of a bus that’s not much bigger – if at all – than a normal one with upright seats. So whether you’re on the top or bottom sleeper, you can’t sit up. You have to ease yourself out of prone position as if you were doing a shallow sit-up, and careful with that forehead, Eugene.
Worse, the sleepers are hinged somewhere around your tailbone, and whatever elevation you choose from the limited options available, you’re constantly slipping down off the incline and jamming your coccyx into the hinge corner.
Worse still – much worse – there’s a coffin-like receptacle for your legs, angled downwards to save space. If you’re taller than an average 10-year-old you are not able to extend your legs. There is nowhere else for them to go, so you have no choice but to try to jam them into this coffin thingo. By bending your knees, contorting your feet and manipulating your legs sideways from the hip, wonders can be achieved – albeit at a physical cost mere words cannot communicate.
Adding to the challenge, this damned leg receptacle is wedge-shaped, tapering towards the end so that it is impossible to have your feet sticking up vertically in the anatomically natural position for a prone homosapien. Fortunately, I am double-jointed and was able to twist my feet into a spastic side-on position that somehow accommodated them, although for no longer than 15 minutes before I’d have to haul myself up far enough out of the tapered holster of torture to switch from sideways left to sideways right. If you’re not understanding, take heart, cos neither am I. And I wasn’t at the time, either.
There’s more. There’s a horizontal ridge across the bottom and towards the end of the leg coffin, sticking up far enough to dig into your shins and ankles. The naive hope that somehow, some time during the eternity you’re on board, you’ll find a position that is bearable is quickly dashed by this little detail.
Why is this cursed ridge there? I guessed it was some token safety measure, a sort of foothold to prevent short folk from slamming toe first into the end of the coffin in the event of the bus braking hard. Shame about the rest of us – any sort of road accident would inevitably result in snapped legs, broken toes and far, far worse. These sleeper buses are death traps and I’d be amazed if they are allowed anywhere outside SE Asia.
But now, the final horror, which was mine alone. The sleeper I was initially allotted was not a sleeper at all – it was closer to a fucking luggage rack! There’s only one on each sleeper bus. It’s a short straw you don’t wanna get.
Situated above the toilet, it is crammed into an impossibly confined space, and is so short there is no room even for a leg-coffin. When I crawled on to it and lay on my back, my nose was almost touching the roof of the bus. I had to bend my knees and wrench my legs to the side to fit my feet in against the butt of this crypt. My partner was on a middle top sleeper next to me. She was shocked. I was beyond shocked. I couldn’t talk. Just stared cross-eyed at the roof in front of my nose, and tried not to panic.
I’ve heard it claimed that fate or God or the universe or whatever never delivers us anything we can’t handle. Well, I couldn’t handle this. I knew I wouldn’t last in that rack longer than 30 minutes, but it was a fully-booked bus. What could I do?
I was internally debating whether to stand up in the only space I could see, behind the driver’s seat, to try to push someone’s luggage aside and sleep in the aisle, or to just tap the driver on the shoulder and demand to be let off the bus. My partner’s hoarsely whispered exhortations jolted me out of my reverie.
“There’s a vacant sleeper – just down there. Grab it!”
“But maybe the passenger will still turn up.”
“We’re about to take off. Grab it before someone else does.”
I obeyed. Thank Christ. Or fate. Or the universe or whatever.
A few minutes later, with the bus revving, the driver left his seat and loomed over me with a face like thunder.
“Better?” he enquired sternly.
“Yes. The other one – too small.”
“Happy?” (gruffer still)
He turned scowling, resumed his seat, and gunned the engine. We began to move off. I reflected that I had probably taken the co-driver’s sleeper, but of far greater concern was that I had been saved from a night of torture – this new sleeper was merely unbearable.
I was soon to contemplate as I contorted myself this way and that how mercies this great could suddenly seem so small. After 2 hours of twisting and turning and easing myself higher, lower, and every degree between, my gratitude to the universe had evaporated entirely.
It was to be a long, long sleepless night ahead, with only the countless thousands of lights from the squid boats off the coast as company.
More posts in this series on Vietnam:
Travels in Vietnam 2011: Intro
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: The Cu Chi Tunnels
Travels In Vietnam 2011: War Remnants Museum, Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Mekong Delta
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Dalat
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Nha Trang
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hoi An
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hue
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Eating and Drinking!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hype vs Reality
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Reflections & Wrap-up