Mud puddles on the bad bus

ietnamese will take care of you, if you smile and wave.

I held onto my ukulele, and my backpack sat tight and heavy on my back as Sophia raced through afternoon motor bike traffic to the cities northern bus station. First we went to the central station, and realized we had 20 more minutes to ride in order to catch the right bus. “are you scared”, she said muffled through her helmet and we whizzed through traffic going the wrong way down a one way street. We jumped onto the sidewalk to make a short cut, just in time to catch a green light on the next street over. “are you scared” i replied. “im scared if you’re scared, otherwise i’m ok”. In Vietnam, there is no need to be scared, unless you see a Vietnamese person feel scared. The Vietnamese are perhaps the most fiercely fearless people I have ever encountered. They just keep going, even if it means wading through 4 feet of water with a stalled motor bike, piling 5 people on a motor bike to get across town, or driving a city bus through mud thick back roads at 11pm.  I just barely caught the bus to Duc Linh, accidentally leaving my water behind on my friends motor bike basket. As I looked out the window, i tried not cry. I felt vulnerable without water. I kept remembering the words of my friend in my head “be sure to bring water, because you will need it”. It was supposed to be a three hour bus ride, but in Vietnam you can estimate three hours to easily convert to 4 or 6. I sat wedged next two four people in the very back corner of the “bad bus”. I was sweating profusely, from running through the bus station to buy my ticket, and jumping on the tiny bus with my hikers backpack and blatant foreigner appearance. I sat quietly in the back, pretending not to be freaked out, trying to forget my thirst and praying that I would make it to Duc Linh. There are two buses to Duc Linh, or so I had heard. One is called the “good bus” and one is called the “bad Bus”.

Apparently I got on the “bad bus”. I guess they call it the bad bus because its vintage is close to 1960, the air conditioner doesn’t work, and the shocks are hardly functioning when you hit the muddy potholes.   I stared out the window and prayed. i wasn’t feeling very outgoing or clowny, but i knew that eventually i would have to make friends on the bus. i was after all crammed aside them like a sardine fish in a tin can.
after 2 hours of silence, i pulled an apple out of my pocket and offered it to the woman next to me. this was my offering for friendship, my disguised cry for help. she took the apple. i pulled out my notebook, where i have written basic Vietnamese language. i showed her my efforts to learn Vietnamese, immediately she got very excited, and like many Vietnamese i have met, eagerly began to help me with my pronunciation. i used my dictionary to spell “drinking water”, immediately the woman began asking every person on the bus for water, and a bottle was handed back to me. moments later, the entire back of the bus engaged me in conversation. “where are you from”, “ how old are you”, “what is your name”?  Finally, the question i had been waiting for “where are you going?” This question came from a young man sitting in front of me. he wrote his question down on a piece of paper. maybe he was too shy to speak. I showed him the address i had been given by the Duc Linh Organization. He didn’t recogize it, infact no one on the bus recognized the address, and they told me that the way it was written didn’t make sense. i began to feel nervous as the sun lowered, and the bus hobbled further and further into the dusty back country roads of south-central Vietnam. I knew I was safe though, my new friends on the bus passed my paper around, trying their best to figure out where i needed to go.  Finally, a phone call to the organization, and a handing of the phone to the bus driver took care of my problem, the driver showed me a thumbs up to let me know he knew where i was going. saved by the cell phone, and my new friends on the bus. local buses have a bad reputation for being “scary” for foreigners. this may be true, only if you keep to yourself, and try very hard not to make friends with the locals. the best ticket to make a friend with a Vietnamese person, try to speak Vietnamese, ask them to teach you basic words, and i promise that person will watch your back, they might even hold your hand to help you across the street just to make sure you make it home safely.