Having arranged transport at the hotel we made our way out to the front where our chariots awaited. Our destination, Chau Doc, on the Vietnam/Cambodian border. A direct six-hour trip where one can appreciate the tranquil surrounds from the spacious air-conditioned comfort of a deluxe coach, so our trusty salesman assured us.
On the back of our respective motos, we snaked in out of traffic on the semi-paved road at a bowel loosening 90km/h. Amy’s driver had taken it upon himself to comprehensively flog my driver in a race neither Amy or I wanted or needed to have. Heading in the opposite direction to our ultimate destination we sped past at least three highway bus stops situated closer to our hotel. We arrived at the roadside tarpaulin that served as a bus stop, both shaken and pale (and who wouldn’t want to be whiter here? It makes you attractive to everybody from street-merchants to muggers).
While we waited a stocky Vietnamese woman of about sixty took it upon herself to protect Amy’s virtue. A grunt indicated that our fellow traveler was satisfied with the bra strap to singlet ratio. Ten minutes feasting on the highway dust and fumes then we were bustled on to our awaiting chariot.
It was obvious from the early stages of our journey that our driver, Speedy Steve from Saigon as I came to call him, was of the Brock school of driving theory. The bedrock principal of this theory holds that the best way get somewhere is to get there quick. As such straddling lanes is preferable as it maximises ones options, which includes the other side of the road and the footpath. So we went up the 1A at pace, the fringes of Hi Chi Minh flying by, little road-side mechanic shops, open-air restaurants and tightly packed ramshackle open plan houses.
All Vietnamese drivers (be they in charge of bus, car or moto) love their horns. It was obvious from the outset that Speedy Steve had taken his love for the horn to another level. He especially loved using it to tell all the jerks in his way to move aside, quickly, or end up on the grill of his hog.
About an hour in, Speedy Steve was forced to jam on the anchors. Pulling to a screaming halt we managed to surprise three lanes of traffic. As fellow passengers looked for the source of our hilarious hiatus, I snuck a glance at our hard man of the road. A weary shake of the head seemed to concede that this wasn’t going to be his day. The Saigon traffic police usually content themselves fining foreigners but today Speedy Steve had been nabbed by the only two traffic cops working the 1A. Twenty minutes, an animated exchange, a little tea money later and we were back on our way.
Not long after the skies opened up. Amy and I both reveled in the novelty of liquid precipitation falling from the sky (having come straight from Melbourne’s big dry) but not Speedy Steve. His shoulders tightened in frustration as he was forced to reduce his speed back to a paltry life-threatening.
We pulled in for our first roadside stop. Speedy Steve’s death-defying feats of automotive skill meant that we enjoyed a thirty-two minute break instead of the customary thirty minutes.
After a couple of hours back on the road the urban fringes had given way to the lush green wetness of the rice fields sprawling between the small townships of the Mekong plains. The pastoral splendor of our surrounds was lost on Speedy Steve, less people meant less opportunity for toot’n. The constant rain had also forced him to curb his natural inclination for ridiculous speed. Deprived of his two great joys, meant a shit-boring day for Speedy Steve.
Everybody knows the best way to combat boredom and tired eyes is with a Nanna nap. Now Speedy Steve was nobody’s fool so that was what he opted for.
A couple of factors proved problematic:
a) Sleepy Steve was in command of a bus carrying 35 passengers.
b) The bus was traveling at 110km/h down a semi-sealed road
c) The semi-sealed road had been rendered marginally slippery by a torrential tropical downpour.
Nobody would have been any the wiser to Steve’s snooze had he not lost his shit when he woke, causing the bus to fish-tail out of control.
Luckily a restaurant veranda was conveniently located on the other side of the road up ahead. This provided Speedy Steve something to bring our little joy ride to an abrupt halt on.
Several people bundled out to inspect the damage, the veranda was collapsed in a heap, the side of the bus had received a substantial work over and all the passengers on the left hand side (including Amy) got a face full of thatching from the restaurant roof. Despite this we all agreed it was a small price to pay to ensure Speedy Steve was well rested.
Either our little scrape with death or an arbitrary decision by Speedy Steve brought about a change of rig at the next town. Everybody was herded into minibuses.
We had climbed aboard our crowded chariot and someone used our ignorance as a punch line, something along the lines of, “Stupid round-eye, they come to our country and don’t even bother to learn the language.” Everybody laughed. We laughed. We didn’t get it. Good call though, we didn’t have a fucking clue where we were or how long we had to go.
We stopped to deliver some mail, then to deliver some rice. Domestic duties fulfilled, we hit the highway again. After an hour or so we pulled into another bus station so the driver could ask our destination. Relived that our fellow passengers also said Chau Doc, we waited while the driver counted heads. Our driver mumbled something prompting a tirade of abuse from our fellow passengers. Obviously, not enough so we waited.
Sure enough, a 1975 Mitsibishi seven-seater rust rider rattled to a halt next to us. We all clambered in. As I was the biggest, I got the best spot, right above where the back shocks should have been. The rear door wouldn’t close because of my bag so we had to drive with it unsnibbed. The constant banging behind my head provided welcome distraction from the constant banging of the back axle on my arse.
As we had traveled 10km we had to stop for brake fluid. We traveled another 10 km and whoola, we were at our destination, only nine hours, a brush with death, three changes of bus, and a broken coccyx later.