Traveling full-time means saving money is always a priority, so when I heard that a bus could transport me from Vietnam to Laos at half the cost of a flight, I jumped at it.

However, there was one flaw in the plan: it required spending 24 hours on a bus.

With a mantra of “think of the money” replaying in my head, I booked the ticket via BookAway and braced myself for a journey into hell. What followed was a wild ride of stress, body aches, hunger, laughs, and frustration, all for the bargain price of $45.

My ticket included drop-off at the bus station. I met the coordinator in Hanoi city centre and, accompanied by two other girls with overpacked backpacks, he drove us to the departure point in a comically tiny car.

After an hour’s drive, we arrived at the bus station where I exchanged my email confirmation for a ticket, which revealed that I had overpaid by about $15 for the privilege of paying online.

The bus terminal had a bizarre setup where passengers go upstairs for ticket inspection and then back downstairs to walk into the bus parking lot. Following this roundabout process, my companions and I were left alone only briefly before a man appeared, checked our ticket and walked us to the bus.

Large bags stowed away in the hold, I boarded the bus but not before removing my shoes and placing them in a plastic bag. Shoes are rarely allowed on long-haul buses in South East Asia and when exiting the bus for rest stops, they provide a basket of mismatched, ratty plastic slippers.

The bus was split into three rows of double-decker seats. Luckily, I got assigned a window seat. The seat reclined to a 45-degree angle, allowing for a modicum of comfort, however, being a 177cm tall person in an Asian country is unideal. Cars, buses and trains are not built with tall people in mind and leg room is a ludicrous fantasy.

24 Hours On a Bus: Vietnam to Laos - Frayed Passport

There was no baggage storage near the seat so I wedged my backpack between my legs until the bus set off. Then, I stowed it in the aisle when the bus overseer wasn’t looking and tied my many snacks to the ladder leading up to the seat above me.

The first leg of the journey was uneventful while everyone settled in. Passengers were an even mix of tourists and locals. While the locals kept to themselves and resisted attempts to lure them into conversation, I swiftly befriended the other tourists, forming a tight-knit group to survive the trip with.

The initial stretch was uneventful but, as time crawled past, the conditions worsened. The toilet broke, everyone’s sweat intermingled to create a smell I will never remove from my nostrils, and my body ached all over.

We arrived at our first rest stop at 9:30pm. Roadside stops in South East Asia are pretty basic, yet more affordable than any rest stop in the West. This one was laid out cafeteria style with a bunch of chairs and tables next to a small stand selling snacks and Vietnamese food, including pho and rice. After one too many food poisonings, I decided to avoid the roadside food and just used the restrooms before the bus set off for the border.

We departed Hanoi, Vietnam at 6pm and arrived at the Lao-Bao border at 2am, five hours before the border gate opened.

We pulled up behind a couple of lorries waiting in the queue and our drivers settled in for a nap at the back of the bus. Unable to sleep, I passed the time by reading and walking around outside to stretch my legs. It was surprisingly cold so I warmed up by playing with some stray dogs before retreating to the suffocating warmth of the bus.

24 Hours On a Bus: Vietnam to Laos - Frayed Passport

At 6am, the bus driver kicked everyone off of the bus. Confused, we deboarded and walked up to the booth on the border to show our passports. They waved us away, directing us to wait on the side of the road by a cafe selling banh mis and coffee to sleepy passengers.

With no instructions from our drivers or the border guards, I passed the time playing with a boisterous puppy. Eventually, a man walked up to the gate, checked our passports and waved us through to the building housing Vietnamese border control.

It was totally deserted, except for the groups filing in from the buses. When we found the ticket offices for border control, there was no one in sight. My group waited patiently, wondering if we were about to get bribed. Spoiler: we were.

At 7:30am, the border guards turned up and filed into the boxes. A haphazard queue formed in response, with my place at the front quickly usurped by locals who are not fans of queuing and adopt an “if you push hard enough, you’re first” approach.

I surrendered my place to watch the process. I noticed that Vietnamese or Laotian passport holders were waved through, while foreigners were asked to pay a fee to receive an exit stamp in their passports.

Although a negligible fee of 50,000 Vietnamese Dong, panic spread through the queue as many of us did not have any Vietnamese currency left. I challenged the worker about why the fee was necessary but he refused to give me an answer, simply saying “no payment, no stamp”. Not wanting to be abandoned at the border, I handed it over.

Next, our passports were checked one last time before being directed to the no man’s land between Vietnam and Laos. Still in our bus slippers, our group took the mile-long walk in good spirits. At last, we were almost in Laos!

24 Hours On a Bus: Vietnam to Laos - Frayed Passport

The Laotian border was a little simpler, yet still chaotic as people crammed into a tiny office, filled out a confusing arrival form and paid another small fee to enter the country. I secured my visa before arrival at the Laotian embassy in Hanoi, which was fortunate because this crossing did not offer visa-on-arrival.

Once we finally got our stamps, we found our bus and boarded again. Despite almost leaving without two passengers, the crossing went smoothly.

With no idea when the next rest stop was coming, I made my first trip to the dreaded bus toilet, which came equipped with, well, nothing. No light, no water to wash your hands and no toilet paper. Thankfully, I brought my own paper but, while hovering over the seat, I was thrown against the wall and peed on my leggings.

With my other clothes stuck underneath the bus, I used drinking water to rinse off and retreated back to my seat with shame emanating from every pore. Luckily, I only splashed a little bit on myself but I spent the rest of the journey painfully aware of my urinary mistake.

The next leg was painless, except for the feeling of my pee soaking through my leggings and into the seat beneath me. We arrived at another rest stop a few hours after leaving the border. I elected to chain smoke in the car park and stretch my legs. I don’t usually smoke heavily, however, this 24-hour journey triggered some extra strong yearnings for that sweet nicotine.

Following this twenty-minute break, we re-boarded for the last leg. However, we got waylaid by a broken wheel and pulled up on the side of the road to get it fixed by a couple of random locals. They fixed it within twenty minutes and we set off again.

Switching between restless sleep and gazing out the window at the passing scenery, the last few hours of the journey flew by and suddenly, we were arriving at the bus depot in Vientiane, Laos.

Departing was frantic, with the drivers throwing bags out of the storage compartment and taxi drivers swarming passengers to ask who wanted transport to their final destination. After negotiating a price, I bundled into a taxi with three new friends and set off for my hostel, watching my home for the last 24 hours disappear in the rearview mirror.

24 Hours On a Bus: Vietnam to Laos - Frayed Passport

About the Author

Hannah Shewan Stevens is a writer, editor and campaigner. As a disabled, chronically ill queer woman, she specialises in covering the intersection of health, travel, sexuality and LGBTQ+ issues. She is also training to be a sex educator and hopes to use her work to help people confront difficult topics openly and with compassion.

All images courtesy of the author.

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