I watched my phone in disgust as Ragnar Lothbrok prepared to perform the brutal form of torture known as the blood eagle on his rival, Jarl Borg. This cruel act involved flaying the skin of the victim’s back from top to bottom, and then peeling it off to the sides to resemble the wings of an eagle. It was gruesomely graphic, and perhaps the second-most brutal form of torture ever invented, just behind my 38-hour bus journey from Vang Vieng, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Vikings could only pass the time so much, and with no chargers on this night bus and no end in sight, I had to do my best to preserve what little phone battery I had. I was with a big group of travel friends in Vang Vieng and we were all planning to meet in Hanoi. Most of them took flights, but I opted to stick to my budget and endure a lengthy bus ride.
Oh, how I regret it.
It was a rainy morning in Vang Vieng.
The gloomy clouds brought out the deep greens out more than usual. The bus that I had booked to take me to Vientiane ended up being a van, not the ideal vehicle of choice for a winding eight-hour bus ride. But hey, don’t sweat over what you can’t change. I’ve had worse, I guess. And keep in mind, this was only the beginning of an ordeal that would eventually span 38 hours and a total of one rest stop.
The drive from Vang Vieng to Vientiane is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been on. Savor every moment of it because it might be as good as it gets. Arriving in the chaos of Vientiane is something else. Every little town I visited in Laos was serene and peaceful. Vientiane was much larger, more chaotic, and very spread out.
Our van dropped us off on some random road and I had a few hours to kill before my bus to Hanoi. The Laotian heat is something else entirely. The muggy air of the city was torture, especially carrying both of my backpacks with me. After a quick stroll, I decided that it would be best to kill the rest of my time hopping from cafe to cafe. After temple-hopping all throughout Thailand and Luang Prabang, I wasn’t particularly dying to see Vientiane’s most poppin’ sights.
I spent a few air conditioned hours within the confines of the cafe before heading back to where the buses were an hour early or so. I still had no idea where my bus would actually leave from, but I figured there would be someone that knew.
Good thing I showed up early.
Turns out, I had to go to the tourism office of the bus company. It was a 20-minute walk away, entirely too far with both of my backpacks in the Laotian heat. Regardless, I trudged through, knowing damn well that the traffic would likely make it take just as long in a taxi. Once I arrived at the tourism office, the group of gringos waited around as the lone worker frantically yelled on the phone. Finally, a different vehicle came to whisk us away to the bus station. On the bright side, we were all in this hectic adventure together.
We rushed onto the bus several minutes late, allowing us no time to buy snacks, drinks, or anything else from the bus station. We were oblivious to the fact that the next 30 hours of our life would be spent in the confines of the bus. On the bright side, we were all in this hectic adventure together.
Us gringos all sat in the back. My friend Hugh from the UK was the only familiar face. A group of three American girls, two British girls, and three British guys rounded out our gringo group. Diverse, I know. Sitting at the very back row, it was surprisingly quite comfortable. I had a two-bed seat all to myself, which played a huge factor in keeping my sanity.
Hugh, a bit taller and wider than me, was cramped on a bottom row single bed along the aisle. I was living in luxury compared to him. The first few hours were quite uneventful, as we optimistically chugged along on our way to Hanoi. Netflix, snacks, and the chance to finally rest my head rounded out the first third of the journey.
We all woke up the next morning a bit confused.
The bus was not moving at all, and there didn’t really seem to be an explanation why. Us guys were lucky enough to use this as our first bathroom break. The weather was gloomy and rainy, but we didn’t really see a reason for us to be stopped. The driver and his assistant didn’t seem bothered by it at all, and there didn’t seem to be an issue with the bus. I guess they just wanted to stop for what turned out to be around 6 hours. Maybe the driver wanted to take a break, but I figured at some point the assistant driver would have taken over.
That wasn’t the case, and our group of gringos used this as our first chance to socialize. The three British blokes were as tight knit as they come, and they would eventually tattoo each other’s names onto each other later in the week. The three American girls were New Englanders, just like me all those years ago. The two British girls had just decided to apply for a Vietnam travel visa the other day, and didn’t actually have them on hand. As an American, I had mine well in advance and thought this was cutting it crazy close, but maybe things just worked differently for the Brits?
Nope, they got turned back at the border.
We crossed the border nearly twenty hours into our journey. And those two girls had to go back all the way to Vientiane.
The only more miserable Laotian travel story I’ve ever heard was from this motorcyclist who traveled the entirety of the country from north to south. One problem. At his border crossing in the north, they forgot to give him his 30-day visa for Laos. On day 28, he had to drive the entire country from south to north to get the situation fixed at his entry point, before resuming his journey all the way south. A quick Google search tells me that Laos is a monstrous 1,700 kilometers from north to south. And he did that twice. That’s a clean 2,000 miles on a motorbike in the span of a few days.
Thankfully, it wasn’t my problem. My visa got me through just fine, and for the first time, it felt like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We had been traveling for a full day at this point with one bathroom break and zero breaks for food or snacks. There were no charging ports on the bus, nor was there any signal even if any of us had SIM cards.
The power of friendship persevered and we managed to keep ourselves entertained for the next few hours. It was significantly less loud with the absence of the two British girls. The time passed by quickly and before we knew it, we had arrived at a restaurant. About 32 hours into this entire ordeal, we had our first meal. We had gotten by on sharing our snacks in a communal survival pool. The snacks were as diverse as our group was, and by that, I mean not at all.
Oreos. We all brought Oreos.
Needless to say, that restaurant stop was going to feel like a Michelin star meal no matter what it was. Our first tastes of Vietnamese food proved to be delightful. The girls got their bathroom breaks, finally, and I stocked up on more snacks. At this point, I had no idea when or if we would ever arrive in Hanoi. I had to be prepared to spend the next several weeks of my life on that bus, if necessary.
Okay, that was a bit dramatic. We arrived two hours later. Great planning, bus driver dude. A 38-hour ordeal and you decide to feed us our first meal 36 hours in. I left Vang Vieng at 8 AM. I arrived in Hanoi at 10 PM. The next day.
My large group of friends that I had traveled northern Thailand and Laos with had left me for dead. I ran into them at the hostel we all booked together only to find out that they were heading off to Ha Long Bay without me. I was gutted and felt a little bit betrayed, but hey, even I would have left me for dead at that point. Thankfully, I had my new found bus buddies to keep me company for our time in Hanoi. Like I mentioned earlier, some of us even got matching tattoos to commemorate the experience.
I curled into my bed around midnight, not before a lengthy shower to wash off the grime that comes with a bus ride from hell.