Hell Is a Muddy Mountain Road

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Hell is a Muddy Mountain Raod -- Travels in Vietnam

It was 7:00 AM and I was waiting on the bus to Dien Bien Phu. I expected to end up on a beat-up, state-run clunker, where I’d be wedged onto a hard bench seat between crates of produce and live chickens. Instead, a sharp new minibus pulled up, barely half full.

I was pointed to the back row to join two other Westerners: Christina, from New York and a chatty, young Polish man, Michael. The driver’s assistant tutted over my main pack, annoyed that it was too large for my lap. The other Vietnamese passengers had luggage just as large: sacks of rice and large boxes, but apparently, that wasn’t a problem.

The three of us made our introductions and chatted as the bus wound it’s way out of Sapa, climbing slowly up the steep mountain road. I commented to Christina that I couldn’t believe our luck — we had soft, deeply-cushioned seats and plenty leg room. And, best of all: no chickens. She laughed and agreed that it was a pretty cush ride.

We compared notes on the predicted arrival time: Christina had been told 4:00, Michael 6:00, and I had been told 5:00, more or less. My friend Dave had ridden this route just a month before and warned me that it was rough and slow, “if it’s open at all”. Thanks for the positive thoughts, Dave.

My friend Dave had ridden this route just a month before and warned me that it was rough and slow, “if it’s open at all”.

The road out of Sapa was lovely, with great views of valleys a thousand feet below and waterfalls pouring from the mountainsides. We soon crossed Tram Ton Pass, Vietnam’s highest mountain pass at 5,700 feet, and the views were even more spectacular.

As we headed downhill, I began to notice a lot of construction, with heavy machinery digging into the hillsides and the road becoming increasingly pot-holed and rough. I didn’t know it at the time, but we had eight hours of this ahead of us.

We soon came to a roadblock — a large piece of bamboo stretched across the road. Ahead, a Caterpillar was blocking the road, and cars were backed up. After a ten-mute wait, we were allowed to pass, rocking slowly over the battered road. From here on, we found less and less asphalt and more muddy potholes and roadblocks. The three of us in the back bounced higher and higher with every bump. It was funny, for awhile.

When the driver hit a large hole and we were all launched into the air, I heard a loud squawk! from beneath my seat. “There’s a chicken under my seat, isn’t there?” I asked. Christina laughed and replied, “I wondered when you’d notice.”

“There’s a chicken under my seat, isn’t there?” Christina laughed. “I wondered when you’d notice.”

We stopped to pick up another passenger, a middle-aged woman who sat in the seat in front of me. She turned to glare at me and put her hand over her nose. Hey, I showered today! I was even wearing clean clothes for a change, though I admit that my sandals could kill a man at twenty feet.

After a few more stops, the bus was full and I had a large bag of vegetables crammed up against my knees. The assistant kept shoving it back further, so that he could use it as a pillow while he slept. After a couple of hours, we stopped to eat and I was soon surrounded by locals who stared and smiled good-naturedly. I danced a little jig for them and got a smattering of applause.

The road was now nothing but mud and deep ruts and we plowed forward at slow speed. I felt like I was stuck in an industrial washing machine — no “gentle cycle” here. When we’d hit a big bump, we’d all go flying again and the chicken would squawk in protest. This continued for several hours and we settled into a steady –if uneasy– rhythm. Bounce, bounce, squawk!

When we’d hit a big bump, we’d all go flying and the chicken would squawk in protest.

Stopped at another roadblock, the bus quickly filled with a foul odor and the woman in front of me turned to glare again. I waved my hands at her. “It wasn’t me!” I protested. A young, sharply-dressed couple exited with an unhappy-looking baby, removing his pants and cleaning him up with bottled water and tissues. Thankfully, they left the pants by the side of the road.

My neighbor turned to me again and I gave her a wink. She scowled and looked away.

Just when I thought the road couldn’t get any worse, it did. It narrowed even further and we entered Mud Town, a thin collection of huts and shacks wedged between the road and the steep drop to the river below. Everything was covered in muck and gray dust. Trucks were backed up, awaiting their run at a long, deep mud hole.

Two bridges were under construction nearby and Mud Town was crawling with heavy trucks and workers scurrying about. Piles of bricks lined the road every fifty feet or so, and ramshackle buildings stood side-by-side, mostly unfinished. The driver forged on through some of the roughest, ugliest terrain I’d ever seen and we all rattled around like dice in a cup. On a good bump, I would catch a foot of air. The chicken was now sobbing quietly.

We crawled on like this for an hour, moving so slowly that our forward progress was in danger of being canceled out by continental drift. The road didn’t improve. Another half hour passed and I thought my head was going to be ripped from my neck. Everything was a blur and it took all my effort to avoid braining myself on the bus window.

Another half hour passed and I thought my head was going to be ripped from my neck.

Then, I glanced ahead and saw pavement. Could it be? I thought I might be hallucinating from my brain sloshing around in my skull, but we quickly pulled onto glorious, unbroken tarmac and picked up speed. A ragged sigh of relief went through the bus.

We could now enjoy the scenery and it was magnificent. The road climbed again, giving us grand views of tree-clad mountains and the thick, coffee-tinted river below. Tidy H’mong tribal villages sat atop small hills, bustling with activity. Women in long shirts and patterned skirts walked by the road, gathering firewood or carrying woven baskets full of brightly-colored dried corn, while babies tottered about, wearing filthy sweaters and no pants. The older kids herded water buffalo up and down the road, gleefully swatting them with switches to urge them on.

We stopped at at small town and the young couple got off, taking their baby and the chicken with them. It’d been five hours since we’d had a break and Christina’s bladder was about to burst. The surly assistant said “no break!” when she asked, but I appealed to the driver and he granted us a five minute stop. While she ran to find a toilet, I stretched my legs and had a smoke.

The young couple had gathered their luggage and as I watched, the woman threw a shawl over her sparkly t-shirt and bundled her baby to her back with a red blanket. The transformation was astounding: from Hanoi Chic to Hill Tribe Classic in less than a minute.

From here it was an easy two-hour ride to Diem Bien Phu and the landscape was stunning. None of us could really enjoy it, however — all three of us were tired and battered. We finally pulled into the station at 6:00, after ten hours on the bus. Gathering our packs, we staggered off in search of a hotel. And a chiropractor.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Natalka August 5, 2010 at 12:14 pm

wow, I was pretty sure before about not travelling by bus in Vietnam – now I’m certain.

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wes August 5, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Nah, it was fun! In a “I never want to do that again” kind of way…

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pirate63 August 5, 2010 at 4:16 pm

great report Wes,we rode a bike from Dein Bien to Sapa in feb,through the hydro dam there constructing,sounds very much like you were describing,funny thing is we both reckon in a weird way that it was the best day riding we had !
keep safe, good luck on finding something edible to eat in Dein Bien,ha,ha,

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wes August 5, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Wow, I met a few bikers going the other way on this route and they all looked knackered. Sounds like a tough day, but I bet it was a blast. I found a decent cefe in DBP after a lot of searching around. Good food and wifi — can’t ask for much more. Just got my bus ticket and bought some US dollars for the border — should be good to go.

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Nick Laborde August 6, 2010 at 12:12 am

Business Idea, the station would be a perfect place for a chiropractors office, you could even pay the drivers to be extra rough.
.-= Nick Laborde´s last blog ..Dear American Dream- It’s Over =-.

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Andi August 6, 2010 at 2:30 am

As always, very entertaining post! At least the views were beautiful along the way!!! ;-)
.-= Andi´s last blog ..India- Day 8 Part 2 =-.

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Candice August 6, 2010 at 5:13 am

Even your posts about unpleasant experiences sound ridiculously endearing.
.-= Candice´s last blog ..George Street Festival- For the Serious Boozebags Only =-.

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ayngelina August 6, 2010 at 6:54 pm

I cannot believe how rude that woman was! My shoes are also often the reason for smelling, for some reason Chacos end up smelling like hockey gear.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..Why I didn’t see the Panama Canal =-.

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Eli August 7, 2010 at 2:21 am

I can’t believe the driver was expecting to go the entire five hours without letting anybody off for a break. Gotta love bus ordeals…
.-= Eli´s last blog ..Lemons In Puerto Rico =-.

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Brendan van Son August 7, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Hahaha… I love bad bus ride stories. I have many of them myself. It’s funny how the stories you’ll always end up telling are the bad travel stories… they’re just way more entertaining!
.-= Brendan van Son´s last blog ..Fun Fotography on the Salt Flats =-.

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Chinamatt August 7, 2010 at 10:22 pm

This was a great post. Definitely worse than my 12-hour bus ride from Chengdu to Songpan–at least that road was paved.
.-= Chinamatt´s last blog ..Evil Plot =-.

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Keith August 8, 2010 at 9:09 am

Excellent narrative. Thanks for a great read!
.-= Keith´s last blog ..Is Your Vision Getting Blurry =-.

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Matt Hope August 8, 2010 at 9:50 am

ehhh… saw a road that kinda looked like this in Guatemala, thankfully we were driving past it!
.-= Matt Hope´s last blog ..7 Tips You Need for a Healthier and Safer Trip =-.

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wes August 10, 2010 at 10:49 am

Ha! That’s the best way ;)

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Gray August 8, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Awesome story, Wes! What,did the bus driver wear a catheter? How could he expect people to go that long without having to go to the bathroom? Crazy. My favorite line: “The chicken was now sobbing quietly.” That just says it all. :-)
.-= Gray´s last blog ..The Carry-On Experiment =-.

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wes August 10, 2010 at 10:48 am

Thanks, Gray! That chicken had a pretty tough day, poor thing.

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Jodi August 9, 2010 at 10:15 am

Oh man, that’s a ride I never want to relive. I called it “hell on wheels” – but enjoyed your post. Good luck finding something to eat in Dien Bien Phu. We were waved out of every restaurant we went into; finally just went to our back-up meal of fruit and crackers from the open market. I’ve never been so happy to get out of a town. Good luck on the next leg into Laos!

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wes August 10, 2010 at 10:43 am

Ahhh… Dien Bien Phu… I finally found a cafe with wifi and decent food. It poured rain while I was there so I was trapped there for 2-3 hours…

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scotty dafoe September 1, 2010 at 8:06 am

why is the river in vietnam muddy?

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Neale November 6, 2010 at 8:38 am

Great read I get a good laugh “the chicken was now quietly sobbing” each time I visit your site thanks :-)

@Scotty I have not seen a clean river in 6 months all are red mud brown

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wes November 6, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Thanks, Neale — I felt bad for the poor chicken. She was a very unhappy camper by the end…

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