Tourists travel on special buses called VIP or tourist buses. They don't want the tourists to experience the discomforts that go along with travel by local buses. For the local buses to be any more uncomfortable, the passengers would have to be like galley slaves, perhaps running on a treadmill to power the bus, while someone beats a drum to set the cadences and another person mans the whip. To avoid the galley slave experience, locals also take the "tourist" buses. In fact, often there are more locals than tourists. It is a system that makes little sense.
To give you a feel of what these trips are like, I will share a few of them with you. The trip from Hanoi to Hue in Vietnam on the tourist bus is an overnight trip that if all goes well should take about 14 hours. In Vietnam, long distance buses are at night. During the day, the traffic is so bad and there are so many people walking on the highways that progress is slow. Most of my trips begin with a functionary that we call the "collector". This person’s job is to drive around in a car or mini-van and gather passengers to be delivered to the bus. Many of which are owned by tour companies, so they don't leave from a bus station. For this trip, the "collector" was to pick us up at 5:30 p.m. for a 7:00 p.m. bus. The collectors are never on time, but in this case, he was over an hour late. The hotel staff told us repeatedly, "Don't worry he is on the way". He finally walked into the hotel at 6:45 p.m.
He told us to follow him. He led us to a taxi. We got in to the cab. The collector sent us on our way to an unknown destination without a ticket. We were not much comforted by his assurances.
We arrived at a bus parked by the side of the road in front of a small travel agency. It was obvious that the bus was quite full with a crowd of Vietnamese clambering to board. When we got out of the taxi a small, Vietnamese women fought her way through the crowd to lead us to the bus where we stored our luggage and then we were taken to the front of the line. We told the woman that we had no tickets, but were told not to worry just get on the bus. We didn't worry for about 30 seconds then the conductor would not let us board without tickets. The woman who had helped us had inconveniently disappeared. The crowd behind us(who we bypassed) was getting increasingly vociferous because they were not able to enter the bus past us. In what seemed to be a long while, the first woman returned still without tickets to explain to the conductor that we should be permitted to get on the bus. As we climbed the steps, the crowd behind us surged forward. I had something very hard on each side of my legs which nearly caused me to fall into the bus. It was a man carrying a wooden chair on the bus. His purpose was momentarily unclear. When we got into the aisle, we quickly saw that there were only two seats left which they must have been holding for us. The man's chair was his seat in the aisle. In a short time, accompanying him in the aisle was a man and a young girl, both laying on straw mats spread on the floor. The remainder of the aisle was taken up by hammock hanging from a metal frame. It was for the driver and co-driver, so they can could take turns sleeping on the 14 hour over night ride.
Buses in Southeast Asia seldom depart or arrive on time. They do not leave any space on the bus unoccupied. It is filled with cargo human or otherwise. The buses do not leave until they are packed. The good news is they are cheap; although no one seems to pay the same price. They charge whatever they think they can get. Often prices can vary 20 to 200% depending on where you buy your ticket.
My next trip was from Hue to Savanakhet, Laos. The road was Highway 9, just south of the DMZ. Some of the biggest battles of the American War, as the Vietnamese call it, occurred near this route. Much of the countryside is mountainous and covered with thick vegetation, where we did not defoliate it.
Our "collector' was to pick us up at 6:30 a.m., early, but at least it was not another overnight trip. The "collector" in his mini-van had to take us to another town nearly 1 !/2 hours away to catch the bus to Laos. On the bus with us were three monks. The assistant collector asked me to sit in the front with the driver, a preferred seat often offered to "honored" foreigners. One of the monks had positioned himself to sit in the favored "shotgun" seat, but he was asked to move. His response was in English, "I think I would prefer to stay here." This was fine with me. I was a little embarrassed being offered the better seat. A short while later, the monk, who I had named Fred, complained to the driver about the air conditioner not working. I thought his behavior to be very un-monk like.
Shortly, Fred the monk, turned to me and asked me where I was from. He told me that he was from Nepal. He and his fellow monks, who were Thai, were traveling around Asia. They would stay in monasteries, where they were fed, so they were able to travel very cheaply. We got to talking about two of the most common sects of Buddhist monks in that part of the world. We will call them the "red" and the "yellow" monks for the color of the robes that they wore. The yellow monks were clearly predominant. I asked about the difference expecting some complicated doctrinal response that someone not well versed in Buddhism would have no hope of understanding. His response was simply, "We(the yellow monks) do not eat after mid day. They ( the red monks) do."
I did not find this explanation difficult to understand. I didn't ask him why this was, but a much more banal. "Do you get hungry?" He replied, "At first, when we were young novices, but now it is not difficult." Then with a slight grin, he said, "After all we really don't work very hard."
The bus to Laos was oversold as usual. Some were leaving the bus and making other travel arrangements. One couple, who looked very unhappy, seemed not to be able to decide if they should get on the bus. They did join the rest of us, but they were not overjoyed by the situation. In fact, the man looked like he might vomit. My brother and I felt sorry for them and offered them our seats by moving to the last row bench seat occupied by three Lao men and a lot of motorbike parts. The couple were very thankful because he was ill and was not sure if he was up to the trip. We became friends with them, both from Australia and a couple of young Brits, also trapped in the back of the bus. We all had dinner together in various places in Laos as our paths kept crossing again and again.
Of course, the aisle of the bus was filled with luggage and passengers in little red plastic chairs, no more than 18 inches high which were common on these buses. There was no air conditioning for our 12 hour bus ride, but at least the Aussie couple bought us a beer for surrendering our seats to them.