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Beyond Our Conestoga

A promised story of bus travel.

VIETNAM | Friday, 30 April 2010 | Views [563]

So I thought I was going to move on from describing our Vietnam experiences, until I remembered an earlier promise. In the posting entitled, "Vietnam Blues, or Excitement..." I promised a story from our bus travel from Phu Quoc on to Con Tom. I can't break that promise, and nor would I want to. It's a good story. And on actuality, I have a lot of catching up on stories that I do want to share, they just won't be in chronological order. As we look over our photos, I am reminded of so much, oh so much. Years it will be of stories unfolding I believe.

Alright, so first why didn't we tell the story earlier? Well, in a paranoia sort of way (probably utterly pointless) we weren't sure how much buzz words could be tracked by the Vietnamese Communist government. We didn't exactly want to report some sightings of illegal activity and have to deal with it while we were still in the country. And after hearing the realm of this story, you might agree with me, that the government was probably turning a blind eye and our fears were totally unfounded.

Let me catch you back up to speed. A day of travel that was flustered with strange not so planned transportation. We had caught the last few available (cancelled) tickets off the island of Phu Quoc to any city to just get us off. Through the local bus station, caught a local bus to Chau Doc, thinking we would go to that town's bus station to hopefully catch another bus onto Can Tho that same day. We knew there was a chance that we wouldn't make the connection, knowing how many stops these local buses make and timely arrivals seem impossible.

After a fun ride on a typical crammed full bus, the driver pulled over at an intersection (not a bus station mind you). We were rushed off the bus very quickly. Practically pushed with other men using our bags in their hands as bait to get us onto another bus. Apparently, this, was our connection. The second bus was testy and anxious to pull away. How kind of them we thought. Some communication had happened (via cell phone, who ever knows what they are saying and to whom--do we know the language?). The second bus was waiting for us to arrive and now that they are, they must be behind schedule, because they are SO anxious to get going. We make sure they know where we want to go. Affirm in our minds, as much as that is possible, that we are on the correct bus. We paid our fare (a price inline with our expectations) to the 'money' lady on the bus (not the driver). And away we went, very fast.

Then the ride got strange.

The speediness seemed pointless. The driver pulled literally around the block to only stop again at what seemed a planned stop. Do those exist here? A woman got on, along with some cargo. The new passenger was quit a sight. Small Vietnamese woman, with very baggy clothing that disguised some strange rectangular objects underneath. She had some trouble making it on the bus, down the aisle and into her seat. Looked like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, only cubular and with a tiny head. Her face all serious. Not giving us the up and down like most other locals do, figuring out why in the world we are on the bus. She paid her fare. 

Eric and I eyed each other. What is going on? Is this some strange medical problem causing her to protect herself? But why be on this crammed bus then? Kind of looks like there might be thick pads underneath. Is medical care that bad here? Can she not get proper attire? Does she have some strange paranoia? I mean, one glance and you can tell, this is not normal.

Is she hiding something? Surely not. It is SO obvious that there is something underneath the clothing. I mean, her cheek fat doesn't match the obesity below the neckline. And how far up do your arms naturally lay without something holding them up? They don't stick out like that, like Randy's arms do in the Christmas Story. You know, Ralphie's brother in the winter suit. And seriously. Who are you kidding? What SE Asian is overweight? This is oh so comical, but obviously not for her. I repeat, she is dead serious.

The bus continues. 

It stops again within a block. More suspicious passengers get on. Same story. More cargo. Lot of conversation going on. A familiar sort of chat. Like the 'money lady' knows them.

The bus continues again.

More stops. This time cargo at each one. Black garbage bags. The 'bag man' part of the 3-tier bus operation helps load it within the bus. Not up top or crammed in back like most cargo does. We don't pay as much attention. Every bus always ends up filled to the brim with people and or cargo. So this part isn't as strange. But then the bus goes without stops. And the driver is not flying this time. Just the opposite. Going quit slow. Very unusual for any driver of a vehicle we've been on all throughout SE Asia up until this point. The buses rule the road. Why in the world is he going so slow?

Then the answer is revealed.

Very hastily, the 'large' passengers help unpack the black bags of cargo. Inside? Cartons and cartons and cartons of cigarettes. Connections starting to go off in the brain. Why are they unloading them?

To restash of course.

The 'money lady' sits down, hikes up her leg, pulls up her baggy pant legs to reveal a massive amount of rubber bands. The cartons are handed up the aisle to her one by one as she loads up her leg. Strapping them on with the rubberbands, pre-banded in preparation.

In a few cartons go, and rotate around the leg. Strap a few more, and rotate. Again and again. Start a new layer. And another. She must of fit about 30-40 cartons per leg before pulling the pant leg down over. A braided lot of cartons went around her waist too, as well as the 'bag man.' At least they didn't load them on the arms like the ridiculous looking woman did beside us. 

Our bus route is one running directly south from the Cambodian border. This bus must of started the route there. As soon as all cartons are 'hidden' the driver finally picks up speed. This time super fast. Any more stops for passengers is a nuance at this point. He's got time to make up. They are running a bus of course! Eric looks to me. 'Well, at least we'll probably get to Can Tho in a timely manner now.'

The driver, bag man and money lady are all in on this together. Along with most of the passengers. One more well dressed Vietnamese couple obviously not in on this charade look back at us with similar expressions that must of been on our faces. I daringly snap a photo of the scene. But just one. Not going to risk them seeing me trying to get the best photo.

The bus ride continues as we would of originally expected. We just laugh at each other throughout the route. What is the luck? Or how often does this happen? Is it really done this poorly? Just imagine if smuggling into the US were that easy. Ha!

As night approaches, we start arriving into the outskirts of Can Tho. The 'money lady' confirms that we are going to the bus station. This is oddly pleasant. How many times have we been reaffirmed that we are being taken to the right place anytime on this whole 2.5 month trip so far?


And this makes it even more comical. Smuggling, but still got to make sure the 'cover' job is completed correctly.

She is all smiles. 

Stops are made as each of the 'passengers' are let off in various, separate locations. They seemed to have timed this for night fall quit well. One 'team member' gets off to an awaiting moto. She heaves her leg over the back and manages to get on before being whisked off.

When the original female 'passenger' and most conspicuous one at that gets off, Eric and I can't help but chuckle. Watching her walk brings me to tears even now. She waddles off to an awaiting vehicle. We catch a man pissing on a truck tire of the semi parked next to the truck she is heading to. He even takes a double take as she waddled by.

We are taken directly to the bus station.

Made sure we have our luggage.

Asked where we want to go.

Made sure we get handed off to a fair moto-taxi driver. 

And slapped on the back with smiles on the faces of all parties involved as we walk off.

We got to where we needed to go, in a timely manner and paid a fair price!

I can't believe it.


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