Its 11am on Dec. 31st. We are at a monstrous bus station located on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. There are at least thirty windows selling bus tickets. Luckily the Vietnamese use roman script so the one we are looking for is easy to find. There are three windows selling tickets to our destination. Pete approaches the first window and the words "Two tickets to Dalat please" barely roll of his tongue before a hand belonging to a stern faced clerk does a kind of sideways wave. It reminds me of a wave given by a lavishly dressed beauty queen riding in the back of a flower garnished car. We later find out this means "full" "not interested" or maybe even "get out of my face" Pete asks again. He gets the same response. Next window...same response. We panic. We don't want to spend New Years Eve on the crowded streets of Ho Chi Minh. We want to spend it in the quaint, chilly mountain town of Dalat. Finally I try the final window and YES she has two tickets.
With help we find our transportation tucked away among the hundred or so buses in the parking lot. This is about the time you start to realize you're not in Kansas anymore. Our "bus" is actually a 16 person mini-van. The small storage space in the back and two of the seats are filled with boxes and bags of stuff that will be delivered to homes and businesses on our trip. None of this surprises us because we've done this all at least a dozen times before. While planning our trip we decided we would do most of our traveling on local buses. We felt like this was part of the adventure so on most of our bus rides we have been the only foreigners.
Someone grabs our backpacks and crams them into a tiny unused space. We are motioned into the van. Luckily there only a few people already on, so I nab a window seat. Pete steps out occasionally to take a smoke break. Its ninety degrees outside and one hundred and ten inside, but I don't budge, afraid to lose my precious ventilation. We know from experience the van won't leave until it is full. Slowly people climb on and our seat, that's made for three, soon holds four. A young Vietnamese couple sits beside us. An hour and a half later we leave with fifteen people on board. On the way out of town we randomly pick up three more passengers who are placed on six inch high stools lined up in single file in the isle beside the sliding door. Now our sixteen passenger minivan, that only has room for fourteen, holds seventeen people.
Out my window I watch the scenery change from an urban sprawl to rows of rubber tree plants. The couple next to Pete have fallen asleep and are leaning on him narrowing his sitting space to about eight inches. I cant extend my legs because there are boxes below the seat in front of me. I am pushed so far to the edge that I only have half of the seat to sit on. By bum begins to hurt so I sit on my travel pillow.
We start to climb and the scenery becomes more beautiful. The forests of rubber trees turn into fields of coffee. The homes begin to change from structures with flat tops roofs and open facades to A-frame buildings with doors and windows to protect the inhabitants from the cold.
As the road gets more curvy I begin to get nervous. "Kamikaze drivers" is the nickname given to Vietnamese bus drivers because they go fast and like to pass on blind curves. We have yet to experience this since the roads in south are fairly straight. This is exactly what begins to happen. The only warning he gives is a five second honk. I am fairly certain that we are going to be involved in a head on collision only for our driver to pull back into our lane, in what seems like, seconds before impact. I began to pray to any god that will listen. Directing my relentless begging more towards Buddha and Allah thinking that it might reach them faster because logistically they are closer. Besides the two people that are vomiting, this seems to happen on every bus ride, no one is phased by any of this. Pete looks like he is enjoying himself and says with a huge grin "I feel like I'm in a video game." From this I conclude that he no longer cherishes life. When I tell him this he laughs.
Time brings cooler weather and darkness which quells my anxiety. At least I wont see death approaching. Occasionally we stop to drop off a package or pick up another passenger. At one point there are twenty three people on board including a woman sitting on the left side of the driver, next to the door.
Six and a half hours later we arrive in Dalat. I am overjoyed to place my feet on solid ground and consider kissing it. I feel like I have finished a marathon or outrun a cop in a high speed chase. I look around at my fellow passengers ready for a high five, maybe even a hug. I don't even receive a pat on the back. They are nonchalantly greeting family members and jumping in taxis. Don't they realize we now have bond. Together we have cheated death. Eventually I come back to reality. For them this is just a typical bus ride in their sometimes terrifying, but never boring country.....Vietnam.