Hanoi’s My Dinh Bus Station is not for the faint-hearted. According to the lady who worked at the bus station – who was only snappy with us because she worked in a bus station – the bus we needed to take, the once-a-day local minibus that would take us way up north to Ba Be National Park, didn’t exist. We stood there wet and shivering, harassed by locals with offers to ‘take us somewhere’ and completely without a plan B.
We fled to the terminal where rows of buses with place names we couldn’t pronounce sat waiting to fill their bellies with passengers. We might still be standing there now had a driver on his break not flicked the butt of his cigarette away, said the magic words ‘Ba Be?’ and ushered us onto the bus for Cho Don, which left on time at 10.00am just as the internet gods had promised us.
Ordinarily a 30-seater bus has 30 seats and 30 passengers, give or take a baby or two but Vietnamese public buses are different. With the help of a plank of wood, the space in the aisle between two seats is transformed into another seat and when the aisle is suitably crammed with bodies the space behind the driver’s seat and the little gap at the top of the stairs can become extra seats too.
With over 40 people crammed onto the tiny minibus we finally flew out of Hanoi. The travel sickness tablet I had taken half an hour ago kicked in with perfect timing and I managed a few hours of delicious sleep, my legs curled up on top of my backpack and my head slumped against the bus window.
For the entire journey a flatscreen TV mounted at the front of the bus, alarmingly within the driver’s view, showed one DVD on a loop. Every citizen of Vietnam got an opportunity, it seemed, to take to the stage and sing their version of the same song, over and over and over again. Six hours passed with me staring at this screen, still half stoned from the travel-sickness tablet, completely mesmerised, until we were the only people left on the bus.
The end of the line was a wooden shack on a dirt road in a tiny town, the location of which we could only pin down as far as being ‘northern Vietnam’. At this point the bus driver, who didn’t speak English, felt like our only friend in the world and he looked like he was about to leave us there.
We showed him the address of the homestay we were trying to get to in a small village within Ba Be National Park and having left our fate to the kindness of strangers, yet again, we sat down on the wooden bench and waited for what was coming next.
The second bus was a transit van with seats that looked like they had been ripped out of go-karts and welded to the floor. It was already packed with locals trying to get back to their villages and they smiled at us standing there with our luggage, not like we were an inconvenience but like we were a welcome addition to their party. Shaun squeezed in next to a young lad who measured his petite loafer next to Shaun’s huge size 14 hiking boots and laughed his head off.
We pulled over once so the driver could cram any remaining cubic centimetre of space with deliveries: bags and bags of vegetables, sacks of seeds, loaves of bread, stacks of eggs and a beautifully decorated birthday cake were all piled on top of us. The engine of the bus screamed in protest as we took on a dangerous incline. Our proximity to the edge of the cliff and the way the driver was riding the clutch and swerving all over would normally have me panicking but I was more concerned with protecting the meringue on the top of the birthday cake and stressing over the spots of icing on the sides that are already starting to melt.
Just as we made our final delivery night fell, black as new leather and speckled with stars, and we arrived at our homestay. A wooden box with a mattress on the floor, draped with a mosquito net has never looked so romantic and welcoming and a plate of plain vegetable noodles has never tasted so good. Sleep came quickly and sweetly and when I woke up in the morning and stepped out onto the patio of our stilt house homestay I realised I was in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
We stayed at Mr Linh’s Homestay in Ba Be Lake and the below travel instructions are taken from his website www.mrlinhhomestay.com
My Dinh station (10h00) – Cho Don town (16h00) – Bo Lu village (17h00)
-About 8:30 am walk from your hotel to Hanoi city bus stations at the streets “Trần Nhật Duật – Trần Quang Khải – Tràng Tiền – Ngô Quyền – Hai Bà Trưng – Thợ Nhuộm – Điện Điên Phủ” where closest to your hotel.
– A bus No 34 will cross the above places every 10 minutes to collecting you to BẾN XE MY DINH (MY DINH bus station). which is about 15 km from Hanoi Old Quarter.
-09:30 am in MY DINH bus station look for a local bus to CHO DON town of Thuong Nga company. This is unique one that WILL take you direct all the way to CHO DON via THAI NGUYÊN city and is a red one with number plate 29B11637, leaving about 10:00 Am.
The staffs on the bus will collect your monies one time before stop at CHO DON. Another mini Van of this company also will be accountability take you to Ba Be lake-shore (Ba Be Tourism Centre).