It turns out that the 9 a.m. van from Sapa to Điện Biên Phủ departs at 8 a.m. I was running late and as the last person to be picked up, there was no room for my duffel behind the last seat with the rest of the baggage. My bag stayed in the aisle for the duration of the eight-hour trip and was routinely sat upon, kicked and stepped on. Had I not been a packing expert, my toiletries never would have survived the journey. The owner of my hotel in Sapa booked my seat on the sixteen passenger mini-bus for 250,000 VND ($10 USD), but, clearly marked on a place card above my seat was a price of 185,000 VND. All legitimate buses and vans in Vietnam have a similar set of cards with the contact details and license number of the owner and the fare.
The van departed with a full load of 16 passengers and no air conditioning. It felt like there were far more people on board than the regulations allowed, but no, I did a head count; 16 souls plus the driver. The only other transportation option would have been to take a night bus, which I’m not fond of, or to take a bus to Lao Cai city and transfer to a full-sized bus, which would add at least two more hours to the journey. Fortunately, I would not be leaving Điện Biên Phủ by bus as I had purchased a plane ticket on Vietnam Airlines back to Hanoi instead of doing another long road trip.
Once we cleared town and got out on the highway the scenery was so stunning that I forgot about the heat, my crushed bag and the guy sleeping with his head on my shoulder. The two-lane highways in this part of the country are essentially carved out of the sides of hills and mountains which tower above the road, while deep plunging valleys lie on the opposite side. This is the rainy season in Southeast Asia and as a result the landscape of this region is green and lush. As the van moved northward towards our first stop, dozens of farming families could be seen tending to the rice that they planted in May.
Two hours into our journey we arrived in Lai Chau to drop off a couple of travelers, the only westerners on the bus besides myself, and to take a bathroom break. I believe that this was the first time my bag was stepped on. I’m sure that the departing backpacker put the full weight of his six foot frame on it. However, as we continued on our way, more people got off and the air conditioning miraculously began working.
Bus travel in Vietnam is often regarded as unsafe and avoided by many travelers, but I found our driver to be very cautious and competent. To say that these roads are winding is an understatement and the driver must remain alert at all times as a mistake could result in a vehicle tumbling off the mountain. The other legitimate reason to be concerned about road travel here is the possibility that dirt, rocks and boulders can rain down on the vehicle. It is very common, particularly after heavy rains, to see crews removing debris from partially closed roads.
We arrived at the bus station in Điện Biên Phủat at 4 p.m, right on schedule. Taxi drivers swarmed the bus looking for fares, but after sitting for the better part of eight hours, I needed some exercise and opted to walk to my hotel.