The Meanderthals

Two seats on the bus ride from hell

Never mind the boat ride from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc, which started an hour late and stuttered through two “Ooops! We’re out of gas” delays before depositing us ashore in Vietnam.

The boat trip was late, ridiculous and at times alarming (particularly when the three Chinese guys sitting next to us started to light up cigarettes while the crew pumped an open container of fuel into the boat’s tank a couple of feet away.)

But our bus ride from Chau Doc to Can Tho was without question day’s Most Memorable Moment, the most harrowing, worrying and worst transportation experience of my fairly evolved and travel-savvy life. It was to public transportation what the first 15 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” is to film: a nauseating, pulse-pounding, deeply troubling and nightmarish experience.

It had taken us awhile to find the bus to Can Tho, deflecting the appeals from motorbike drivers who wanted to charge us way too much money to take us nowhere we wanted to go.

But we found the station, bought the tickets and – after sweating through a delicious “hot pot” lunch of pig’s bladder and dog toenails, we headed back to the bus station early so we would get a good seat.

They saw us coming, excitedly spirited us into the minivan and unceremoniously departed half an hour before the scheduled liftoff.

So there we were, sitting beside one another in the third bench seat of a groaning mini van that clearly had seen better days. Twenty minutes later, punctuated by constant blaring of the horn, manic full-throttle sprints into the path of oncoming trucks, buses and motorbikes followed by abrupt swerves back into our rightful lane, we glanced at each other and confessed our truth:

“This sucks.”

And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, when my normally calm and collected wife turned to me with an uncharacteristic quiver in her lower lip and said she was really scared, the kid in the seat in front of me started to throw up.

Then the woman to the right of her joined the fray, reaching for the small plastic bag knowingly handed to her by the crazy wingman in charge of onboard festivities. Shortly thereafter, the woman to her right – apparently wishing not to be left out – reached for a bag and made it a trifecta pukefest.

I stopped pointing out the atrocities to Gabi after she confessed that my chronicling of the events as they unfolded were only making things worse. So I put on my sunglasses as the sun went down and lowered my head so I wouldn’t see the women tossing full carsick bags out of the open window and reached for yet another to resume the purge.

I looked away as an elderly woman perched two seats to my right glared at me, indicting, convicting and sentencing me (presumably with lethal injection, judging from the hateful look on her face) for some unknown violation.

For awhile I resisted the temptation to shout at the driver, whose manic exploits surely must have been a product of pschotropic drugs, an overdose of methamphetamines or a miserable childhood. He was a terrorist behind the wheel, an uncaring, thoughtless boob with one hand on the wheel, the other diddling with the radio and chain smoking (inconsiderately bellowing smoke through the back of the van, certainly adding to the misery of the poor kid in front of me.)

Figuring that no one spoke English anyway, I shouted out a trial balloon to what reaction I’d get.

“Hey, Mario Andretti. It’s OK to keep it under 150. It’s not a damned race.”

No response, so I upped the ante, turning to the driver’s wingman, who alternated between shouting epithets out the window at motorists who failed to get out of the way fast enough, answering his cell phone and chain smoking while passing around carsick bags – long live the pukefest!

“Hey, Nostradamus. Do you understand that tromping on the gas pedal followed by crushing the brakes doesn’t actually get us there any quicker?”

He was silent, too, ignorant to my insults. Meanwhile, the meth freak behind the wheel was laying on the brakes yet again to avoid an oncoming enormous truck. It occurred to me: This guy must go through brake pads like Larry King goes through wives.

But our faith sustained us, as any good TV evangelist or Sarah Palin might have said, and we miraculously found ourselves standing by the side of the road with no idea where to go, no grasp of the language, no mode of public transportation in sight and the sun going down in a land very much far from all that we know.

And very, very happy.


  • I am definitely not going to Vietnam.Firstly too much smoke and i can’t breatheSecondly if someone else pukes I do too!!!!!What a should be translated into a movie scene. I think your insults far too sweet and gentle!!!!!!!!!!!!Obviously no traffic police. What are you doing in Vietnam? How long the stay and what mode of transport will you choose going back?I would hate to see and smell the litter! A very graphic description that leaves a person wondering the state of the world and how long mother nature can sustain us!I and all your family and friends are more than happy and thankful that you both made it !!!!!Where was your destination and where are you staying?

  • Michael and Ann

    Wow! Shouldn’t have read it after just finishing lunch!

  • Roberta

    The best part of this story is the description after the fact, knowing you are hopefully safe at home by now. Even with my sense of humor, I’m not sure I would have been a happy camper trying to make the best of a really bad situation. Glad you are both ok…. and where are you now? We all want to know…..

  • Victoria Wallack

    So how did you get back? We miss and love you and think driving in Maine is much safer.

  • Kathleen

    OMG!!! Soooo happy that you are both off that bus! I sure hope you didn’t have to take the same transportation back!Happy Trails and Stay Safe!!

  • Suzie Weldon

    You two are by all means the most adventurous couple I know. I would be living in fear of absolutely everything those countries offered me, but you…….you just jump right in (or in this case ON) and go for the full experience. I’m with Michael and Ann……should have waited a while after breakfast to read this!! I would have definitely been one of the Pukers as it doesn’t take much to bring me to nausea in a moving vehicle. So how did you get BACK? Eeeek.

  • UW

    I admire and envy your self control. An earlier Skip would have pounced on the driver and thrown both he and his wingman off the bus! Glad you both survived.

  • Meghan

    NOOOO. I am so sorry to hear about this experience. How funny that I had a similar one in Rwanda. Two gentlemen puked in front of us on our bus and in the land of 1,000 hills the bus was twisting and turning so much all that by the end of the ride everyone’s shoes and luggage was drenched. What baffled me…. they never even stopped the bus. Blech!

  • Tim

    Reminds me of a bus ride I took from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Goa many years ago over the mountains at night. I was in the back seat so every time the bus went over a bump (which seemed to be every thirty seconds), my head would make contact with the ceiling. But the driver must have had an incentive to arrive on time. As the bus sped along the twisty, bumpy mountain road in the middle of the night, I remember looking up to see some poor, motion-sick guy being held to keep from falling out as he leaned out of the open front door of the bus to vomit.

  • Rick

    Well, I’m glad you made it off the smelly van of death!! Holly crap Batman, that was a close call. Nice to know you are both OK… How did you make it back home after your escape??

  • To all who commented…..we’re not back yet! 🙂

  • mdrury

    You are both so brave….but how will you get home? Would you consider walking?

  • phyllis boulter

    Hope you are back home safely! Sounds like a horrid experience!

  • Kelly Oneil

    Can’t wait for the full blown novel version. Please be safe! Do you know how to jump and roll?

  • marjorie

    Uh….after sweating through a delicious “hot pot” lunch of pig’s bladder and dog toenails……..add me to the pukefest!!!!

  • Sheila

    Extremely well written. Just think, if you didn’t have this experience, you wouldn’t have anything to write about. Trifecta pukefest — that phrase is forever stuck in my brain! Thanks, Skip!

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