« 114 Economic Effects | Main | 51 - A Bit Of Land »

Around The Sun: 600 Kilometers Of Near-Death

Steve Harrison tells of a nigbhtmare taxi journey.

Dont travel on the highways of Asia at night unless its absolutely unavoidable. Especially do not sit in the front seat.

There we were, in Vietnam for the first time. Wed enjoyed NhaTrang. Well at least I had, Phil and Johnno both got a bit ill. Phil in his infinite wisdom had us scheduled to travel to Hue about 600 kilometers to the north. We had a schedule to keep and had to get to Hanoi in ten days. Tired of travelling by train and bus we decided to hire a taxi, expecting the journey to take six or eight hours. Hiring a taxi seemed cheap and we were assured it would be a large car with ample leg room. The car turned out to be a clapped-out small sedan. We sent it away, saying we had been promised a more spacious vehicle. An hour later the sedan returned. It was this vehicle, or nothing. After negotiating a slightly lower price we settled for the cramped car.

We decided that I should sit inthe front seat for the first two hours, Phil for the next two, and Johnno for the last two. Our baggage was squashed into the boot, then we set out at noon.

The road out of NhaTrang full of potholes. Progress was slow. We seemed to spend half the time negotiating holes in the road then the other half travelling at a fair speed on tarmac. Problem was the tarmac would suddenly come to an end.

After 90 minutes we were on a three-lane tarmac highway travelling at a decent pace when a small herd of buffalo decided to cross the road. The only problem was, they decided to cross at the exact moment that we arrived. A panicking stampede of animals came charging straight at the car. We swerved towards oncoming traffic. The lead buffalo went past us. The second buffalo lost its footing and came sliding towards us hoofs, kicking at thin air. I could see the whites of its eyes as it came to my side of the car. A split-second later I saw another car which was swerving to avoid both us and the flailing buffalo.

Somehow we avoided contact with both the animal and the car, coming to rest on the opposite side of the road. We all took a deep breath, then our driver smiled and we continued our journey.

By now we had been going for two hours but no-one wanted to exchange seats. Consulting a map we saw that we had travelled only a tenth of the distance to our destination. The driver agreed that this was so. We pressed on.

We were able to laugh about the state of the road, our faulty predictions of how long the journey would take, our encounter with the upside-down buffalo. Hours went by and we seemed not much nearer to where we wanted to be. We stopped for a break at a beach restaurant, a shack serving rice. Phil and Johnno still declined to sit in the front seat.

Now it was getting dark. We hadn't anticipated travelling on these roads at night. We joked about the prospect of encountering another buffalo in the dark. Actually it wasn't funny. And I was still in the front seat.

Few drivers in Vietnam use their lights at night. There is a belief that your get more miles per gallon by not using your lights. Vehicles emerged out of the inky blackness. Our driver would brake, and another near-miss could be recorded. Our driver also tried to overtake in the darkness, missing on-coming trucks by inches. At first we were unnerved, but after an hour or two we got used to the near misses, even managing an occasional laugh. The nearer the miss, the more hysterical the laughter became.

Then we swerved to avoid an old man crossing the road. He put his hands out in front of him. We almost hit him. He had a shocked look on his face. I had a shocked look on mine.

Another glance at the map. We had been travelling for eight hours and were still only half-way to Hue.

We stopped for dinner at a Vietnamese-style late night diner. When we resumed our journey my friends still didn't choose to occupy the front seat, even though it had more leg-room.

Midnight came and went. We had so many close encounters with other vehicles that we bet on whether we would reach our destination or be killed on the way. It's strange how when death seems a possibility grim humour comes to the fore. We laughed and joked and giggled like school kids facing the ultimate test.

At about 2 am I saw two headlights approaching down the middle of the road. Its hard to judge distances while driving at night. The two lights seemed to converge into one, then that light apparently became airborne, heading straight for us.

Phil reported later that I screamed like a baby. I tried to leap out of my seat.

There was a thump on the boot of our car, but on we went.

Two motorbikes had collided. One of them had become airborne, travelled over the top of our car, then bumped the boot lid.

Our driver continued undeterred. However I noticed that he put a small green bottle to his nostrils, inhaling deeply. Now we began to wonder whether we would be killed by an oncoming truck or as a result of our driver falling asleep.

At about 3 am we started to climb the HaiVan pass, a series of hairpin bends and sweeping curves. We estimated we were about two hours from our destination. Actually we guessed that we had one hour to go, but decided to double it. Our driver, still taking sniffs from the green bottle, was often swinging round bends on the wrong side of the road.

As we emerged from one hairpin there was a truck coming towards us. Fortunately he too was on the wrong side of the road. So we passed each other, avoiding an accident, both of us on the wrong side of the road.

And still my companions did not wish to change seats.

I now had an important job to do. I held the green bottle under our driver's nose, encouraging him to take frequent sniffs. We had been on the road for 14 hours.

And now we were descending on the far side of the HaiVan pass. Our driver indicated that Buddha was protecting us, I was prepared to believe that. Twice we hit walls bordering the road, leaving tell-tale paint scrapes.

Finally around 4 am we arrived in Hue. We were speechless with relief.

Later that night we decided unanimously that the next leg of our journey would be by train.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.