Seven in a bed

Boy on bus © Robbi Baba

I could write about the toothless man with the kind face on the overnight train in Thailand. He had shared his bananas with us and taught us some Thai before climbing into our bunk to watch a film. Or the Vietnamese hotelier in a mountain town who spoke almost perfect English, but with an accent which could only have been learnt from Del Boy or Rodney. Or I could write about the Italian nonna who almost kidnapped me.

Instead I will tell you about the night I spent sleeping curled up in the heart of a Vietnamese family – my curious cure to homesickness.

The bus journeys in Vietnam, more than in any other country I visited, were always entertaining. The buses themselves were huge modern beasts with rows of bunk beds designed to squeeze in as many people as possible and bright neon lighting which stretched lengthways down the whole bus and never dimmed.

The drivers demonstrated no regard for any other vehicles, people or wildlife which were unlucky enough to stray into the bus’ path. Neither did they appear to even notice the 3-meter deep potholes in the roads. Although the beds were fitted with seatbelts, it was not the best design and unless you were prepared to lie down flat for 16 hours with a belt working its way into crevices no strap should have access to, you were advised to hold on for dear life as said pothole catapulted you four foot in the air.

If you landed back in your bed it was a good day. Most of the time people would land unceremoniously in one of the aisles, give in and stay there, enduring being stepped on and climbed over by people heading for the toilet, whose stomachs and bowels were not accustomed to the shook up version of motorway driving.

On top of that there would always be a Kung Fu movie played on a tiny screen at the front of the bus, presumably only for the driver’s entertainment (god knows he wasn’t watching the road!). The sound from the film however was boomed throughout the entire bus so all us lucky passengers could hear the karate chops at a million decibels but had no chance of ever following the story.

At the back of the bus was a row of two layers just about wide enough for 4 people to rest half their body on (legs would inevitably be curled up to your ears). The top was comfortable enough, but the bottom row, where my allocated spot was, wasn’t quite so luxurious.

The distance from floor to row on top was approximately a foot and a half, so once you had squeezed down into the gap and slid up the correct lying position the effect was not unlike being buried alive (except perhaps for the noise of Jackie Chan going at it).

Happily exhausted, I quickly accepted the fact that if the potholes didn’t get me that night suffocation surely would, and settled down for the night. Not long after this my sleeping companions arrived.

Bearing in mind the row above me where my friend was greedily breathing air had four people on, I was slightly alarmed to see a Vietnamese family encompassing grandma, mum, dad, two sisters and little brother on their hands and knees beginning the arduous task of squeezing down into their (possibly) final resting place beside me.

The dad of the family began directing his family into various slots of the row and quickly all bar the little boy, who couldn’t have been more than three, were snuggled in beside me like sardines in a tin. The boy quickly spied a gap in the row, which happened to be my armpit and launched himself into place, wrapping his little arms and legs around my arm.

Within two minutes the entire family was fast asleep. As I lay there thinking how bizarre we must have looked, we went over an almighty pothole and from my vantage point I saw poor souls being dumped by gravity into the aisles but my row, my extended family for the night, were so tightly squeezed in, we didn’t move an inch.

Written by - Edited by Charlotte Amelines - Photo by Robbi Baba

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