Bus 502: Local Travel turns Dicey

We were warned. Rumors along the backpacker trail foretold of a long, often intolerable, Hanoi to Vientiane bus ride. Now, as Bus 502 traveled under a starless sky through Vietnam’s mountainous corridors, I surveyed the scene before me and decided to heed the advice next time. Our bus driver had a gun, the Oreo supply was dwindling and my friends were sleeping atop tightly wrapped tarps of marijuana.

Looks are deceiving. From the outside, Bus 502’s peeling paint, broken headlights and dangling bumper were caricatures of typical Asian transport. Inside, the bus was bare. No seats, no benches, no plastic stools; nothing except pockmarked timbers. Though far from comfortable and cozy, we hastily arranged blankets on the stiff floorboards and fell asleep as Hanoi faded behind us.

Four hours later, far along a desolate dirt path, we were ordered off the bus. No, it wasn’t the much anticipated bathroom break. Instead, our driver stood guard, arms akimbo, and ignored our questions as a shirtless boy army carried plastic sacks and crates into the bus belly. We were scared. Were we to be left behind in a Vietnamese rice paddy? Shot? I absurdly wondered whether my travel insurance covered kidnapping or desertion.

Finally, our driver waved us onboard and we unearthed the mystery behind our new cargo. Stacked against the walls and given away by an unmistakable odor were crates and kilos of Asia’s popular “happy” narcotic. Our driver, now enjoyably charismatic, assured us that nobody would be harmed and that we would continue on to Vientiane. Left with no other options, we nervously sat down for the onward journey and made a whispered pact to stick together and find help if the situation escalated.

Perhaps it was the rushing adrenaline or our close brush with Asia’s notorious drug ring, but we were suddenly anxious to talk with one another. Cookies, an IPOD and some potent snake wine were passed around the circle and, as our bus clattered through the night, we shared stories of life, loss, wanderlust and love. Inside this bizarre twist of events, the travelers aboard Bus 502 cemented a friendship.

Twenty-nine hours behind schedule, we finally arrived in Vientiane. Our relieved group found a guesthouse and spent the next two weeks traveling through Laos and Cambodia together, branding ourselves as the “Bus 502 posse.” Ten years later, we remain close friends. Across five continents, four languages, and six decades of age difference, we continue to support each another through marriages, deaths, graduations and births.

We never understood how we crossed the Laos border without incident or if the Happy Tour’s bus company was indeed a dirty drug operation. However, Asia is a land full of uncertainties and spectacular peculiarities, some of the very reasons why we all happened to gather at the bus station that night. We were all seeking adventure outside the boundaries of societal norms. And on a ramshackle bus on a lonely Vietnam highway, it was adventure that finally found us.

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