by plane, by train, by MegaBus

Jay’s sister was planning a Memorial Day Weekend barbecue. We needed a way to get down to Southern California from San Francisco, fast. Plane tickets were expensive, Jay’s car was a no-go, and the train would’ve been too slow. And so, we turned to that old stand-by: the bus.

I’d taken the bus to Los Angeles before. The Chinese and Vietnamese communities have a bus system that runs to major cultural hubs on the West Coast, referred to as Xe Do Hoang. The buses feel like a somewhat illegal operation, but are cheap ($40 a pop!) and cater to a specific population — one of which my grandma is a member. My grandma uses these buses regularly to shuttle between our family in Orange County and my aunt in San Jose.

The one time I used these buses, my grandma, the expert, helped guide me through the experience. We got to an unmarked drop-off point in San Jose at the crack of dawn (6:30 am), an hour after which the bus pulled up. Though petite and elderly, my grandma demonstrated admirable assertiveness when she pushed her way to the front of the doors. We got front-row seats, in which we reclined, ate complimentary banh mi,* and watched Paris by Night** for the duration of the trip. Seven hours and one pit stop later, we pulled up in the heart of Little Saigon in Orange County. Overall experience: positive.

Unfortunately, my grandma (so to speak) caught me fish, rather than teaching me how to fish. I didn’t feel savvy enough to brave those Asian-operated waters again. There is, however, another viable bus service nowadays: MegaBus! After doing a bit of research, I decided that it sounded reliable enough to try. Jay and I happily booked our tickets down to Southern California through MegaBus for Memorial Day weekend. The damage to our wallets was almost nonexistent: $60 round trip a person, and red-eye trips to boot!

On the day of, we got to San Francisco’s CalTrain station about half an hour early. People were lined up against a wall, but there seemed to be a misunderstanding about a “line” — some people asserted that they were at the front of the “line,” while others just seemed to be waiting wherever they stood. When the bus pulled up, it was clear that there it was a free-for-all. This was totally different from our return trip, where an actual attendant checked in with each of us and assigned us boarding numbers.

You present your ticket to to the driver, drop your carry-on luggage off with a crew member, and then climb aboard. I highly suggest having a print-out of your ticket, since staff seemed to be confused (or maybe just irritable?) when presented with smartphones. In any case, Jay and I didn’t have a problem checking in, and were luckily able to find seats together on board. Once we stowed our smaller items below our seat, I popped a Dramamine (strongly recommended!), snapped on my eye mask (so indispensable), and inflated and nestled into my neck pillow. I quickly fell asleep.

The ride itself was very smooth, and, of course, aided by the drowsy-making powers of the Dramamine. There were a few instances on the first trip where I felt the bus swerve a bit, but that was as rough as it got. Both times we sat on the upper deck, though I get the feeling that the lower deck gives one a more stable ride. The only true nuisance was the pit stop mid-way through the trip (read: at 3 am). The bus driver got on the PA system and announced at a deafening/rousing volume that we had stopped. I guess people should know when we do pull over for a break — but, on a red-eye, it definitely disturbed my slumbers.

Both times we took the bus, we arrived 15 minutes earlier than scheduled. It was nice, pulling into the station and seeing the early morning sky. However, though I’d expected that I’d want to get breakfast and start my day soon after arrival, no such thing occurred. Yes, Megabus is definitely a cheap, reliable, and incredibly time-efficient way to travel — and I would absolutely do it again! But sleeping overnight in a bus isn’t quite as restful as I thought it’d be. After both red-eyes, I headed straight for bed and slept for another good few hours. But that’s how a vacation should begin and end, no?

* if you’re not familiar with banh mi, the amazing love child of French baguettes with Vietnamese ingredients — well, I don’t know what to say to you.

* Paris by Night is the ultimate in Vietnamese entertainment: an over-the-top, bedazzled, Vegas-flavored live talent show.

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