Saturday, 5 April 2008

On My Way To Hanoi

It's the end of March and I flutter to Nanning train station. My first train is due to leave around 8am for the smaller Chinese town of Pingxiang. The ride is painless and fairly comfortable, just like any other train I've ridden. Pingxiang looks just like every other Chinese town I've visited, and low and behold, I find some white people. Joy! The first cluster I've seen in the best part of a week. I strike up a conversation with a Danish couple, seeing if they were heading to the border also. Luck has it that they are and we wait for a decent-sized taxi with ample boot-space for our luggage. This takes a while, and we meet a girl from Beijing who also needs a lift. Twenty minutes later, after hassle from other drivers of bicycles, motorbikes and miniature vans (with a motorbike on the front, akin to an old western horse-and-cart combo with the white cover over the back), a 'normal' taxi turns up. Hurrah! We hop in, happy to cram in with no seat-belts, and take the merry ten minute drive to the border. It costs a small amount, around £1 or so. The China<>Vietnam border (named: Friendship Pass) is mostly easy. Except I couldn't find my passport. I searched my whole bag, knew that I had packed it, then open the top of my bag (with the easiest access) and find it in the pouch, oops! You fill in the standard departure/arrival card in the border office, and hand it to the clerk with your passport, so the relevant visa and passport checks can be carried out. When they're finished, they hold your passport up in the air for you to claim it - so don't walk too far while this is happening. There were another two clerks after the passport/visa one, one for a medical check and another for customs. The Danish couple and the Beijing girl handed their passports to the medical check booth and couldn't get them back until they paid RMB2 each (around 15p). So I ignored this as I'm not having my passport held to ransom for a non-existent medical examination. The Danish guy, Rassmus, paid the money for me and the other two just to get out of the place and get their passports back, despite how illegal it was to do such a thing.

Leaving the not-so-friendly Friendship Pass and we have to walk a couple of minutes to get to the departure hall, here we get our confirmation of leaving China and officially entering Vietnam. More taxis awaited us as we went through the gates, we wanted to take our time so used the 'No English! No English!' card as we were flooded with offers, this dispersed them fairly quickly. We found a decent-enough looking taxi and ask for the nearest town (Dong Dang), where we'll get a lengthy train from to reach Hanoi. We load up, take the five minute drive across a mix of dirt tracks and lush scenery, and reach a patch of dirt with some minivans on it. This is apparently the bus station - we wanted the train station so I decided mimicking the 'choo choo' of the train would be the best way to get across where we want to go. Rassmus finds his Vietnam book and points to the word for train in Vietnamese and we're soon on our way. We unload our baggage at the dusty train station, go to pay the 30.0 (x1000) fare, and are told to pay 300,000 Dong by the taxi driver for the five minute drive, that's close to £10! I tell him that 30 x 1000 = 30,000, and attempt to give him a 50,000 Dong note for a few minutes, eventually he realises we're not going to fall for his shifty little scam that many have fell for before undoubtedly; this is the problem with a currency you've only had for a few minutes at most (since you cannot buy Vietnamese Dong outside of Vietnam legally). Retrospectively I shouldn't have paid the guy anything and just left him with no money, in a slight attempt to make up for past scams and to deter him from doing it in future, but there you go.

We arrive at the train station at 13:25 for the 13:30 train (the last one of the day too!), bought our 39,000 Dong tickets (£1.10) for the six hour journey to Hanoi, and got onto the train. We wait for half an hour and wonder why it hasn't left. Close to an hour later we remember that the clocks go back and hour, and we'd actually arrived at 12:25, so had plenty of time!

The train is rickity, metal mesh over the windows and metal blinds in front of them. The chairs are wooden benches affixed to the floor, so get out your towel, a cushion or some soft clothes because six hours sitting on hard wooden slats isn't fun. The train is cheap and easy to load lots of things onto, so it doubles as a shipment method for goods. Dish-cloths, chairs, food, cutlery, plates, chickens.. most things were taken past us into the back of the train to be left until they need to be thrown off at their destination. Food isn't an issue either, as many sellers come up and down the train selling huge poppadom-like cracker things, bread (with honey-butter dip), beer, water.. all the things you need for a six hour journey.

We reach Hanoi with tired arses and eyes, and grab the first taxi we find to get to a hotel that the Danish couple had booked. The hotel had given their reserved room to somebody else because they didn't turn up at 6pm, the time they said they would, despite having paid a reservation fee to hold onto it. We trot around the corner and find a room for the night in bustling Hanoi.

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