The Night Train to Hanoi

After a noisy, jolting overnighter on the train from Sa Pa, we arrived in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, at the ungodly hour of 4.30am. As the train doors opened, wild yells and angry arguments could be heard, as numerous touts and cab drivers jostled for the arriving business. Amongst this bedlam, we managed to negotiate our taxi fare from an initial 120,000 Vietnamese dong to 80,000, then back to 100,000, and finally all the way down to 50,000 dong, without actually saying or doing anything. Eventually, we arrived in a dark alley, in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, so we happily gave our bemused taxi driver a thorough dressing down, whilst getting soaked in the pouring rain. After wandering for a while in the darkness, we finally discovered the May De Ville hostel, up the street, in another tiny alleyway. Apparently, 50,000 dong only gets you so far.

Our Hanoi adventure may not have started well, but events soon changed for the better. The night shift manager happily checked us into our room at 5am and even said that we could help ourselves to a free breakfast at 6.30am, when they began serving. Feeling much better about the state of our world, we dumped our packs and decided to head back out in the pouring rain to experience Hanoi and the lake, before it got too busy. This provided us with an interesting view of the old city, watching all the stall and shop owners setting up for the day, as they opened their shutters, put out their wares and received their deliveries, including very large blocks of ice, which seemed impossibly big for the bicycles they arrived on.

Hanoi in Motion

Hanoi in Motion

Later that evening, we went about experiencing Hanoi in full swing. “You buy from me” rang out in a constant cry from each street vendor; selling everything from bananas and pineapples, to t-shirts and even zippo lighters. Here we learnt how to cross busy streets without being skewered by the multitude of motorbikes, travelling in every direction, on both sides of the street and the pavement. An old women carrying two heavy baskets, balanced on either end of a yoke, provided the lesson. Even though her back was bent from the weight, she seemed to negotiate this madness, as if she were out for a leisurely evening’s stroll. So we closed our eyes and very slowly wandered out into the traffic. Amazing! Rather than die horribly, the traffic magically maneuvered around us.

After a lot of hinting, I became acutely aware of the next day’s major event; our second Wedding Anniversary, so we asked the staff where we could find a really great place for dinner. That evening we dined in a lovely Italian restaurant, but later, when we arrived back at the hotel, we thought that someone had broken into our room. Then we noticed the items on the desk. The staff had, of their own accord, organised a very decadent looking cake and a single long-stemmed red rose for our anniversary. To say how marvellous they made us feel, is quite the understatement.

Fisherman in Boat

Fisherman in Boat

The next morning we walked out to West Lake for a look at the Pagoda and strolled the streets outside of the Old Quarter, spotting a posh looking French restaurant along the way. We decided to come back there for dinner later on. It didn’t disappoint. We picked out the most impoverished looking Cyclo driver from a loud competing bunch, who rode us very slowly through the traffic, towards our destination. It might well have been romantic, except that our very elderly rider tired visibly, as we proceeded, so we ended up paying him for the entire journey and walking most of the way. Eventually we dined on tempura crab, roast duck, salt & pepper squid and beef with lemon grass.

On the walk back to our hotel, we heard a voice call out “Ken” from within a large unruly crowd and we found ourselves looking at a tall, bespectacled guy, who seemed to know us. After a few moments of befuddlement, we finally recognised Danny, the traveller from Alsager, who we met at the top of the chair-lift in Dali. We also spotted his lovely partner, Michelle, so we joined them for a few beers and traded travel stories, before heading back to the hotel.

The next day we’re to be picked up early by Tien; our guide for the next three days on Ha Long Bay. Could this place be as wonderful and picturesque as they say? Tomorrow will tell us for sure.


Boiling Borderline Eagles

After leaving the sublime village of Dali, we arrived in busy Kunming city at 4.30am, after absolutely no sleep, feeling gravel-eyed, grumpy and with Katie unwell. To make things worse, every taxi that went by ignored us. What a stark contrast to Dali. After finally getting to our hotel and waiting on the reception couch for five long hours, we checked in; moving ever-so-slowly, like a pair of unoiled robots. We spent the next twenty-four hours in our hotel room in recovery mode. It turned out that Kunming had one great positive left to enthral us. The carpet in the lift, displayed the current day of the week in English. Yes … yes … yes. I just can’t envisage how we could have managed without this wonderful service.

Graffiti in Dali

Graffiti in Dali

The next day we boarded a bus to the border town of Hekou; glad to be clear of Kunming’s answer to Faulty Towers. As soon as we climbed the steps and took our seat, we met Monique, a journalist from Holland; the only other English speaking person on the bus. It’s amazing how people of all kinds gravitate to a common language and the chance to communicate, so … we quickly became friends. Together we braved a trip brim-full of adventures!

Very early in the journey, we became confronted by an overturned truck, which looked like a dead cow with its legs in the air. The traffic began to backup, so our driver attempted a very precarious U-turn, involving deep gutter drop-offs on each side of the road and at least twenty agonising turns before we faced the opposite direction. We then took a back road to avoid the blockage. The detour road initially seemed quaint … In this I mean narrow, rutted and that ‘airborne’ kind of bumpy. At one point, I think we may have left most of the gear box on a rock in the middle of the road, but the villages and scenery looked picture-postcard and shone out above our little drama.

Hekou Map

Hekou Map

As we approached the border, the mountains grew in beauty and height, and it seemed impossible that a freeway could exist in such a vertical environment. How could people climb up amongst these crags and create such a network of tunnels and bridges? I remember shaking my head with wonder, when the bus pulled off the freeway into a border guard station. Here my good vibes abruptly ended. The guards looked angry and fierce, so when they demanded passports from all who weren’t Chinese nationals, we quickly handed them over. When it came time to return the passports, Katie’s had somehow disappeared! An angry argument ensued. We pretended to be mightily important and arrogantly offended by their affront, while they continued to sneer and threaten. A few, long, panicky minutes later, a surly looking guard magically retrieved it from his back pocket, thinking it highly amusing. After that a strange silence existed in the bus for many kilometres.

Apart from the sweltering heat and humidity, we enjoyed our brief stay in the colourfully lit city of Hekou; liking the outdoor dumpling shops, while we got to know our gorgeous new friend, Monique, who we nicknamed ‘Duchy’. The next morning, dripping with perspiration, we squelched our way across the border into Vietnam, crossing the bridge over the Red River, through two sets of customs procedures. It seemed tiresome filling in all the forms and being scrutinised either side, although the border control personnel in each case were professional and pleasant. The process took nearly forty-five minutes and all the time I felt excitement at the thought of a new country to experience, yet at the same time, sad at the thought of leaving China and its beautiful people. A month earlier, I entered China, highly influenced by the conditioning of my childhood and a lifetime of prejudice. I left impressed.

Crossing the Border

Crossing the Border

The Yen Yuan Eagles

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe left Capital Airport and instead of a city decrepit with age and neglect, we found ourselves subjected to eight lane freeways with expensive, late model vehicles from Europe and Japan. Not even one older-model car could be seen on the entire drive, which seemed quite impossible coming from country Australia, where the ancient rusted Fords and Holdens, lived on indefinitely.

As we proceeded, the buildings began to get higher, but unlike the small centralised CBD of most modern capitals, the heart of this city just kept getting bigger. I managed some perspective by understanding that China has something like 1.3 billion resident souls and that out of that number, Beijing has a population of around 16 million, which is almost the population of Australia. Still, knowing didn’t prepare us for the reality. With a total area of 16,800 sq. km, Beijing’s municipality is roughly the size of Belgium.

Darkness however, could well hide the discarded rubbish, the chicken coops and our expectation of an impoverished people. As I considered this, Katie tugged on my arm. Spread out before us over several city blocks, lay the notoriously iconic, Tiananmen Square; deserted and adorned with elaborate lighting. I felt the hair on my neck rise. For good or bad, momentous events occurred here. Who could ever forget the young man who stopped an army tank with nothing but bravery.

Ah, hold on a minute. Here’s the real China; the one I expected. As our taxi pulled up in front of the King’s Joy Hotel, our senses became overwhelmed by a profusion of colourful lanterns and banners, and connecting streets containing masses of noisy local people. It looked so inviting we almost jumped from the vehicle before it stopped.

The staff at the King’s Joy seemed particularly nice, but also adamant that they needed cash for certain deposits, before they could provide us entry to our room. With some language difficulties they managed to suggest: ‘Ah, esteemed customer, you are so clever to present us with Yen, which, so, so sorry, cannot be accepted.’ Roughly translated, this meant, ‘Aussie imbeciles, you have purchased Japanese Yen instead of Chinese Yuan at Melbourne airport, which is a currency that is not accepted here. Please come up with the right money or bugger off.’

We looked up at the clock; nearly eleven thirty pm. We both felt tired and annoyed, and more than a bit embarrassed, but we ventured out into the streets, eventually finding an ATM with the help of a group of teenage girls. I’m not sure this could ever happen at home. The girl’s helpful and relaxed manner with European strangers, seemed odd and surprising, particularly late at night and in a dark street.

It must have been close to midnight, as we made our way into the street adjacent to the ATM. To our surprise, we found it full of young children and their parents playing games. Kids screamed with delight as they battled it out playing badminton and tag, and games of the imagination that come easily to children. The experience of their happy community took us both back to our own childhoods, where we could also safely enjoy such evening pastimes.

Our currency stupidities seemed forgotten when we returned to our digs, laden with enough Yuan to ensure our stay. The staff elevated us most politely, to a new status worthy of their establishment, but the amusement that twinkled from each eye, implied: ‘If you can’t work out the difference between Japanese and Chinese currency, you’re in for a difficult stay.’

Our entrance and subsequent welcome to bustling Beijing, felt both wonderful and thought provoking, but by this time, we felt truly shagged, having just travelled over 9,400 km and been up for 22 hours. Our eager explorations of old Peking could wait till the morrow.