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.

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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

Dripping Eagles and Wet Pandas

Katie and I negotiated the Shanghai subway; quickly becoming absorbed by the crowds that besieged the Main Shanghai Railway Station. We stood; obvious, amongst the local crowd of well-dressed holiday makers, looking somewhat bedraggled and bent, like a pair of overburdened pack animals. Fortunately, boarding our train turned out to be straight forward and relatively easy. I don’t know why we harboured negative expectations akin to horror, regarding our accommodation for the next thirty-two hours, especially given our experiences of China thus far. Ignorance, or perhaps memories of past experiences on trains, in other Asian countries, coloured our unromantic associations. I’m not sure if we felt embarrassed or relieved when we discovered our ultra-clean and comfortable facilities.

People continued to stare at us, which we never quite came to terms with, as we didn’t look like Brad and Angelina, nor were we anything like a novelty, with so many other international travellers in attendance. If anyone can explain this phenomena, I’d be grateful. Despite the fact that we travelled in a carriage of local people heading home from holidays, we and everybody else in our carriage become an impromptu family. People who had never before met, just naturally become friends. Such is the nature of the Chinese people!

Mother and Child After a restful sleep, we awoke to see central China rushing by. Hour after interesting hour of Hubei, Chong Qing and Sichuan landscapes; each dotted with many tiled brown-earth villages, surrounded by terraced fields of rice, with jagged limestone peaks towering above; spectacular against the vivid blue of a sky devoid of pollutants.

We arrived in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province and the gateway to the Himalayas, only slightly frazzled. Saying goodbye to our family of travellers, we left the station and worked our way into a square teaming with noisy Sichuanians. It’s still a delightful shock to be amoungst so many people. We also felt a little groggy. Being that long on a rocking train, ran akin to arriving at port, after a long sea voyage. From here we jumped a taxi to Sim’s Cosy Garden Hostel, which turned out to be the best hostel either of us has ever stayed in and tried to get a feel for the city. Our area contained many old, grey looking apartment blocks, smattered with the occasional new housing development and a lot of westernised shops and office buildings. I know, it sounds dreadful, yet the overall dullness seemed to magically transform itself into Parisian-like avenues, due to the beautiful trees and plants that lined almost every street.        Photographing Giant Pandas in the RainThe next day we set out on a pre-arranged tour of the ‘Panda Research Centre’ and because we didn’t even consider a raincoat, it began to pour. Actually, it didn’t just rain, it fell down in torrents, as soon as we left our vehicle. What a wonderful turn of events. The rain felt terrific and turned out to be a real boon. Pandas don’t enjoy heat and like us, enjoy a good soaking, so we were treated to a great viewing of these seriously cute animals, who played and rolled about eating bamboo shoots. Many years earlier, I stood in queue at Taronga Park Zoo in Melbourne, to see two visiting Chinese Pandas. Suffering the heat and flies, I shuffled along in a queue for over two and a half hours, only managing to see a tiny bit of black and white rear-end amongst the grass. As you could imagine, this previous experience made our day with the wet Pandas all the more special.Giant PandaThat afternoon, we headed into some funky looking alleys to find a place for lunch. We were accompanied by Rudy and Nathalie, from Nimes in the south of France. By the time we chose a restaurant, we were all wet through and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. When it came time to order, there were no menus, no English speaking staff, or no pictures to go by. After some ridiculous attempts at communication, we dragged the waitress with us, as we walked about the tables, pointing to meals that we hoped tasted as good as they looked. Frowns became smiles, which grew into good natured laughter. Our arm waving and comic-strip gesticulating eventually resulting in a range of meals that tasted sensational, although to this day, I have no idea what they were.

Our stay in Chengdu came to a close with another interesting dining experience. That evening we went for dinner with a French family at another non-English speaking restaurant. We all agreed to share a fish hotpot, but were forced to choose the poor bugger; a live sturgeon, from the giant wall of fish tanks at the front of the restaurant. We spoke no real French, they spoke no real English and neither of us spoke Chinese, which culminated into the same humorous arm-waving attempts at communication.

Often, great travelling memories come out of awkward situations. We’ll never forget the fun and frivolity we experienced with the people and wet Pandas of Chengdu.