Thursday, November 15, 2007

At last

Despite many many many procrastinations, my tale has wound its way to Vietnam. This one isn't all talk. It has pictures. Also for some reason I have used a lot of capitalisation.

Having passed through the tedious border procedures, our first task on Indochinese soil was to negotiate passage Hanoi, the border crossing being a few clicks from the absolute middle of nowhere. This was facilitated by some well dressed, well spoken (presumably well paid) young men who bundled us into a very comfortable, modern car, and took us to a nearby town where we were told a luxurious, spacious and air-conditioned mini-bus was waiting to ferry us to civilisation in the utmost comfort.

As many of you will be aware, the term 'minibus' is actually a euphemism for 'van', but, compared to a hard seat Chinese train, it did seem pretty luxurious. At first.

After paying our $10 fare (about the cost of a pretty nice hotel room for the night) we spent a few minutes getting to know our driver while we waited for some other saps tourists to arrive. His main schtick was pointing to various couples, and saying "I love you?" to establish the relationship status of his passengers. As I was travelling alone, when it came my turn he would point to various old women, men and livestock, say "I love you?" then collapse in fits of laughter at his marvelous joke. In the 3 hours or so it took to get to Hanoi, he never once tired of this.

After offering Ed $10 for his sunglasses (and turning his nose up in disgust at mine) we hopped into the van (er, minibus) and began our journey.

Perhaps a legacy of the leaner years of communism, there seems to be a policy in certain parts of Asia that no vehicle may travel at anything less than 120% capacity. To put a mere 12 people in a 12 seater van would be the height of wastefulness and decadent capitalist excess. As there were already 10 or so (fare paying) foreigners seated (for the time being) comfortably inside, it was up to our intrepid driver to find at least another half dozen locals to make up the quota. This was done by a process akin to press ganging, where the driver would stop near a local market/laundry/road side gathering spot, roll down his window and yell at random townsfolk. I imagine his speech translated as something like "This baby's going to Hanoi, and Whitey is payin. Get on board!"

The idea that a man squatting beside the road smoking and minding his own business, or a woman buying bananas at the local market might not WANT to go to Hanoi was no match for his mix of sales pitch and coercion. Perhaps wowed by the fact that they didn't actually have any good reason NOT to go to Hanoi, the van quickly filled to capacity, and beyond.

Eventually we must have tipped some ratio of airspace to meatspace in the van, and off we went. I was tired, hungry, parched, but still able to appreciate the fact that we were driving through some pretty spectacular countryside, impossibly green and ringed by those round pointy mountains that seem to thrust out of nowhere. Taking in the view was certainly preferable to meditating on the fact that I had about 15cm of seat space for both of my buttocks. Retrieving my camera from my pocket was a laughable proposition. My whinging aside, we made it to Hanoi, and the old quarter where the bulk of the cheaper accommodation is located.

The old quarter is a rabbit's warren of stores, hostels, bars and restaurants. The streets are rarely more than 4m wide, completely clogged with a never ending flow of motorcycle traffic, and seem to wind around on each other in ways that violate several fundamental precepts of geometry (particularly after a few beers). Many streets bear the names of the goods that were (traditionally) made and sold there, and some areas still conform to this pattern. Were you to ask, for example, where to buy a handbag, you would be directed to 'handbag street' where several dozen shopkeepers would step forth from several dozen identical stores imploring you to examine their selection of several dozen handbags which are completely indistinguishable from every other store within a 100m radius.

Aside from diverse selection of geographically concentrated stores, a foreigner is likely to be dogged at every step by street vendors offering various wares, including (in rough order they are offered)

- Guidebook?
- Motorbike?
- Marijuana?
- Opium?
- Girl
- ??? (at this point, realising you aren't interested in the 'ordinary' wares, the seller will spiral off into strange and disturbing realms of commercial possibilities, the gist being that WHATEVER you want, a guy can have it here on a motorbike within the hour.

Anyway, being day one, my only real desires were food, beer, and bed (order negotiable). Having taken care of item 3, I met up with Ed and Fiona again and sought out items 1 and 2. Driven by a mixture of curiosity and desperation, we waltzed up to the first street-side eatery we could find and sat down on some dangerously low and fragile looking plastic stools. Once 'bia' was ordered (we hadn't yet learned to ask for 'cold beer') we took to perusing the menu which was, unsurprisingly, in Vietnamese. Defaulting to my well tried 'would've starved to death in China without it' plan B, we took a look around the neighbouring tables and decided we'd have "that" (some sort of tofu dish with dipping sauce) and one of "those" (a plate of pea in the pod things). Beer arrived and food soon after, followed by another round of "that" and a few more beers.

I was filthy, dripping sweat, hadn't slept properly for two days, and was generally dumbstruck by the claustrophobic chaos of Hanoi. But sitting on a dodgy plastic stool on a dirty street drinking beer from a grubby glass, I was about as happy as I could be. The air thrummed with the sounds of motorcycles bearing unfeasible loads of passengers, goods, or both; Hanoi residents sat around us and joked and drank and shot us shifty glances; the sun shone down; and most importantly:

I had made it out of China, and into Vietnam; traversing more than 3000km in about a week, a stranger in a strange land. A casual observer (like the guy with the long white beard and one eye at the adjacent table) might have detected a hint of pride in my beer swilling and tofu chewing.

Oh, and pictures.

Hanoi, city of 3 million or so humans, and 3 million or so motorbikes:


Typical 'multi-use' building:


Hanoi Cross Section (courtesy of railroad track)


Night Life


and Mosquito control, provided by your hotel, free of charge


Friday, November 09, 2007

Vietnam Ho!

When we last saw our insipid hero, he was soaking wet and passed out from lack of sleep, too much running through monsoon rain, and the usual stresses of rail travel in China. I'm giving you a recap because its so long between posts at the moment that you've probably forgotten. If you're reading this at all.


I awoke about 4 hours later, still on the train, still soaking wet, and being snap frozen by the airconditioner. I needed to change out of my sweaty monsoon drenched clothes, and into some of the slightly less sweaty monsoon drenched clothes in my pack. Doing this in a small, dirty bathroom on a rickety-clackity train was no mean feat (a tip: don't touch ANYTHING) but I managed to get minutely drier and warmer and crawl back into my bunk.

The next morning found me in Nanning, capital of the Guangxi autonomous region and apparently famous for its lush green foliage. None of which was evident from the train station or the surrounding courtyard. I managed to get a ticket on to Pingxiang (the last Chinese stop on my dash to Vietnam) and then had to find a way to kill three hours or so. I ate something or other then found a internet cafe that was, at about 5.30am, already uncomfortably hot and overcrowded. I bashed out this guy then beat a hasty retreat back to the train courtyard to snooze on my pack for a while.

Relieved at the ease with which I managed to get a ticket to Pingxiang, I didn't think to check on the class or length of the journey, which of course turned out to be around the 3 hour mark, hard seat. I've most likely whinged about hard seat travel in China before, but for those of you that haven't heard it, it's a seat, that is hard. The angle of seat back to seat is also a perfect 90 degrees which does not gel particularly well with any human anatomy I've ever seen. Add to this the fact that its sweltering hot, and there's four of you to a bench, and you can see why its not my favourite way to travel.

Between dozing and inwardly grumbling about how tough it is to be me, I noticed that I was, for once, not the only foreigner in the car. Adjacent me were an English couple, Ed and Fiona, who were (and still are) on a mad quest to circumnavigate the globe without the use of airplanes, extolling the virtues of slow travel, enjoying the journey, and not pumping tons of carbon into the atmosphere via aviation fuel. (Read all about it). Joining forces to face the uncertain train/taxi/walk/wait/taxi ordeal of the China Vietnam border crossing, I was immediately glad of their company when it came time to negotiate a fare to the border pass, in the back of a moto-tuktuk type thing. For some reason the sting of being fleeced is less when others are in the same boat (or moto-tuktuk thing).

We were soon speeding down the highway towards the border, stopping only to make a roadside currency change from a lurking money changer who sprung out from the undergrowth (in what I'm sure is a well rehearsed maneuver) and waved our driver down.

By and by, we made it to the border itself. Some of you may be aware that China and Vietnam, despite their shared commitment to the dictatorship of the proleteriat (hur hur), haven't always been the best of pals. The ominously named 'Frienship Pass' where we made our crossing was I suppose an attempt at showcasing the improved relationship between the two People's Republics, and nothing says 'warm and friendly neighbour' like a huge expanse of white concrete, surmounted by a fortess of white stone emblazoned with the crest of the PRC.

Squinting against the reflected midday sun, we made it through customs and out of China, and struck out across no-man's-land toward a small shack which was the Vietnamese response to China's amiable border outpost.

The immigration procedure consisted of lining up with a bunch of other sweaty impatient foreigners, migrant workers and other miscellanians; pushing through the dark sweaty interior of the building to retrieve forms the counter furthest from the door; pushing back to take said form to the counter nearest the door; placing your passport on a towering pile; then standing outside and waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

It did occur to me that you could simply walk around the building, and viola, you're in Vietnam, but I figured illegal immigration was no way to start a holiday. They did have a large colourful poster of different kinds of ecstacy that amused me for five minutes or so.

Eventually (after Ed's passport had been thoroughly looked over by suspicious customs agents, no doubt habitually wary of Englishmen attempting to illegally immigrate to Vietnam) we got our passports back and headed through into Vietnam. Ed and Fiona were bailed up for 'entry tax' which I avoided by simply walking past the desk (making my immigration just a little bit illegal).

And there I was. In Vietnam. At last.

What adventures would befall me? If you've read this far you may as well stay tuned and find out.