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.

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