Blog: Vietnam & China 2011 > Six months living out of a small backpack…

Vietnam to China

We had booked a boat trip to Ha Long City from Cat Ba Island, and this gave us a second opportunity to enjoy Ha Long Bay.  This time we went further north through the entirety of it, before emerging into the straits and through the bay to the city.  It was a much sunnier day as well, so we could really enjoy relaxing on the open top deck, stopping at one of the largest floating villages, and we even spotted the floating pub where the Top Gear team finished their Vietnamese journey.  It was only slightly spoiled by the terrible hardcore house music that the crew insisted on playing.  We managed to block it out in the end.

We had researched the journey that we would undertake from Ha Long City to Mong Cai, to cross the land border from Vietnam into China, and we had decided to take a boat rather than bus, as it apparently afforded the same spectacular views as Ha Long Bay and was much cheaper.  Firstly though, we had to explain to our taxi driver where we wanted to go.  We thought the boat would go from nearby to where we had disembarked from our voyage to Ha Long City.  But he drove for ages, before we had to explain again, through the medium of picture drawing, that we wanted the boat to Mong Cai.

After calling his controller to get instructions, he drove for even longer, and we ended up at a very small quay, very far away from where we expected to be.  There were no boats going that day.  I’m still thoroughly of the opinion that he took us to the wrong place.  We then asked him to take us to the bus terminal.  He stopped on the corner of an intersection and then we waited.  And waited.  After about 10 minutes of trying to understand him, while he was trying to understand us, a small minivan pulled up, and we were hustled inside.  It was possibly the longest most uncomfortable journey ever, but at least it got us there, and it was cheap.

We reached Mong Cai bus terminal late in the afternoon.  It was already getting dark, and I, true to form, was starting to panic ever so slightly.  We managed to find the border, and then we were overcharged for our ticket to enter border control (as if it was some kind of theme park).  The reason I know that we were overcharged is because the price on the ticket was much less than what we were asked to pay.  But similarly to our border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia, we figured that we didn’t really have much choice.  We entered the building from pretty much a dirt gravel track, with dust blowing all over the place, and left Vietnam.  We then walked across a one hundred metre bridge to the Chinese border control.  This was both exciting and nerve racking.  What if they don’t let us in?  What if they detain the strange western people for questioning?  Will they welcome us into their country, or do they see us all as propaganda machines?  These were only three of the many questions running through my mind.

We need not have worried.  We were directed to fill out a border pass.  Then I, but only I, was asked to go into a little side room.  Mark was waved through, as he clearly looks less suspicious than I.  My interview did not start well.  I’m still trying to get to grips with the dimensions of backpack plus ukulele.  Basically, as I walked into the interview room, I hit a female guard in the face with it.  Apologising profusely, which was graciously accepted, I sweated my way nervously into the room, avoiding causing anyone else grievous bodily harm.  I was then asked to open my pack for a search, and when the guard saw the amount of smaller bags in the pack, she changed her mind about searching the whole thing.  I may have to live on a shoestring, but dammit, I can still be organised!

After a number of questions about why we wanted to travel through China, which I must have answered satisfactorily with answers such as “Because I have always wanted to see your beautiful country”, I was allowed to join Mark, in China!  Chinese culture has always had an influence in my life through my Dad, and it is such a huge country steeped in tradition, and a place of such legends, myths and realities that we all hear related through stories and film.  But it also has a terrible history of violence, most recently through Chairman Mao.  It has however been occurring to me more and more on our travels that you can say the same about many countries, whether they are hurting their own people or others.

We walked out of border control, and the difference between Vietnam and China was instantly recognisable.  Everything just seemed cleaner, more efficient, and less in your face.  Now we just had to get to the bus station and on to Nanning, where we had booked a hostel.  We faced our biggest challenge yet with the language barrier, as we had read that less than 1% of the Chinese population speak English.  But we managed to communicate where we were going to the taxi driver, and arrive at the bus station.  The next challenge was not being able to read Chinese characters on the departure board.  At this point I was tempted to take a photo and send it to my cousin Cheryl to translate, but thankfully a lady in the queue for the ticket counter took pity on us and was able to translate to the clerk where we were going.  First challenges met and conquered!

That just left us with the slight problem that it was now 7pm and we were embarking on a four hour bus journey.  Would our hostel still be open?  We arrived to Nanning at 11pm, and Mark gave the address to a taxi tout on his kindle.  We were surrounded by touts, and they were amused but also seemed to have respect for his ingenuity, and were again when he pulled out a calculator to haggle the price.  He agreed a price eventually, and we walked to the, ahem, taxi.  It was some bloke looking to make a bit of extra money in the evenings.  Possibly not the safest option, but who were we to choose at that time of night?  Anyway, he got us to the set of buildings where the hostel was and even looked around to make sure we were going in the right direction.  What a good guy – I don’t know many cabbies in London that would do that.  We found the hostel, and thankfully they were still open.  We dumped our stuff, sat on the balcony of the shared quarters, and enjoyed a couple of well-earned beers.  We had made it!  We were in China!


Originally we had planned to have two nights in Nanning, as we thought that it was not one of the most famous places, and that we would move on quite quickly.  However, the hostel had fantastic information about day trips to many areas in and around the city.  By this time though we had not had more than two nights anywhere since Hoi An, and I was feeling distinctly knackered, run down, and full of cold.  We decided to extend our stay to four nights, but only so that we could take a rest.  We’ve learned from this that it’s much better to stay somewhere for a while and see less places, than to try to fit everything in, otherwise you just don’t enjoy what you’re seeing as much.

The hostel was a great place to do this.  The shared quarters had a kitchen and large seating area, and a massive selection of DVDs.  Apart from venturing out for food on the first day and taking a walk to and around the city park, we just chilled, watched about fifty DVDs and did bugger all.  Absolutely bliss.  Going out to a local restaurant for some food was again a language challenge.  We basically pointed to what another lady was having, some fantastic looking dumplings, and signalled for two of them.  I did also get out the phrase book and pointed to “pork dumplings”.  The owner and one of the other customers were very helpful.  They got on their phones onto Google translate to show us exactly what we were having.  It was pork dumplings, with a mixture of mushrooms and herbs!

I was so glad it wasn’t innards, that I hardly minded that I was eating mushrooms, one of my least favourite foods, and unfortunately one of China’s most favourite.  They then wrote down the dish in Chinese symbols so that we could ask for it again if we went somewhere else!  I did try to say “That was delicious” in Mandarin when we paid the bill, but my tones were clearly not right from the blank look I got.  When I pointed to the phrase though, the owner gave me a big grin and shook our hands.  It’s the same problem we had in Vietnam – the vocabulary itself is not huge, but you have to apply a number of different types of tones to each word to get the correct meaning, so if you don’t get it right, you could be saying any kind of old rubbish.  My attempt at “That was delicious” probably translated into “Potato has jumper”.

Nanhu Lake Park was very beautiful, with a lake that you cross over on the nine arch bridge or scenic bridge.  There is a carnival area where lots of people were roller disco-ing.  I tried to tempt Mark but he was having none of it.  There are beautiful gardens full of Chinese flowers, bamboo and herbs, and a beautiful bonsai garden.  We walked around taking some photos and sat on a bench reading for a while.  It was very tranquil.  We were the only westerners that we saw, and lots of the children would look at us and wave.  I think westerners are not a common sight for them.

The whole feel of the city was peaceful, respectful, and very friendly and helpful, especially in the face of our complete lack of Mandarin.  I guess the perfect word for how I felt there is Zen; meditative, contemplative, and at peace with myself and others.  This stems from the city and people itself.  We were shocked to see mopeds go past us which you did not hear because their engines were so quiet.  And they didn’t beep and shout for you to move as they constantly did in Hanoi, they just waited till they could pass.  We really enjoyed taking an evening walk as the sun was going down.  Everybody spills out of work or from their homes to the parks and squares to take some air, chat with friends, sit around, exercise on outdoor gyms, walk dogs and play with children.  Family is very important.  It may not have been the most exciting city that we have visited, but I really enjoyed it.

The hostel staff were fantastic, and one of them recommended that we visit Yangshuo, because of the beautiful landscapes and scenery.  This had also been a recommendation from Mark’s Mum, so we planned a trip there by bus.  There was one unfortunate incident when I wound up the owners’ son just before bedtime, by playing along with his game of burying me under all the cushions.  The grandparents that were taking him off to bed weren’t particularly happy for some reason.  But I had to play with him because he had made me a burger made out of plasticine.  It was a work of art with buns, pickle and tomato.  Anyway, the owner found it quite funny as her parents would have to deal with it, not her.  We really felt at home there, and we had been really lucky with the weather as well, it had been really warm and sunny.  Leaving was not such a wrench when we woke up on the day of our departure to find the blue skies replaced by grey, and the warm replaced by drizzly, windy cold.  We were to have more of a shock however when we arrived in Yangshuo.

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