China/Vietnam: By rail to Dong Hoi.

And so the time came to leave Yangshuo. The bus I was in passed the park I’d wandered through part of; there was a pagoda up there under the karst cliffs. I should have explored all that instead of going to all the tourist traps but the heat made hiking a challenge and what can a tourist do if not anywhere for long enough? Time and money and so much to see exerted a straitjacket discipline in which one had to make choices appearing unwise in retrospect.

The bus went up the dust storm highway. Which just continued since the whole road seemed under construction despite a toll road running parallel. I got the feeling China was where Germany was in the 1930’s building autobahns and demanding territory aggressively. What amounted to a vehicle assault course lasted all the way up to Guilin.

It was a relief to get back to the Sapphire Hotel and my room, until I got there. They’d looked after my left luggage but when I tried to open up the room the key wouldn’t work, then I realised I’d been moved to a different room just as a man opened the door. Apologies and a luggage burdened trek to the new room. Which turned out to be much smaller and basic with no separate room for the bathroom. Plus a hall mirror positioned for a splendid view of oneself on the loo unless leaning sideways! Was this because of my earlier chaotic unseemly arrival? I was assured that because it was the weekend demand had increased but I couldn’t shake that feeling of a fiendish oriental plot.

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On the last day I tried a nearby idyllic limestone hill by the river named after an elephants trunk but there was the usual barrier and turnstile rubbish so I tried the river I thought I was at when I first arrived in the town. Much nicer being more a series of landscaped lakes with wooded bouldered shores one could walk around freely. There were 2 full sized pagodas for the sun and the moon in a lake. I was surprised to find a pop group half way along the shore with a negro singer. Incongruous details like that and a row of knee high stone pigs across the entrance cropped up here, now and then.

Now for another rail journey to get out of China but the feeling of suffering a discreet penalty was back again the morning I left. There were always taxi’s in front of the hotel and I was resorting to one to get down to the station without getting drenched in sweat again. Although the daily smearing on of sunblock cream & insect repellant created a thin layer of slime over one anyway.

By the time I left there were no taxi’s. I tried explaining by any means what I wanted to staff and the travel bureau lady but couldn’t surmount a wall of incomprehension. Was it feigned? My father might have called it ‘dumb insolence’ – as he did with me sometimes – and would have lost his temper with them. In a way I did, giving up on them and making for the main road where there would be a bus.

The main road looked different somehow, but a bus came. Now for the bridge over one of the rivers. We crossed it. Now according to the street map I bought there should be a curve to the left, then the railway to the right. Nothing there. Then I realised: I’d gone down the wrong street from the hotel when exasperated, taken a bus in the opposite direction and now I was was lost again! Now I’d have to endure more and more persperation well before I reached the station and 2 train journeys: one of them overnight.

I got on another bus. There was a stop on the route map that looked as though it could be the station but the bus driver seemed to deny that. Got off. No buses seemed to be going there. Eventually I got on one anyway to encounter the driver of the first bus I’d taken, who still wasn’t going to the station. Got off and found myself at a crossroads where there was a travel agent. That was my chance as someone there should speak English but the only one there was a novice girl assuring me with a sick smile that she didn’t! Outside again into the furnace weather dehydrating in my sweat with all the heat and luggage. I tried to find a taxi, succeeding on the 2nd try. The taxi driver was a woman who raised my hopes a little; although she didn’t speak any English either she seemed to know where the station was.

We got there. I decided to let her keep the change which amounted to about 24% of the fare. What the hell: she’d done the job and had saved my bacon in doing so. A solid thumbs up from me broke the language barrier, she got that message with a smile. Just wait ’till I get the luggage out. Now for the station and hopefully the end of the trouble.

It was only the end of round 1 though. Round 2 began in the relentless sun outside the station because the ticket office and more barriers were there. In the small ticket office were 3 Chinese including a girl on the end whom I thought might be an airhead so I chose the guy at the other end. Perusal of my stuff extended into incomprehension and he sought the girl for help. The ticket for the first half of my journey was missing!

Luckily for me I was wrong about the girl, so never trust first impressions. She knew just enough English and was helpful enough to save the situation: despite being a Chinese official and despite me disagreeing “No I’m keeping my luggage with me I don’t want it stolen” – when she told me to leave it at the small office;- and me tactlessly complaining “And I can do without these barriers.” First she tried to put me on a sleeper that would take me all the way through but I would have to pay twice, but that was booked anyway. Then we found the train booked that I was supposed to be on so now – although I’d have had to pay for that one – there was no train available for my journey! On the face of it. Somehow she could overcome that by offering me a matchbox sized piece of paper with her writing as official proof that I was being covered for the cost of the missing ticket provided I present that in Nanning, where I was to change. “Oh yeah, I can just see myself showing them that and them not accepting that” was my ungrateful response. She could still see I had a point. We wound up in an office where I was invited to sit down next to a fan: a lifesaver! I had time to recover for while conferring with colleagues she laboriously wrote instructions in Chinese and English on to a larger A5 sized piece of paper. After which I was told to present this to the ticket officer on the train, who’d verify it for those I had to contact in Nanning, where I was to change and catch the sleeper to Vietnam. I was now in a fit enough state to appreciate how good this woman was and thanked her, but could I pull it off?

Round 3 began when the train was flying along and a uniform got close enough to my seat. Taking one look at my paper he passed it to a woman in uniform behind him like a soccer player making a sudden pass to avoid trouble. She took one look and I could tell she wasn’t pleased. Obviously she felt lumbered by this and she exacted revenge, summoning me out of my seat to follow her: I quickly gathered up the medium backpack and camera bag, the big one should be OK on the rack as long as the train didn’t reach a station, I had a fear of someone disembarking there with it. She led the way without looking round to see if I was keeping up, through the next carriage, then the next, then another! Was she going to take me through the whole train? She did just about! After I’d lost count of carriages we arrived at a lunch counter where her colleagues were. Then they proceeded into conference over the vital paper while complaining and joking about me in Chinese. I was patient and compliant: the best way right now I felt to get their co-operation.

But the train was slowing, we were approaching a station and to hell with this! My big backpack might be at risk. My agitation got through to a young official who relayed it to the effect that they’d had their fun with me, did what they thought was right to the paper which was handed back and I was allowed to return to my seat.

The big backpack was there so I was able to relax for the 2nd part of the journey to Nanning. The train fairly hurtled along at up to 209 kilometres an hour according to an electronic message over a door. One had to credit this marvel of Chinese technology although it made photography through the window difficult, the foreground always being blurred.

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We were still in limestone country judging by the karst hills and the odd whiteish rock faces, although by now they tended to be more like triangles than towers. The interplay of these, farmland, the odd village, town or river I never got tired of, but eventually the karst ranges became more distant or subsided into hills, often cloaked in plantations of trees which had the shape of conifers although they were broadleaved. A city with wasteland in the foreground swung into view. Nanning and round 4.

It didn’t begin well as there seemed to be no choice but to join a departing crowd slowly moving down the biggest subway I’d seen which led right out of the station. Then I realised there were more barriers ahead; but these might work in my favour for once, if there was an official there who understood anything. There was, along with portable telephone contact to other officials; resulting in me being led up a side ramp I hadn’t seen to the rest of the station. At a counter in the main hall I was told to wait.

The paperwork arrived signifying that I’d satisfied their concerns without needing to pay anything. I’d won round 4 and this trial!

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Now all I had to do was ascend an escalator to an upstairs waiting hall until marshalled for the sleeper train to Hanoi in Vietnam. While there I nearly ruined everything while trying to find something to eat: a well wisher alerted me to leaving my green folder behind with all the travel papers inside! Thanking her profusely I thought of my sentiment when saving that guy’s passport back at Heathrow.

The latest crisis might be over but I still had the endurance course of a night journey in a cramped sleeper caked in old sweat and interrupted by potentially difficult borders in the middle of the night. There were 4 berths with almost certainly other people. I got there first hoping for a lower bunk but I had an upper one. I tried filling in the departure card form that I’d carried all the way through China before anyone else showed up. That alone would get me out of China now. A Chinese family arrived whose father curtly told me in Chinese – one could go a lot on tone – to make room for them. He was just as curtly told to wait until I’d finished the card. He must have understood my tone too.

Once on a top bunk I realised that I had access to a space over the corridor outside the compartment: it was effectively a shelf difficult to reach which would do nicely for my luggage and security concerns. Pressing myself down on the bunk I could just make out what was outside the window of the train that was on its way now, but couldn’t be bothered with photos. The father and I didn’t say much to each other at all but the kids were friendly. I even ventured down the corridor now and then for a better view and the loo, though I’d made sure in Nanning that I didn’t need to use that much.

The border. A change from trying to sleep on the bunk. I’d hoped the customs officers would come on board and we wouldn’t have to get up but no; a border is a place for maximum inconvenience to be imposed. I stepped down from the train and one of the last representatives of China was there: a trooper in camouflage uniform and helmet, starkly lit along with the train and track, as one could only be at this time of night. That and walking alongside the train to the customs post brought on the feel of a war film or spy thriller. The scene was set, the action was about to happen. I had the sense of adventure again and it wasn’t so bad. When we were processed without the kind of crises I’d endured I began to feel like James Bond again, cooly controlled in a potentially hazardous situation.

Goodbye China but we still had to get into Vietnam. A few hours later I had a repeat of that experience, gather one’s clobber, get off the train with everyone else and make ones sleepy but garishly lit way to a customs post in a small station. An isolated world defined by stark artificial lighting, the black void of the night hiding everything else. This time though there were several Vietnamese personnel in olive green uniforms keeping an eye on us, the most sinister looking one near me.

Eventually I became aware that it was light outside and could abandon the uncomfortable struggle to submerge into a shallow doze. The train was entering the outskirts of Hanoi. The first building I saw through the window and overcast dawn light was a curious affair: only one room wide with 2 more on top of it. There seemed to be a faint French style about it – the whole region was a former French colony – but it was like seeing a block of flats edge on with the windows in the wrong place. There were a few more of them here and there, the greenery of disused land and foliage beside the tracks and a muggy looking street or 2 stretching away. The train ground to a halt. I’d made it out of China to what was the capital of the former North Vietnam.

Well, more or less. I still had much of the city to cross to reach the booked hotel because the present railway gauge didn’t go any further, Vietnam having a different gauge. That most likely meant a taxi. When I got out of the train and tried to take a photo the camera view was blurred with condensation from the difference between the train air conditioning and outside temperature: already getting excessive even at dawn. By the time I’d got a photo everyone had gone but there was the usual persistant driver on the make next to me: I gave in and we got to his car.

It was a similar language situation to China, the barest understanding of what one wanted though luckily I could show him the hotel on the map. We drove down a succession of dingy but broad streets and across a big river. Good. He’d headed in the right direction and I’d be close enough to walk now but for the weather. We got to the corner of a big park occupied by a lake but after that his sense of geography failed him; luckily mine remained good as I won the struggle to guide him round the streets beyond to the one near the alley to the hotel. It could have been worse, the fare was not excessive.

When a hotel with the name ‘Hanoi Luxury Hotel’ is down a picturesque but festering alley one fears the worst but it was better than expected. It looked nice enough and I was expected though there was the inevitable confusion and delay down to their limited knowledge of English and less knowledge of Vietnamese on my part. It was early so they needed to get the room ready. I worked out a safe place with them for my luggage and walked off to have a look at Hanoi.

Most of the buildings were not high rises but lower, old or makeshift. The place laboured under the kind of heat one could feel if close to an open oven. A typhoon had been reported on a Chinese weather forecast heading for the Hanoi region but it hadn’t arrived or done the job of clearing the air. Hanoi lay in a miasma of heat haze and pollution presumably: a kind of diffuse mist of grime ridden vapour and traffic fumes through which the sun could still just shine. Talk about a semi breathable atmosphere on another planet.

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I tried to check out the station I’d be at tomorrow. Its approach couldn’t be more different to Chinese railways. A single track I wasn’t even sure was useable entered the station area from the north amidst everyone and everything: people wandering at will plus various wares being sold alongside the track with none of the security officials and barriers found everywhere in China. Beyond the gates on the other side of the road weeds grew around the track as it headed into the station yard. I struck down the far side and found an entrance. I continued thinking I could get all the way round but a belated glance at the map told me it wasn’t worth it. By then the road had narrowed into a lane like the one to my hotel. It was being used as a rat run by anything on two wheels.

There were all kinds of vehicles in this city but most of it was two wheeled. Masses of scooters, motorbikes and mopeds awaited at traffic lights to descend on one like the hordes of Genghis Khan with cavalier disregard for road safety. Some of them wore bandit style masks to guard against pollution. The pavements reminded me of the Philippines: an obstacle course of people, impromptu cooking enterprises, wares also such as motorbikes, depending on whoever owned the property one was passing.

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Still Hanoi had a kind of decrepit charm, with a fair amount of vegetation around: trees and narrow fronted buildings occasionally festooned with tropical foliage. I walked back to the park I’d been driven past. Most parks here were occupied by lakes judging by that and Google Earth. Westerners were more apparent here in Vietnam than in China: I had a conversation with an Australian woman in the park. After the park I tried striking out towards the big river but was blocked by a motorbike infested main road backed up by an elevated motroway.

Back at the hotel I relaxed in my room from the heat and the miasma. Luxurious enough for me with a high ceiling, probably the French influence. Wooden shutters opened up to a good view of the rooftops and sunset.

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Now for the final train ride to Dong Hoi down the coast, which was going to be the start of my next theatre of operations. A taxi took me by a roundabout route to the side of the station I hadn’t explored. It was more grandiose but still smaller than city stations at home, let alone China. I had that feeling again of ‘from one extreme to the other’: no steel barriers and it was easier to get the ticket sorted. Then I came across a can of ‘Birds Nest White Fungus Drink’. With a title like that I just had to try it. Just about drinkable and almost certainly better for one than a coke.

When the train came it was old with wooden seats and gently rocked and swayed when leaving the station, indicating a badly maintained track! So different from China again. That was the start of a slower journey through Vietnam though the train could gather speed when feeling confident enough. On the plus side were some Europeans travelling with me including a Dutch couple I conversed with a few seats back.

Mile after mile of suburb slid by, composed for the most part of those narrow houses I mentioned, like entering the end of a small block of flats or as one writer put it;- like entering the side of a house with the proportions of a matchbox. This would prove to be the residential style throughout Vietnam; the height of them determined by how much money one had I guess.

The miasma looked like extending itself likewise to Dong Hoi. Solidifying into a November like gloom. That and shooting through a dirty window made photography difficult again. Another problem was power cables and the supporting poles. There were black strands and masses of them in the towns of SE Asia resembling half completed gigantic sinister cobwebs enveloping the streets. When travelling by train they’d be swooping and slicing across the scenery most of the time, so one had to be quick and lucky to get that good shot and not to have a bloody pole bisecting the photo too.

It was going to take a day to get down to Dong Hoi though that was still well within what used to be North Vietnam. Eventually we were leaving the Hanoi region behind as houses, stores and street enterprises, filling stations and factories coalesced into towns and shrunk into villages, revealing flat rice paddies, the odd river and later those limestone hills come mountains again. Here and there these islands of rocky precipitous jungle would be gouged out into the bare rock of a quarry. I’d seen that in China too.

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There were more farms, jungled areas and hills the further south one got. One real surprise were what looked like large brightly hued churches. Particularly one sandy coloured temple beyond some fields with workers like peasants in medieval times. It was within a curve of the track so here was one place easy to photograph. It was a church I later found. Catholicism has a surprising following in Vietnam.

The train arrived in Dong Hoi after nightfall. As it did so 2 German women aked if they could share a taxi and fare with me. Only too happy to oblige! We were all going to seafront residences and found a cab with a meter just outside the station. The young driver drove us down a long main street to where they were dropped off first. I had to get to the northern edge of town. Come to think of it the fare looked twice as much as a Hanoi fare.

We got there and settled up; but then the driver seemed agitated. I just got my luggage up the steps and into the hotel hoping he’d just go away after my long journey but he came in too, to dedicate a softly spoken campaign of incessant whispering agitation to the reception woman. According to her he’d made the mistake of giving me too much change. I so did not need or deserve this! There’s something about this kind of squalid little situation with some taxi drivers that I just hate: where you’re obliged to give them the benefit of the doubt – some of them do play on that – over who’s being ripped off, feeling guilty if resisting, feeling a fool if giving way. I was on the point of giving him money to get rid of him when the phone rang and it was for me!

Incredibly Mike – my travel agent friend who organised this part of my journey – was ringing during the middle of this to check on how I was doing. I admired his timing and told him why. Oh he’s just trying it on was Mike’s response. His opinion had the weight of experience, having travelled in this region and marrying a Philippine wife.

That stiffened my resolve. Mike would have just stonewalled him but after that conversation I was enraged enough with this pest to let him have it by threatening him with the police unless he left! I had the feeling of being in a colonial war commanding ranks of riflemen to “FIRE!” Over and over again. Until the attacking enemy was dispersed. At first nobody moved but faced with superior willpower – if not firepower – the persistant creep was shot up repeatedly with loud derision, during which he lost his persistence, faltered gradually and finally sidled off into the night and defeat. Mike later told me that calling the police was risky since the driver’s brother in law might be in charge but it worked!

So having proved that I could behave like an SS bastard to reception and the echoing expanses of the hotel I had a smooth registration and got up to my room. I’d sooner have handled things otherwise but not when this kind of deceitful sob story is forced upon one. Besides, if this perpetrator had been innocent against the odds the harsh response might teach him to be more careful.

The room was very comfortable apart from a bath with no shower. That mattered little. Sometimes it’s nice to just lie in a bath after times of stress. Reviewing the sweaty battles of endurance in China and Vietnam I concluded – since I was on blood pressure tablets – that if I had a latent heart attack or stroke problem I’d be dead! That simple. So I was well set for the adventure of a lifetime starting in a few days.

 

The view from my hotel window in the early morning. Across the road a wood of small pines stretched along the sand, hiding the sea. Strange to see pines in the tropics but such a setting seemed to guarantee that laid back sand in shoes lifestyle found by the seashore.

I made peace with the reception woman and got the laundry logistics going. Breakfast was nice and unhurried: a small gecko on the wall kept me company.

Time to relax with a swim on a free day before it all happened tomorrow. A deserted beach meant no worries about possesions. Warm water with a nice swell and no jellyfish or sharks led to a nice swim. There wasn’t even a need for a towel afterwards: despite being soaking wet one was dry in 5 minutes in the dense heat.

I hiked into the town of Dong Hoi unencumbered with luggage. Always carry sufficient bottled water though and wear a hat. A string of small enterprises lay along the wooded strip: anything from a tarpaulin over stuff to eat & drink to small but substantial buildings to eat at or stay in. One had a huge ornately carved dark wood chair fit for an emperor.

In town I had a drink with a woman running a recommended seafront hostel, searched for stuff I needed along the main street and fended off another attempted rip off from a taxi driver on the way back. An unreadable meter and a leer indicating I was an idiot, not him, led to a premature pull over and a shortened hike back.

Then it was dozing & surfing TV in my room until evening, when I had a beer at one of the places in the wood. We didn’t speak each others lingo but everything was cool.

© D Angus 10 16

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