For your convenience, please refer to The Journey for the itinerary and the latest updates.
Weather: Cold and then rain in the morning; pleasant after
Distance covered today: 1,201km
Distance traveled from Guangzhou: 1,201km
Distance remaining to Singapore: 3,903km
From this post onwards, I would state the kilometers covered for the day as well as the remaining distance to Singapore. For overnight journeys, I would attribute the distance traveled to the day of arrival. Local travel would not be included in the distance traveled. I would also mark the important places with distances traveled from Guangzhou (KM 0). I would try to be as accurate as possible but some would be guesstimated due to the lack of information.
Back to the post itself.
The train attendant woke up the entire carriage about 15 minutes before the arrival into Nanning Station (KM 809). The train wasn’t late at all; in fact it arrived almost an hour ahead of schedule. It appeared that not only airlines pad their schedules; the trains do it too.
The train attendant had exchanged my ticket for my berth card when I boarded the train and she did the reverse when we reached the station. It was a good system in my opinion; the passengers would not miss their station as the attendant would need the berth card back. As at most train stations (some didn’t care), we were expected to surrender our train tickets on our way out of station.
The temperature in Nanning was similar to Guangzhou’s considering they are almost located at the same latitude. Nanning is the capital of Guangxi Autonomous region and was an important transportation hub to Vietnam and other parts of Southwest China.
As the train had arrived early, I had to wait 45 minutes in the cold for the first bus to Langdong bus station (No. 52, 1RMB). From there there would be through service to Hanoi.
Caught probably 20 winks on the bus before reaching Langdong bus staion. Apparently only one company, Yunde, operated there. It was easy to get a ticket (150RMB)from the counter since I could speak Mandarin and I was asked whether I had a Vietnamese visa in my passport. It wasn’t a problem for me as my Singaporean passport doesn’t require one to enter Vietnam.
I couldn’t recall the exact timing of the bus; it was somewhere between 8.30 am and 9.00 am. The bus was quite new and there was a bus attendant (like all other buses in China). Most of the passengers were either Chinese or Vietnamese. The guy who sat next to me was a Vietnamese student in China returning home but he wasn’t in a chatty mode. Across the aisle was a Caucasian with his Chinese (girl)friend. He was the only visible foreigner around.
The bus went on the expressway once outside the bus station and remained on it throughout. The expressway looked new and was of Malaysia’s NS Highway standard. I believed that the expressway was built in anticipation for the increase in trade between China and Asean once the FTA kicks in 2010.
We would make two stops on the Chinese side; one would be a restroom stop (no idea where was it) and the other was a lunch stop near Pingxiang (KM 1024).
I also exchanged my remaining RMB with the multi-lingual money-changer (Vietnamese, Mandarin & Cantonese) at a slightly poorer exchange rate. The money-changers at the border would offer 2700 Vietnamese Dong (VND) per RMB compared to the 2600 VND that I got.
Remember the Caucasian man on the bus? Turned out that he’s Russian. His Chinese girlfriend (she spoke fluent Russian) thought that I was a Vietnamese and asked me about the exchange rate. We started to talk a little bit and they were heading to Vietnam for holidays. She was surprised to find out that I am Singaporean and was heading to Vietnam alone. I didn’t tell them about my entire plan (as not to scare them); I just said that I would be going to Laos after Vietnam.
A few kilometers before the actual border, some soldiers boarded bus to make sure everyone has a valid visa for Vietnam. Red Singaporean passport wasn’t common there but it wasn’t hard for me to convince them that I didn’t need a visa.
Reaching the border at Youyiguan (Hữu Nghị Quan in Vietnamese, KM 1036), the passengers were asked to disembark and those with tickets to Vietnamese destinations were ushered to a golf buggy which took us a short distance to the immigration building on the Chinese side. As it all happened so fast, I didn’t have time to take any photos at the border. I wouldn’t dare anyway considering the military presence around.
I realized that there was a HK girl on my bus as well; the border security wanted to see her Home Return Permit instead of her passport. It turned out that she was venturing into Vietnam alone on her backpacking trip. Very adventurous indeed.
Immigration on the Vietnamese side was a little chaotic. Nobody told us where to get arrival cards (to be filled in) and we had to ask for them. Then nobody told us to place our passports at the counter and wait for our names to be called. Somehow HK girl figured it out and I just followed her. We were among the first ones from our bus to be processed because we knew enough English to fill the immigration cards. The other Chinese passengers seemed to be struggling. We also had to pay 2 RMB for a piece of “medical paper” for reasons unknown.
There were also some other foreigners who were crossing the border. I didn’t think that they knew about the direct bus which I took from Nanning. Most probably they had followed the guidebooks and took a series of local transport to reach the border. I felt quite lucky to be on the bus as I didn’t have to go through the process of finding correct onward transportation and getting the fair price. It would be too much hassle in my opinion.
On the Vietnamese side, we boarded the buses from Yunde’s Vietnamese partner. They were two buses; mine was heading towards Hanoi while the other one was to somewhere else, possibly Haiphong. After all the passengers had been accounted for, we set off from the border town of Dong Dang for Hanoi. I adjusted the time on my iPod to the Vietnam time which was an hour behind China. I would stay in this timezone until Malaysia.
The bus stopped only once for about half an hour for a break. There were local produce on sale and the salesperson could speak Mandarin. I chatted a little more with the Chinese-Russian couple and they were once again surprised that I had been to India as well (considering how kiddie I looked). Since the girl said that she had been to Singapore twice, I asked her whether she viewed Singaporeans in China as foreigners.
She said that she doesn’t see Singaporeans as foreigners because we (most Singaporeans) are ethnic Chinese. She also said that going to Singapore didn’t feel exactly like traveling overseas because of the large ethnic Chinese population here. I just nodded and smiled but plenty of thoughts were going through my head.
Unlike her, I don’t think that I will ever see Chinese nationals as one of ‘us’. Although we might share the same roots, I share more common values with non-Chinese Singaporeans than with other Chinese nationals. I remembered being asked by a Taiwanese what my primary identity was. Apparently she had identity issues regarding being ‘Chinese’ or “Taiwanese’. Singapore’s nation-building efforts are successful in the sense that I don’t have a problem with my primary identity. I am a Singaporean first and foremost who happens to be an ethnic Chinese. I’m also a believer in S. Rajaratnam’s vision of fostering a common Singaporean identity where “race, religion and language do not matter”.
Most Chinese from China were somewhat myopic and naive in their view of Overseas Chinese. As they live in a huge country, many have little knowledge of the world outside their own country (many Americans are guilty of it too) and simply assume that ethnic Chinese people are the same around the world. Socio-political factors have conditioned the Singaporean Chinese differently from the Mainland Chinese (other overseas Chinese communities shared similar experience). Ethnic Chinese Singaporeans no longer carry the same level of sentiment or any form of loyalty to China which our ancestors had decades or centuries ago. Being ethnic Chinese also doesn’t mean that I should tolerate PRC service staff who speak only thickly-accented Mandarin and expect the customers to suit their language ability. Singapore is not China and Chinese nationals in Singapore should learn to appreciate that.
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m no anti-immigrants bigot. In fact, I believe that Singaporeans should welcome immigrants as the most vibrant cities (i.e. London, New York, etc) are often the most cosmopolitan as well. However, Singapore should not indiscriminately allow new migrants into the country without concern for the impact on the state’s social fabric. Besides their contribution economically, would-be migrants should also be assessed by their willingness to adapt to the local way of life.
I’ve digressed enough. My bus rolled into Hanoi (KM 1201) at around 4.30pm local time, nine hours after departing from Nanning. The passengers were dropped off outside a travel company office (I had no idea exactly where) and a motorcycle taxi guy approached me. It seemed that I was becoming deaf-mute; I couldn’t understand a single word and nothing from my tongue would make sense to him. I showed him the address and haggled with him for a while; he wanted to be a sucker out of me and was unwilling to decrease from his 50,000 VND asking price.
After I started to talk away, he agreed to my 20,000 VND fare. I didn’t want him to have my business by then and started to walk towards a taxi parked slightly in front. It was a big vehicle (something like SUV) and the driver ran the meter. In the end the fare to the hostel was 22,000 VND; the driver even gave me a 2,000 VND discount because I only had two 10,000 notes and the rest 50,000 ones.
Boy was I glad to reach the hostel. The check-in place at Drift Backpackers was kinda crowded as travelers arriving from China were coming in but the staff remained friendly. I got to my room quickly after checking in and took my first shower in more than 24 hours. The price was reasonable at 100,000 VND for a dorm bed and breakfast. The place was nicely equipped with WiFi and numerous computer terminals and the TV room had dozens of DVD titles to choose from. I would recommend it to anyone who is going to Hanoi.
After shower, I headed out for ATM since I needed some cash.
After getting some cash, I walked to the train station to sort out my train ticket to Lao Cai the following day. The language barrier proved surmountable and I managed to score hard sleeper for 250,000 VND from the ticket counters at the train station. I had expected to pay more from the information found online so I was glad with my purchase. After dinner, I went back to the hostel where I met Peter, my friend for the night.
Peter also just arrived from China, albeit from Yunnan, and was staying at the place for only one night as well. He’s an American doing his masters in Politics at Harvard and his fellowship gives him the chance to spend one year studying in Beijing. It’s kinda nice talking to someone from the States who actually know something about Singapore (Peter has several course-mates who are PSC scholars). He would be meeting his friend who was arriving the next day from Abidjan before starting their tour around Vietnam.
After having a second dinner and a nice chat with Peter, I made use of the WiFi at the hostel to research about the subsequent legs of the trip. The first leg was pretty straight-forward; being in China there wasn’t much of a language problem and it was quite easy to organize transportation. The real challenge would begin from here onwards.