We arrived at the China Travel Service office in Mong Kok just as the sun was beginning to set. This is a busy area of Kowloon and the crowds were heavy with commuters returning from work or heading out for some evening fun. Our packs are big. Like really big. We were like two linebackers or Ninja Turtles whacking people on the subway. But eventually we found our way to the tiny bus depot where we’d board our first bus headed for Shenzen on the border of mainland China. Over the next 24 hours we would travel on four different buses before arriving in Hanoi.
Our first bus was the usual modern variety, the kind you’d take with Grey Hound or something. It was packed with people. As had been the little depot at the CTS office; also just jammed with people, spilling out into the street. Who knew this trip was so popular with Chinese? One guy had a backpack overflowing with stacks of US dollars. That was a little weird. There a loud argument on board over something. One woman was shouting in rage at someone else, and a man was yelling back. We have no idea what the problem was. We were the only non-Chinese on the bus.
Just before midnight, we pulled up at a gigantic border crossing. There must have been several dozen booths manned with immigration officials. People spilled off the bus and then started sprinting madly for the lines in front of the booths. What was the hurry? We had no idea. But we jogged like everyone else because it seemed there must have been good reason. Each line had several dozen people waiting to go through the booth. But before approaching the officer, there was a sign asking each person to describe their customer service experience. You had two choices: Green = good service. Red = bad service. Without exception every person smacked the green button as they approached the waiting officer. Yes, you were asked to rate your customer service experience before you experienced any service and yes, the officer could see exactly which choice you made. Probably explained the 100% customer satisfaction rating.
After clearing immigration, people ran – literally sprinting – up sets of escalators and stairs, around a couple of corners, down escalators, until reaching a large wide set of automatic doors that spilled out onto a massive lot with rows of a hundred waiting buses. Now we understood the rush. We were transferring to a different bus! But which one? We had no idea. All signs were in Chinese. No one spoke English. Each passenger on our bus from Hong Kong had been given a sticker (again in Chinese). We thought it was proof we had paid the fare. We noticed now that different people had different stickers. As we all came pouring out the exit doors onto the tarmac – this bus station was larger than Vancouver International Airport by a wide margin – there were people who would point at you and send you in one direction or another. As we came lurching out in a kind of obese-persons’ bent-over scurry, the weight of our packs making ‘running’ very hard, someone looked at us and with a puzzled expression sent us off down a path away from all of the bus berths. This was a concern. But at the end of the road, someone else directed us on to a different route until we finally boarded a little mini-bus. This would take us to Nanning? But no, this was just the way to get to our actual sleeper bus about a kilometer away in the parking lot.
The Sleeper Bus
Remember the Knight Bus in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? That’s what a sleeper bus is. This one doesn’t have triple decks, but it’s crazy. After handing your bags to someone to store in the bottom of the bus, you board to be greeted by someone handing you a large plastic bag and pointing to your shoes. The shoes go in the bag and you walk into a bus converted into a giant toddler rooming house. All the bus seats are replaced with three aisles of beds, stacked in bunks two high. We had purchased our tickets late, so we got the most undesirable positions: top bunks, middle aisle. But at least we were positioned one right behind the other. After finding our bunk, and climbing into them, we were handed a can of congee the size of a King Can of Molson Canadian. Televisions sparked to life and Jackie Chan movies came on. No subtitles. This would be life for the next 10 hours.
Once we were all safely packed into our bunks, our belts fastened across our prone bodies, the bus sped off into the busy freeways of Shenzen. There’s a reason no one wants these high middle bunks. If you are on either one of the windowed sides, you can brace yourself against the wall. If you’re on the lower bunk, you can brace a foot or am on the floor. Up here the only thing holding you in is the strap across your body. So sleep is a challenge. Swaying so violently sometimes you might fall over the side of your bunk as the bus careens along the highway, around curves, changing lanes. We put the iPods to work to drown out the super loud kung fu movies, Scott chose Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Karen listened to soft favourites. And we just allowed ourselves to be carried off into the dark expanse of southern China at 140 km/h. So far, everything we’d seen in China was supersized and super fast. On the way out of Shenzen we passed a minor container port visible out the window of the bus for about 20 minutes. Hundreds of thousands of shipping containers as far as we could see. And this was a small port. Can’t imagine what the Super Port of Shanghai was like.
We stopped a couple of times for a bathroom break. The bathroom break gives you a good idea of the efficiency and frenzy of China. We’d be plowing along at high speed, changing lanes with some honking and swerving, then suddenly decelerate and pull into a rest stop. The attendant (an assistant who acts like a flight attendant on the bus) would play a recorded announcement in Mandarin, Cantonese, and – thankfully – English that stated simply “FIVE MINUTE REST STOP.”
At the first stop, we learned that five minutes literally meant 5:00 minutes. Passengers would jump up (or down) from their bunks and run off the bus to go to the toilet. This is China, so there’s not really any discernible concept of a line up. People just cram into place and grab the next available stall.
We’ll pause to say this about bathrooms. These are not what you’d call a normal public washroom. Imagine the worst public toilet you have ever seen. Now imagine thinking that toilet stall was the cleanest, most private bathroom you have ever experienced in comparison to this. A floor slick with human feces and urine. Slick with it. Woman dressed in high heels and beautifully fashionable clothes purchased in down Hong Kong shopping centres, squatting over a concrete drainage tube (I guess in Canada we call it a sewer). It was horrific. If you have shy bladder or worse, shy bowel syndrome, you are in for some real trouble in China. Bathrooms are very public and very – VERY – filthy.
Why do people run? Because if they don’t, the bus driver will leave them behind. Our bus was only one of about 20 or 30 others in the same stop. So hundreds of people are trying to relieve themselves using the same tiny handful of available toilets. There is no maintenance – or no evidence of maintenance, at least. No toilet paper. Your imagination can fill in the details here.
Scott would not go to the bathroom, preferring to risk his bladder bursting than brave the Lord of the Flies social milieu swirling the men’s toilet. So he stayed on the bus while Karen, desperate, gave it a try. After precisely five minutes, the driver started up the engine and started putting the bus in gear. But Karen was still swimming in the sewer with the other ladies. He started to move up to the driver to ask him to hold on as the bus lurched forward and started to roll out of the parking lot. But he stopped and a handful of passengers, including Karen, hopped on. Wow. They’re really serious. FIVE MINUTES!
Karen got her first chance to use a squat toilet. Aside from the very public context and utter filth, it wasn’t really that difficult. Karen is braver than Scott.
In the morning, our bus arrived in Nanning, a tiny obscure little Chinese town of just 4 million people. The Chinese equivalent of Kaslo. Or Castlegar. Now we understood what the King Can of Congee was for. Breakfast! Soupy rice and red beans. Cold. It was kind of tasty and welcome after the long sleepless night on the sleeper bus.
Our plan was simple
We’d do all of our travel overland, because one: Karen hates flying. HATES it. And two: It’ll be way more fun and adventurous than the touristy old flying into Hanoi thing that everyone else does. The simple plan involved getting bus tickets from Hong Kong to Nanning, then purchasing bus tickets from Nanning to Hanoi. Simple. Except for a few wrinkles: What if no one speaks English? And what if the signs in the bus stations are also only in Chinese? What if we have no clue how to read the ticket sales signs at the bus station? Or better yet, what if there is more than one bus station in Nanning? And only one of those has buses to Vietnam? And what if we have no idea which bus station we need to go to?
Whatever gods take care of fools must also look after the two of us… er, fools. We got very lucky that morning. First, luckily we missed the bus station we needed to get off at. Second, the final bus station was small and empty of people. Scott got his chance to use a squat toilet. And the bus attendant whose English was a lot better than our Chinese, kindly noticed our problem and offered to help us purchase the Hanoi tickets. All we had to do was somehow hail a taxi and ask – in Mandarin – to be taken to the main bus station. Somehow Scott managed exactly both tasks.
Armed with our bus tickets to Hanoi we arrived at the main bus station. What we thought of as crowded or busy in Hong Kong the night before looked pretty lonely compared to what greeted us here. The bus terminal was as big as an airport. I mean it literally looked like the departures level of YVR. This is a bus station?
It was also teeming with people. Imagine a city evacuating suddenly in the face of a threatening disease outbreak. The panic and long lines and frustration. That was what we saw inside.
Holy crap China’s busy
For all that it was crowded, it was also lonely. We were the only non-Chinese people among thousands. Every sign – including bathrooms – was in Chinese. We couldn’t even tell which toilet was for men or women without having to watch who went in or out. Then we noticed the staring. Standing in middle of the station we were being stared at by everyone. I guess we stood out. We may as well have been standing there naked. One woman stood gaping at us, her adorable son standing next to her staring and smiling. Scott smiled back and then waved to the little boy. But this made the mother jump back, pulling her son in close. We must have looked pretty odd. Nanning is not a city that sees many foreigners, so we quite noticeable.
Our tickets were Chinese characters and some Arabic numerals. That’s it. Scott could tell that there was something-something 11.00 for something-something else 14.00. Gate 11 for a 2:00 PM departure perhaps? Or was it an 11:00 am departure from gate 14? Who could tell? He went up to a uniformed attendant standing at Gate 11 to ask. She was busy stamping a pile of tickets. He showed her his bus ticket and pointed questioningly at the gate number above her. She paused and looked at the ticket. Then looked up at Scott. Then put her head down and resumed stamping tickets. He made a couple of further attempts to get her attention and ask if we were at the correct gate, but she steadfastly ignored him. We decided to just guess that the bus ticket was for Gate 11 leaving at 2 PM. It was already very close to 11 am when we arrived at the bus terminal and so we reasoned it was too soon for a departure from Gate 14.
Our guess was right. Lucky fools! At about 1:30, an attendant showed and looked at our tickets, then opened the door and we went to a small mini bus waiting outside. The minibus took us to an even smaller city closer to the border with Vietnam where we again changed buses to a larger bus with several other passengers. Pingxiang looked like something out of the China of the Cultural Revolution. Rural people wearing blue or olive drab quilted jackets and cloth caps. Motorcycles with a passenger or animal in a sidecar. Money changers boarded the bus to ask if we wanted to change Yuan for Dong. We decided to wait knowing it was technically illegal to enter Vietnam with Vietnamese Dong obtained outside Vietnam. We didn’t want trouble at the border.
After a while longer we arrived, left through Chinese immigration and then walked over the border where we entered Vietnamese Immigration. It was a different world in Vietnam. The tiny border control building was staffed by just two officials. We were the only people crossing, along with one other young Japanese man. The x-ray machine was broken, but they made us put our bag on it anyway. We stood before the first official who demanded our passports and visas. He stamped them both, then we had to stand before another official who demanded a medical certificate. Medical certificate? What medical certificate? “Health check,” he said, then asked us for $2 US each. After we handed him a $5 US bill (no change), he made a big show of looking intently at our eyes. Then nodded and handed us each an official-looking certificate in Vietnamese. We picked up our bags on the other side of the broken x-ray machine and made our way to another bus waiting out front. The Japanese guy was already aboard.
Everything changed in Vietnam
The landscape was quite suddenly and dramatically different. Every clichéd image in our mind of what Vietnam looks like was actually here: Women in conical straw hats bent over rice paddies, oxen pulling carts along the side of the road, even the highway seemingly built on a raised dirt bank and flanked on the sides by villages and fields of rice. The very grey and industrial landscape of China was gone and we had entered a very different land marked by a vibrant and colourful, rural life.
The biggest difference however was in the speed of everything. Life moved a lot slower here. The bus no longer sped along the highway at full blast. Rather, the driver steered the bus along a two-lane highway weaving in and out and sometimes around farm vehicles, cars, bicycles, and animals. Our rest stops were no longer high-stress 5 minute pauses. The bus would stop at seemingly random intervals and stay parked for as long as the driver deemed necessary. Sometimes that meant stops as long as 40 minutes.
The other big difference between here and China was everything seemed louder. Our bus would honk loudly, either to say hello to a passing bus driver, or to pass a car or motorcycle on the road, or just for no immediately apparent reason at all. There was also a constant blaring karaoke music video playing on a television at the front of the bus. The same videos were played for passengers in China, but here the volume was cranked so loud it hurt our ears. No one paid much attention to the videos, instead shouting loudly to be heard over the music. The cacophony was incredible.
We both put in ear plugs and just sat there looking out the windows and taking in all the spectacular South East Asian scenery as we made our leisurely way to Hanoi.
Because we stopped frequently and for long periods, we arrived in Hanoi just as the sun was setting. Instead of pulling in to a bus station, however, the bus just pulled up on the side of the highway near the Old Quarter and stopped. A woman immediately hopped and announced, “Hello! I am with the bus company and I am here to help you.” She said the bus was not allowed to continue downtown due to some law (or something) and she was there to guide us (all three of us) downtown and help find a hotel for passengers who don’t speak Vietnamese. [Groan!]
We had read about this beforehand. She was just a tout who paid the driver to let her on and pitch her own hotel to tourists. We just grabbed our bags and got off. She followed us and pitched us on her $4 per night hotel. No thanks. We had already booked ourselves into a $50 per night guest house in the Old Quarter. When she heard where we were staying she stopped trying to convince us and instead taught us how to cross the busy highway and “helped” us grab a taxi.
Crossing the street
Wow. Hanoi traffic is insane. The tout was annoying but at least she gave us very good advice on how to cross a street in Hanoi. There are no pedestrian crossings. Well, none that are respected by motorists. Instead, you have to do what does not come naturally. Step off the curb into several fast moving lanes of motorbikes and just walk slowly and deliberately into traffic without running or stopping. Her most important advice? Never run. And never (ever) look a driver in the eye. Just walk.
It works just as she said it would. But it’s terrifying the first time. Anywhere else in the world you’d be dead. But here, the traffic is more like schools of fish that gracefully and skillfully swerve and curve around you naturally. Like water swirling around a rock in the middle of a stream. Magic!
We’d been traveling for almost 24 hours straight by now. And to be honest we would have paid a lot of money for some comfort. We’re staying at the Queen Travel Hotel. It’s not cheap, but it’s family-run and they are very good hosts. It’s one of Hanoi’s first small modern guesthouses and has been around since 1992. We could have paid a lot less. But we don’t care. We’re comfortable. Have air conditioning, a delicious breakfast (including MANGO PANCAKES!!!!) and friendly staff. The internet is free, breakfast is free, advice is free (and reliable) and they have the best exchange rate we’ve found. They also have two very friendly cats, and an amazing turtle who lives on the roof and knows how to use the elevator. More on that later.
We’ve rested and done some exploring in the city. We’re about to take an overnight train to Sa Pa for a three-day trekking tour of H’mong, Dao and Tay villages in the Hoàng Liên Son mountains of northwest Vietnam. This is a place famous for terraced rice farms. Then we return to Hanoi in time to take in the Tet celebrations, Vietnam’s version of Chinese New Year.