Monday, January 5, 2009

Southern China - Travelling to Vietnam by train

I have been to Vietnam twice - on each occasion I stayed one month. The first time I travelled from the Philippines (since I was working there), and on the 2nd occasion I travelled from Sydney to HK, then travelled overland by train to Vietnam (Hanoi). The train route was HK-Guangzhou-Nanning-Vietnam border town-Hanoi. I took this route because I didn't like Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the Vietnamese government was charging foreigners twice the (USD) fare of locals for domestic flights at the time. They might have since changed that policy. You should of course arrange your flights from within Vietnam.
The trip from HK to Hanoi was not particularly attractive. The limestone cliffs en-route were attractive, forged by the rivers that meander through them, but still not as beautiful as the same structures in the Red River delta of Vietnam, but I guess you could argue they are different, and I might have liked them more if I alighted from the train. The problem is that no one speaks English outside the major (northern) cities. The south was severely polluted. Locals were using the gully created by train construction as a dumping ground for their rubbish. I had a sleeping compartment on the train, and poor Chinese people have their own social edicts I guess. Everywhere I turned people were spitting, making any path a minefield of bloodied spit. Even grandmas spit. They split on trains. The sleeper was a bad idea. Poor Chinese are not big on waiting either. Passing through the turnstiles at the station, I almost lost my hand trying to hold onto my baggage. It was a reserved seat train, but I guess that was not for everyone. So China was not the most civilising experience for me. This is not just the Chinese of course. It was true of Japan in the 1950s. The Japanese government did (as the Chinese government is doing), trying to raise the edicts of its poor people, who are a bit of an embarrassment. Given the lack of consideration for tourists, maybe its premature to visit there.
But having said that I found Vietnam a far more pleasant place to visit. I guess it might have more to do with the population-competition dynamics in China. The most pleasant aspect of China was the food. I ate well in Nanning. The border crossing was a nightmare. Some Europeans had the same idea to cross the border. Bad idea because we had to wait 12 hours in the station for the Hanoi train at midnight. We were awoken at 3AM to have our papers processed at the Vietnamese border then again we awake at 6AM to disembark the train. The border town was lifeless, had no modern services, and nobody spoke English. So it was a relief to find these Europeans because I would have otherwise died of boredom.
Andrew Sheldon