Why aren't you still in China??

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March 8th 2009
Published: March 8th 2009
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Why aren’t you in China? 3rd - 7th March 2009

Let me just start by saying I didn’t imagine making it all the way to Vietnam to find myself sitting here, almost shivering with cold on the balcony of our cheap hotel! Northern Vietnam is cold right now!

Despite us eventually having no choice but to catch a 16 hour train ride which departed at 4am (hardly ideal!), both Caroline and I managed a big cheer to ourselves as we boarded the train and finally left Guiyang. It’s not that we didn’t like the place, In fact we loved the experience, but 6 months confined to the centre of any city is going to take its toll and we we’re almost euphoric to be leaving - even at 4am with the prospect of a 16 hour train trip through the best part of the day.

The train trip was… well …..… boring, but it gave me chance to read a good 300 pages of a book I would otherwise still be carrying around now, so it achieved something!

Nanning, in Guangxi province, isn’t a place we really wanted to visit as such but it was necessary to stop here for 2 nights in order that we could obtain our visas for Vietnam. Thankfully we managed find a hostel on the internet which offered to get your Vietnam visa for the same price as the embassy if you stayed there, so it all made sense really and that’s what we did. It saved a lot of potential hassle and meant we got one day to explore Nanning.

This is how much I have to say about Nanning...........

So I guess you’re wondering why I’m sat here in Vietnam right now and why I’m not in Sichuan? We’ll that plan got cancelled for us by the ever friendly Chinese government! The original plan was to leave Guiyang for Yangshuo in Guangxi province, and from there travel to Western Sichuan province. There lies the problem. Western Sichuan is a predominantly Tibetan area, and this year marks the 50th year since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet to live in exile.

I’m not sure how much you guys at home are aware of the situation with Tibet, but actually Tibetan people are not only native to Tibet. There are sizeable communities of Tibetan people in all of the bordering provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang, and when the Chinese government decides to close off Tibetan areas to tourists it means all of them, and that’s what they decided to do about a week before our travel was set to commence. Just like so often in the past few years the Chinese government is expecting protests, and in China you know what that means………. Probably not something they want tourists to see and tell home about!

We could of course have just headed to Mongolia first which initially seemed like the plan of plans, but then we came to the realisation that Mongolia is normally about -20C in March. Scratch that plan. We then considered going to Xinjiang province first, but same problem, so scratch that plan too. The cold isn’t the problem per se, but we don’t have the necessary clothing for this kind of temperature and it would be a waste of money to buy so much clothing only to throw it all away after. There is no way we could carry it all with us.

After searching the internet for almost 2 days solid, checking the price of flights, checking out what there is to do in other places, etc, we safely eliminated Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines as options because they’re all too expensive to get to from China. We did consider Burma/ Myanmar for a while, but then we decided we didn’t particularly want to fund one of the most oppressive governments in the world by travelling there.

We had always said after travelling to Thailand and Cambodia before, we had no interest in travelling to either Vietnam or Laos, but after some consideration of our limited options, we decided that’s exactly where we would go. There aren’t any other places in China we particularly want to see, and a month or two down south would be warmer and give a chance for Sichuan to open up again, Mongolia and Xinjiang to warm up and importantly a chance for Caroline and I to get some deep sunburn and relaxation on the go! Boohoo you’re probably thinking, and you’re probably right - we lead such tough lives!

This decision was also helped by the fact we managed to get 3 month double entry visas for China meaning we can leave for substantial amount of time and still come back on the same visa. Normally this would be impossible, but as is so often the case in China, if you have guanxi with the right people like our previous boss Sandy does then the rules don’t matter. They told us only a one month tourist visa was possible, with zero entries. Sandy asked - they gave us three months and double entry. They said it would take 7 working days. Sandy asked - it took 3 days. Because we know Sandy it worked to our advantage on this occasion, but it’s this kind of thing which I hate with a passion about China and one of the many reasons I’m happy to be away from there right now.

Nanning - Ha Long

The bus from Nanning to Ha Long is supposed to take eight hours; in fact it ended up taking nine but who’s counting.

The border crossing was interesting as it seems they always are. We passed through the Chinese exiting side quickly enough, but then got in a huge queue on the Vietnamese side. I quickly noticed why our passports we’re being ignored though, whilst others seemingly went through in 10 seconds. I had been waiting for about 10 minutes for the guy to take our passport and stamp the damn thing when a Chinese guy turns up and puts his through the window into the booth in front of me. The man behind the desk does nothing, so he takes it back and places 2RMB discreetly inside it such that it can’t be seen at a glance and puts it back. The passport control man promptly takes the passport, takes the money out in a way he thinks I can’t see him do it, stamps it and passes it back. This man arrived there 10 minutes after me and left 5 minutes before me. Amazing what a small bribe will do.

Once we finally passed through to the Vietnamese side, what a fantastic change in appearance! Gone are the white tiled buildings, gone are the sterile looking streets and roads, we both noticed Vietnam has so much more charm and character than China within the first 10 minutes of being there - even at the border crossing. Hooray for being out of China for the first time in more than a year!

Eventually we arrived in Ha Long City on the north coast of Vietnam, on the edge of the famous Ha Long Bay. There are two halves to the city, and apparently we chose the boring side to stay on, but quite frankly I don’t care, and after seeing the apparently ‘not boring’ side the following day which reminded me of a small scale Salou/ Benidorm I’m glad we stayed where we did.

Maybe it’s just because we’ve been living in China for a year, but I actually found the place quite charming, I loved the cobbled together look of it, the different architecture, variety of street food vendors and the fact it’s obviously not a place designed for tourists - all this despite it’s being described in guide books as a place you should only stay if you have to - a good reason we’re not travelling with a guide book anymore.

We stayed in a simple hotel that night and ate some dubious street food, but hey, you live you learn. The place wasn’t touristy, hence nobody spoke any English and I haven’t learned even a single word of Vietnamese yet, but we found quite a few people spoke Chinese which was handy, and they helped us out with knowing what to do and where to go the following day.

Ha Long - Cat Ba Island

Having read on many internet pages to get to Cat Ba Island it was easier to take a tour because getting there on your own was too difficult, both Caroline and I could smell the package tourist lazy mentality and decided to make our own way there. Just as we expected, within 2 minutes of arriving in the harbour we’d found ourselves a place on a tourist boat (not to tour, only to go to the island 2 hours away) for the princely sum of $8 for two people. That was difficult!

We had also been read that under no circumstances should we go to a certain pier on the island, because it was 20km from the main town and all the accommodation. The guy who sold us the boat tickets to that certain pier told us there were loads of buses on the other side, and he seemed genuinely nice so I believed him. On the boat there, the boat owner was trying to spread the doom saying there were no buses and we had no choice but to buy his 85,000VND (~$5) tourist tickets before we arrived otherwise we would be stuck with no transport. Our instinct was to ignore him, although others on the boat doing the same as us believed him. We arrived and they all piled into a small tourist bus with way too many people inside. The original man hadn’t lied to us, there was a local bus - 10,000VND (~$0.40). What made it even better was when the tourist bus broke down half way there and we drove past in the much larger and more comfortable cheap local bus. Ha ha!

Taking a step back because I forgot to mention it, the boat ride across Ha Long Bay was impressive, but to be honest we we’re let down by terrible overcast and fairly cold weather. For me it wasn’t anything worth raving about, although I think had the weather been scorching hot with a clear blue sky it would have been a much more impressive and enjoyable experience.

Cat Ba Island

The main harbour town on Cat Ba Island is nothing particularly special, it’s non-descript but inoffensive, however I suppose it’s very touristy and has loads of cheap nasty bars and seedy massage parlours, but I’m still happy to be here just because we can finally relax, eat good food, our hotel is $5 a night and we can hire motorbikes for $4 a day to explore the island.

Today we hired motorbikes and spent the whole day just pottering around the island, stopping anywhere that looked nice and taking every turning up dirt tracks which looked interesting. It’s great to be surrounded by such greenery again after being surrounded by nothing but concrete in China for close to a year.

This you really are not going to believe: I managed to get Caroline to have a go riding a motorbike (one with gears too!). She was a bit shaky to start with, but eventually got the hang of it, on flat roads at least, and for a while I let her ride whilst sitting on the back myself. I hope by the end of Vietnam her fear of motorbikes will disappear and we can actually do some serious travel on them. That would be fantastic.

Considering this is technically a tropical island, the fact that it’s cold and that there aren’t really any beaches on the island are making it an odd, but strangely nice experience. Most of the island is pretty much a working landscape of rice paddies, various tree plantations and mangroves which the people are using to produce something (I have no idea what). Some of the mangroves here remind me of Weston Super Mare (without the nasty arcades, chavvy kids and grandmas getting tattoos) in the sense that you wouldn’t dare walk out across them to the sea - you’d end up drowning in mud!

Vietnam compared to China

I guess it’s only fair to do a comparison between China and Vietnam because I haven’t been to the UK for almost a year and a half, so I can’t really compare them fairly.
Vietnamese people are apparently one of the reasons people often prefer the other three countries in the region to Vietnam i.e. people think they’re rude and unhelpful. That may well be true if you’re travelling from the west, but Vietnamese people compared to Chinese people are extremely friendly and polite! It’s actually been one of the nicest things about crossing the border. Clearly people in Vietnam don’t think being polite is a sign of weakness like the Chinese do. So far I’ve seen no reason to say the people here are unfriendly, they seem very nice to me!

The food here is certainly better; less salt, less MSG, less sugar and less oil. The flavour here comes from the ingredients. We also had the amazing experience of eating REAL bread (a product of Vietnam’s French colonial history) for the first time in more than a year yesterday. There are bakeries all across Vietnam apparently, and we ate some real, non-sweet bread. You simply can’t imagine back home how happy that made us feel!

Vietnam is clearly poorer than your average Chinese city, but the spread of wealth here seems better. Anyway, the important thing for us travelling here is it’s considerably cheaper.

Finally, the countryside seems much nicer than China, but perhaps that’s unfair to say because in China you just can’t get to the countryside. Here we can hire motorbikes and actually appreciate what’s around us. In China, unless you’ve been to their school of crazy, you’re not allowed to drive there.

To sum it all up - It’s great being away from China and starting to travel again! The next 6 months is going to be amazing!

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