We've all got friends that annoy us that we enjoy spending time with but are happy to leave them every once in a while. That is exactly what China is to me, I absolutely adore the country, its people, its food,its landscape and its deep seeded history but certain cultural traits got too much for me making me want to leave. On the morning of 22 February, I did just that. Alex and I dragged ourselves out of the hostel and traipsed over to the bus station to get our 8am bus to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Excitement built as we sat on the bus that winged its way towards the border crossing. The beautiful attendant whisked her way down the aisle checking people's tickets and gave her instructions in Chines, Vietnamese and then English. We arrived at Friendship Pass a few hours later and transferred to a golf buggy which drove full speed into the Chinese control point, I walk in and this time have my departure card ready in my hand, fighting to the front a slam my bags onto the conveyor-belt f the x-ray machine and hand my passport over to the official who had no problems stamping me out of the country. I couldn't believe that I had been in China for two months, coming out of Mongolia into Christmas in Beijing seemed such a long time. My journey bisecting the Chinese land in a zigzag shape, only touched the surface of the vast country. Coming from Beijing and the great wall, to Chengdu and the Pandas, down the Yangtse to modern Shanghai before heading into the ex-British Hong Kong, back into the beautiful karst landscape of Guilin and Yangshuo to the ascent of the world's tallest tower in Guangzhou. My trip has been truly remarkable and I will most definitely head back into China one day to visit Yunan province and up to Tibet.
For the eighth time on my trip I was in no man's land. I look round to see what has happened to Alex, it seemed as though he had lost his departure card and had to go fill one out which meant he as at the back of the queue. So I exit the control building into the sunshine. The checkpoint is the grandest I have seen on my trip and I believe it's the communist solidarity coming out. We were soon back in the buggy rolling our way down the hill and into Vietnam's check point. The checkpoint was in utter disarray, people piled upon a booth where three officials sit behind glass checking passports. You throw your passport through a window on the left hand side, they don't look at you, they pass the passport along to the second man who stamps the passport and the third man struggles to give the passports back to their owners through the window on the right. I eventually retrieve my passport, waltz past the health check and back on the buggy. The buggy made it's way out of the controlled area and headed towards a group of buses waiting to take people to Hanoi. Alex and I got onto a bus and to our amazement discovered the three English guys and the Dutch kid who took the earlier bus. We felt successful, we got up thirty minutes later but had arrived at the same time! The bus filled up and moved off.
I was finally in Vietnam and immediately noticed the difference. The architecture has a colonial feel to it, the roads are less maintained and the people seem poorer but more relaxed about it. The bus stopped at a road side café for people to get something to eat and go to the toilet. The English people we met purchased a bottle of vodka, so instead of eating we started drinking. A few hours of drinking on the bus later, we pulled into the busy streets of Hanoi and the sheer amount of motorcycles truly shocked me. As I stepped off the bus, I was immediately collared by a motorcycle driver repeatedly saying 'motobike, motorbike?' and proceeded to grab my arm in insistence. I turned around to face him, stared into his eyes and politely but firmly told him to let go of my arm and that I did not require a motorcycle. He got the hint and moved onto his next target.
After finding a cash machine to withdraw a few million Vietnamese Dong, we secured two taxis between the eight of us. They were small cars similar to the size of a Daewoo Matiz if not smaller. We all climbed into the taxis with our bags on our laps whilst the driver forced all of the doors closed. The taxi pulled off and I got my first experience of day to day driving in Vietnam. Thousands of motorcycles swarmed the streets in a seemingly disorderly fashion, weaving in and out of each other. Our taxi driver was an absolute maniac, he never touched the break and forced his way through the crowded streets. The very few times he applied his breaks to come to a stop, we pulled up beside this extremely stunning young Vietnamese lady dressed in a red dress on a yellow Vespa. She was absolutely gorgeous and made all four of us flirt outrageously with her from the confines of our chariot. Vietnam was immediately a very attractive country!
As we pulled up outside the Cathedral, got out and paid the taxi driver who was extremely reluctant on giving us our change. This would be the beginning of many many Vietnamese people trying to get money out of me. We managed to get it off him and headed towards the Central Backpackers Hostel which was only a two minute walk down the road. The hostel was chosen purely on the merit that it gave away free beer. How could you turn down somewhere that had an offer like that? The owner of the hostel was coerced by the group to give us all a bottle of beer to start with as it turned out that it was only free beer between 7-8pm.
Bia Hoi is a beautiful tradition of the Vietnamese people. Every evening people flock to the Bia Hoi establishments after work, sit down on the small plastic chairs that are similar size to those in primary schools and enjoy a few glasses of freshly brewed beer. As travelling is about experiencing different cultural practices, we forced ourselves to take part in this ritual and head to a local Bia Hoi place. The bar/restaurant is on the corner of two busy streets and the shutters open out onto the pavements. The beer is cheap ranging from 5,000-10,000 VND (15-30p) and is extremely refreshing after a long, hot day on the bus from Nanning.
Our second night was a great night although very messy. It was Snake Night! Our group took a trip to the snake village where we tasted the delights of snakes. The night started off with the untimely death of a few snakes. The sadistic events saw one person use a knife to make a vertical incision of around four inches long in the area of the snake's heart. After the snake was sliced open, the 'snake man' squeezed the it like a tube of toothpaste to expose the heart when another volunteer finish it off by biting and swallowing the still beating heart whole. I did neither of those but did enjoy eating and drinking its remains afterwards. We drank snake's bile and gin, snake's blood and whisky and snake rice wine. To eat we had, snake's intestine, snake's skin, crushed snake's spine on crackers and snake's meat. Eating the skin was like chewing on your leather wallet and was my least favourite dish, whereas my most favourite dish was the intestines.
Waking up with a hangover is never fun, trying to eat breakfast with a hangover is difficult, packing your bags and walking across the old town to another hostel is unbearable. Nevertheless, I did it and I survived. The night before was a complete mess. After leaving the snake village we went on for more drinking in a couple of bars. I remember being quite drunk and walking home with my wallet in my socks as I heard a few people got mugged the night before. It's lucky I did as a motorcycle pulled up beside me and a girl hopped off the back, headed towards me and began to molester me by touching me all over asking whether I wanted 'boom boom'. I said no and kept walking quite safe in the knowledge that all of my valuables were in my socks and away from her hands. Having made it back in one piece I sat on the step outside my hostel and ate a bag of crisps with the rats running around my feet. A few hours later we were woken up by the cleaner gagging as she struggled to clean the floor where Thomas had just thrown up from his top bunk all over Alex's belongings. Poor lady, I did feel sorry for her. I thought this was a good time to leave as the others were heading to Ha Long Bay and I was off to meet up with Raymond once again who had just spent two weeks motorcycling around the north-west with another Dutch guy we met in Chongqing.
Next Time, Vietnam's military history, Temple of Literature and a scary motorcycle experience