Monday, August 31, 2009

Journey to Vietnam

I have just returned from a week long visit to Vietnam. The main reason behind the visit was that my Vietnamese roommate from Beijing is still home for the summer holidays, and he was terribly keen for me to visit him in Vietnam, inviting me several times to go down and see him. I thought it would be a good opportunity to see the country, and it would also be interesting to see my quiet roommate in his own environment, so I took the chance.

I decided to go to Hanoi from Beijing by train to save money, even though the ride takes almost two days. Getting hold of the tickets was extraordinarily difficult. In Beijing, it is very easy to buy a train ticket to any destination within China, but buying train tickets to foreign destinations like Vietnam or Mongolia is another matter entirely. I went to the gigantic West train station of Beijing, which the train itself leaves from, and I was told by the lady at the information desk that I could buy the ticket in the Central train station, which is quite a distance from where I was. I trekked to the Central station and found the special ticket booth for foreigners, where the staff can speak English. I was told that I should go to the West station, which I had just come from. After I protested, the woman went and checked with her colleague, after which she advised me to go to a travel agent in a nearby hotel. Exhausted after a day of going around Beijing in the sun, I got to the hotel to find the travel agent had already closed for the day.

The next day I went back to the travel agent, and they told me that I should go to another travel agent near the West train station. Getting increasingly frustrated and wondering if anyone really knew where to buy the ticket, I went to the other agency, this time by taxi. Having got there, I was told that they do indeed sell the tickets, but however the person responsible had already left for the day, so I should come back tomorrow (it was already the afternoon). The next day I came back and finally I bought the ticket, conducting the negotiations entirely in Chinese. Unfortunately there turned out to only be tickets available for "soft beds", in other words for the fanciest class, so a plane would not have cost much less. Between buying the tickets and getting a visa, I spent a good five days rushing up and down this huge city in the boiling heat.

After recovering for a day, I set off for Vietnam on sunday afternoon. I shared my berth in the train with three Chinese men, who were very keen to chat with me. Unfortunately my Chinese still isn't really good enough to hold proper conversations, although I managed to tell them a bit about myself. There were quite a few foreigners, since the train was headed to Vietnam, and it only leaves twice a week. In the booth next to mine there was a couple of middle aged English chaps who turned out to be going by train from Britain to Singapore (!). One of them was filming out of the window, hoping to turn it into a documentary. There was apparenly a story behind it about how one of these men had been born in Singapore and brought up by adoptive British parents, but he had recently been contacted for the first time by his real mother in New Zealand, and he was going back to the place where he was born, and then on to New Zealand to meet her. He works as a television documentary producer and hopes to be able to make a decent documentary out of it.

All the Chinese passengers in the train got off before Vietnam, and by the time we reached the border the next night, it was only me and about eight other foreigners left in the train. We had to wait on the border for ages, and then take another train to Hanoi, which arrived in the Vietnamese capital at 8 in the morning. In all the journey took about 40 hours.