The Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday in China, with almost everyone having at least four days of vacation and some up to two weeks off. This is also a time for families to come together, which means that a tremendous amount of people will be travelling from their workplaces in the cities back to their hometowns. As a tourist in China this time of the year means two things: high priced and fully booked transportation, and a hard time finding hostels or restaurants that are open. As it’s mainly a family holiday, without a family to spend it with it can be a very slow week without much going on at all. Therefore, I had decided to leave China by train or bus before the holiday, and now it was time as the first days of overbooked trains was approaching.
My plan was going into Vietnam by bus or train, whichever seemed most convenient, and both means of transportation would set out from Nanning, the Guangxi province capital. I got there with the high speed train from Guilin, by now a routine thing without any special happenings. Nanning proved to be just as interesting as the Lonely Planet guide had indicated, which meant it wasn’t very interesting at all. Never seen a city with so many huge shopping malls in relation to the number of resident buildings though. I got on a random buss hoping to find some cheap food and later a Starbucks to sit down and do some writing, but my intuition was way off and took me to a part of town only made up of fancy shopping malls as well as fancy hotels. Not budget friendly at all. At least the night market provided both good food and good company. I was surprised when the man sitting opposite of me was from Singapore, and speaking flawless English. We shared some travelling tips over our fried dumplings before I returned to the hostel for some planning.
After one failed attempt I had finally secured my ticket for the night train to Hanoi. The trick was to go to counter number 1 in Nanning station, labeled “English speaking counter” (though I bought my ticket using Chinese, so I’m not sure about the English proficiency). I had decided against the bus as the Chinese trains had so far provided a much more comfortable travel, as well as being very reliable. Taking the buss would have been a bit cheaper at around 170 Yuan, but a sleeper train for 255 Yuan also saved me one nights stay in a hostel. I would also be on the same train the whole way, contrary to the buss which would be switched after the border crossing, potentially creating confusion in the middle of the night. I had my Visa ready, but it’s also easy to get one in Nanning, and for Swedish and some other nationalities we can even get a 15-day visa on the border without the 400 Yuan fee of the 30-day one.
The train set off at 18:20 and I shared my compartment with a young couple form north China who only spoke Chinese, and another young woman who spoke both Chinese, English and Vietnamese. After having proven to be able to speak a tiny bit of Chinese I was invited to participate in the conversation, whenever I was able to understand anything. Travelling with groups of Chinese makes me a very good listener, as it requires my absolute attention and I have no time to come up with anything to say myself!
The train ride was mostly uneventful. The first border call came around 22:30, and we had to pack up all our belongings and disembark at a station in the middle of nowhere. The procedure was very similar to entering or exiting China at an airport, so no surprises. After everyone had been through immigration we got back on the train and continued on. I got a small nap before the next stop, which was over an hour later and later than I had anticipated. The Vietnamese procedure was not as orderly as the Chinese, and from the looks of it the station building was much older and had not always been used for immigration screening. The process took longer, but during the waiting my exceptionally nice compartment friend (which had been doing this trip a few times before) helped me with both money exchange and getting a Vietnamese SIM-card with unlimited data for a month. These things were what I’d worried most about, so I was happy to get it all sorted that easy, from a vendor in the station building. After having been screened by some serious looking military officers we were allowed back into the train, to catch a good 5 hours sleep before arriving in Hanoi.