Yesterday we crossed the Chinese border into north-west Vietnam.
It was a long day for me, having taken our first malaria tablets the night before, I was experiencing side-effects of stomach pains. Both of us hadn’t slept well and had had vivid dreams, a more common side-effect. We’d originally planned the malaria tablets mainly for Cambodia and Laos, but as we have now decided against travelling beyond Vietnam, a little research suggested it can be a good idea to have malaria pills in Vietnam too. Most of the cities and coastal places we might visit are low to no risk, but Sapa, the day’s destination, is a higher risk. My sensible brain said better safe than sorry, malaria is for life after all. We both decided to start the course and only stop if we experienced bad side-effects. We went with the more expensive malarone in the end, the one with the least problems.
I almost fainted at the bus stop by our hostel. With the train tickets and that night’s hostel in Sapa booked, I felt determined to do the journey thinking at any moment the dizziness and tummy ache could pass. Perhaps Mischa enjoyed the twenty minute bus ride to the station, I still occasionally get car sick and had to focus on not being ill.
It was a 5.5 hour train journey from Kunming to the Chinese border town of Hekou. Going for the cheapest option of hard seat at 54.5元 each (we’d previously promised ourselves never to go by hard seat overnight again) we found ourselves on a hard sleeper carriage, great, a bed for the price of a seat! No, no one could use the upper and middle bunks and four people were crammed onto each lower bunk. A different type of hard seat than before. At first we were a little grumpy, but then eased into the situation. As Mr. Wada explained to us in Kumakogen, positivity attracts positivity. We smiled and said hello to our loud seat-mates who promptly gave us a pomegranate to share and we tried their fresh peanuts. Soon after sitting down, a policeman came to us and took photos of our train ticket and passports without explaining why.
The journey went slowly, and the closer we got to Vietnam the more hills and palm trees there were. So many hills in fact that towards the end the line became 90% tunnel, with only the briefest glimpses into jungly valleys.
Arriving into Hekou Bei (North) Railway station, the police there also stopped us and took photos of our passports again. Heading out of the station I had read there was a bus to catch to the border, as the north train station was outside the main town. There was no clear information or official looking person to help us, and we were feeling swamped by all the taxi drivers not taking no for an answer. One of our seat-mates must have spotted us looking forlorn and came to help us look for the right bus, she couldn’t find it either. She led us to a police van instead and simply opened the door and gestured for us to jump in. It was very confusing, and our immediate reaction was no, let’s not jump into the back of a Chinese police van. She read our faces well and bargained with the female taxi driver staring at us. It’s a shame we didn’t find the bus, it feels like giving up when we have to get a taxi. For 20元 (£2.29) she drove us to the border, passing what looked like the yellow public bus to the border.
After entering the exit to China for those coming from Vietnam, we were waved out and found the correct exit of China and entry to Vietnam up an escalator. The process was quick, barely 15 minutes and that includes dawdling on the bridge across the Nanxi River. On the Chinese side, the border official went through every page in our passports. Mischa was questioned about his trip to India, my stamps being in a previous passport. I was asked if I spoke Chinese, a bit more light hearted. On the Vietnamese side, I was asked where I was visiting in Vietnam and for how long. He told me I didn’t need this visa, I had to explain that yes I did as I planned to stay longer than two weeks and wanted to cross back into China where the e-visa is not valid. Oh ok, he replied.
Lào Cai is the Vietnamese town we entered. For China, Japan and Korea we did not get any money out in advance, we just found the first cash machine which usually worked. The first ATM opposite the border did not work. We had a list of banks which do not charge withdrawal fees but decided just to get out money at the first one we saw, we still didn’t know exactly how to get to Sapa. Walking down the main road and crossing right over the bridge, we found a bank which worked but charged. After getting out several million dong, we turned around to see one of the banks we knew was free on the road opposite – sod’s law.
On the useful offline app maps.me, there is a bus stop called “Sapa” which we headed to with no more information than that. Asking the locals waiting at the bus sign they nodded, and one woman said “I go Sapa too, bus maybe 10 minutes”. We attempted conversation with a man staring at us from his moped wearing shoes with the Union Jack on, he found it funny. Every time a bus came by, they all gestured it wasn’t the right one. Half an hour later the public bus turned up, the red and yellow number 2, and for 30,000 dong (£1) each we travelled for about an hour climbing high into the mountains.
This journey was the worst part of the day for me. My stomach pains had come back along with a pounding headache. This did not mix well with the bumpiest and scariest road we’ve been on this trip. It was beautiful scenery of course, climbing up and up into the lushious green mountains, but unfortunately for you guys reading this, we only managed a few blurry photos – I spent 45 minutes with eyes closed trying not to be car sick. Given the interesting overtaking manoeuvres round bends while the driver was on his phone, Mischa said it was for the best I couldn’t see.
We’re in a nice family run hostel/hotel and ate good food last night before collapsing early for bed. I decided to take another malaria pill, thinking maybe only the first one is bad and spotting the odd mosquito in the evening. It was the right decision to persevere, neither of us have felt ill today or even had weird dreams last night. We’re also lucky to be in Sapa in November with very little fog, meaning great views across the valleys.