It’s possible to travel overland from Vietnam all the way to Hong Kong within 24 hours. If you plan ahead, it is only a matter of two trains and then two metro lines taking you to Kowloon. One train to Nanning then a second to Shenzhen, the Chinese city which borders Hong Kong. In the end we took longer timewise splitting up the journey to spend one night in Nanning, and an extra unplanned train journey.
Overnight train: Hanoi Gia Lam – Nanning
For only £25 each, there is a daily overnight train from a railway station in the north of Hanoi (not the main Hanoi Railway Station where we bought the tickets) to Nanning in China. It’s a Chinese train and the only option is soft sleeper (4 berth compartments with lockable door) meaning it was the only soft sleeper we actually took in our threeand a bit months in China. It seemed like the rest of the passengers were chinese, about 30-40 of us in total, and it turned out we had a compartment to ourselves. This might have been because of the vietnamese woman who booked our ticket, wanting to put foreigners with foreigners and chinese with chinese. Given the history of the two countries and the current rivalry with regards to the South China Sea, some of the vietnamese we’d met weren’t too friendly about their neighbours. Mischa had been even been warned not to wear his Beijing Ducks basketball jersey too much. It meant we both got bottom bunks, though the compartment was a little garish to say the least.
It left at 21:20 and after a quick beer and some snacks (bought with the last of our vietnamese dong) we fell asleep easily. With sleeper trains we’ve learnt it’s best to get comfy and try to get as much sleep as possible, you never know how disruptive your neighbours will be, or how long border crossings will take. At 1am there was a knock on the door. It woke me up, but not Mischa, he slept through all the following knocks (and even his alarm in the morning). I opened the door to a guard who showed me the translated word in chinese for ‘border’ on his phone. Time to go. We picked up our bags and jumped off the train at Dong Dang station. Dong Dang station is currently being refurbished. Moving around the scaffolding, buidling material and security guards we ceremoniously put our bags through a security scanner then joined a queue. The border guards liked Mischa’s beard, pointing to their own chins then to his, and the process took about 15 minutes.
Back on the train and after a few more hours sleep, there was another knock at around 5am for the Chinese border control at Pingxiang. Back to China, back to needlessly huge buildings. This took a little longer as the chinese border officers are usually very thorough. Every page was checked, the brand spanking new US visa was consider for a long time. Mischa was asked to stand aside whereas I was allowed to pass when saying I was with him. Maybe they didn’t like his beard. After presumably some extra check by an additional guard he was allowed to pass, however we had no departure cards that we usually receive to fill out and hold on to, they state we need them to leave the country. This was seemingly difficult to translate at first, then a guard disappeared and came back with a handful of them, more than ten. We won’t run out now!
Waking up around 8am and peeking out the window, we noticed the train was passing through the chinese version of Tam Coc. And in true chinese style, the karsts were bigger, seemed to cover a larger area and arguably more impressive. We arrived on time to Nanning just after 10am in the morning.
The Green City
Nanning is the capital of Guangxi province and it is full of gardens and parks. Given our brief visit of less than 24 hours, we chose one park and headed there. Unforunately we had to do our welcome-back-to-China ritual of visiting China Mobile to get our SIM card working again. This time we had no success. We’d taken some advice from a fellow traveller that it’s best to disable the SIM before leaving China to prevent any extra costs, and we thought this may be why we previously returned to a debt of 1.4 yuan. However, turning it off for three weeks deemed it unused and probably the number had already been recycled and given to a new person. The only way we could get it back was to visit the same branch we got it in, Harbin, or, pay more than we have paid so far to get a new SIM set up. We decided against either choice and became internetless. Luckily this was no problem during our short time in Nanning, the park, the hostel and both train stations all lie on the single working metro line.
Nanhu park was a large rectangular lake with greenery and walking paths around the edge.It gave fantasic views of skyscrapers in the background over the lake. We paused a long time to watch some men working a net by the bridge across the middle. It seemed like hard, slow work. After this we headed back towards the city centre for some food. Dinner was eaten with sugar cane juice on Zhongshan Lu (中山路 or ‘middle mountain road’, almost every city has one). With street vendors, restaurants and cart sellers, this main road and side streets were full of people and interesting smells. The lower and older buildings, only a couple of stories high, were overshadowed by the looming office towers. A familar scene in many chinese cities. We ate well, although I’d read/heard wrong and picked a noodle soup dish with fish balls.
Train: Nanning Dong (East) – Guangzhou Nan (South) – Shenzhen Bei (North)
On arrival to Nanning, before we’d explored, we took ourselves back into the train station, no easy task in China. As trains stations mimic airports, there’s special exits for those getting off a train, so they can leave without getting in the way of those trying to find their train. After taking the exit, we had to find the entrance queues, show our passports in the first check then join another queue to put our bags through the security scanners, just to buy a ticket. We were lucky this time there were only the two queues, some stations we’ve had to go through security checks more than once.
Unfortunately, the direct trains to Shenzhen the next day were already sold out. This was potentially a disaster given we’d already booked a place in Hong Kong for that night. Luckily, the helpful ticket staff suggested an alternative route and we did our first transfer in China. The journey to Guangzhou took four hours (the same if direct to Shenzhen), an hour wait at the station, then a half hour train to Shenzhen. You really do need a long time to transfer in China, when following the exit signs you have to keep your eye out for transfer signs as well, leading you back into the terminal-like waiting area above the platform. This is especially frustrating if you’re entering a newly built high speed railway station, they are huge. It may only take a few minutes to walk from one end to the other, but it takes a lot lot longer when full of Chinese people!
On the firt stretch to Guangzhou we passed through even more mesmerising landscape similar to Tam Coc in Vietnam, but without the tour fee and millions of tourists!
The Futian Checkpoint
There are numerous land and sea crossings into Hong Kong from Shenzhen. Coming from Shenzhen North station, the easiest way was to head south on Line 4 of the metro to the Futian checkpoint. This is the western land border where you walk yourself across the bridge over the Sham Cun River which divides the regions. On the Chinese side the passports were thoroughly checked as always, Mischa had a bit of trouble again. It seemed like the officer didn’t believe who he was. He’s used to having to stand up (when we’ve been on trains), take his glasses off and wait while they try to picture him without the new beard. I only have to move my head to face officials and I’m deemed unthreatening. This time Mischa was asked what his name was (if you had a fake passport surely that’s the first thing you’d memorise) and then for another form of ID. Luckily he had his driving license on him easily that day and didn’t have to unpack in front of everyone. The officer considered this for a long time and eventually let him through. Phew. Around the corner, through the ID and passport scanners, was, of course, an xray machine for luggage. However, no one was manning it and most where simply walking past. We paused and a friendly Hong Kong man joked at how bad the chinese are at security. We copied him and put our bags through anyway. On the Hong Kong side the process was quicker and smoother. We had made it to Hong Kong. Then we followed the signs to the metro which took us to Kowloon, easy peasy.