It’s early morning. I am standing at a street corner and the rain is making me and my backpack wet. I am waiting for the bus from Hanoi to Nanning, China.
Around me is a merry crowd of Chinese people. The Chinese carry huge sacks – they probably came to Vietnam to buy stuff and are now going back to sell it. Luckily, if I succeed getting on the bus (I have no ticket, the crowd around me is big and getting bigger), I won’t be travelling on my own. Anna is going to Nanning as well.
Who is Anna? Well, the person who told me about this bus, of course.
It’s early morning at the hostel, the day before. It’s breakfast time and I’ve just come down to the buffet area. Sitting at one table are four people – two girls and two guys – whom I’ve seen around the hostel the previous days. One of them is the agitated Canadian girl, who is not agitated anymore. They invite me to join and this is how I first meet Anna.
While we eat, we have the usual travellers’ chat where one’s been and where one’s going. I mention that my next destination should be Shanghai, yet I have not figured what the best way to get to there is just yet. Maybe by train?
Maybe not, says Anna. Turns out Vietnam is Anna’s last stop (after travelling around southwest China, and Laos) before heading back to Beijing. Her school is about to start. Anna is a Master’s student at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, and can speak decent Chinese (and many other languages for that matter, thanks to her Polish/German background). She tells me about a bus from Hanoi to Nanning for only $15. This is less than half the price of the train ticket. Anna is taking that bus and then flying to Beijing – domestic flights in China cost less and are plentiful. As for me, I could easily get on a train or fly to Shanghai from there.
After breakfast the four of us (minus the Canadian) go to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, then Anna helps the two Dutch guys apply for a Chinese visa at the embassy. After that we all sit at a café. By that time I’ve already made my mind that the bus is the way to go. On the map Anna shows me the location of the travel agency and I leave the others to get a ticket.
I find the office and I realize it is a company which does not cater to foreigners – perhaps the very reason why its tickets are so cheap. It also seems that the place is run by Chinese. Anyway, the two people there speak very limited English. For some unclear reason they are not able to issue me a ticket, but I manage to grasp that I can come in the next morning and get the ticket directly from the bus driver, no problem. The bus won’t be full.
Won’t be? As I am looking at the cheerful Chinese crowd around me now, I am not sure about it at all…
Then the bus comes, and it is not empty. There are some passengers already! Then its front door opens and the chaos begins! There is no line, everyone frantically pushes their stuff into the luggage compartments underneath and scrambles to get inside. As I have no ticket, I make a heroic – or should I say pathetic – attempt to be among the first, but I am pushed away. Then – with a bit of counter-pushing on my own – I squeeze in and hand a $20 banknote to a girl inside. At that moment she is under multiple such attacks, so she takes my passport, hands me the ticket and indicates she’ll give me a $5 change “later, later”.
I’ve made it, and I’m very happy about it. Anna and I sit, the chaos gradually subsides and the bus leaves. We are the only two “foreigners” on the bus. Amazingly, a couple of seats have remained unoccupied. The reason: many people came to see other people off, not to travel themselves. Who would’ve guessed…
No one is coming to give me my $5 change. The girl who took my money and issued me the ticket is gone – she stayed at the travel agency. She has been replaced by another girl. Anna goes to her and explains in Chinese that I’m supposed to get $5 back. The girl says she is sorry (while she is clearly not), and that no one told her anything about it. It is not possible to give me any change, period.
Then we get to the border. While it is not as bad as the previous border I recently crossed – Thailand to Cambodia, it has its idiosyncrasies too. Other people have written about it here and here. The Vietnamese side is very chaotic indeed. Getting through feels no different from getting on the bus earlier that day – no lines, no order, push and pull, etc. The moment we cross over to the Chinese side it is ordnung, ordnung and ordnung. Brand new building, clear signs in English, officers forming neat lines. We are through in no time.
Earlier that day, the bus stopped at a roadside complex for snack and toilet. Anna and I got a bowl of soup each (there was no other option), and sat to eat. Then Sammi came to our table.
Sammi was a girl in her twenties, one of the other travellers on the bus. Smiling, she showed me a tourist pass from Angkor Wat in Cambodia with her photo, and then pointed at my T-shirt. For absolutely no reason, that day I happened to be wearing a T-shirt from Angkor Wat featuring the Bayon Temple. We started talking in English (she was struggling, but she clearly knew quite a bit, only was afraid to speak).
At first I thought that she was Cambodian – because she did look like one. Then she spoke in Vietnamese to the waiters, and I reasoned that she would be Vietnamese. But she came out Chinese – and Anna immediately took on the chance for some Mandarin chit-chat. Sammi had worked in Vietnam and in Cambodia but now she had secured a new, supposedly better, job in Shanghai – where she was going now – to translate documents from Vietnamese to Chinese.
Her previous jobs in Cambodia and Vietnam had been working as interpreter at hotels whose owners were Chinese and which catered to Chinese guests (gamblers, if you cared to know). She was keen on continuing her study of English in Shanghai. Like many young Chinese, she was really focused on advancing. Mind you, in a land of a billion people to get ahead takes extraordinary efforts.
Anna asked the driver to drop her on the highway near the Nanning airport. I hoped to see her soon in Beijing (the city that I planned visiting after Shanghai). The bus took another hour to get to Nanning and yet another hour to traverse it (the city is the capital of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and is quite big). The bus made two stops (luckily Sammi was there to tell me not to get off just yet) and we finally reached the bus-station. I had not a single yuan, so I traded $10 with her. She also bought me a SIM card and we exchanged our phone numbers. For the next four days she would be here, visiting many friends. She’d graduated from the local university. We made an arrangement to meet on the following evening – and I left for my hostel, supposedly located within walking distance from the bus station.
A few words
Funny how it all happened because of the Cambodian T-shirt I was wearing that day?
Well then, consider this. Like I said, I only found out about this bus to Nanning thanks to Anna.
I met Anna at the hostel in Hanoi.
Dozens of hostels exist in Hanoi. How did I pick this one in the first place?
I found about it purely by chance from a flier at the Spicy Backpackers hostel at Vang Vieng, Laos.
There are three Spicy hostels in total. I had first visited the one in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I loved it, so in Laos I went for Spicy again and again.
But I’d never find out about Spicy hadn’t Brent recommended it to me.
Brent was a friend of Kara’s and was only passing by Bangkok for a day.
I happened to be going out with Kara that day.
Kara was a friend of Isaac’s, and he’d introduced me to her.
Isaac was the first person I met at Bangkok.
Because he responded to my note on Couchsurfing.
And the person who told me about Couchsurfing… well… let’s stop here.