When the bus stops at the border, one has to drag one’s bag for about 150 metres to a huge building of the Chinese border security still under construction. Once they examine all the papers — old visa, current visa, re-entry visa, Vietnamese visa in the other passport, reference letter from the university I work at — I’m let through the “Friendship Gate”, along which women peddle mangos, prepackaged shreds of dried squid, and candy on a blanket on the ground, and offer money exchange.
One of the notes has a plastic transparent inset that makes it look like monopoly money, but I see that all other passengers, including the Guangzhou girl on a 5 day holiday to Halong Bay, are taking them as a matter of course, so I change a quarter of the cash I carry, intended for a week in Hanoi. I was warned there are bank card readers installed on most ATM’s in Vietnam, so I have to exchange only at major hotels and at bank counters, rather than machines with open access, and — well, the usual: carry cash.
Then there is the Vietnamese building, shabby and kinda dingy as if it was not broom-swept, let alone refurbished, from the 1960s, when it was built before the Sino-Vietnamese war. More indepth examination of visas, both passports, tax for a “medical check up” that the bureaucrat charges for without a medical unit in sight, and a compulsory money exchange at a exorbitant rate — luckily of a small amount of money.
Another, much less comfortable bus, albeit with the same dual Chinese/Vietnamese logo of the tourist agency, and we’re off. China has been home for 3 years and it is “mine”. Vietnam is my oyster to discover for the Golden Week.
The vegetation is even more jungle-like lush than in Southern China. Paddy fields are more elongated and less orderly, rectangles are imperfect, there are even triangular ones atop curved sloping hills. In quite a few, tombstones mark ancestral graves. Most houses in the villages along the “highway” — a concrete-paved road one third in width of the real highway in Guangxi to the border — are green. There are four shades, from deep jade to a kind of a washed, pale, off-turquoise green, but green’s the colour.
People in straw hats work water buffalo ploughs, or travel in water buffalo-pulled carts. The edge of the country near China has been a dead-end in the wake of the short, deadly war with the Chinese, another in the Vietnamese long line of debilitating fights for survival against mightier, but less tenacious occupiers, the French, and the Yanks… As we approach the capital, heavily overloaded scooters become more frequent on the road, with slow increase in the number of cars.
Eventually, we see a large, outdated structure of the bridge across the Red River. Less than 10 km after that, the bustling metropolis, a bizarre mixture of Colonial French, faux-American (like the Philippines), and old Sino-Vietnamese wooden architecture awaits me to discover it. Within minutes we find ourselves amidst the hustle and bustle of people milling to and fro, squeezing through crowded winding streets between honking scooters, bell ringing bicycle rickshaws, rumbling taxi cars, old fashioned buses, the like of which you remember seeing in your mom’s high school photos, whose Diesel engines cackle as they leave behind clouds of exhaust fumes, millions of wires hang low on wooden poles connecting to open junction boxes glued to balconies on mid-19th century wooden houses painted in colours that once were lively but have been washed away in the humid and hot monsoon climate…
On the right I notice a shallow lake with the temple on a protruding finger jutting into the middle, towards a miniscule islet donned with a three-tier pagoda, that seems as old as the time itself, and strangely solemn amidst the commotion. Hoan Kiem, I remember from the guide book that I perused for a couple of days in Nanning and then left on a bedside table instead of packing it in my carry on. Luckily, I didn’t forget my camera, as a most fascinating and totally unknown city is opening for me like a labyrinth in a computer game, an experience that, after years of travel the world over, only a few exotic destinations can still offer.