The Friendship Pass
The Friendhip Pass connects China and Vietnam between Pingxiang and Dong Dang. It shouldn't be comfused with the Friendship Highway which connects the Tibetan Autonomous Region with Nepal, or the Friendhip Bridge which connects Laos and Vietnam with China, further West.
I must say, if all land borders are as straightforward as the Friendship Pass, we'll be in for an easy trip. We caught an overnight train from Guangzhou to Nanning, getting in at 0430; played cards with Ben and Jenny, an English couple on the same train, traveling from London to settle in Australia - tattooed, pierced, dreadlocked and all round decent folk. Got the 0758 to Pingxiang, arriving at 1140. Coming out of the station there were more than the usual hundreds of motorcycle and taxi touts - there's nothing much to do in Pingxiang other than cross the border, so they all want to take you right there. Besieged by six or ten of them was an asian dude with a backpack and an atlas: Taiji, a Japanese science teacher taking six months off from teaching before starting two years voluntary work in rural Mongolia. We split up, with Deb, Jenny and I settling down for a beer and the other three going to the Bank of China to change some kuai into dong. BoC couldn't change money, so it was off to the black marketeers - Ben ended up getting more than he bargained for - he traded enough kuai for about 1,100,000d and came out with about 1,400,000. Checking the notes at the bank, apparently they're all real.
Two motocabs took us to the border. There's a good seal road in both directions - it clearly gets a lot of bus and truck traffic in the right season, but on this particular day we were almost the only people there. The pass is a cleft in a jagged range of karts hills, with thick jungle on both sides, and very little development. Not long ago (post American War) this was a semi-active warzone between China and Vietnam. If you ignore the earthmovers and the hollow steel and concrete and glass buildings, it's a beautiful place. It's sleepy, the guards are unarmed and slow to respond. Security is lax enough that we could, and did, walk right through Vietnamese passport control, customs and immigration without anyone saying boo; realising our mistake, we turned around and bothered people until they gave us forms and so on to sign.
There were two cars on the other side; i thought it strange that there were only two, but that's all we needed, and they settled on a fair price, so off we went. True to form, they dropped us off at the 'minibus station' where we were quoted 200,000d per person to Ha Noi - a realistic price is 30,000d. We weren't having this, and quoted 20,000d each back to him, then 200,000d for all of us. Furious bargaining ensued, during which we thought, fuck it, let's just walk the rest of the way into Lang Son and go to the real bus station. He walked along next to us dropping by 50,000d every few minutes; eventually he went back to the minibus, which drove slowly alongside, lowering the price even further. By the time he caved in and agreed to 200,000d, we'd decided by coin toss to stay in Lang Son and go to Ha Noi in the morning. He was very disappointed.
We stopped for a beer, served warm with ice in the glass, at a curious faux-French colonial building painted yellow; it's still not clear what the purpose of the establishment was, since they clearly didn't serve much beer; only bottles of Ha Noi Vodka and some other booze in white porcelain bottles. We theorised it may have been a whorehouse, but if it was, it was one of the most subtle I've ever seen; nothing lurid about it, no tarty girls or made-up madams. Eventually we found the My Son Hotel (My Son is in Vietnamese - there's a ~ over the y and a ' over the o - no idea what it means) - big rooms with aircon and cold showers, of which we quickly availed ourselves.
Next door to My Son, a cafe served beers on tap for 3,000d each - US$1 is about 15,000d - and we sat and nattered with the locals for some hours. There were repeated arguments over price - it appears the Vietnamese can't count, add or subtract. If they were trying to rip us off, I expect they could have done better than 4,000d. The whole of Lang Son shuts down at about 2100 - everything dark except an internet room and a roadside dairy; the hotel opened up their restaurant for us, woke the chef up and all. We're going to have to realign our daycycles.
Initial impressions of Vietnam are that the countryside is similar to Southern China, but the people and architecture and culture are very different. Perhaps it's a border-town thing, but rural Vietnamese seem savvier and a bit more tricky than rural Chinese, and overall Vietnamese seem a lot friendlier and more outgoing; more prepared to have a talk or share a beer or some food or something, even if neither speaks a word of the other's language.
Today is going to be all about Ca Phe Phin (Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk) and croissants wwhen we get to Ha Noi.