One of the perks of living in Kunming is being able to board a bus or train, go to sleep and wake up somewhere completely different – be it at the base of a Himalayan peak, a beach on the Gulf of Tonkin, or border areas with Burma, Laos or Vietnam. We recently traveled overland by bus and train to Hanoi, the sprawling but charming capital of Vietnam.
To the Border by Bus
The first stage of our overland journey to Hanoi was an eight-hour express bus from Kunming's east long distance bus station to the Yunnan-Vietnam border crossing at Hekou (河口), located at the confluence of the Red River (红河) and the tributary Nanxi River (南溪河).
As we prepared to board our overnight bus in Kunming a rail-thin young man approached us in an oversized security guard uniform. The man, who may or may not have been a legitimate bus station employee, claimed in broken English that there was a luggage fee for stowing modestly sized backpacks under the bus.
Reasonable amounts of baggage are included in the fare for long distance buses and none of the Chinese passengers were paying anything to stow their luggage. After the man was told in Chinese to stop his scamming and bug off he apologized and tried to strike up a conversation. This would-be scammer was operating with impunity in front of bus station employees and the driver of the bus.
Unfortunately, we weren't awake the next time somebody tried to steal from us. In the night a thief sliced open our backpack, which was underneath our legs, which were covered in a blanket, and made off with a considerable sum of money. The police in Hekou said such thefts are common.
The Hekou border crossing is a low-tech affair. A few trucks cross the bridge over the Nanxi River, but the majority of cargo flows across the border on human backs, wheeled carts or large tricycles.
After crossing the border from Hekou to the town of Lao Cai, travelers can take a bus trip to the scenic frontier town of Sapa or continue on to Hanoi by train or bus.
The bridge across the Red River meets up with Duong (road) Nguyen Hue in Lao Cai, the street on which the train station is located. Vietnam time is an hour behind China and after spending an hour locating a working ATM, the 30-minute march down Duong Nguyen Hue landed us at the train station just in time for the 9:15am to Hanoi.
After skirting the scalpers milling about at the entrance to the train station, we went straight to the ticket window where soft seats to Hanoi were available for 135,000 dong (about US$7 at 18,800 dong to the dollar). The 10-hour train ride from Lao Cai to Hanoi along the winding French-built railroad is slow, but follows the Red River for most of the journey and offers some pleasant views of the Vietnamese countryside.
Once in Hanoi, we decided to get away from the frenetic tourist area north of Hoan Kiem Lake and spend some time wandering Hanoi's tranquil back alleys.
After a bit of walking, we had worked up a thirst. In addition to the low-alcohol fresh draft beer known as bia hoi, there are decent pilsners and dark lagers made by local Hanoi brewers. Walking back from the Chinese embassy to Hoan Kiem Lake one can stop in at Goldmalt Restaurant, located two blocks south and a little east from the embassy at 34G Tran Phu, for a refreshing brew served in a chilled mug.
Beer aside, Hanoi is also a staging point for a two- or three-day tour of Halong Bay, which usually consists of sleeping for a night on a boat anchored in the bay. Although we never take package tours in China, a package tour appeared to be the best option. The tour had some of the downsides of packaged tours such as bad food and forced activities, but it did afford the chance for swimming in the ocean and viewing a stunning sunset from a boat.
Buses from Kunming to Hekou depart from the new East Bus Station. There are 11 buses daily between 9:40am and 8:20pm. Departures during the evening are sleeper buses. Strangely, the Hekou bus station lists only seven daily return buses: 8:45am, 10:50am, 12:30pm, and 1:00pm for day buses; and 8:00pm, 8:10pm, and 8:20pm for sleeper buses. What happens to the four extra buses is a mystery.
Signs posted outside the Hekou long distance bus station are in Chinese only and the station might be difficult to find for people traveling from Vietnam and who can't read Chinese characters. To get to the back entrance, walk straight out from the border bridge, taking a detour to the right to go through customs, and then returning to the road, it is about 150 meters down on the left side. Keep your eyes peeled for a parking lot with buses. Alternately, after crossing the border, follow the road alongside the river for a few blocks and it is on the right side.
Chinese Renminbi and Vietnamese Dong can be exchanged at the Bank of China branch in Hekou, two blocks northwest (away from the border crossing) from the bus station.
The Hekou border crossing opens at 8am China time and closes at 6pm. That's 7am and 5pm in Vietnam time.
There are several ATMs in Lao Cai, but many of them do not accept certain international cards. Chinese Union Pay cards tend to work on ATMs that are labeled as accepting Union Pay. There are also money changers positioned alongside Duong Nguyen Hue just down from the Lao Cai entry and exit building.
If you find yourself in Hanoi on a Chinese visa mission, take note that the consular services section of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi does not issue tourist visas to non-residents of Vietnam.
It is possible to obtain a Z visa with an invitation letter that indicates one should apply in Hanoi, as well as supporting documents, but other applicants will be turned away. Visa agents in Hanoi send passports to the Chinese consulate in Saigon for processing, which takes several days.© Copyright 2005-2019 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.