The plan was simple – I would fly out of Saigon back to Hong Kong, clear some unfinished business there, catch up with some friends and then go into China. From there I would catch a succession of trains back into Northern Vietnam and then take the Reunification Express back down to Saigon. Two weeks, max, I thought and that was that.
Looking for a cheap flight from Saigon to Hong Kong involved the rather tortuous route of leaving Saigon on Tuesday 23 April at 9:00 AM for a flight to Singapore and a stopover there just long enough for lunch before the Singapore to Hong Kong leg, arriving there at 6:00 PM, a 9 hour trip for a standard 2 and a half hour direct flight. No such thing as a cheap flight, or perhaps no such thing as a cheap, direct flight.
But never mind, the whole point of flying to Hong Kong was to take a succession of trains all the way back through southern China and down into Northern Vietnam, stopping in Hanoi and all points south until I arrived back where I had started from.
Of course, such things as booking in advance and confirming trains and sleepers (not to mention hotels) didn’t actually occur to me. Booking in advance requires a bit of dedicated effort, organization and forward planning and while I enjoy the forward planning part as in where, how and when will I go, I never seem to get around to the grittier part of finding a hotel in advance in a place I’ve never been to before. Anyway, I have always been a great believer in serendipity and so far things have always worked out rather nicely. With a place the size of China – or for that matter, most places in the world, other than the eve of an world event like the Olympics or the World Cup – I have always been confident that I could find a place to stay without too much bother.
Furthermore, China has one of the largest and most extensive rail networks in the world, not to mention some of the fastest and most modern trains on some routes and I didn’t seriously envisage any problems in getting a sleeper given that I was being fairly flexible with dates. Arriving in Hong Kong on Tuesday night, I thought it might be nice to leave any time the following week.
So that when I fronted up in the China Travel Service (CTS) – a semi-government travel agent service for all of China – near Southern Playground in Wanchai, manned by smiling functionaries in attractive purple uniforms – looking for a soft sleeper, lower berth, please, from Shenzhen, just over the Hong Kong border to Guangzhou and from there on to Nanning, and then on to Hanoi, I was rather taken aback when I was told all trains were fully booked.
No problem getting a train to Guangzhou – I could either take the Hong Kong run MTR direct train from Hong Hom in Hong Kong itself, or cross over the border at Lo Wu and catch the high speed train – apparently they are so frequent that no booking is necessary – from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, but that was it, as far as CTS was concerned. Every train from Guangzhou to all points north, south and west, was booked.
“Impossible” I blurted, almost tempted to slip a few dollars across the counter to lubricate the transaction before I remembered that I was in Hong Kong and while such things may be commonplace in Vietnam or in China, they would be frowned upon, to put it mildly, in Hong Kong.
“Next Wednesday is May 01 and a national holiday in China, sir and many people take the opportunity to take several days off work. We call it a “Golden Week” for nearly all travel services are long booked up. The next available train from Guangzhou to Nanning will be on Monday 06 May. Would you like me to book that?”
Much as I like Hong Kong, after all, I had lived there for 12 years – so why had I forgotten about “Golden Week”? you’d wonder. I really didn’t want to spent a week there cooling my heels while waiting for a train, but I didn’t appear to have much choice.
Time for a beer and to revise my travel “plans”. I certainly didn’t want to fly and neither did I like long distance buses nor did I want to hang around in (expensive) Hong Kong, so what did that leave me?
The next day I decided to leave anyway and to hell with them all. Not on a real train, I suppose, just on the Hong Kong MTR up to the border at Lo Wu. Through immigration and onto the Chinese equivalent, the MRT and an hour’s ride down to Shekou, outside of Shenshen, the same ilk as the Fremantle of Perthor the Dun Laoghaire of Dublin.
At least, I am in China, I consoled myself and the hotels are cheaper and just as good and I know some excellent restaurants. Wandering out that night to one of my favourite bars I saw a small travel agent and on the off chance, went in to enquire. No problem, no explanations, but yes, I could get a train from Guangzhou to Nanning the next day, provided I could show my passport to the travel agency. Back to the hotel, grab the passport and rush back to the hole in the wall travel agency before it closes on Sunday night at 7:00PM and it is already 6:45.
Even more surprising – and pleasing – the price was significantly cheaper than the Hong Kong price quoted by the purple pups back in the Hong Kong CTS, even allowing for the difference in the exchange rate between Hong Kong dollars and Chinese Reminbi Yuan.
The next day, after a super spicy Xiangiang noodle breakfast, back on the MRT to Shenzhen and into the cavernous station outside Lo Wu Shopping Centre City. Teeming with would-be passengers, and über cool touts, offering copy watches, handbags and sexy DVD’s, all manner of bags, suitcases, bales and assorted bundles piled up, young girls swaying past on incredibly high heels, youths lolling on small baggage trolleys, old, wizened men crouching on their haunches, cigarettes cupped in gnarly hands, I began to wonder just how I was going to fight my way through the throng.