Nanning is a modest Chinese city at with a population of a mere 8.5 million, around the same as Singapore. It has a decidedly tropical climate and is situated in a large basin amid surrounding mountains. Situated on a picturesque river, the city is quite pretty, sporting the usual array of high rise buildings. Traffic is bad, with many cars and a lot of motorbikes, which tend to park all over the footpath in places and make walking difficult. E-bikes are less common than further north for some reason. A subway system is currently under construction and should ease some of the traffic issues.
The long train trip from Shanghai was comfortable enough, although I had to put up with a small boy behind who liked to slam the footstool (which was attached to the back of my seat) and another young man who liked to put his feet against the back of my seat and push. The scenery was more reminiscent of Vietnam, with small rice paddies on terraced hillsides and lots of small hamlets dotting the countryside. The regular appearance of a smoke spewing coal fired power station burning vast amounts of Queensland coal kept the atmosphere grey and clogged. Our arrival at Nanning Dong Railway Station was quite late, around 10pm and with another 40 minutes of driving into the city centre ahead of us we took the rare step of using one of those private car services.
One job we had to do while in Nanning was to pick up the train tickets to Hanoi, something one can only do in Nanning and Guilin. We had pre-booked them online through www.chinatripadvisor.com but still needed the tickets in hand. We showed a taxi driver the address but it didn’t register too well so he rang and sorted it out with them. After negotiating many traffic jams, he stopped and pointed to a shabby high rise and indicated that the journey was done. We paid and got out to search further, trying a number of places before being directed around the side alley to the rear of the building, through a security gate and into a small and very smelly lift, along with more people than the lift was ever designed to carry. Our destination was Room 1616 so we sailed up to floor 16 of the 32 and got out, followed a dimly lit and grubby corridor for a bit to Room 1616. Luckily, the door was open and two girls sat at desks, both beaming at our sudden appearance. They produced the tickets and all appeared in order but the whole thing was quite creepy.
We wandered the fashion area of the city for a while and decided to do Japanese for lunch, having come across a nice looking sushi restaurant. Negotiating the menu was almost impossible, with no less than three waitresses pointing at things and trying very hard to communicate without luck. It took 10 minutes to order two beers with the girl writing down 1 every time we indicated that we wanted one each. When they did come, two ice cold mugs of Asahi, we noted with dismay that the bill still had a 1 on it. Finally, we realised that one bottle served two mugs. Of course, this meant that we were entitled to another. Choosing the sushi flavours was harder. Google Translate kept popping up things like “golden lady bent pipes” so we gave up and just pointed and hoped. Each order came out as two pieces of sushi arranged like a work of art on the plate, artistically plated with amazing dressings and delicate toppings. It was a shame to disturb them but the taste was sensational. We ordered another round. One waitress persisted with us and hovered a lot and when Christine produced a little kangaroo keyring for her she was beside herself and rushed off to show the others what the crazy Americans had given her.
All around our hotel is market country, with wonderful vegetable markets and seafood displays. The usual pungent odour of wet markets is absent and wandering around and looking is a delight. Most of the seafood is sold live, including the crabs, prawns and lobsters, all existing in large troughs with recirculating filtered water. When I see a large live coral reef fish like a coral trout swimming in a tank far inland in Southern China, I find myself wondering just how many people and how much effort has been involved in getting it there. One hopes that the poor village fisherman who caught it in the first place was well compensated.
The street food in Nanning is excellent and we made a habit of buying out and eating in. Our favourite was a large flat pancake type thing with a few spicy toppings, much like a pizza without the cheese. One stall sold these but then used them as a wrap around lettuce, chicken or other less identifiable ingredients. They were delicious in any form. One night we went to a small eatery in a lane near the hotel and picked out what we thought was a single pork dish. Instead we received a big plate of roast duck, a claypot of pork belly in a rich onion sauce, a huge plate of delicious greens and two bowls of rice. We felt obliged to eat it all, much to the delight of the owners and the other diners. One gets used to having an audience during a meal.
Getting onto the train to Vietnam was a long drawn out affair. Nanning Station is near a street where subway excavations are going on so the taxi ride was slow. Access through the usual security screening was also slow, made more so after they found a knife in Christine’s backpack, the same knife that has been through countless other screenings but this time it was confiscated. Then we sat around Waiting Room 2 before eventually re-reading the main board and moving to Waiting Room 3. Finally, we boarded the train at 6pm, along with what looked like several hundred other people. We shared our 4 sleeper compartment with a Vietnamese girl and her father, both returning from a business trip to China. Nga Mi spoke excellent English and was obviously gifted that way because she could also speak Chinese and a smattering of some other languages. She entertained us with stories of her time in China, including the year she had spent living there to learn the language. She now works for her father, who has a business selling and supplying equipment for presentations and shows.
We all settled down to sleep quite early, knowing that we would be woken before midnight for border formalities. The first stop came around 11 pm (Vietnam time) and it was a matter of taking all luggage and our passports off for Chinese immigration to exit us from China. Then the train sat around for ages, before moving off once more and then stopping at the Vietnamese Immigration and Customs about an hour later. These processes were a lot quicker than they could have been, because most of the other passengers had left the train earlier in China and only one carriage of passengers remained for the crossing.
Once through and in Vietnam, the train rattled on and continued south towards Hanoi. This was not one of the ultra fast, smooth and quiet bullet trains that we had been using in China. This was the old type of compartment carriage with a single diesel locomotive. The carriages jolted and banged along the tracks but we had very little trouble getting back to sleep and even had to be woken by the guard as we approached Hanoi. The track finishes 10 km short of Hanoi itself at Gia Lam because that is as far as the Chinese standard gauge goes, the rest of Vietnam using a narrower gauge rail.
Fortunately, we had done our homework on taxis from Gia Lam and we steadfastly refused the demands for 300,000VND to take us into the Old Quarter of Hanoi, holding out for the 100,000VND we knew it was worth. Of course, it wasn’t a real taxi anyway, it was just a young guy with some stickers on his car and a great sob story about he is studying law and his grandfather is still working to support him. He looked so forlorn at being beaten down to 100,000VND that we gave him 200,000VND anyway and let him drive off with a smile.
By the time we arrived at the 3B Hotel in Hanoi, it was barely 6am and the night staff were still clearing away their floor mattresses so we dumped our bags and went off to join the early bird crowd exercising around Hoan Kiem Lake. This is a sight to behold, hundreds of people of all ages performing all manner of exercise routines, some to music, some in groups and others just doing their thing. A few pelotons of the brightly coloured lycra set rode bicycles, one of the few times of the day it would be possible on the normally crowded roads. We contented ourselves with a brisk circuit of the lake, enough to shake off the train journey.
Back at the hotel, we had a spot of breakfast, actually feeling hungry for the first time in weeks because we had not had any food on the train. Somehow, I think we had plenty of reserves. The 3B Hotel is a small boutique hotel that we have not used before, but our usual stay in Hanoi has changed ownership and gone a direction we don’t like. This one seems wonderful, with very chatty and friendly staff, who happily made some arrangements for us to use the hotel as a transit point and then arranged a car for us to head south to Phu Ly, where we had spent time some years back working on building projects with Project Vietnam. The main reason for going was to catch up with our young friend, Van Quynh. The drive south showed the developments that have taken place since our last visit, back in 2013, with a fast efficient expressway replacing much of the old Highway 1.
We booked into the Hoa Binh Hotel, which felt strangely empty without all the other PVI members there with us. The weather was hot and humid, hardly conducive to wandering around on foot much but we went for a short walk and found the town has changed considerably in the last few years, with an abundance of electronics stores and a definite air of prosperity. There were a lot of cheery “hellos” on the streets and smiling faces, a far cry from our first visit when we were stared at or even avoided.
Van arrived later on her scooter, a modern beautiful young woman who has grown and developed so much from when we first met her as a young student. Now she displays a strength and confidence that has taken her to a position of manager at her work. We were thrilled for her when she told us that she was now expecting and she looks very much the healthy mother to be. She took us to one of her favourite coffee places, where we revisited the excellence of really good Vietnamese coffee over ice with condensed milk. It is unbeatable.
Travelling around Phu Ly with Van is a great experience. We sampled some wonderful street food and had an amazing breakfast called Bánh cuốn chả, a dish made from a thin, wide sheet of steamed fermented rice batter filled with a mixture of cooked seasoned ground pork, minced wood ear mushroom, and minced shallots with the dipping sauce which is fish sauce called nước mắm. and a vinegar based beef soup, not our usual breakfast fare but it really worked. The version we had was a true Phu Ly speciality. We felt honoured.
We visited Van’s parents’ restaurant, the one that the PVI members used to call “The Rice Restaurant” and everyone was pleased to see us. It was also a chance to meet Van’s husband, a very nice young man who works as a policeman in Phu Ly. He is the cook in the family and jumped in to help cook up a wonderful meal of fried rice, beef, quail eggs and delicious slices of fresh coconut. He had to eat and run, however, as he was on night shift so we headed out with Van to eat a little more in the form of Bahn Xeo, wonderful crispy pancake sliced and rolled with lettuce inside a rice paper sheet. They are very tasty. We strolled through the streets down to a large lake, Hồ Chùa Bầu which is the site of a large Buddhist Temple. In the lingering heat, the shores are a popular spot to seek some cooling air and we sat outside at an excellent coffee shop and had some delicious smoothies, finally leaving feeling very full indeed and catching a taxi back to Van’s restaurant. She and her husband have their own house in Phu Ly but she tends to stay with her parents on nights that her husband works.
Our two days in Phu Ly were wonderful, bring back many fond memories of our projects there with PVI. Even better was the time spent with Van, who was an excellent guide to her home town. Wandering around a foreign city with a local guide really adds an extra dimension to the experience. With Van’s baby due in April next year, we have an excellent excuse to make sure we return.
We caught the train back to Hanoi, a pleasant trip of a little over an hour. Van came to see us off, bringing with her some amazing baguettes (Bánh mì) filled with sliced vegetables and fine slices of pork in a spicy sauce. They were amazing, but then we have come to expect the amazing when it comes to food in Vietnam.
Our final couple of days in Hanoi were wet, very wet at times, with persistent tropical rain soaking everything and spoiling the night markets. At least it was warm and we found ourselves without a raincoat or umbrella. Ignoring the many offers to sell us something, we just put up with the downpour and walked the streets while getting soaked through. Along the way, we managed to catch up with another friend from previous visits, a man named Qyngh who works at a souvenir stall on Beer Hoi Corner. He works hard to support his family and we always like to catch up with him.
An early morning drive out to Hanoi Airport gave us a scare when we realised after setting out that the hotel still had our passports. Fortunately, the driver understood the problem and managed to turn around in time, the early hour helping with light traffic and we retrieved the passports with enough time left to make the flight. It did give us a scare to think of the consequences of reaching the airport without a passport. It is the stuff of nightmares.
A seven hour layover in Kuala Lumpur was too much for us so we organised a room at the Tune Hotel, a budget location attached to KLIA2. It is joined to the massive Gateway Shopping Plaza by a covered walkway, which takes some finding but provides easy access to an almost endless variety of shops and eateries. We booked at night but checked out at 10pm but at $62 it was money well spent and we got on a midnight plane feeling relaxed and refreshed instead of exhausted and grumpy.
Another indulgence was a couple of tickets on Air Asia’s Premium Lie Down Seats, a Business Class-Like seat that gives full flat out accommodation at a fraction of the cost of other airlines. It meant we slept the whole way to Perth in comfort. Landing in Perth at 5:45am was a bit of a shock with a 4 degree temperature but our back neighbour Julie was there to pick us up, a great end to a fabulous month. TIme to see the family!