Entering Vietnam from China – The Return to SE Asia!

Day 155: Dong Xing (China) to Đầm Hà

10 Feb 2019

I type this, thoroughly tired but extremely happy after a successful first day in Vietnam! It has been a brilliant day… let me tell you all about it…

Although the alarm was set for 0600 and we knew we needed to be up and have an early start to cross the border into Vietnam, we still didn’t manically rush. I enjoyed my first Vietnamese coffee (albeit a 3 in 1 instant sachet we bought from the amazing night market at the border last night!) sat up in bed, awakening my mind and preparing myself for the day ahead.

We left the hotel at around 0830, still surprised that it only cost 100 yuan (£10 ish) per night. Although when we entered China 2 months ago from Laos, we stayed in hotel rooms as low as 50 yuan, more lately the hotel rooms have spiked in price. I think it all depends on which region of China you are in as to what price ranges you can expect. 

You may have read in an earlier blog, whilst we were staying in Kunming for a few weeks, waiting for my knee to recover from my crash, we considered staying in China for 6 months, and doing a 10-week course of lessons in Mandarin. In the end, we decided against this, but we had already taken the money to cover the cost of the courses out of the bank: almost £2,000 in yuan. Some of this we spent on living costs over the following month, but as we cycled towards the China/Vietnam border, we still had a substantial amount of yuan we needed to change. China likes to keep its currency in its country, and therefore it can be difficult to exchange yuan. We had made it extra hard for ourselves, by trying to find somewhere to exchange the currency on a Sunday, during the Spring Festival holiday…! Adam had done some research, and we thought that one of the big, fancy-pants, expensive hotels outside the border might change the money… no such luck. With no other options, we headed into the border control, hoping we would be successful in changing the money in Móng Cái. 

The entrance to the street where the border crossing is.

It wasn’t exactly clear how to get into the border control – we cycled up the main road towards the barriers, but the security guard motioned to us to go around. Realising we needed to head up some stairs underneath the road, luckily there was a ramp we could push the bicycles up. Busy with tourist groups heading across to Vietnam on short trips, we gathered attention as not only the only westerners crossing, but the only people crossing with two heavily laden touring bikes. 

I spy something beginning with V…

Initially, we joined the queue to get through the Chinese Immigration departure gate, but when Adam got to the desk we realised we needed to have filled in a departure card. We had walked straight past the inconspicuous, small table in the corner containing small squares of paper that needed filling in to hand in as we left. A few minutes later, however, we were back in the queue – and as is usually the case – a much longer queue! It wasn’t only tourists heading over to Móng Cái, Chinese and Vietnamese alike cross frequently to sell their local wares to the ‘other side’. Spots of red blood dotted the floor near where we stood in line from one woman’s live chickens she had taken across in a basket. (In case you’re wondering – yes they did have to go through the scanner!). 

Four ballsy, bad-mannered folk had the impoliteness to push in front of us in the queue: there would be outrage if that happened in the UK! Luckily for them, we didn’t speak many words of their language so couldn’t do much to deter them from jumping the line. Luckily for us, they didn’t understand what we were saying about them…! 

I did feel sorry for the people in the queue behind us however, as the Chinese Immigration officers spent a long while inspecting Adam’s passport before letting him through. The officer’s eyes flicked from the photo page in Adam’s passport to his face at least six times (I counted!)… despite the photo only being taken 6 months ago. Adam’s increased length of facial and head hair perplexed the official no end. He was also bewildered when we told him we didn’t have a visa for Vietnam. With difficulty – due to the language barrier – we tried to explain how we could enter Vietnam for 15 days without a visa. Finally, Adam’s passport was stamped and he headed through to enjoy having to take all his panniers off his bike to go through the scanner.

Luckily for me, the ageing process is slower so I look a lot more like my passport photo… and as the guards were focused on scanning Adam’s bags, local’s live chickens and all other assortments of bags and luggage, I somehow managed to walk through without having to go through the hassle of ‘de-panniering’ my bike.

And that was it! We had left China. As I may have mentioned before, our 2 months in China have rewarded us with some intense highs: the stunning views, particularly in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces; delicious food; kind and generous people; wild and rugged secret camp spots and insight into this highly stereotyped and oftentimes secretive country. However, it has certainly not been without its challenges: horrendous treatment of animals; local’s bad manners in many forms; loud honking of vehicle horns; awful roadworks and some conditions of sections of road; distasteful food on some occasions and impatience of people. We entered the country with an open mind and have consistently endeavoured to understand that the Chinese culture is on the opposite end of the scale compared to the UK, but we are only human, and after some time passes certain things can wear you down and become irritable and no longer enjoyable. We can confidently say that we are so very glad we have had this experience cycling through China, but we are also very much looking forward to the next adventure – in Vietnam!

Just about to enter country number 6 – Vietnam.

Here we come, Vietnam!

Excitement and a ‘new country buzz’ flooded us as we cycled across the China/Vietnam friendship bridge.

The view from the China/Vietnam friendship bridge. The old stairs leading down used to be used by locals to sneak to and fro between the countries.

A kind man offered to take our picture on the bridge.

The Vietnamese Immigration desk was a simple, straightforward affair. We queued (no jumping in front of us this time!), had our passports stamped much quicker than the Chinese departure, and we were in! Luckily, we both strolled passed the scanners and no one asked us to put our bags through the machine. A good job really, as we had stored the drone in the cooking pot in an attempt to disguise it from the scanner… Adam had read that some people have experienced problems when taking drones over land borders into Vietnam. Not us, not today – thankfully! 

Vietnam immigration building.

Upon leaving the border office, we were already being greeted with huge smiles and friendly ‘hellos!’ from the locals waiting on their scooters for friends or family. A warm welcome to Vietnam was gratefully received. But we still needed to change the wad of Chinese yuan into Vietnam dong. It appeared unlikely, however, as we cycled along the road leading away from the border, each and every shop was closed due to the Spring Festival (also celebrated in Vietnam). Adam spotted a man selling gold jewellery on a few tables on the side of the road. Despite the air of ‘dodginess’ surrounding the situation, he knew that this was our best bet to exchange our money! The man was friendly and helpful; although he spoke no English, and us no Vietnamese, we managed to convey what we needed and he nodded that he could exchange our money for us: winning! As to be expected, the rate wasn’t as good as we would probably get in an official establishment, but we decided we would rather lose a little money and have the money changed, than carry a lump of useless currency around with us and still have to incur charges to take the local currency out of the bank. 

As we were changing a larger sum, we had to wait for a little while for the man’s friend to go to the bank to get the Vietnamese dong. He kindly provided plastic chairs for us to sit and wait on though! Before long, his friend arrived and we all carefully counted the boodle, ensuring no one would be unknowingly out of pocket. We must have counted wrong initially, as we thought the man had made a mistake and given us way too much money! Thanking him, we cycled away, a little confused as to whether he had made a mistake, or we had made a mistake in our counting… As we hadn’t eaten yet, we decided to find somewhere to get some food and recount the money, just to be sure. 

The border town of Móng Cái seems like quite a nice town to be honest. We didn’t see much of it, but there were plenty of cafes, shops and to my delight, coffee shops! Chinese tourists were being driven around as they snapped photos of the area. We managed to find a cafe in a corner where we tried to count our money without flashing it to the other diners and staff. Our first taste of Vietnamese food in Vietnam did not disappoint: pho noodle soup – chicken for Adam, seafood for me. Delicious! 

My first taste of Vietnamese ‘Pho’

It transpired that we had in fact counted incorrectly, and the man had given us exactly how much he had promised. Satisfied, we got out onto the road. Luckily the clocks had gone back an hour when we entered Vietnam, so we had gained an hour to make up for the border crossing and money changing time. As we pedalled out of Móng Cái, we spotted a phone shop. My phone has completely died, so we went in to see if we could buy me a cheap but reasonably good android. We had refrained from buying one in China, as the majority of phones in the country don’t work in other countries. The shop had some good deals and lovely, helpful staff – one of whom spoke a little English. We managed to purchase a Galaxy Samsung phone for around £100.

These phone shops seem to be in most Vietnamese towns. We also bought SIM cards from here.

Now we were finally on the road! Border crossed, money exchanged, a phone purchased, SIM cards obtained and it was only about 11am. We were feeling good! Although the sun wasn’t shining, our hearts were fully charged and bursting with light for this new adventure. With each new country we enter, it feels like a renewed cycle tour. Although our surroundings don’t drastically change, there are subtle differences that you pick up on instinctively that inspire a refreshed outlook and energy.

We would come to realise that there are Vietnamese flags everywhere in this very proud country.

Our initial observations: Vietnamese people are extremely friendly! Waving, smiling, calling out hello, thumbs up… as I mentioned – such a warm welcome. The landscape wasn’t breathtakingly beautiful, but it was certainly pleasant enough. Small settlements with interesting new housing architecture, green fields with grazing water buffalo and cows, woods and forests spanning rolling hills, calm rivers flowing underneath bridges we cycled along. It was a shame the sky was a dark, murky white with spots of rain threatening a torrential downpour, but luckily it stayed away.

We stopped for lunch after we had cycled about 35km. The town we were in was very quiet with most of the shops and restaurants closed. Thankfully we found a cafe that was open, but they only sold questionable western food. We ordered a few items, the most peculiar was a plate of French fries that were definitely sweetened! Some sort of sugary sauce had been poured all over them – strange indeed! My small pizza was not bad, neither was Adam’s fried chicken, but the sushi he ordered came with tomato sauce and mayonnaise dribbled on top! What the…?!! Strange… very strange.

Slightly disappointed but nevertheless, moderately sustained, on we continued. The rain stayed away and the road undulated up small but cheeky hills. ‘Speed bumps’ Adam calls them after the hills we climbed in Mae Hong Son, Northern Laos and Southern China!

This hill was slightly too steep for the Vietnamese woman behind me, but she was carrying what looked like a massively heavy load!

One thing we are not keen on so far in Vietnam is the traffic. The drivers have been the worst we have experienced on the trip so far – by far. Unfortunately, the road we were on didn’t have a hard shoulder, so we were up close and personal (almost) with the vehicles flying past. The love of loudly honking their horns as they pass you has continued into Vietnam (I know it’s to let you know they’re there, but still… it’s deafening!) At times, the buses, in particular, got extremely close. However, the most dangerous thing was the vehicles overtaking in the opposite direction. Two cars hurtling towards you: one in your lane as it overtakes another car – they get perilously close and made us feel highly uncomfortable. We will have to search for the quieter roads from tomorrow. It may also be worse on this particular route as there were many tourist vans ferrying people to and from Móng Cái, and we’re not far from the popular Ha Long Bay.

We were surprised to see this pretty church on our route.

We cycled past this man strapping two disgruntled, large pigs to the back of his scooter.

We spotted women wearing these hats a few times, we believe they are from an Ethnic Minority in this area, although I’m not sure which one.

We reached the town of Đầm Hà and stopped for the day, having cycled 60km. Our minimum daily kilometres needed to cycle to cover the distance required in 15 days is 50km, so considering we did a border crossing and all the other things this morning, I think we did quite well! We found a hotel which was about £8 for a spacious room, western toilet, hot shower, quick wifi, bikes in the room – what more could we ask for. With not many places to eat in the area, we hopped on the bikes without panniers to find somewhere. Around the corner, we spotted a small restaurant and struggled to order some food. Chicken and rice… a staple, simple food order. We need to learn a bit more Vietnamese and research some foods we want to try in local areas.

Right, I must stop typing and go to sleep! It’s 2300 in Vietnam! That’s midnight in China. Crikey. 

 

Farewell China! Our last week in The Red Dragon
A day cycling in beautiful Northern Vietnam (and my fear of dogs resurfaces)

6 comments

Welcome to Vietnam (though guess you are nearly leaving now). Not sure of your route, across to Laos? Try to get to Hoa an if you can, it’s beautiful and the scenery along the coast is wonderful all the way down. North and South Vietnam have a very different feel about them, so def try to get down South if you can at some point (might be a bit flat for you, but the sand dunes at Mui Ne, the Mekong delta, and Phu Quoc are all worth a peddle around; shame you’ve only got two years to do this trip!). Food-wise, I love Bun Cha Hanoi, Bun Bo Hue, Banh xeo/khot, Nem Cuon (fresh and fried spring rolls), all the fresh shellfish, and com tam suon (rice and bbq pork). I’m guessing you are fully recovered from the accident as you have not mentioned it at all, that’s really good news 🙂

Hi Dean! Thank you very much for your message. We are indeed coming to the end of our 15 days visa waiver in Vietnam. We are heading into Laos probably on Sunday. We’ve also heard that the North and South of Vietnam is quite different from other people as well. At the moment, we’re planning on cycling straight down through Laos into Cambodia, due to time (our flight from Bangkok to Seoul is booked already). However, we keep hearing great things about Southern Vietnam, so we may very well change our route (we do that often!!) and try to get to that area… we may just have to pedal harder through Cambodia and Thailand! Thank you for the food recommendations! We also love Bun Cha and the spring rolls particularly! Thank you also for your kind donation a while back – those Beer Laos went down a treat! Yes my knee is fully recovered now thankfully! Thanks again for your comment and support, Lucia.

Cool, I think you’ll love Southern Laos and Cambodia, Friendly kids waving and shouting at you non-stop; Beer Lao by the Mekong at Pakse; the waterfalls at the 4000 islands; the Mekong Dolphins at Kratie; and of course Angkor Wat is mind blowing (even when I was all templed out I found it amazing). I think that Kampot is probably out of your way unless you head to the Mekong Delta or Phu Quoc, but one of my fave places in SE Asia; sunsets by the river 🙂 Damn I need to get hold of a bike again; finances are not ideal at the moment unfortunately. I will be super Jealous when you go around Japan 🙂 Keep on pedalling, and in the words of James: May your mind set you free, May your Heart lead you on.

Absolutely fascinating, as always Lucia. Sounds like you’re forced to take the quieter routes, the traffic and those drivers sound horrendous. Take extra good care and caution xx

Will do Mumma <3 xxx

Hi Lucia and Adam, great to read and fab photos, really takes me there ,stay safe and have fun xx

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