Border crossing: Vietnam to China by train

We sat out the front of our Airbnb and chatted with our new friend – a local who lived in one of the apartments on the ground floor. His wife and sister-in-law came in and out of the door to their street-front home, but he remained seated in his deck chair – an array of tyre repair equipment on the wall behind him. Portable fans blew droplets of water onto his daughter’s baby, who he was minding. He had been a mechanic in the airforce during the Vietnam War. Then he had spent many years working for an international company and picked up a firm grasp of the English language as a result.

Our Airbnb host arrived and we returned the keys to the French colonial apartment we had been staying in. A compact Kia pulled up (the only downside to the Grab taxi app we had been using was that we never knew whether the car would fit all of our bags). Somehow the three of us managed to squeeze in, with two backpacks in the boot, the third backpack on our laps and all the little bags shoved into the crevasses in between our tall bodies.

We waved goodbye and set off among the sea of motorcycles. It was already getting dark and the streets were crowded. The driver took us across town to Gia Lam Railway Station (we had arrived at a different train station when we travelled up to Hanoi from Hoi An via Da Nang). It was much smaller and didn’t look like a station from the outside. The Grab taxi zipped off, leaving us to cross the road – an art we had perfected during our time in Vietnam.

Inside, the waiting room was practically deserted, except for an elderly gentleman. We revised our booking confirmation, which we had printed off. We needed to exchange it for actual train tickets. Unlike the other trains we had taken within Vietnam, this Chinese train didn’t use electronic ticketing.

The station staff didn’t speak English. We managed to figure out that we were early. The person who would exchange our booking confirmation for tickets hadn’t arrived yet – something along those lines. We sat down among the empty seats. It was hot and humid, and the fan didn’t reach us.

One of the station staff came out from behind the glass-walled counter and motioned for us to follow her. She took us outside the front of the train station and down its side, to a door. This was the air-conditioned waiting room for international passengers. She seemed pleased when we entered the room and took up a line of seats – then she left.

Most of the other people in the room were Chinese. We were obviously in the right place. We relished the cool flow of air. After a long wait, a woman came into the room, but from a door leading to the platform. She said something and everyone shuffled out through that door. The woman approached us. She wasn’t wearing a uniform but told us in English that she had our tickets. She smiled and told us to follow her.

We heaved up our luggage and made our way out of the waiting room and onto the platform. We could see the other passengers boarding. The woman spoke with the conductor outside our carriage. She gave the conductor three paper tickets. Then she turned to us and told us to get on board. The train left on time.

The Chinese train was in much better condition than the two previous Vietnamese trains we had taken. There was carpet in the corridor and the toilets were stainless steel (and clean). One end of the carriage had a squat toilet; the other end had a Western bowl.

We shared our four-berth compartment with a middle-aged Vietnamese lady, who responded to our greetings and smiled, but couldn’t communicate further. The conductor came round and gave us blankets. We ripped open the thin plastic covering our sheets and made our beds. Quiet solace took over the space until we fell asleep.

We were woken at 12:30am. We had pulled up to a platform at some station. Everyone had to get off the train, with all of their luggage, and make their way to the Vietnamese border control. Soldiers with guns protected the building. They scanned our bags and then we lined up for our passports and visas to be checked.

An hour later, we were back in our bunks on the train. We stayed on the platform for another 70 minutes and then chugged along for a further 40 minutes until we reached the Chinese border control. Again, everyone had to get off with their luggage.

First, we lined up to have our documents reviewed. My father switched from his UK passport* to his Australian. Then, all of our bags were quarantined. Sleep-deprived, we got back on the train. The wifi reception no longer worked and it would stay that way for the rest of the trip. We had officially entered the land of internet censorship.

We tried to sleep. When we awoke, the morning light showed us the change of scenery. There were more hills and denser vegetation. The countryside was also plagued with towns crowded with grey apartment towers. For much of this part of the journey, we saw a brand new elevated railway running parallel to our tracks.

At Nanning Station, we left the night train behind. The conductor had given us back our now redundant train tickets – apparently, she had only needed to keep hold of them during the journey.

We had another printed booking confirmation to exchange for the next leg, but we soon realised that the ticket office was outside of the station. We were hesitant to exit the barriers, until we spotted a young man wearing a fluorescent vest. He told us to come out and helped us to find our way through the crowd to the ticket office.

Inside, we had no idea which line to join. Luckily, the young man stayed with us and spoke with the attendant at the counter. He relayed to us that one of the seats we had booked had been given to someone else. The two of them continued to speak in Chinese.

Next thing we knew, we received three tickets for our onward journey to Guilin, plus the tickets for our stint from Guilin to Beijing in a few days. We thanked the young man. It was his job to help people at the train station, he said.

Then it was a two-hour wait within the high concrete ceilings of the station’s many waiting rooms. The station in general seemed much newer and grander than anything we had seen in Vietnam. No one was allowed onto the platforms until their train was about to arrive. We snacked on Chinese food we bought from the vending machine and people-watched. A beautiful, giant painting of green majestic mountains hung on the far wall.

The number of our train flashed up on the screen and we merged with the crowd. Our tickets had barcodes, which we scanned as we went through more barriers. We walked along the elevated passageway above the train tracks to the door to our platform, and then headed down the steps.

The high speed train arrived a few minutes later. No berths this time, only rows of soft-covered seats packed with people. We took up the seats of a few people who had just gotten off – there wasn’t a seat spare. Everyone chatted away around us; some took phone calls or played smartphone games with the volume on loud; others snored. There was regular clearing of phlegm.

The speed of the train reached over 200km/h. Announcements were in English as well as in Chinese, and there were digital displays in both languages informing us about safety on board and the weather. We noticed the temperature drop slightly from town to town. Karsts shot up out of the ground and greenery textured the landscape. Sometimes the train passed through the giant limestone pillars.

We reached Guilin. Most the passengers stayed on – they were probably en route to Beijing. A sign told us that it was only 32 degrees celsius outside. The station was just as big as the one in Nanning. We avoided the hawkers out the front and began walking up the road.

I had taken screenshots of the way to our hostel on Google Maps, but now that we longer had 3G, we couldn’t double check if we were walking in the correct direction. We got lost and tried to ask for directions, but no one seemed to know where we needed to go. So, we did what we were trying to avoid – we hailed a taxi. As fate would have it, we were indeed on the correct boulevard, but we hadn’t walked far enough. The taxi cost CNY¥9, about AUD$1.80.

We dumped our bags in our triple room and had a shower. Wearing a fresh set of clothes, we had an early dinner in the hostel. Unfortunately, they didn’t have vegetarian dumplings but they did have vegetarian fried noddles. It went down a treat, with a cold Chinese beer. When it started to pour outside, we took it as a sign and went to bed.

Travel details

Transport: we took a Grab taxi to Gia Lam Railway Station from our Airbnb apartment.

We bought our train tickets from Hanoi to Nanning via Baolau – an online booking service for Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. We needed to exchange the booking confirmation at the train stations for actual train tickets.

From Nanning to Guilin, we bought our train tickets from China DIY Travel agency online, who were quick to respond to queries and provided helpful information about travel in China along with the ticket confirmation and translations for taxi services to the train stations in the various cities.

Travel time:
Hanoi to Nanning:
about 11 hours and 50 minutes (depending on how much time it takes to process through border control)
Nanning to Guilin: about 3 hours (+ 2 hours stop over in Nanning)

Travel advice: stock up on food and water supplies before you take the train. It can be expensive to buy things on board and they may not have what you want, especially if you need Western food for breakfast. I also recommend you carry a roll of toilet paper with you, just in case.

If you can, purchase a VPN for your smartphone before you enter China. We went with ExpressVPN and found it to work well.

Accommodation: in Hanoi, we stayed at Brika House, which we booked via Airbnb. The apartment was located inside Hanoi’s Old Quarter and 200m from Tong Duy Tan Street (night street food).

In Guilin, we stayed at Guilin Wada Youth Hostel, which we booked via booking.com.

Visas: for the Chinese visas, we made an appointment to submit our paperwork in Australia. This included our accommodation details as well as our tickets in and out of the country. As we had booking confirmation for our accommodation, we didn’t need a letter of invitation. The process at the Sydney Consulate was streamlined and efficient, but expensive. Just make sure you have all the required paperwork! Check your local China Embassy website to see what you need to get your visa.

*At the time of travel, British citizens could enter Vietnam visa free for 15 days. Australians needed to have a visa stamped in their passports before arriving to the country. Read about my visa troubles here.

Photo: the Chinese night train from Hanoi to Nanning.

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