Hanoi Hilton

One week ago I walked through the old quarter of Hanoi until I reached Hoàn Kiem lake. After resting and people watching I continued my walk to the Hanoi Hilton. The former prison is now a museum mainly explaining the French colonisation years and all the very bad conditions under which the prisoners had to live. Also the several escape attempts were documented, some of them were successful, some of them not. The Vietnam War period is only briefly discussed. And from my point of view, only from one side. It seems still to be hard as victor to admit to their own war crimes. You still get some new information, but it’s nothing special at all.

Afterwards I headed to St. Joseph’s cathedral. A pretty large building in the middle of the old quarter of Hanoi. On my way back I walked along the main railway tracks which lead eventually to the northern border to China, but here in the city they pass just very close between two house rows.

I like the atmosphere here in Hanoi much more than in any other city of China. People are much more friendly. Even if they try to sell you something, you don’t have the feeling it’s too pushy than maybe in China. The food is also quit different, but for me it’s more tasty than in China. The only drawback is, that here are lots of white people compared to China. Most of them are young and for me it seems, they mostly look for cheap alcohol, party, and probably something more. I was absolutely surprised to see so much of them. I didn’t expected that.

The streets of Hanoi are quit buzzing…
…but compared to China much smaller, and hence especially around the old quarter, a much nicer feeling.
One of the islands in Hoàn Kiem lake
Some old buildings from the French era makes the city much more charming than the new concrete counterparts in China, where everything is just one…BIG
Main entrance to Hanoi Hilton. The original French construction dates back to the end of the 19th century.
Now I’m behind the walls
The prisoners where handled typically like this, as long as the rooms where not overcrowded. Which was quit common in the period after WWII
In the roots of this almond tree, messages were hidden
The iron rods were sew, during a successful escape from the latrine
The death-row
French made guillotine
Old style houses in the old quarter
St. Joseph’s cathedral
Main railway leading to the north, I already rode here two days before in the early morning…
…in between these houses

Lao Cai – Hanoi

Monday one week ago we went to Sapa and as there were several outdoor sport shops I looked for some new shoes. My old ones got really fucked up the day before, as both had now 15 cm long holes. Not just good for ventilation but also to get some mood and stones into it. As it was raining the whole afternoon it was a good opportunity anyway. It turned out that I hadn’t so much choice due to my required size. I finally managed to get some and Jojo also decided to buy a new pair as they were pretty cheap…and made in Vietnam. I can’t prove, but as there were only two brands available and all are made in Vietnam, I guess this outdoor equipment is just made in the same factories as the original ones. If they last for at least 4 weeks, it was definitely worth to buy them.

In the evening we wanted to take the bus back to Lao Cai, but after waiting a long time we took a shared minivan. At the moment there were only two night trains in each going to Hanoi. Hence, we took one of them. Unfortunately, we couldn’t enjoy the landscape, but only our compartment. The beds were quit small for me. Hence, the night was night really pleasant, but the old train was quit charming. After arriving in the early morning in Hanoi, the city just began to woke up, Jojo and me had a small breakfast together. Afterwards we needed to say goodbye. The extended weekend was finally over for her. She took the bus to the airport and flew back to Hong Kong, as she finally needed to work in the afternoon, and I successfully finished the first 6 months of my travel.

No it’s not a steam locomotive, just some soot from the diesel engine
Our train is ready for departure
Easy access to the train in the railway station
Jojo can await the departure
Our small 4 bed compartment
Finally arrived in Hanoi after travelling the last 6 months along the tracks
My train ticket

Hiking Fansipan

Sunday morning one week ago Jojo and me had early breakfast and started our hike about 6:20. We followed the street to the next settlement, found our way through small alleys and crossed a creek taking a small bridge. After passing by the last two houses and crossing additional two creeks we found the path along the ridge going uphill. In the beginning this path was well used and you couldn’t miss it. There were also some locals using this path and some minor tracks which are branching off. After about 1,000 metres uphill we arrived at the highest point of that right and could see down to a wooded basin. Now the path becomes more narrow and as we went down it almost disappeared. For a few metres we followed a dried stream bed which led us a bit uphill. Then we need to decent for about 300 metres in total and cross the basin. The path gets more and more hidden and when we need to cross two additional creeks it completely disappeared. He we walked up to 100 metres up the creek before we have seen the continuing of the path at the other side of the river. We also discovered two camp sites, but without a local guide I would not recommend to stay in the jungle during night. After we found the entrance to the ridge the path we started again climbing up. The beginning was quit steep and the path not always well seen. At several places old ladders and fences made from wood where almost destroyed, at least I wouldn’t trust them. At this we just climbed up freely. It seemed that this way is no longer maintained since the opening of the cable car in 2016. I always looked for some garbage. Yeah here old garbage is just some kind of marking the way, but also some artificial carvings in the wood is a sign, that you’re on the right way. Sometimes the bushes are as high as your hips, making it difficult to actually see where you’re stepping on. After additional two hours we reached a container housing at about 2,600 metres altitude near the cable car which is inhabited. The adventure factor in the last 3-4 hours was pretty high and hence, it was quit exciting to climb up that ridge.

From the hut to the top we couldn’t miss the path, except you would turn off a wrong branch. It it was still 600 metres altitude to go, which took us additional more than 2 hours. Shortly before the mountain station if the cable car we joined the normal path from the ranger station, which was even equipped with hand rails. We entered the building of the mountain station via a rear entry, but just following the dirty traces on the concrete. Now we directly joined the ordinary tourists from the cable car and still needed to walk 150 metres up, but now in a controlled environment over steps and with ordinary fences. The top of Fansipan was in the clouds. Hence, we didn’t have seen anything. In total we needed 9 hours to reach the top and it was already about 2,000 metres altitude we hike up. The most difficult part was the searching for the path, as I walked at least two times into a dead end. And due to the bushes you’re not as fast to go uphill.

After spending less than 30 minutes at the top section we returned, but now using the standard path down. This was by far faster and we could make lots of metres going down until dusk. We passed some huts on about 2,700 metres were some people were staying overnight. Further down we met a group. That guide told us, it’s not a good idea to stay during the night in the jungle. And that there are local people living there, which don’t like that. Furthermore, he told us that it’s forbidden to go hiking into the national park without a guide and for sure without paying entrance fees. If the ranger will catch us, we got fined for 300 US$ and if we couldn’t pay, stay for one week in jail. We thought…ok, don’t get catched at the ranger station. Shortly after sunset, we might had to walk for another hour in that speed to reach the main road where the ranger station is located, Jojo got suddenly ill. After a few stops where she needed a rest we went slowly on. Luckily I had some medicine for her stomach with me. Also a small dog was joining us all the remaining way down. This was pretty helpful, as he knew the way and he discovered something in the jungle much earlier than me. Once he stopped and was watching in one direction, when I pointed in that direction with my headlight I saw two pairs of orange eyes, I’ve no idea which kind of animal this was. Probably nothing bad, but in a first second I felt a bit uncomfortable. After 14 hours in total we reached the ranger station. Without headlight and on silent soles we got out of the national park. But for sure. Now there were no taxis waiting, and only lorries were passing by. But non of them stopped for hitchhiking. Jojo felt really bad and after some minutes she just went to the ranger station and asked for calling a taxi. The ranger didn’t asked her anything, just as he say me with out both backpacks he was a bit suspicious. But in the end he called a taxi which arrived 30 minutes later and additional 40 minutes later we where in our hostel. Originally Jojo plant to take the night bus back to Hanoi exactly at this time, but due to her condition she skipped her plans for sure.

Early in the morning the Fansipan is already covered with clouds
Crossing the fields and eventually the bridge
Going up the first ridge…
…and seeing nothing
The way is directly infront of you…what, you couldn’t see it? It’s clearly visible 😏
Lower trousers and shoes were completely wet
Jojo fighting her way up, and still having fun while doing this
From time to time the clouds are disappearing
There’s nothing beneath except the old tree trunk and some soil between it
Finally in the touristi section
I reached the Fansipan peak…
…which is also the top of South East Asia
A big Buddha at the tourist area
For a few seconds we could even see the sun
On the way down, we left the cloud and still had a view over the other nearby mountains
The camp for the other hikers. Some of them needed 9 hours uphill, which we had done in 3 hours done…and getting sick in end
Going further down during dawn
The landscape is still nice to view from that ridge…
…but we should hurry up, to get further down.
In the night I had even could clearly see the smoke from a campfire in the forest…unfortunately, not visible here
GPX track

That’s the first video Jojo made. Thanks to her some motion pictures appear now on my blog ☺️.

Hekou – Lao Cai

Saturday one week ago we walked a few minutes along the street until we were directly at the two border rivers, the Nanxi river and the Red river. We looked across the Nanxi river, and to the left there was the metre gauge railway bridge whereas to the right the pedestrian and bicycle bridge was. After walking around for a bit and taking some farewell photos we even encountered that we are at the lowest point of south-west China with an altitude of only about 76 metres. There were lots of cargo bikes around us in the town, until we realised that these were all people from Vietnam carrying something from China across the border. We were looking for the entry, but passengers were not allowed at the bike entrance. Hence we headed back for 200 metres and entered the border control building from the rear. The border controls worked flawlessly. Jojo chatted relaxed with one of the supervisors and told them that I travelled all the way down from Germany. He told her, that there are only a few international people taking this border station. After a few minutes I officially left China, and thought Jojo will follow me just a few seconds behind. But in the end it took much longer for her, as her ID card didn’t worked as expected. Then we walked relaxed across the border over the bridge. It’s my first border crossing by feet at this trip and even the first one I can even remember, where I had border controls. Back in Europe I crossed several borders by bike or foot, but luckily due to the Schengen agreement, there are no longer Border controls. The entry into Vietnam took a bit longer for me, as the officer needed to check my e-Visa in a back office, but in the end it was not a problem at all. Bye Bye China…Hello Vietnam.

We continued our walk until we reached the railway station. Here we found an ATM for me (and I was millionaire in just 2 minutes 😅), had some dinner and with the help of an owner of a nearby bar, I could even buy a local SIM for less than 4€ and a data package of 102 GB (Yes really 102 GB) for less than 2€ in 4G for sure! Jojo wanted to exchange some Chinese Renminbi, but the local bank told her, that they were not interested at all in this currency. In the end the bar owner knew a neighbour business man that wanted to exchange our money. He was originally from Taiwan and as Jojo speaks a bit of Taiwanese language (as it’s very similar to Cantonese) he made for us a very good exchange rate. Not perfect, but it could have been also worse. After we set everything up, we took the local bus to Sapa, which was extremely cheap. After we collected all guests through the town we drove up the hill and after 1.5 hours in total we arrived in Sapa. I was a bit shocked as there were so much white tourists. In China they are really rare and even in Hong Kong there are not as much of them. Jojo had looked for a homestay in the Cat Cat village, which is just 2 kilometres down the road. We found even a sign of it pointing to a school, but as we asked the facility manager, he just pointed into another direction. Hence we headed back and were two other people, all of them were pointing in other directions. In the end we walked back, and another local told us, it’s behind the school. The owner warmly welcomed us and we got without a problem a room. We also had our dinner there. But before that we spent some time together with the children in the kitchen, which were very interested in us (probably especially in me). At least we all had our pleasure.

Now I was in total 2 months in China with almost 4 weeks Hong Kong and Macau in between. But China is completely different to what I’ve seen before. The last 4 weeks I really enjoyed much more, probably due to the different landscape in Sichuan and Yunnan province and the people living there. But in general most of the people behaving completely different than Europeans. Hence,

  • Do you want to listen to people speaking loud the whole day? Go to China.
  • Do want to hear people listen to music always without ear plugs? Go to China.
  • Do you want to see loud Chinese tourist groups, where the guide has for sure a loud loudspeaker? Go to China.
  • Do you want to listen to loud vendors at the street, where you don’t understand any word, but they still want to sell you something? Go to China.
  • Do you like to see people constantly spitting everywhere? Go to China.
  • Do you like to see people puking on the street? Go to China.
  • Do you like to see people pissing in the middle of the town – day or night, doesn’t matter? Go to China.
  • Do you need some extensive experience in queue jumping? Go to China.
  • Do want to see people pushing into a subway while you want to get out? Go to China.
  • Do you want to hear honking scooters and cars the whole day? Go to China.
  • Do you want to see people constantly ignoring any traffic rules? Go to China.

You’re asking if they don’t have traffic lights in China?!? Yes, sure they have. The traffic lights even changing colour from red, to yellow, to green and vice versa in a few seconds, and also there is mostly a time counter how long it stays red or green. But honestly, do you really think anyone would give a fuck, if this person is in a hurry. And in the end every Chinese person is in a hurry. Hence, they are driving wherever and whenever they want. Especially scooters can be found at both sides of the road.

Some Chinese are really interested in you, but the vast majority is only interested, if you have any benefit for them. And the best benefit you can give, is your money. Almost all Chinese people just care about one thing. And that is, making money. The more the better. They don’t have any conscience or mercy. They don’t care about their acting to others or the environment, as long as they don’t get paid for it. If this is still the impact of the cultural revolution 50 years ago, I don’t really know it. But I was advised to go to Taiwan to see the real Chinese culture.

This is for sure not applicable for every Chinese person. I still had some very nice acquaintances especially with my CS hosts throughout the last three months. Nevertheless, I felt that this was relatively rare to meet such kind of people. In a first row, most of the Chinese people acting differently to me.

Nowadays, China is making large, and I mean really large, steps into a fully digitally country. Where you could only pay cash 10 years ago, they are now looking suspicious to you if you don’t have AliPay or WeChatPay. Hence, surviving without a smartphone in China is nowadays nearly impossible. The most useful apps I used in China was Google Translator, a reliable VPN client, Metroman in larger cities and Amap, as Maps Me has only rough information for China available. Amap is completely in Chinese but it has all public transport information available. Even if I can’t read Chinese symbols, I can read a map which displays different bus routes with its stops. And with the help of the GPS signal, I even know where the nearest bus stop is and which bus numbers leave from there. In the end I always found my way. I never ordered a DiDi, a took one of the several shared bike apps. The latter just because the apps weren’t working well on my phone, and hence I didn’t trust them to spent any money in the app. As there were lots of complaints in the ratings. After entering I had again the first time free and fast internet since I entered Russia in May (OK, except for HK) and ping times are much more faster than in these two countries. And I finally can access again all websites without any blocking.

Railway border was closed today
The old railway station from the French is no longer needed as such, as only freight trains are driving here
The Vietnamese people even taking the old steel from China across the border
Border bridge, China in front, Vietnam at the other side
Last view back to China and the railway bridge
Nevertheless, the railway continues along the street in Vietnam
Red River
Finally we arrived at the railway station of Lao Cai
Big Business…no only exchanging Chinese money
Driving uphill along the rice terraces at the hills…
…in the minibus
Walking down to Cat Cat village, which is again in the clouds
Playing with the kids and waiting until the dinner is prepared for us. The owner even offered some self made rice “wine”, but in the end it was hard liquor 😯.

Kunming – Hekou

Friday morning one week ago we headed to the tourist bus station to get to the railway station. But as again one day, they insisted that there were no tickets left. Hence, we needed to walk for another 15 minutes to the bus station of the public, and as there was just one bus arriving we run the last 50 metres in order to catch it. By chance we met again Léna, the French woman I met already at the Emei railway station, in the same bus. It turned out that she was also in Lijiang, even in the same hostel as I was and she was also heading to the same train as we did. In theory we had still about 50 minutes in order to catch the train. But as Jojo needed to pick up her tickets and we need to get through the security controls, and probably the entry to the plattform may even close 5 minutes before actual departure, we could be short in time in the end. Well…in essence there was additional morning traffic jam in Dali. Hence, the bus just arrived 3 minutes before departure. Back in Germany 3 minutes in front of the railway station is typically still enough to catch the train, but here in China it is definitely not the case. Hence, we headed directly to the ticket office in order to exchange the ticket for the next train 30 minutes later. At the ticket counter the woman was a bit not in the mood to serve us. After Jojo tried to exchange her tickets, she did in a first instance…nothing…and then asked: “Are you sure you can still catch the train?” Well…Miss…if you would hurry up and just exchange the tickets, For sure! And in the mean time I went to the next ticket office. But surprise, surprise, now all tickets for second class sold out. OK, I didn’t give a fuck and just upgraded to the first class, as I definitely wanted to be in Hekou this evening, as my Visa expired the next day.

When we went through the security controls…again they complained again, because of my Swiss Army knife. But as Jojo told, that I’m the last day in China and up until now, I always travelled with them, they did a special exception for me. For security reasons they wrapped (the closed knife) in tissue paper. Now it was save enough to carry it with me 😳. Seriously?!? Léna told me afterwards that she has exactly the same knife, and was also nervous that they could detect hers. Anyhow, I didn’t started a discussion but we were just heading to the waiting room, were all Chinese people already queued for their reserved seat. I went to the first waggon for my first class experience and Jojo went with me, while Léna got to her seat in the second class. After the conductress came, she told Jojo that she has to go to the other waggon. She said, “yes, yes” and stayed…in the end the whole two hours until Kunming. The seats were quit comfortable and there were only four seats in a row. I enjoyed the last high-speed train drive in China (this track was just opened a few months ago), as the experience was the absolute opposite as the day before.

In Kunming we went out of the railway station and directly to the post office nearby. The price to send my parcel, with my hiking equipment, back was quit high. Additionally my normal shoes were getting just large holes, and I tried to find out if I need them to send back to Germany due to guarantee issues. But as I didn’t had an answer from the company I skipped sending the parcel today, as I didn’t want to send another one, just with these old shoes. I also needed to sent a letter, which wasn’t that easy and took also 20 minutes. And the price for the letter twice increased, due to reasons we couldn’t comprehend. After I got all the individual stamps, I had to put them with glue (yes, real old style glue) onto the envelope.

The security checks in Kunming weren’t a problem, now that my Swiss army knife was properly wrapped and I could embark for my last train drive in China. The train was quit full, hence we all three sat in different waggons for the first few hours. The passports of Léna and me were arbitrarily checked again in the train. She went off after three hours, as she wanted to visit some rice terraces, while we were continuing our drive. The new railway tracks from Kunming to Hekou are now in standard gauge and only loosely following the old metre gauge railway tracks which were built in the beginning of the 20th century by the French from Vietnam. This one is supposed to be more scenic, and the journey would almost take three times as long, but there are no longer passenger services, as this would have been the only metre gauge service in China. This is also the reason why there are no longer through trains to Vietnam at this railway connection. There is only one branch line in Mengzi which connects both tracks. As we were approaching the border region the waggons emptied and we were almost alone. Finally we arrived in Hekou North railway station were the train terminates as the standard gauges are ending. Except for the connection to the Korean peninsula the standard gauge railway network of China is quit isolated, as to the north and west the connection is only possible to the Russian wide gauge tracks and to the south the only connection exists to the metre gauge tracks of Vietnam at least for the time being. But China is working hard on that issue and in less than five years more opportunities will emerge.

We did some farewell photos on the platform before we tried to leave the railway station…but that was a problem now, as all gates were closed and nobody was around. It took a few minutes until we found somebody to open the door again. But this triggered the nearby police station and once again a photo of my passport was made. All public transport was then also left. But this was not a problem. We just walked down the road into the town and after half an hour or about 3 kilometres we just choose an arbitrary hotel to check in.

Board service in local dress in the first class
Finally leaving the highlands of the northern Yunnan province (Dali is about 2,000 metres above sea level)
After Kunming the new high-speed tracks following closely the “old” standard gauge tracks until Yuxi from the 1980’s
…and passed by some heavy metal industry…
…but also nice landscapes
Our train empties
The branch line from Mengzi to the dead end Shiping seems to be in double gauge. Whereas above a new bridge is under construction to connect the old metre gauge tracks…
…and probably replace this original metre gauge branch line.
Passing already harvested fields in the autumn…
…and small lakes before the landscape again becomes more hilly…
…and our train gets to the next tunnel and through the mountain
My last hard seat experience in China…
…is ending here.
Goodbye China Railways (you’re asking what’s in the parcel…all the mountaineering equipment which is no longer necessary at about 100 metres above sea level in Hekou)
My train ticket 1
My train ticket 2