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That time I messed up my Vietnam visa and got pulled off the train in China

Back in 2006, after quitting my job in Korea, I was traveling back to Canada by land and sea. On the journey, I was passing by train from China to Vietnam. I needed a visa to get into Vietnam. I’d arranged that Osaka, Japan, more than a month prior to arriving in Shanghai by ferry and traveling up to Beijing by train. However, in all of the planning and booking ahead of time, I was unaware I’d messed up a key detail on my Vietnam tourist visa application. While taking the train from Beijing to Hanoi, that error on my visa application would trigger an unexpected adventure.

The Z5 from Beijing to Hanoi

The train from Beijing to Hanoi, the Z5, still operates on the same schedule it did back in 2006. It departs every Sunday and Thursday. It takes around 36 hours, spanning two nights, to make the journey. It’s an old-school train. One cabin type of four sleepers in each cabin. 

There’s a departure everyday between Beijing and Nanning, but only the Sunday and Thursday trains continue on to Hanoi. Daily service launched between Nanning and Hanoi in 2009. But in 2006, you either took the Z5 or you were stuck. There wasn’t even a highway connection along that border between China and Vietnam. It was under construction in 2006. This meant I couldn’t easily fix any travel disruption. No next train to hop on. It was days away. There were no buses. No way to drive across.  

The geography near Nanning is the kind of impossibly steep and gracefully curved limestone mountains you’d see on a painted scroll hanging in a quiet tea room. But now factories eat those mountains for construction materials.

Counting is so difficult!

Things were going pretty well, just taking photos of the countryside, lying on my bunk bed. I mostly ate a type of military-style MRE for workers that I’d picked up in Beijing. Like a stale brick of cookie without any sweetness.

The train stopped briefly in Nanning at dusk on the second night, before continuing on south, arriving at the small border town of Pingxiang 凭祥市 shortly after midnight. A bunch of young soldiers got on the train and requested everybody’s passports and identification. That was totally expected. What was not expected, however, was one of the soldiers returning with an older soldier and pointing at me. They motioned for me to get my stuff and follow them. As soon as I stepped off the train, the train left. My train to Vietnam disappeared into the dark jungle. That didn’t seem good! 

So what was wrong with my visa? The army officer took me into a plain concrete one room building by the rail station. A clock and a calendar on the wall. A metal desk with two wooden chairs facing each other across it. A fluorescent light bulb overhead. He opened my passport to my Vietnam visa page, pointed at the date on the visa, and then pointed at the calendar on the wall. It was one of those tear-away calendars that shows the month, today’s date, and the day of the week, combining Chinese and Arabic numerals. Under a tiny 1月 was a big 24. It was January 24th. A Tuesday.

My visa to Vietnam didn’t officially kick in until Wednesday, January 25th. 22 hours away.

Welcome to 凭祥市

The army officer has me follow him across the empty street in front of the train station to a building on the other side. It’s a hotel. I can’t remember how much it cost, but I remember that it was incredibly cheap. I also remember feeling relieved at that point, because it was clear I just had to spend the night in the hotel and then figure things out in the morning. And I like hotels. Here was an unexpected opportunity to sample the hospitality services of rural Guanxi Province. 

For instance, the bathroom in my hotel room had discarded the inefficient separation of shower and toilet. Instead, the shower head was positioned directly over the hole in the floor that acted as the toilet. You didn’t so much shower as you simply flushed away your sorrows.

Although the hotel appeared dark on the outside, the inner courtyard was lit up with bare neon bulbs. I could hear people in the rooms around me were wide awake doing something with big sheets of plastic–either unwrapping very large packages or wrapping them up. 

You have to be really creative to think of legal reasons somebody needs to unroll large sheets of plastic at 3am in the morning. I’m not that creative, so I stuck a chair under the door handle and slept with my clothes on.

I do have a picture of the toilet shower but it’s really not an appealing photograph. So here’s a map of Pingxiang. The railway station is near the bottom of the map. The thick yellow line was the highway under construction. 

Spies are everywhere

In the morning (I didn’t get wrapped up in plastic), I leave the hotel and go searching for an internet cafe. At the time Pingxiang was not a big town. Now it has glitzy shopping malls and busy industrial complexes. But back then, around the station, it was just a bunch of low dusty buildings. And the train station isn’t in the downtown. It’s outside of the town center, closer to Vietnam. However, even back then, it did have a 24-hr online gaming cafe right beside the sketchy hotel. That was key because travel still depended a lot on finding a terminal somewhere and logging into your accounts.

At this point, I just figured I’d get back to Nanning, the last major city I’d been through, and figure out a new route. 

So I find the train schedules, there’s a local train leaving shortly that’d take 4 or 5 hours to get back, stopping at every stop possible. I bought some green tea in a paper cup and stepped outside the internet cafe. It was just a big empty street with the train station across from the cafe. 6:30 or 7 in the morning. And then I see this one guy. Probably around my age. Civilian clothes. The only other person around. And he’s walking straight up to me.

Super casually, with a perfect New England accent, he says: “Hey, how’s it going? What brings you here?”

There was no doubt this was NOT a coincidence. This was a planned threat assessment. He told me he went to Princeton and was back home to visit family. I explained what happened with my visa and I was going back to Nanning on the next train. He seemed to like that, wished me well, and left. I think, if he was actually just a friendly local, he would’ve told me there was a way to get to Vietnam. But I had to find that out the long way. So I left, too, on the long train ride back to Nanning. 

The Gate Gods, Qin Qiong on the left, and Jingde on the right, here on the entrance to a traditional courtyard residence down one of Beijing’s hutongs, a network of residential neighborhoods defined by narrow alleyways and expansive inner courtyards. More than 90% of these traditional neighborhoods have been demolished. Read more about them here: Hutong Alleys – The Soul of Old Beijing 

The red and gold decorations all around the hutong where I stayed in Beijing were the first hint something big was on the way.

Beware the coming of the Fire Dog

When I got to Nanning, the train station was rammed with lines of people. Not normal lines at all. Lines out the doors and into the main square. Because there was something coming I had not fully understood or taken into account. The next Sunday, January 29th, was the Lunar New Year. The Year of the Fire Dog.

All over China, people were hopping on trains to get home before everything closed for a week. Travel numbers start increasing weeks before New Year’s. Two weeks before or after, and you can expect big crowds on transportation. For comparison, Thanksgiving in the US sees around 50 million people moving. Lunar New Year in China would see around 385 million people moving before the pandemic. Even now that those numbers have dropped to a third, it’s still the world’s largest annual migration. 

It’s also the biggest holiday in Vietnam, Tết. And there I was, right in the middle of it, trying to get hotels and train seats. Luckily, I did have a hotel booked in Ho Chi Minh. But now I only had four days to make it all the way down to the bottom of Vietnam.

Where there's a will, there's a motorbike through the jungle

At that point, on Tuesday afternoon, I really hadn’t eaten much since Sunday night. I found a hotel overlooking the same square as the train station in Nanning. And then I ordered a lot of food. These were big dishes. The type of platters you’d share at a table with eight friends around a massive spinning Lazy Susan centre piece. But it was all for me. I ate so much spicy tofu and bokchoy in garlic and cashew chicken and rice. I sat on my bed with a bowl of mabo tofu in my lap and watched NHK until I passed out.

When I woke up, I started researching online and discovered there was a way to get a ride to the border with Vietnam. You could take the train back to Pingxiang, find a convenience store and dumpling shop in the last village on the road, and then ask somebody there to give me a ride on their motorbike, through the jungle, to the Vietnam border.

The great thing about this plan, is that I could ride another local train back to Pingxiang. One hand, that took something like five hours. But since there were no seat numbers, there was a better chance I could get on it. And the next morning, I did.

It took several stops before I could get a seat. Once I did, I remember I had to help two sisters hold their sacks of potatoes. It was a hot day. The windows were open on the old train. Every seat and inch of floor space was filled with humans or luggage. At the final stop, back in empty Pingxiang, I caught a mini bus heading for the end of the line. I didn’t want to run into my curious friend from Princeton and need to explain why I was back.

It felt like I was on a video game quest, exploring new territory in the game. A random NPC left me a note on the internet that said I’d find somebody at the end of a path who could take me to the next level.

The bus driver announced the last stop. There was a white one-story block of a building there. And in front of it: two guys leaning on their motorbikes. A woman with a bunch of packages got off the bus with me. The guys on the bikes knew what we were there for. She hopped on the back of one bike. I hopped on the back of the other. I had a backpack on my back, a laptop bag in one hand, and tried to hold onto the bike with my other hand, bouncing over dirt tracks in the jungle. The guy on the bike really could’ve been going anywhere. Maybe to meet the guys with the big sheets of plastic.

But then the trees parted, and facing the wall of green, was the grey stone arch of the Friendship Pass. Beyond that, Vietnam.

Let’s end this part of the story here for now. I still had to make it to Hanoi and down to Ho Chi Minh City. There were more adventures on that part of the trip, too! But we’ll cover those another time. 

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