Friday, April 22, 2005

Mong Cai, Vietnam (Day 67, 10236 km)

China is surely going to become one of the dominant superpowers of the 21st century, but there are a number of ways in which they still haven't followed the rest of the world. One small hitch about this part of the journey is that China is the only country apart from Cambodia which is not expressly listed in my International Driving Permit – because they haven't signed that agreement. Everywhere else that I went has, including Vietnam.

I've always thought this permit is surprisingly non-specific and easy to get. No tests are required – just present $15 and a passport photograph, and you're qualified to ride on whatever side of the road is applicable, and expected to know when to give way, etc. Well, suits me – I can do without extra tests, but I can understand why China might choose not be part of the agreement. Incidentally, I wasn't required to present any form of licence at any stage during the entire trip.

No, a far bigger issue is that as well as the rider requiring a Chinese licence to ride on Chinese roads, by law the vehicle concerned needs Chinese licence plates and registration. Foreigners should definitely not be allowed to travel as and where they please, but an exception to the licence and registration issues can be made if one applies to a Chinese travel agency at least 3 months prior to the trip, pays US$100+ per day for a guide, and sticks to a pre-arranged (and pre-approved) itinerary (There are definitely "restricted" areas, through which travel would not be approved).

Of course, these restrictions are disagreeable to most bikers, as well as requiring a hefty budget, so most steer clear of China for now. I would have too, however my trip was from New Zealand to Japan, and this makes China quite hard to avoid! I had been keeping my eye on the situation through various Internet sites (especially the excellent – one solution taken by a few bikers had been to find friendly truckies, and pay them a few US dollars to "transport" their bikes across the border. A last resort, but “smuggling” is not a nice-sounding word, especially when you're actually standing within five kilometers of the border!

The more encouraging stories were a couple of instances where people had managed to just turn up at the border and be allowed in, but the official situation remains the same, and others have tried many borders and still been turned away. The situation in China really seems to be that the left hand does not know what the right is doing, or even if it does, whether it is allowed to or not.

Despite the (not entirely unfounded) fears of some people over irrational governments locking me away, I have thus far found customs officials to be only helpful and polite, even if they don't know what to do with me. I decided that I am unlikely to be prosecuted just for trying, so, once I had my express Chinese visa, I headed north, to the China-Vietnam border closest to Hanoi.

Signing out of Vietnam was no problem at all – just a stamp in my passport, and one in my carnet, and away I went. I had not been overly apprehensive, but there had always been the chance of some friendly customs official deciding that something was not in order, especially with my bike. Nope – once I explained that I needed an extra stamp on my carnet, they were very happy to oblige, although I'm not sure they actually realised it was for my bike.

Through the boom gate, the last milestone on the Vietnamese road states “0 km” and beyond that the surface is a slightly different colour. I rode slowly over the transition, onto Chinese soil, past the open boom gate, and stopped outside the customs and immigration building. Various passing Chinese travellers smile, wave, and some give a thumbs-up and say “Hello!”. I suppose I am the only Westerner in the vicinity, and definitely the only one with a bike - although there is a line of trucks on either side of the border, I don't see any private traffic here. But still – things are feeling pretty good so far. I haven't had any guns pointed at me, anyway.

“Why you no take package tour?” The young immigration lady was not hostile, just a little confused – demonstrating a stereotypically Chinese mindset to tourism. This was reinforced for me later in China as I watched scores of people paying for guided tours through what seemed like the equivalent of Hamilton Gardens. Anyway, my explanation must've been good enough because she was starting to process my entry, when another customs man ran up, and excitedly told her that I had a motorcycle, something she had been unable to see, due to us being on the second floor (of the round building in the photo), and my bike not being visible. Nonetheless, I had made no attempt to hide my leather suit, undone and hanging down around my waist.

My entry-stamping stopped, as everybody tried to figure out what to do with me – it wasn't that I couldn't do it, it's just nobody quite knew what needed to be done, so I gathered none of them had encountered the situation before. However, one young officer had excellent English, which negated one of my concerns – at least I'd be able to explain my intentions and documents.

Somehow I had forgotten that China is an hour ahead of Vietnam, so the Chinese were starting to wind down for the day. Yet we still managed to have a few rounds of discussion, with the young guy being very helpful and supportive, apologising for the delay, and assuring me they'd try to get everything stamped as soon as possible. I think we was being a good advocate for me with his superiors too. He told me he admired my spirit, and hoped that he could one day do something similar, although he said it was a lot more difficult as a Chinese-born person.

He did express some doubt at one stage, though, as he wondered how I'd know how to follow the traffic rules in China. It didn't seem diplomatic to give my opinion on the traffic rules in China, so I told him that the signs would be an international standard (in hindsight, that was mostly true), like they had been for the other eight countries, and he seemed satisfied at that.

In the end they decided that I probably needed another paper from the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, although to me the paper sounded like one I should be able to get at the border. My friend told me that the people who could help me had already gone for the day, but that if I came back tomorrow we'd probably be able to sort something out. He wouldn't be there, as it was his day off, but somebody else with good English would be able to aid my negotiations.

Well, having to wait overnight was a little disappointing, but there was also hope, so I was feeling good. But now where should I stay? Although I figured Vietnam would probably let me back in, I tried settling in no-man's-land instead, just to see if I could. No, I was soon informed that “International Agreements” didn't permit such things, and sent back to try my luck with the Vietnamese.

It caused quite a stir, but after some hand-waving, and concerned questions as to why China had refused me entry, they seemed satisfied, and I received a red “CANCELLED” across my exit stamp. Checking in at the nearest town 5km away was nothing new, although stumbling through a patch of unmarked wet concrete on my night-time ramble was. I felt bad, but what could I do?

The next morning I left Vietnam again, although their papertrail requirements seemed slightly different this time. On the Chinese side things were also slightly different - I had to fill out not only a medical declaration, but also a questionnaire testing my knowledge of the symptoms and spreading of HIV. I wasn't sure if I'd be denied entry if I got any answers "wrong" so I promised to always use a condom, among other things. But in the end I just handed in the form and was waved on to the immigration people.

To my relief, today's young Chinese border official also had excellent English, but, while the discussion flowed well, things didn't seem quite as positive as yesterday. Finally, after much discussion and book-searching, they decided that there was a “declaration form” that I needed from the embassy in Hanoi, and things could go no further without that, or maybe a note on my visa or some other form of “official permission”.

It is my belief that this paper was a simple way for them to delegate the problem, because a “Declaration Form” is usually available at the border for declaration of such items as an extra camera, or some other valuable thing that they want to make sure you export again at the end of your trip. But I agreed to go back and try anyway.

Vietnam shook its collective head, but, like the night before, allowed both me and my bike back in, without reversing the paperwork that they'd wanted on the way out. So I've been to Vietnam three times already...

It was an easy ride back to Hanoi, and back to the same guesthouse. From there I visited the embassy, which did a very good impression of being deserted and locked. However, co-incidentally, a couple of (Vietnamese) ladies from the Australian Embassy were trying to get in too, and made a few rather demanding phonecalls – when they were admitted, I snuck in too, and after they left, was granted a brief audience.

Well, this little enclave of China certainly seemed to know the regulations; and they gave me some basic information to organise a guided tour. However, I kept repeating that the Chinese Immigration had told me I only needed a “Declaration Form” or a different visa, both of which they insisted they didn't have. Eventually, to get rid of me, they sent me off to the business and commerce department of the embassy, at another address. The lady here spoke little English, and called somebody to deal with me – he was very helpful, but after a while I established that he was not able to help, as he was the gardener, and Vietnamese! Eventually I established that the person who might be able to help was very busy but that maybe I could meet with him tomorrow.

The next day had a few wrangles of its own but eventually found me in an ornate meeting-room, sipping small handleless mugs of green tea, while a Chinese gentleman listened to my plight. He was very helpful, and made a number of phone calls, some to the border, but at the end of the day was unable to provide me with my form.

Slightly discouraged, but not overly surprised, I left Hanoi, starting to come to acceptance that I would be unlikely to be riding through China on this trip. I headed east towards Hai Phong, where I overnighted, and on the following day, obtained a quote for shipment of my bike to Osaka. As it was now a Friday, I allowed myself the weekend to try one last Chinese border, otherwise I would return on Monday and get the bike on a ship departing on Tuesday. I would continue through China by public transport.

The reader's impression at this point may be that I was all-consumed with getting into China – certainly I had always realised that this was the weakest part of my planning, and that I would probably have to give up here. But I also had always planned to give it a good bash too, and not say it couldn't be done until I'd tried it. Whatever happened, after over two months on the road, I was starting to feel like it was time for the trip to draw to a close.

Nonetheless, I was still having a good time, and rode on towards the border, past picturesque Ha Long Bay, and, on a more personal level, some farmers burning off a hillside of undergrowth. They were most impressed by my instant noodle routine, and got me to take some photographs of them, as usual to be posted to some absolutely illegible address...

A travelling salesperson must have been through here selling Christmas carol tune bleepers - they sound like those old Christmas cards that bleep out a tune when you open them, but rather than a single tune, they are a slightly garbled medley of your favourite hits. In this area of North Vietnam, these have been fitted to streetcarts, presumably to attract your attention to the wares for sale - I am surprised that they don't drive the owners insane! Not to be outdone, some truck drivers have replaced their reverse beeper with these things, so they can reverse to the tune of Jingle Bells!

Internet cafe's seem more prolific in this part of the world than places to eat, and cost the equivalent of 25c an hour or less. The connection speed and reliability tends to be somewhat flaky, however, and I can do without the local custom of being surrounded by cute kids (or adults) all staring intently at what I'm doing. Regardless of whether they can understand or not, to my Western norms it feels quite invasive.

I found myself that night about 8km south of the Chinese border, with enough Vietnamese money for a hotel and Internet, but not for a meal. I wasn't unhappy with that predicament, however, as my stomach gazed with renewed distrust at the local food offerings, despite one friendly local physically dragging me into his establishment of choice for a drink - they lost interest only when I showed them the sad state of my wallet.

After some Pam's meusli bars, I went to sleep, deciding to delay changing the remainder of my US Dollars into Vietnamese Dong just in case I was allowed through the Chinese border the following morning.


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