Paranoid that we wouldn’t make it to the border crossing on time, we were standing by the roadside at 7am with our belongings to flag down one of the minibuses that shuttle people to and from the nearby town of Xinjie. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait long, as the mist was thick around us and it had just started to drizzle. We picked up a couple of other people along the way and hour later arrived at the bus station. We were pleased to discover that a bus was leaving for Hekou in an hour – everything was going to plan!
We met several other westerners on the bus to Hekou, including an English couple who were also on a year-long around the world trip, but had only three months left, a Belgian couple and another English chap who planned to buy a motorbike and bike around Vietnam. The journey was supposed to take four hours, but owing to a traffic jam in a village market where we were bumper to bumper with worn out lorries and hemmed in on both sides by motorbikes, it took closer to 7 hours. Some bikes had entire families crammed onto the seats and one had a live pig in a bamboo basket strapped to the back.
We eventually reached the border town of Hekou, and as we were all evidently heading to Vietnam, decided to walk to the Red River crossing together. As we disembarked, a taxi driver came up to offer his services in ferrying us to the bridge. We all felt like seasoned travellers and, possibly not wanting to lose face, decided en masse that it was not far, we had a map and would not require a taxi, thank you very much. In fact, it was a rather long walk, and we were all quite sweaty and exhausted by the time we arrived at the bridge. However, there was a suspicious lack of other pedestrians and a surprising number of lorries. We tentatively approached the guards and showed them our passports, hoping (but not really believing) they would just wave us on. They looked extremely confused, had a brief discussion, and then told us we couldn’t cross there. We had walked to the wrong bridge. As we turned to trudge shame facedly back the way we had just come, we spotted the taxi driver from the bus station! He had anticipated our error and followed us, bringing a friend along with him! Grinning, he asked if we wanted a lift now, and sheepishly we all agreed.
Once at the right place, everything was straightforward. We queued up, our bags were scanned and our passports checked and stamped at the Chinese side. We then crossed the bridge on foot into Lao Cai, Vietnam, where our passports were checked and stamped once more. For the first time in my life I succeeded in making a passport control officer laugh because I can’t keep a straight face whilst being scrutinised. Usually they are so deadpan that you don’t even get a smile.
I exchanged the remainder of our Chinese yuan with a dodgy dealer by the border checkpoint. I definitely need to brush up on my haggling skills and not agree straight away out of embarrassment as I got a worse exchange rate than anyone else! However, I comfort myself with the thought that I make somebody’s day a little brighter every time I get ripped off.
The five of us who were heading to the mountain town of Sapa hopped on an electric taxi bus, and our driver hailed a passing coach a little way along the road. We hastily threw our bags in the hold and piled on. It was a one hour winding journey into the mountains, where the scenery was supposed to be beautiful. By the time we arrived, it was dark, misty and gently raining; in other words, worryingly reminiscent of Yuanyang, but we optimistically hoped that if we stayed there long enough the weather would improve.