The brief but enjoyable stretch of Ho Chi Minh highway is coming to an end. I haven't run out of road yet, but I'm conscious of nearing Hanoi.
Many of the towns that I have passed through in the last week have been nothing more than a string of buildings along the roadside, with a few having a couple of side streets. Sometimes though I reach a town that on the map looks nothing more than a couple of streets but in reality turn out to be quite a regional metropolis. There are times when I have had to check the map to confirm I am at the town I thought I would be at. Tonights town is one of those that spring out of nowhere. A simple crossroads, yet a major hub in an otherwise sparsely populated area. That means a choice of guest houses, restaurant or street food vendors, mini markets and fruit sellers. The choice can be overwhelming at times. Most other times it's a matter of taking whatever is on offer.
Remember -  you can click on the pictures to enlarge them for better viewing.
The road is getting busier and the horns are starting to be heard again. It's just 140 kilometres to Hanoi now and a visit to the Chinese embassy where I hope to get a visa.
The problem with a Chinese visa is that you need to apply in your home country. Once obtained it is valid for three months from date of issue, which means that it would have expired by the time I reached the Chinese border. The only alternative is to apply elsewhere. China is notorious for being a difficult country to enter when not applying from your home country, but I have a few choices. Grace and David obtained their visa without problems in HCMC, others I have spoken to have found it easy enough in Vientiane, Laos or Chiang Mai, Thailand. For some reason though Hanoi has a reputation as being a difficult place to obtain a Chinese visa. All embassies and consulates are supposed to follow the same guidelines or rules so there is no reason why one place should be seen as difficult or easy. With all of this playing on my mind I rode towards Hanoi searching for back roads to avoid the main highway as much as possible. This produced some more strange new sights.
The choices, should Hanoi fail to provide any joy are 1) to fly to HCMC and get one there, fly back to Hanoi to collect the bike and head north. 2) Ride to, or box the bike and fly to, Vientiane, Laos and try there. 3) Fly to Hong Kong with the bike and try there. I have been told that in HK I can get a three month Chinese visa the next day. That would be a good option as it would save me the hassle of extending a one month visa while in China, as it can only be done at certain places. Another option that I had been toying with since before I left the UK was to enter Vietnam and then fed-ex my passport home and have someone send it to the embassy in the UK, with an 8 or 9 day turnaround, and then have it fed-exed back to me somewhere in Vietnam. This would mean that I could get a three month visa but would be without a passport for about a month. As I have to produce my passport at every place I stay in Vietnam that would not have worked. I had considered applying in HCMC but for one reason then another I didn't get around to it. Not that it takes a lot of effort to be honest. A few forms, a couple of photocopies and a photographs is all that is supposedly all that is needed. The forms were easy enough to fill in but I also needed proof of transport into and out of the country as well as a confirmed booking for a hotel. Strictly speaking they only ask for proof of the first nights accommodation but I decided to take no chances. Even though I had a flight home from Beijing booked prior to setting off from home I booked a return flight from Hanoi into Guangzhou and a hotel room for the duration of my twenty five night stay. Both of these bookings were made on websites that allow you to cancel prior to use without any charge. Basically I booked them so that I could print out the confirmation emails and produce them at the embassy when I took my passport in. They were accepted without a problem and I was told to come back on Wednesday with a receipt for the $30 visa fee which had to be paid into their bank account down the road and I could collect my passport with a 30 day Chinese visa. Woohoo. The visa may only be good for 30 days but you are able to extend it for a small fee for 30 days at a time at least twice, and according to one rumour three or four times.
As well as having a reputation for being a hard place to obtain a Chinese visa, Hanoi is also known as an expensive place for backpackers. The first few hotels I tried all quoted me $15 dropping quickly to $10 - $12 but no lower. I tried a couple more and then saw a sign reading 'beds $3'. Checking it out I found a dorm room to share with a young Kiwi couple and an American. Air con, shower and wifi included ! Not bad at all, especially as the beds are comfy too. The backpacker area is centred around the old quarter of Hanoi which has a history dating back a thousand years. Luckily the buildings here appear a lot younger than that, but there is still some history on show in places. One such place is the Ngoc Son temple, sitting on a small island within the Hoan Kiem lake. Dedicated to the memory of General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongol army in the 13th Century. The most interesting artifact there though is a stuffed turtle in a glass case said to weigh over 250 kilograms. A more recent historical monument lies very close to the bridge to the pagoda and is the Martyrs monument.
Once I dropped off my passport at the Chinese embassy I was left with five days to waste away prior to collection. On returning to the hostel I met Sato, a Japanese cyclist who is riding to Hong Kong. As a Japanese passport holder he is allowed a free 14 day visa into China, which will give him enough time to get to HK where he can then get a three month visa that will allow him to see a lot more of the country. We were joined later that day by Alberto from Spain, another cyclist who is flying to Moscow in order to ride home to Spain for September. Grace and David also told me of a three Belgians that they met a few days ago who are heading to China too. they set off a couple of days ago, so there is a good chance that we may all join up at some point. It would be great to be a part of a large group for a little while at least. There are always lots of tales of life on the road to hear and tell so a couple of days or riding and chatting would be welcome.
Until then though I have a few days to fill so I decided to take a two day, one night trip to Halong bay, east of Hanoi to see the wonderous sight of thousands of Karst rock formations jutting out of the sea. It's the one major tourist attraction that is touted heavily in this reason so let's hope that it has more to offer me than Can Tho's floating market did.
 





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