Something brushed my face. I opened my eyes and saw the foot of a Vietnamese youngster lying in front of me, my back ached and my knees hurt because I hadn’t been able to stretch my legs for hours. No, I wasn’t in the torture chamber of a prison but lying in the aisle of the bus on the eighteen-hour journey to Hanoi, capital of Vietnam. The seat was quite hard and the reclining lever didn’t work, so I went for the easiest solution: to lie on the floor like my Vietnamese travel mates. As we got into town, I removed my beloved ear plugs and heard the sound of hooting, so I got up and, looking out of the window, saw the rivers of scooters which are typical of the cities of this chaotic country.
I picked up my backpack and faced the usual touts and taxi drivers. Knowing that those who wait for the buses to arrive are usually there to rip off foreigners, I peacefully avoided them and started walking down the noisy streets of Hanoi. I found out from some passers-by that I was already in the city centre and that the hostel I was looking for - recommended to me by a girl I met at a bus stop - was not far away, so I went there on foot. I took a bunkbed in a twelve-person dormitory for the reasonable price of five dollars. Vietnam was turning out to be more expensive than the bordering countries especially as far as transportation and rooms go, so for a single person, sleeping in a dormitory is the only choice unless you are willing to spend ten dollars, but that seemed too much to me for Asia.
Without having breakfast or taking a minute’s rest, I then rushed to the Chinese embassy to apply for a visa that won’t be issued for four working days. First I needed a photocopy of my passport and Vietnamese visa so I started looking for a photocopier and asking people on the way.. Finding one turned out to be hard because the few hotels that had one told me that it wasn’t working, so they kept sending me from one place to another along the torrid roads filled with dangerously driven scooters that never stop for pedestrians. I finally reached the embassy at nine o’clock after taking a ride on a mototaxi – no need to mention the manoeuvres.
Luckily there wasn’t the usual queue I expect at an embassy and everything was well organised and supervised by a kind Chinese policeman who spoke perfect English. There were two forms to fill in with many private questions to answer, then photographs and photocopies were attached. I answered all the questions but I think the embassy employees may have some doubts about the fact that even though I no longer work as an employee, I still put down that I did, and when asked to write down where I had been in the previous year I replied honestly and listed the eight countries I had visited as a tourist in the last seven months. Not being called in the afternoon would mean everything was okay and that I could go back in five days and pay the necessary thirty dollars at their bank.
As I waited, hoping not to receive any bad news from the Chinese, I visited Hanoi, which appeared to be more characteristic and intriguing than its sister, Ho Chi Minh City, which modernised like most big Asian cities and thereby lost most of its old charm. Although it was 38°C, I went down a few roads to get an idea of the daily dynamics of the locals. The most interesting things are the roaside kiosks that cook rice and noodles. I stopped at one of these and met some old men who showed me their smoking instrument: a bamboo bong with a five centimetre aspiration hole, just like the ones in the villages of northern Laos, which isn’t very far from here.