Riding the rails from China to Vietnam

The CRH high speed train

The CRH high speed train

Two months of travel in China drew to a close, it was time to move on, with a few days left on our visas we departed Yangshuo on the bus to Guilin, a journey we had made a few times since basing ourselves in the area. Two rail connections would transport us to Hanoi, Vietnam, continuing our rail adventure south.

The bus deposited us at Guilin central bus station and we walked down to the nearby railway station, a little heavy-hearted to be leaving the area. Guilin railway station was typically chaotic but we had a vip pass, in the form of tickets for the high-speed CRH train to Nanning. This new train had its own waiting room, a smart, bright room with plenty of seating and electronic ticket gates. On the stairs up to there we could see into the regular waiting rooms, packed with commuters and felt relieved, and rather smug, to not be joining them.

We had a while to wait, gradually the waiting room filled up, then boarding was called and six neat queues formed in the middle of the room. It was remarkably tidy and civilised. Waiting at the platform like a cat waiting to pounce was our train, a sleek white beast, quite different from any other train we’d taken in China.

Soon the train was rushing silkily through a rural, agricultural landscape, hand worked and completely at odds with the futuristic train cruising between the paddy fields and the orchards. The fairytale karst scenery was a quickly retreating sight and the land flattened out. An informative display in each carriage reveals the speed the train is travelling, I never saw the display reach 200km/h but it wasn’t far off, this felt pretty darn fast after all the slow trains we’ve done on this trip, which tended to average around the 60km/h mark.

Two and a half hours later the train pulled smoothly into Nanning station, it takes around six hours on the slow train. The station was typically busy, we bought our onward tickets to Hanoi from the ‘English speaking’ counter 16 in the ticket office then set off to find our accommodation.

It was quite a long walk to the Greenforest Hostel Nanning, through crazy traffic and then a long narrow alley of market stalls selling red lanterns and such like. It was a whirlwind of a walk that had us dodging motos, market barrows, food vendors and crowds of people.

The train had been booked for two days time so we had a full day and two nights in Nanning. To be honest we didn’t see that much of the city as we used the time planning our next leg in Vietnam, booking accommodation and looking up destinations and transport. Nanning has a pleasant riverside area that shone in the bright sunshine, know as the Green City for its abundant plant life, it looked smart and clean from here, when we took an afternoon wander to get some fresh air.

Nanning, China

We managed to escape the China railway station chaos for a second time here in Nanning. The international T8701 train was accessed through the CRH entrance and we waited in another serene waiting room until our train number was illuminated green on the electronic departures board.

Boarding our last Chinese sleeper train of the trip we located our compartment, a four bed soft sleeper which we were sharing with a Vietnamese couple who had already settled in, remarkable as the train began here, it was the furthest carriage and we only had ten minutes to board!

Aboard the T8701 Nanning to Hanoi trainThe train left at 6.20pm and it trundled south reaching the Chinese border station at Pingxiang around 10pm, during this time we’d filled out departure cards and handed our passports to an immigration officer who boarded. Everyone had to get off the train, with their luggage, which had to be passed through a scanner as we entered a huge building. Our passports were returned to us then we were allowed back onto the train, yet it remained in the station for another hour.

It slowly pulled away and some time after midnight we crossed into Vietnam and the train stopped at Dong Dang and we all had to get off again. Dong Dang station is a high-ceiled yellow affair, made more lurid by the fluorescent strip lights illuminating it in the dead of night. It felt like a remote station in the heart of the jungle, the large black windows revealed nothing of the outside world.

The luggage was scanned again, then we handed our passports over at the immigration desk. Everyone was gathered in the high vaulted room in the middle of the station, poorly lit with a clutter of seats. Two ladies had set up stalls selling Chocopies and pop to this captive crowd. They also offered a very handy money changing service and we exchanged a small amount of Yuan for some Dong so we could pay for a taxi at the other end.

After a while we were all requested to gather around and names were called to return passports, it was a bit like going back to school! They personally handed back the passports belonging to the few non Vietnamese passengers.

Eventually we were able to climb into our bunks to get some sleep before reaching Hanoi, I managed a few hours after viewing moonlit Vietnam through a gap in the curtains from my bed for a while, Palm trees, banana trees, water-filled rice paddies and pale roads, the trees looking like black smudges on the landscape.

A few times the train passed a siding and the three lines of rail were obvious, the gauge is narrower in Vietnam than in China, these three rails allow both gauges can run on the route, meaning we didn’t have to switch trains {or have the bogies changed}. Simple!

Still in the dead of night, the train arrived at Hanoi’s Gia Lam station just before 5am. We took our exhausted bodies out of the station and ignored the touting taxi drivers by following the local passengers along the road. We wondered if they were going to catch a bus but they dispersed, we came to a junction with a main road and there was sat a Mai Linh taxi.

In a city of scamming taxi drivers, Mai Linh had been one of the listed reputable companies in the book. The phone number on the side of the car matched so we took it to our booked hotel. He was polite and used his meter, it was the easiest taxi journey ever. What a great introduction back to Vietnam!

Hello Hanoi!


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By Rachel Davis

2 Responses

  1. Dave Rowley says:

    Another great rail journey in a year of trip filled with rail journeys! The high-speed train sounds really fun! And what a feeling to be gliding in a futuristic train between fields being worked by hand. Did you see other western tourists on the trains on this leg? Was it easy to get by in English in the train stations & with immigration/customs?

    • Loved it! No, I’m pretty sure we were the only westerners on that particular train, as often happened in China, just so outnumbered by locals for tickets I guess! We had no probs with the language, mostly it was easy to find our train on the departure board just with the train number and waiting room number, only one station didn’t use the arabic number system we use but just showing our ticket to a member of staff had us heading to the right place. On further looking I realised it was the same number system as Japan, which I am a little familiar with, so I may have been able to decode it after all!
      No problems with communication whatsoever at immigration/customs, we had no issues at all.