OK, so I posted a blog entry from Hong Kong Airport – fast becoming my favourite place in the world apart from the tailor’s shop in Hoi An, so we all know how the story ends, I got to Hong Kong safe and sound and with full typing ability – but what was the journey like?
Epic, that’s what. Months ago, back in Cambodia, I was speaking to a Canadian guy about the difficulty of what would appear, on the face of it, to be a hassle-free journey: Hanoi to Hong Kong. Geographically, the two places are relatively close together, both of them major cities. Shouldn’t really be a problem getting between the two. Wrong! The cheapest flights I could see were about $330, waaaay out of my budget. The other obvious alternative would be to get the train north from Vietnam, through China, and on to Hong Kong. I know the Chinese railways well enough to know that it shouldn’t be too difficult. However, this was August – Chinese holiday month, when virtually the entire 1.3 billion population goes on the move, and also I’d need to apply for another Chinese visa just for a day or so on the train. There had to be an easier way. The guy suggested I look at Air Asia, a new budget airline, who fly from Hanoi to Bangkok, and then Bangkok to Macau, from where I can get a ferry across to Hong Kong. This was a cheap option, so I booked it, glossing over the fact that it would involve a dash west across Asia before heading back north east, and also the fact that I would be spending the night at Bangkok Airport. No problem!
As the day of travel drew nearer, the implications started to become more real. The two Air Asia flights were booked separately, not as a connecting flight, so I wouldn’t be able to go through to departures. My resolve started to shake, but still, nothing I could do about it now. Economy rules all on a trip like this.
I got to the airport early – of course – with no hassles, getting a $2 minibus from Hanoi centre. I had to wait an hour or so before I could check in for my flight. Even then it was with crossed fingers. Air Asia, like a lot of budget airlines these days, have imposed a strict weight limit for checked luggage – 15 kilos. When I started out my backpack was about 14, now with extra purchases it was running at about 17. Luckily, in Hoi An I’d bought an extra-large day bag – almost as big as my backpack but looking deceptively smaller. Into this I deposited all my heavy things – my toiletry bag, loads of DVDs I’d been carrying around since Cambodia (wasn’t allowed to send them home from Vietnam, praise the communists suspicious little hearts), my Birkenstocks, all my books. I wore my heaviest clothes. I’d obviously guessed well, as my checked luggage came to 14.9 kilos. Result! I paid my departure tax, and wandered through to departures, looking to get something to eat and spend my last 50,000 dong (about $3). Heading up to the restaurant, though, I realised this would buy me one very small spring roll. The prices were shocking and the quality, I’m sure, would have been awful. Muttering in an old codger way, I gravitated instead to the duty free shops, where I bought a bar of Cadburys Dairy Milk big enough to see me through the night.
It was such a nice surprise to meet up with Jo and Hamish, friends of Doireann’s who I met in Hoi An, at the airport, and great to hear they’d be on my flight. They were great company for my last few hours in Vietnam, and we chatted the whole way through the (surprisingly comfortable) flight. Arriving at Bangkok, we went through Arrivals and I waved them off into the Thai night.
Knowing I’d have to settle down there soon, I did a recce tour of the airport to see what my options were. Not many, frankly. Rows and rows of plastic chairs, bright strip lights, and loud tv sets meant that I was unlikely to get much sleep. None at all, as it turns out. I bought some comfort food KFC, found an empty row of chairs, padlocked my bags to the leg of the chair, and stretched out. I managed about 2 seconds before I was wriggling about in pain and discomfort. I’d like to meet whoever designed those chairs and shake him by the neck. I’m sure they deliberately make them uncomfortable to sleep on. Whichever way I lay, I had plastic digging in my back or hip or neck. I also started to get cold. Pulling on my extra clothes and my pashmina, I shut my eyes against the fluorescent lights, and waited for the mercy of sleep. It never came. The next thing I heard was a screeeeeeeech screeeeeeech sound akin to nails being dragged down a blackboard. Eyes stinging with lack of sleep, I pushed myself up and looked around. A couple of cleaners, one with impressive striped hair like some kind of wildlife, were dragging whole rows of chairs to the side in order to mop underneath them, and then blasting the mopped areas with an industrial-sized fan. Working their way up the rows, they came and shouted at me until I moved. Stripy hair was the worst. Now I’ve never even considered murdering a badger before- but this was ridiculous!
I stumbled away to another area where, after a minute of the chairs, gave up entirely and lay on the floor. It comes to something when a cold, hard concrete floor is more comfortable than chairs. Sleep would not come to me that night. Eventually the airport started coming to life again. I had a breakfast of noodle soup, then waited at the start of the line to check in for my flight. A queue built up behind me, so I was incredulous when a man sauntered to the front of the queue and put his passport on the counter. Back in China mode, I knew he wouldn’t understand me, but would understand sign language. I told him where to go. No, potty brain, I mean the back of the queue.
The flight to Macau, though uneventful, was amusing just to witness the Chinese people approaching a plane in the same way as a bus – run for your life! Push your way on! No matter that everyone has a seat, guaranteed, what counts is being the first on. Laughing at this, I got talking to a lovely girl, Nicky, who was just heading home to the UK after 7 months on the road. I keep meeting people heading home, but right now the thought is completely alien to me. I’m not sure how I’ll feel when my time comes.
Nicky had done the trip in reverse 10 days earlier, and so was a good companion to have. We checked through the shiny new Macau terminal, and managed to get on a bus heading for the harbour. She pointed out the sights of Macau on the way, including my favourite, a casino inside a large plastic volcano. Classy! I was disappointed with the little I saw of Macau – I expected it to be a mini Portugal, one of my absolute favourite European countries, but instead it was just tasteless large developments thrown up with no sympathy for history or taste. New, yes, but good, no. Fortunately we got on a speedy ferry quickly, and were soon splashing our way towards Hong Kong at high speed; the journey only takes about an hour.
I can’t say how pleased I was to see the sun shining over Hong Kong. Just a few days earlier it had been battered by a typhoon, leaving hundreds of flights stranded; last time I was there it was overcast (I later learned this was from pollution). As we’d arrived in Chinese holiday week, the pollution had cleared, as had the typhoon, leaving scorching hot and sunny clear blue skies.
And is there anything better than landing back in a much-loved city that feels as familiar as home? My heart was skipping as we checked through, and I got my sixth stamp in my passport in less than 24 hours (1. Vietnam departure 2. Thailand arrival 3. Thailand departure 4. Macau arrival 5. Macau departure 6. Hong Kong arrival). Ignoring the “what country am I in?” feeling, I headed up to my hotel, arranging to meet Nicky later. We spent the next 24 hours revisiting the best of Hong Kong. I won’t go over them again (although I could, and gladly, but to save my fingers – just read my first HK blogs!) – but we went to the inspirational light show that night, ate more cheap and delicious noodles than I could normally eat in a year, and went up a miraculously clear Victoria Peak, this time getting the photos that were lost in the smog last time. Perfect. A great farwell not only to one of the greatest cities in the world, but also to Asia.
I was able to introduce Nicky to the best of Hong Kong Airport, with its free internet access and reclining seats. Funniest of all, though, was when she plugged in her hair straighteners and did her hair in the middle of a walkway, while I plonked myself down beside her. You know you’re a backpacker when…
Thankfully, my flight left on time, and I was soon entranced with Qantas’s miraculous in-flight movie system. I watched ‘Crash’ (brilliant! Watch it now!), and, full of food and happy reflections of Asia, managed to get an hour or two’s sleep before my flight landed in Perth. On to Australia, family, and a whole new continent.