Pop & Dob’s Hanoi to Shanghai

Earlier on, I posted several photos on Facebook and Instagram of our Father-Daughter backpacking trip from Hanoi overland to Shanghai. I only posted photos because no thousand words or poem could describe how beautiful the places are. Click here for Photo Album of Pop&Dob’s Hanoi to Shanghai  For this blog post, I’ll focus on writing about the people we met on the journey, my reflection of what we learnt about the world through interacting with them; and lastly, expressing my feelings about this journey.


1.    Hanoi – The couple

On the overnight train from Hanoi to Lào Cai (the Vietnamese border town with China), we shared a bunk compartment with a Swedish couple who was travelling across South East Asia. Before lights-off, we did the usual backpackers’ exchange of travel tales and suppers. My daughter and I sat on one side of the lower deck while the couple sat on the opposite side facing us. Strangely, as we were chitchatting, they started to hug each other and smooch away in their own world! We laughed away, but only silently to ourselves!

Travelling is often an education and appreciation of different cultures of our diverse world. At times, there was awkwardness and discomfort, but we learn to tolerate the differences and embrace diversity.


2.   Yuanyang 元阳 – The backpackers

At 6am the next morning, we arrived at the Lào Cai train station (still in Vietnam). We saw a tall bushy-faced Japanese man talking rather loudly to some locals who were touting travellers to take their cars to the Vietnam-China border post. Though tall and mighty, he looked sincere and honest, even a little funny, enough for me to believe we could safely share a car ride with him to the border post. He spoke fluent English too, which is quite rare for Japanese, so I approached him to make the suggestion. Coincidentally, we were all heading towards the same next destination in China – the Yuanyang rice terraces, which were some 160km from the border. So for the next few days, we had a travel companion, and he turned out to be a god-sent funny one who truly spiced up our journey!

This Japanese guy (a doctor) had been travelling across the world with a backpack for four years. Greater China was to be his final destination before his return to Japan. He was impressively street-smart, probably due to his years spent on the road. Just observing him deal with people was quite funny, like watching a comedy show. A Vietnamese money-changer tried to cheat him by giving him 5-cent Yuan notes instead of 5-dollar Yuan notes but he outwitted the money-changer with his “calculator” mind and “gimme my money” meme. His big size and bushy Japanese face also attracted a lot of attention. On the streets, he could tease the kids till they ran wild giggling and hiding, while Chinese border guards and Tourist cops would stop and interrogate him. My daughter was especially appalled but amused by one of his comments about the many hens and chicks roaming around and clucking noisily in the guesthouse’s kitchen: “the chicks watching the mother being killed”! It was wicked but very true. All in all, his presence opened up our hearts to laugh at the beautiful people of this beautiful world. Just look at his face in this group picture!


Chatting over meals on a more sentimental level, we learnt that he was surprised to see an Asian father and daughter on a backpacking trip, behaving like friends. (In fact he thought we were brother and sister when he first saw us at the train station!) He explained that in traditional Japanese culture, the father is usually stern with few words, and the family hierarchical. Messages from a father to a daughter may even be relayed through a mother. Hmm!

Since we didn’t do any prior research for a guesthouse to stay at, we followed him and stayed at the backpacker’s guesthouse he had booked. It turned out to be a great choice. Besides being in an un-touristy local village in the middle of the spectacular rice terraces, the guesthouse offered opportunities to meet many other interesting backpackers from other parts of the world. We met Europeans who remarked that they felt Singapore looked “fake’, like a Disneyland. We also formed a group with the Japanese guy and another young chap from Macau to rent a van for two days to tour the rice terraces and villages. This combination of travel companions made travel so much more exhilarating. The Japanese guy spoke excellent English while the Macau chap who spoke only native Cantonese and Chinese, did not understand English. So I ended up being the translator for all their conversations. At times, I even mixed them up – for example, when taking a photo, I urged the Macau chap to shift his position a little but he just stood still, until my daughter prompted me that I had used the wrong language! Travelling truly transcends languages. It’s actually more fun to explore places which we don’t understand their languages.


3.   Xijiang Miao village 西江千户苗寨 – The taxi riders

From Kaili train station to Xijiang Miao village, we shared a taxi ride with a middle aged couple from Shanghai. The man sat in the front seat next to the driver while his wife squeezed with us at the backseat. Phew!, for the man was a blaring loudhailer! For over an hour, he blared out nonstop about his life, his country, the world and China’s entire history. He was also quite boastful – he boasted about his rubbing of shoulders with senior officials from the Chinese Communist Party, but he also declared he didn’t like them at all. He even said Singapore was “killed” by China’s bureaucrats and China’s rising competitiveness, and that “Singapore is “doomed” (“新加坡被中国整死了, 他们死定了”), citing the Suzhou industrial park project and Singapore losing competitiveness to Chinese ports as examples. It was only when the taxi-driver told him we were from Singapore that he switched his topic to condemning other cities in China. But for Shanghai in which he lived, he praised it unreservedly, describing how cultured and family-oriented the Shanghainese are.

When we got off the taxi, my daughter heaved a sigh of relief as she unplugged her earphones. But she said that the man’s voice was so loud that it drowned her music! Irritating as he was, he was entertaining, and I could tell his renditions were unreserved and true from the bottom of his heart. I actually felt he was a good reflection of and insight to China’s middle class of today.


4.   Langde village 郎德 – The villagers

Contrary to many horror stories in the news of uncaring and rude people who wouldn’t even help a child who was run over by vehicles, we found the Chinese people generally gentle, friendly and helpful – at least in the rural villages and even cities like Kunming, Shanghai and Kaili. It was very different from when I visited China for the first time more than 20 years ago, when I remembered people as being rough, vulgar and rude. Back then, we were often scolded with vulgarities over small matters.

We encountered first hand the warmth of the Chinese people in the tiny mountain village of Langde. At 5.10pm, we were probably the only tourists in the village as we scurried down the cobbled streets to catch the 5.30pm last bus to Kaili city. Along the street, villagers prompted us to hurry or else we would miss the bus. When we reached the bus park at 5.25pm, some people told us we had already missed the last bus of the day and advised us to walk 3km uphill along a narrow mountainous road to catch another bus on the highway. I ran around the bus park hoping to hitch a ride from a vehicle which might be leaving for the direction of the highway. Unfortunately, they were all going the opposite direction. Just as we were feeling slightly desperate, a bus suddenly stopped in front of us. The driver said he would make a detour to take us to the highway junction although it was travelling on the opposite direction. We gladly jumped on! On board, my daughter told me that while I was running around looking for a vehicle, she overheard an young man persuade the bus driver to do a special detour for us. It was so heartwarming!

Travelling opens up our hearts against prejudices and stereotypical perceptions.


5.  Zhangjiajie 张家界 – The tour guide

We hired a dedicated day guide for our Zhangjiajie tour so as to better appreciate the many lively legends behind the rocks. Without someone to explain the legends, all the rocks would have just been meaningless rocks.

The guide was a lady from the “Tu” village. But she was as modern as us and spoke common Chinese like singing poems. She has a loud voice, so loud that her voice resonated through the valley and vibrated the rocks!

On a few occassions, she stepped aside to answer calls on her mobile phone. Because she spoke so loudly, I could hear from far she was arguing with someone over a matter concerning her kid. At one opportunity, I asked her if everything was alright. She explained that she has a 17 year-old son who didn’t show up in school for the mandatory Sunday remedial class, and the school teacher had summoned her to the school to discuss the matter. She argued with the teacher over the purpose of her going to the school since it was her son who had refused to attend the class.

Her only son had become increasingly rebellious, having played truant or refused to attend remedial classes several times. She lamented that the education system is intensely competitive so she had put her son in a private school, spending a large chunk of the family’s money. She felt uncertain and pessimistic about the future. Reminiscing the days when her son was so adorable and dearly loved by the family who had provided him with everything, she could not understand how he had become so rebellious. She added that whenever she asked him questions, he would give impatient one word answers.

As I listened, I thought everything she said sounded so familiar. I’ve personally experienced this phase to some extent and even heard of very similar experiences from friends and colleagues who have adolescent kids. Incidentally, these friends and colleagues were from different parts of the world. The world is as similar as they are different!


6.   Huangshan 黄山 – The passenger

The train ride from Huaihua city to the legendary Yellow Mountain (Huangshan) was the longest train ride in the whole journey – 18 hours. To ensure better comfort, we bought “soft sleeper” tickets. In China trains, there are ‘hard seats’, ‘hard sleeper’ (6 beds in an opened compartment) and ‘soft sleeper’ (4 beds in a closed compartment). When we got into the compartment, we saw this plump, middle-aged lady leaning on her lower-deck bed surrounded by several large canvas bags and a large suitcase. By looking at her hairdo and dress, we could tell she was from a traditional village.

We didn’t talk much in the first few hours as she was busy watching dramas on her handphone. She had turned on the volume so loudly that it was hard for us not to follow the drama as well. After dinner (we all ate cup noodles), we began to chitchat. We learnt that she was travelling from Guiyang all the way to Nanjing, a 31-hour train journey. When asked why she did not choose to fly as it was faster and cheaper, she explained that she would not be able to hand-carry all her luggages onto the plane.

She was visiting her daughter and husband who lived in Nanjing. After her daughter had graduated from Nanjing University, she decided to work and live there, so her husband relocated there in order to cook for their daughter. However, she loved the village life and refused to move to Nanjing, hence she continued to live alone in her village house outside Guiyang. She sounded a bit disappointed and couldn’t understand why today’s youngsters would forsake the village lifestyle for the hectic life in highly polluted cities.

She proudly showed us photographs of her two-storey village house on her handphone. The concrete house was still surrounded by vegetable plots but I could see the “village” was slowly being encroached by development, with newer and taller concrete blocks being built adjacent to her plot. She lamented that her neighbours had turned their vegetable plots into public carparks to earn parking fees. Besides growing vegetables, she reared chickens on her house’s rooftop (so as to be away from the neighbours’ carparks). When I asked her who would be feeding the chickens in her absence, she smiled with a rather sinister wink: “I killed them all!” while pointing at her canvas bags!

When we alighted from the train, my daughter told me she was actually very frightened by the “murderous glint” in the woman’s eyes and had imagined her as a pyschopath who had just killed people and stuffed them into those huge bags! I thought that was funnily imaginative!


7.   Shanghai 上海 – Pop and Dob

It was 8am on a cold morning. The train was scheduled to rumble into Shanghai Station at 8.25am. I stood at the train corridor outside our compartment while my daughter was still inside packing her bag to get ready for arrival. I stared through the window. The sun had just risen. Its rays pierced through the trees, electric poles and buildings as they raced backwards. The scene looked like a nostalgic flickering movie. The scene flickered my mind too. A sudden emotion welled up within me, choking my throat and watered my eyes. The journey was almost ending, a dream almost fulfilled.

We had thoroughly enjoyed this little backpacking trip. I say “little” because it was short, just over two weeks. It was shortened from a much more ambitious plan made in mid 2015 when I first quit my job and suggested that we go backpacking together after her O level exams. We had originally planned to travel from Singapore overland all the way to Beijing but due to various other commitments, we decided to shorten it. Although it was a “little” trip, our hearts and minds travelled far, deep and time-infinite – it was the greatest trip in our hearts. For me, it was an attempt to catch up with my kid, to know her better, to make up for lost time when the kids were younger but I was too busy with work. I say “attempt” because I don’t know if I had caught up. The kids have grown up and I felt the bonds I had once hoped for could no longer be achieved.

For my daughter, I hope she will remember this Pop & Dob journey for the rest of her life – our chasing the sunrises and sunsets, our hopping from one street food stall to another, our enduring the smoky and rickety bus rides, our suspicious hotpot dinner (we just prayed there was no dog meat in there!), climbing up and down the endless mountain steps, the “irritating” selfies, and many many more precious memories. One day, I hope these memories will inspire her to fulfill her own dreams.

Beginning of the Journey (at Hanoi Train Station)
Beginning of the Journey (at Hanoi Train Station)
Chasing sunset (at Yuanyang)
Chasing sunset (at Yuanyang)
I stared through the window. The sun had just risen. Its rays pierced through the trees, electric poles and buildings as they raced backwards. The scene looked like a nostalgic flickering movie. The scene flickered my mind too. A sudden emotion welled up within me, choking my throat and watered my eyes. The journey was almost ending, a dream almost fulfilled.




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