This section about Hekou is the ninth instalment of my bicycle ride from Yunnan to Cambodia – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

As I arrived just thirty minutes late to get my Vietnam visa done on Friday, I had to wait the entire weekend for official services to resume on the Vietnam side. In a town like Hekou, that’s a bit of a punishment. The town is not really boring, but isn’t interesting enough either to spend three full days in.

Fortunately, two French cyclists (Anaïs and Romain from Toulouse on their trip from France to Thailand) made the boredom bearable. It’s fun to listen to their descriptions of the cultures they’ve encountered and they kindle in me the desire to ride around Turkey and Iran some time. At the same time they remind me of how difficult it is to enjoy China without speaking any Chinese and on how much great food you miss out if you don’t know where to find it.

The riverside juice shop I used to go to has a new owner now and there’s no more Vietnamese ice coffee, which is a bummer, but the Vietnamese coffee on Vietnam street is still great – even though they get the coffee out of a bottle rather than making it fresh. There are also Banh mi stands (like French baguettes with pâté and veggies and eggs), a refreshing novelty in this town.

Hekou railway station
Hekou railway station, once a major stop on the metre gauge line Hai Phong – Kunming

The French couple makes for a perfect excuse to go eat at larger establishments around town. If you’re alone, all you eat is some noodles, tofu and rice. When you’re in a larger group, you can allow yourself the luxury of a real restaurant where you order up a couple of dishes.

While there are nice restaurants with outside seating areas overlooking the river (next to the old train station, for instance), I find their quality to be lacking and their prices high. For such a small and insignificant town, food and accommodation are expensive.

Bored as we are, we go for a stroll along the meter-gauge rail tracks that lead towards Kunming. All of us are longing to cross but we still have to wait. Amusingly, a police man on a motor scooter catches up with us on the train tracks and tells us to please not cross into Vietnam. Our promise that we won’t seems to be satisfactory for him. Police in China are so nice, they ought to call them the Polite Corps.

House on Vietnamese border at Hekou
Nice house along the Vietnamese border

On our walk there is ample opportunity to cross into Vietnam. Boats everywhere would happily take you across and a few kilometres up the road, where the border strays from the river, you’d be able to simply walk in. Of course, you’d have to be very careful for the mines from the 1979 “self-defence war against Vietnam”, which was really an act of retribution for Vietnam’s meddling in Cambodia’s Pol Pot revolution – which China last although they teach their own that they won.

When we return, however, we bump into slightly stronger resistance. Two army men, charged with the task to defend China’s borders, stop us, batons ready to strike. Passports? In our hotel. They’d seen us walking away from the station so we don’t really know why they make such a fuss. A phone call later we’re free to go, with the warning that we shouldn’t walk around here.

There’s also a museum (in Chinese) with relics from the Hekou uprising, a part of the Xinhai or Chinese revolution which ended up overthrowing the last Qing emperor and, through two world and one civil war, installing the Chinese Republic. In front of the museum, there’s a one-ton cannon on display made by Baily Pegg & Co., a British iron foundry.

Boats on the Red River at Hekou
Ample opportunity to illegally cross into Vietnam

The last night at Hekou, we have a filling meal and before we move on to our late-night tofu snack, we sit down in the local park to watch ladies practice a Tai Chi and dance cross-over. An old man with a military hat comes over and starts talking to us. He’s sporting a large cake box and explains that’s his food for tonight.

He explains he’s now an aviation professor at Mengzi (a military airfield). He used to be an ace trained to fly MIG fighter planes in the seventies in Moscow. As I tell him I can speak a few words Russian, he embarks on an entire monologue in the language. I have to stop him after a few minutes. Even though he’s Cantonese, his Chinese is way easier to follow. When some Vietnamese women pass by, he also displays his apparent excellent knowledge of Vietnamese.

Cannon by Bailey and Pegg Company at Hekou
Cannon built by Bailey Pegg & Co. and used in the Hekou uprising (part of the Xinhai revolution)

He’s now 68 and his retirement salary of 16000 RMB month is much higher than what many of us in the West would make. But then again, he is a high-ranking military officer with a doctorate level degree achieved in Moscow and a Party membership card. But he doesn’t like the Party, he says, and proceeds to reel off a litany about how China should change, how the Party should give way to democracy, how there they will be ousted in the next 15-20 years and how it is the root of all that’s wrong with China.

A very unusual point of view of Chinese people to voice publicly, and entirely unusual for military party members. The only reason he’s a member, he says, is because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to study or be an officer. He also hates war, he says.

He’s the first person I meet who knows and openly admits that China lost the war. Because the Chinese military came from all corners of China. The Vietnamese, being locals and knowing the terrain, shot them all down. People would walk on mines and still do to this day. An landmine remains lethally explosive up to fifty years after placement, he says. Also, their resistance was fierce: the women used to feed the bullets into the machine gun while the men handled the trigger. His job at the time was to fly the wounded back to China, and he was a very busy man doing so.

Meat chunks carved out of layered stone
“Meat every day, surplus every year” meat-like pieces cut out of layered stone are a tribute to abundance

A Vietnamese woman, who had been listening to every word of the conversation, had been quietly nodding on the side. Her husband, from Hebei province, later joins in the conversation and they both hold a race blaming their government for being corrupt and inept until it gets too technical for me to follow. I’m also amazed by the absence of animosity between the officer and this woman when he learns she belongs to the other side.

It’s now Monday and I’ve submitted my passport for a visa. It’s 450 RMB and it should be back by 6:30 pm today. Let’s hope nothing goes wrong so I can spend tonight in Vietnam.

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