Monday, January 5, 2009

Southern China - Travelling to Vietnam by train

I have been to Vietnam twice - on each occasion I stayed one month. The first time I travelled from the Philippines (since I was working there), and on the 2nd occasion I travelled from Sydney to HK, then travelled overland by train to Vietnam (Hanoi). The train route was HK-Guangzhou-Nanning-Vietnam border town-Hanoi. I took this route because I didn't like Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the Vietnamese government was charging foreigners twice the (USD) fare of locals for domestic flights at the time. They might have since changed that policy. You should of course arrange your flights from within Vietnam.
The trip from HK to Hanoi was not particularly attractive. The limestone cliffs en-route were attractive, forged by the rivers that meander through them, but still not as beautiful as the same structures in the Red River delta of Vietnam, but I guess you could argue they are different, and I might have liked them more if I alighted from the train. The problem is that no one speaks English outside the major (northern) cities. The south was severely polluted. Locals were using the gully created by train construction as a dumping ground for their rubbish. I had a sleeping compartment on the train, and poor Chinese people have their own social edicts I guess. Everywhere I turned people were spitting, making any path a minefield of bloodied spit. Even grandmas spit. They split on trains. The sleeper was a bad idea. Poor Chinese are not big on waiting either. Passing through the turnstiles at the station, I almost lost my hand trying to hold onto my baggage. It was a reserved seat train, but I guess that was not for everyone. So China was not the most civilising experience for me. This is not just the Chinese of course. It was true of Japan in the 1950s. The Japanese government did (as the Chinese government is doing), trying to raise the edicts of its poor people, who are a bit of an embarrassment. Given the lack of consideration for tourists, maybe its premature to visit there.
But having said that I found Vietnam a far more pleasant place to visit. I guess it might have more to do with the population-competition dynamics in China. The most pleasant aspect of China was the food. I ate well in Nanning. The border crossing was a nightmare. Some Europeans had the same idea to cross the border. Bad idea because we had to wait 12 hours in the station for the Hanoi train at midnight. We were awoken at 3AM to have our papers processed at the Vietnamese border then again we awake at 6AM to disembark the train. The border town was lifeless, had no modern services, and nobody spoke English. So it was a relief to find these Europeans because I would have otherwise died of boredom.
Andrew Sheldon

Korea as a travel destination

I have been to South Korea twice; on one occasion I was en-route to Japan, and the other time I was just doing a weekend stopover to renew my visa so I could stay another 90-days in Japan. My basis judgement on holidaying in Korea is - Why? What for? There is very very little to recommend about the place. If Japan did not exist, then I could find a reason to go there, but the problem is, it does. In Korea, I feel I am viewing some crude, 30-year old version of Korea. The stubborn, difficult old men you meet in Korea, I can find in the rural areas of Japan. Korea has very little natural beauty. I spent some time in the 'iconic' Sarakson National Park, and found it too limiting, and too congested, even on a weekday. There was just one place to go, and one way to get there.
I love Korean food, but its just as nice in Australia. I visited an attractive tea house. I have no interest in the historic sites, as they are pretty much what I would see in Japan. I did watch some good comedy on TV, which even I could understand. I dare say it was better than anything I'd find in Japan, but then nothing to bring me to this country. Few people spoke English. It was cheap to travel around; hotels were reasonable. I did not find the shopping particularly cheap as the cheap clothes were poor quality; electronics are cheaper in Japan. Music CDs were universally cheap. But it made me appreciate there was a reason why I did not see many tourist brochures there. The credit I would pay the government is its efforts to improve services to tourists; though that is also fashioned after the Japanese. The problem for Korea is defining a 'cultural' identity that distinguishes it from Japan, and might in fact make it interesting. The most interesting aspect of Korea was the pottery I studied in school art class, and I'm sure that would bore me today. The east coast had lovely white sand beaches. Yet I was amazed that they were enclosed by barbed wire rather than developed as tourist centres. Do they seriously think North Korea is a threat. A tragic sense of life - another attribute they share with Japan.
The best part about stopping over in Korea is that Korean Airlines allows you to fly on to other countries, unlike Japan Airlines. By flying to Seoul, I can get a ferry to Japan, and continue on to other countries. Japan Airlines only allows you to do that on the same ticket if you stay less than 5 days in Japan. I often want to stay 3mths, so Korea (Pusan) can make more sense. Korea has the cheapest flights to Japan, though China might have better deals now.
Andrew Sheldon

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Rafting & hiking in Japan

A suggested rafting and hiking trip to Japan for me would involve the following:
1. Flying to Narita return can be expensive, so I offer an alternative of flying to another city, even Pusan, South Korea and catching a ferry to Fukuoka. At any Japan major city you can activate your 1 week Japan Rail Pass. As a side option, consider an overnight stay in Fukuoka, Nagoya, Hiroshima at a Capsule Hotel. These hotels are cheap (Y3000-4000) and you dont need to book. You can leave excess luggage (secured) in the office. You can take this opportunity to travel around each region by rail to see Japan, or spend the nights bar hopping in a foreign city. If you like drinking, go for the budget izakaya franchises like Hub (popular for expats).
2. Accommodation in capsule hotel in Tokyo: There are capsule hotels in the vicinity of the major stations like Ueno and Shinjuku. Shinjuku and Shibuya are best for drinkers. Capsule hotels tend to be targeted at Japanese people, so they have Japanese names. Nevertheless you can book a 'capsule' through a shinkansen (rapid train) station Tourist Information Office. Ask for the cheap options.
3. Book your train ticket to Minakami: Go to the Reservations Office in a major JR station and book a ticket to Minakami. There are various adventure companies operating from there whom can help you with your trip, or go to to make reservations. You can check the travel timetable at
4. Next day go rafting at Minakami: If the adventure company does not pick you up from Joban Kogen Station, you will likely need to change trains at Takasaki or Numata.
5. Explore the options for mountaineering around Minakami, or if it is winter, you can travel through the range towards Niiagata, and there are several stations near the ski fields. Return to a capsule hotel in Tokyo.
6. Take your mountaineering day trip in Minakami or Matsumoto if you are looking for an alternative option. There are no budget capsule hotels in nearby Nagano unfortunately (, but there might be a budget ryokan (traditional guest house), or go a budget busines hotel for Y5000-6000. Otherwise back to Tokyo.
7. Narita City: On your last day you might want to stay at Narita City so you dont have to far to go the next day for your flight. I suggest staying at the Central Hotel or Narita View Hotel, as they are cheap and are close to the station. There are alot of tourist places around Narita Station including bars, plus one of the best shrines in Japan. You can catch a train to the airport in the morning. Or get an express to Ueno-Fukuoka if you are flying out from Pusan with Korean or Asiatic Airlines.
Using a Korean Airline can make particular sense if you are flying on to other countries as JAL only allows you to stay in Japan on stopover for 12 days. Japan can be an expensive place to eat. The cheap options are franchise izakaya outlets in the major cities, as well as discount takeaway stores such as Hokka Hokka Tei (Best!) and Yoshinoya. See my blog posting about the Japan Rail Pass at
Andrew Sheldon

Sea kayaking in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Vietnam is a gorgeous country. Outside the city its very clean and the government also goes to alot of trouble to ensure the tourist districts in Hanoi (Lake Kiem district) and Saigon are also kept clean. Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) is the main gateway to Vietnam, which is unfortunate because I think Hanoi is the crown in the jewels. For this reason consider approaching Hanoi by:
1. Transferring to a domestic airline in Saigon
2. Entering via an airline that flies to Hanoi, eg. Singapore Airlines, Korean Airlines, Thai Airways, etc
This might be an excuse for a stopover in another country.
My suggested itinerary is:
1. Stay at Lake Kiem: When you get to the airport in Hanoi, you will find its a long trip to the city. In fact this is one of the most remote airports in the world. Ask the driver to take you to the northern end of Lake Kiem in Hanoi. When you arrive seek out the backpacker district. Ask a foreigner or a street vendor where the budget accomodation is. Its all located in about 2-3 blocks extending north of the lake. You could pay $US5-15 per night.
2. Familiarise yourself with Hanoi: Go to Queens Cafe and book a 3-day tour to Catba Island, try a few of the local bars in the area.
3. Bus to Halong Bay - You can make your own way or join a Queens Cafe tour. You dont need to pay alot, there is cheap hotel accommodation in Halong Bay for $5-15/night. Great if you can take a tour that gets you to Catba Island. Cheap & clean accommodation there.
4. Sea kayaking on Halong Bay: See
5. Haiphong City: Get a ferry from Halong City to Haiphong City, and find accommodation there. I found Haiphong to host the nicest people you could meet.
6. Return Hanoi: Return for flight back to point of origin.
Andrew Sheldon

Why holiday in Asia?

You will not normally here this question asked - but I have observed that people tend to display a preference for either holidaying in Asia, or sticking to western countries. Its true that they are very different experiences, and I would offer the following explanation for why people differentiate. I also observe that people tend to change preferences over time.
I think people look to Asia for:
1. Exotic values - Some people are seeking something unfamiliar, where they can take the opportunity to learn a new culture, study a language. Other western countries might be different, but they are far more familiar than Asian countries.
2. Cheap holiday - most Asian countries are sihnificantly poorer than Europe, North America or Oceania so they have a a preference for cheap Asian destinations.
3. Adventure - There is a perception that Asia is the 'wild west' and thus that they can have an adventure, and do things that they would not otherwise do in their own country. Whether its hiking a volcanic peak or temple, or playing around with bar girls.

Travellers motivations for going to other western countries tend to be the opposite:
1. Familiarity - There is a tendency to frown upon the value of Asian values and seek the safety, comfort and familiarity of western countries. Asia is hard work. You are struggling to avoid food poisoning, find foods you are comfortable with. Personal hygiene away from the major cities can deteriorate markedly. I recall the scrappy toilet I was forced to use in a cafe in New Dehli, India.
2. Work - Anyone looking for work in western countries wil have a far easier time in western countries. Apart from teaching English, finance or proramming, there are few job opportunities in Asia. That is surprising because they are strongly in need of western critical thinking skills. Thats not to imply they are only developed in the west, but essentially thats true for cultural reasons, though personal context varies.

Philippines tourism coming of age

Commentators have long commented on the potential for the Philippines tourism industry - identifying it as one of the 4 pillar industries apart from mining, agriculture, call centres & other outsourced business services. First tourism has had to overcome a number of problems:
1. Terrorism - For the last 35 years the Philippines has had a number of civil conflicts going on, whether its the Muslim Successionists of Mindanao in the south, Communists in the mountains - the NPA or bombs being detonated in airports and shopping malls. These incidents are bound to keep tourists away, even though lesser incidents of robbery and shootings might be overlooked.
2. Infrastructure - The Philippines still lacks an adequate level of infrastructure. The consequence is that tourists confront alot of pollution, traffic congestion, poor access to sites of interest and poor connections.
3. Service Culture - There is a poor standard of service culture in the Philippines, and it extends from the management of the country's biggest companies down to the lowest staff. Filipinos are under-trained and basically display little acumen for work. They have a sense of entitlement and place social relationships above work contractual undertakings.
4. Disclosure: I remenber when I first came to the Philippines. I could find only one brochure on the country, and said very little. The only sites seemed to be some very average beaches and churches, Nothing much has changed in this respect. I dont get the sense that the Philippines is creating a culture of distinction. This is not for government, but they can support improvements in education and training.
But this last year I am starting to see that the Philippines government is starting to pick up its spending on tourism, and they are increasing regional capital works programs to boost regional tourist jobs and develop new tourist based businesses, whether its deep ocean fishing, whitewater rafting, cultural centres promoting local artists or exports. It is encouraging, but there is still alot of work to be done. Perhaps the most important change is shifting the minds of Filipinos, to improve their attitude to work. They are really diluted into thinking their country is ok.

Cheaper travel in Asia

Have you noticed that the cost of travel in the Asian region is getting cheaper. The ASEAN group of countries have committed to liberalising air travel by Dec-08. This might partly explain the plethora of new discount airlines in the region. This will no doubt create opportunities for tourist services. Some years ago I remember reading how alot of Asian resorts were struggling to make money. Successful people thought it was a good social networking strategy to have their own resorts, but few made money. The problem was:
1. There was too many
2. Foreigners were staying away because of terrorist threat
3. Alot of them are just not any good
4. Too many of them resembled prisons more than paradises, with high walls to keep the peasants out and the guests in. But its hard to keep the peasants out because they can approach guests from the sea, offering all types of things from souvenirs to boat rides.
5. Alot of them were too expensive.
The Philippines was particularly bad in this respect. The beaches in the Philippines are not particularly good, no one can be bothered cleaning them. Its not just Filipinos, alot of the rubbish comes from China. You need only exam what washes up on the beaches. Thats not to say there are not nice places in Asia. The problem is that there is little 'big project' money yet to develop these places.