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