Virtual meanderings

Calling abroad | China style

It was time to take care of my return flight to Europe. My next stop, Japan, was also my final destination and the flight back home had to be from Tokyo. Some friends that lived in Japan had recommended using the services of H.I.S. Co (a big Japanese travel agency). Since H.I.S website offered online booking, I was done with it in no time.

…well, if that’s the way it actually happened, it would be one blog post less here.

Phone kiosk, China



Step #1: Things don’t quite work out as expected

      Compared to other online booking sites (such as Expedia), H.I.S offerings were indeed better. I’d already booked online several times throughout this journey without a hitch – even with Laos Airlines, so doing it with a major Japanese agency seemed simple.

But the H.I.S online booking system would only allow me book a two-way flight. A note said that for one-way ticket requests I had to fill in an online form with my desired destination (and some extra details) and wait for an answer. I did. On the next day I got this:

For your inquiry, we need more information from you directly as we are unable to communicate for booking ticket by e-mail. So, please “CALL” us.

Step #2: Making the call from my mobile

     I tried to “CALL” them right away using my mobile (which now had a Chinese SIM card). I heard a message in Chinese and then in English “It is not possible to make international phone calls. For more information call 10086”.

Step #3: Calling 10086

      I dialed 10086 as instructed. This time there was no English version. I listened to some pre-recorded message for over a minute and it was all in Chinese. I handed over my phone to the girl at the hostel reception and asked her to translate for me. “Your SIM card is no good for international calls”, she told me. So why was it in the first place that they’d told me to call 10086?! How could I enable my card for calls abroad? Where could I get a SIM card that worked? The girl at the reception had no clue. Instead she suggested searching for a street phone kiosk. Read more of this post


Nan Ning Eve Ning

Nanning, China

Nanning, China. Courtesy: Rex Pe @ Flickr

As agreed the previous day, in the evening Sammi (the Chinese girl I met on the bus from Hanoi) and a friend of hers living in Nanning met me at the hostel and we went to have a dinner together at a nearby restaurant they’d chosen (side note: crossing big streets in the absence of a traffic light in Nanning is about as intimidating as in Hanoi). The place was big (or was it really? The word ‘big’ in China tends to wear off quickly) but somehow cozy. It was a Saturday evening and there was hardly an empty table (expecting this, Sammi had called earlier to make a reservation).

We were taken to our table, seated and given a menu. Around us Chinese families and companies were already enjoying themselves. Traditional music from the restaurant’s sound system blended with the hundreds of conversations. Cozy the place was, but quiet it definitely was not.

About a third of the items in the menu were translated in awkward English (just restaurant managers trying to boost the place’s ‘coolness’, I presume, since it was Chinese people all around). Each of us selected some dishes that we’d then all share. Helped by my two giggling companions, I picked items from the menu with a hope-for-the-best-prepare-for-the-worst feeling. The tree of us together went for: a soup for each, rice, chicken, fish, pork, beef steak, some weird vegetables, beer and tea (I’ll fast forward and say that the whole dinner cost $20 total).

A copy of our order was left on the table and each time a new dish came, the waitress stamped a small sign next to the item to mark it as delivered. Read more of this post

On China

In every single post I try to slip in small diversions from the “been there done that” narrative – be it a reference to a book I’ve read, a movie I’ve seen, a story I know or some other fact. I do it for my own pleasure and for the pleasure of anyone who’s had enough of reading travellers’ accounts. But every now and then comes a post that is best described as straing away from the travelogue style completely. Like now. So, what do I have to say about China?

China, People's Republic Of


            ”It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is […] national interest.” Who said it? British politician Winston Churchill did. The country he meant was, of course, the Soviet Union. Back in 1939 people in the West knew next to nothing about the moving and shaking happening inside the USSR. To me this quote seems strangely suitable to describe the West’s perception of 21st century China.

Unless one has some specific interest on China, one only learns about China from the news. And when I hear conversations about China, those are all too often a) short and b) predictable.

Oh, don’t tell me about it. They don’t have democracy there [like we do, presumably].”
Yep. And they make cheap stuff too.”
Quality’s so bad it breaks down immediately. Why people bother buying it is beyond me.”
Yeah. And the Communist party does not allow freedom of speech.” Read more of this post

Getting to China | A must-read

The rain

It’s early morning. I am standing at a street corner and the rain is making me and my backpack wet. I am waiting for the bus from Hanoi to Nanning, China.

Around me is a merry crowd of Chinese people. The Chinese carry huge sacks – they probably came to Vietnam to buy stuff and are now going back to sell it. Luckily, if I succeed getting on the bus (I have no ticket, the crowd around me is big and getting bigger), I won’t be travelling on my own. Anna is going to Nanning as well.

Who is Anna? Well, the person who told me about this bus, of course.


         It’s early morning at the hostel, the day before. It’s breakfast time and I’ve just come down to the buffet area. Sitting at one table are four people – two girls and two guys – whom I’ve seen around the hostel the previous days. One of them is the agitated Canadian girl, who is not agitated anymore. They invite me to join and this is how I first meet Anna.

While we eat, we have the usual travellers’ chat where one’s been and where one’s going. I mention that my next destination should be Shanghai, yet I have not figured what the best way to get to there is just yet. Maybe by train?

Maybe not, says Anna. Turns out Vietnam is Anna’s last stop (after travelling around southwest China, and Laos) before heading back to Beijing. Her school is about to start. Anna is a Master’s student at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, and can speak decent Chinese (and many other languages for that matter, thanks to her Polish/German background). She tells me about a bus from Hanoi to Nanning for only $15. This is less than half the price of the train ticket. Anna is taking that bus and then flying to Beijing – domestic flights in China cost less and are plentiful. As for me, I could easily get on a train or fly to Shanghai from there. Read more of this post

The Tempest (international edition!)

When I woke up in the morning, I certainly did not anticipate any more surprises on that trip. After all, I’d arranged to stay with my current group, do whatever more sight-seeing there was to be done with them, and go back to Hanoi.

But during breakfast our Vietnamese guide came in the hall and announced that our boat would be heading back to Halong main pier. A typhoon warning had been announced on the radio. The original program for the day was to be cancelled – or at least significantly altered.

Typhoon approaching, Halong bay, Vietnam

        The water in the bay was deceptively calm, but the sky was not (for another such extreme marine adventure in Thailand, read my earlier post here).

As our junk boat drew nearer the pier, we joined dozens and dozens more junk boats headed the same way. The ocean waves looked innocent enough because the bay subdued the force of the elements but the weather was progressively getting worse. The junk anchored offshore in a line with many other junk boats and we began waiting. Finally, a motor boat arrived to pick us up and tranpsort us to the pier. We were then told to walk to the big souvenir/snack covered area some three hundred meters from the pier and wait (until a transport would become available to take us back to Hanoi). More tourist groups came after us, flooding the place.

Souvenir shop @ Halong, Vietnam
The age-old Vietnamese saying goes:”Typhoon warnings good for souvenir business”

In the meantime our guides were making phone calls to their company’s headquarters and talking in high-speed Vietnamese. Finally we were told that they’d arranged a van to pick us up. It would be here in about an hour. The catch: it could not fit everyone and two people would have to wait for yet another transport. In the meantime, those who would be picked by the van would have their scheduled lunch in the snack area.

Wouldn’t there be any compensation for the failed second-day program? – the Western European tourists began asking (the elderly Singaporean couples said nothing). The question kind of pissed the Vietnamese guide and he said “you signed for a two day-trip, and the second day you were supposed to have lunch on the boat, right? Now you will have it here, but this is all the difference. What compensation?” Read more of this post

@Halong Bay

Junk Boats, Halong Bay, Vietnam

        Junk boats did not dock directly at the pier. As you see on the photo they anchored nearby and tourist groups were brought onboard on regular motorboat. So were we. We then gathered in the junk’s main hall to get our cabins assigned. In the meantime our junk boat left the harbor and sailed into the bay, graciously gliding between hundreds of Ha Long Bay islets. We were served lunch.

Junk Boat - Dining Hall, Halong Bay, Vietnam

         My companions at the table were a French couple in their early forties (who turned out to not be a couple, but a male and a female friend on a holiday together), and girl from Singapore that carried around an expensive camera and shot photos with it. The four of us hit it off well and started chatting. On a side note, our whole group was 20-24 people – some elderly couples from Singapore, a Japanese guy, myself and some more Europeans, mostly French.

Cave, Halong Bay, Vietnam

         We were done with lunch when the junk boat docked at one of the biggest islets in the vicinity to visit its huge cave. Long ago Ha Long islets had been under the ocean level. While they were gradually rising from the ocean the waves had eaten up their soft rock, forming huge caverns. I guess many of the islets around also featured caves but size mattered – the bigger the islet, the bigger the cave. The bigger the cave, the better. Right? To enter inside, we first had to climb a steep staircase uphill. The entrance was about a hundred meters above the ocean level, offering a beautiful view far into the bay.

Halong bay, terrace view from a cave entrance

         Read more of this post

Organized or freestyle? Organized be it this time…

I can only handle about half an hour of sign language a day (on a good day, that is).

In Thailand, Cambodia and Laos I was seldom in a situation where no-one knew any English –it only happened once or twice. But enter in Vietnam and it is a different story altogether.  It is easy to circumvent the language barrier when you want something to eat, or when buying stuff. Street sellers, a practical folk, will stick a calculator in your face and pinch the price they hope to extort from you for the object you pointed your finger at. You will laugh back at their humorous suggestion (politely, of course), and then pinch your own counter-suggestion. Repeat three times. Deal.

Vendors near Halong Bay. Vietnam

               But try finding out a particular location, or when a bus to a particular place leaves, or asking for directions to get from A to B, etc. The GPS won’t save you. The Internet won’t save you. Nothing but proficiency in Vietnamese will.

And you know why? Because in Vietnam people leave their own life, rather than catering for tourists, that’s why. Tourism is growing fast, but no one is betting the future of the country on it. Say, back in Vang Vieng in Laos, I could not help but notice that 100% of business in town revolved around tourists. Same thing in Siem Reap in Cambodia (home to Angkor Wat). Not much different in Thailand.

Getting off the beaten track or traveling to remote places on your own may not be the best idea in Vietnam just yet (this is also true for the other countries I mentioned but here you really feel it well). You must be a person of great patience who does not mind waiting for a bus that doesn’t come and when it does, it takes you to the wrong destination where you have to find a place to spend the night before going back and there just isn’t any. Or so I imagine, since I never tried things that way.

Truth is, if you really want to see yourself free as a bird in Vietnam, that bird better buy a motorcycle for itself. Being able to move from A to B with your own transport is a game changer. Read more of this post

Vietnam – perfect harmony or inner tensions?

Say you are at Hoam Kiem Lake and decided to visit to Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. You could take a bus ride using the public transport. Or you could jump on a scooter – drivers are on every street corner waiting to make a buck by taking you anywhere in Hanoi. Of course, experiencing Hanoi traffic in such a way is not for the faint hearted. But best of all, go on foot. After all the Mausoleum is within walking distance.

Hanoi, Hoam Kiem Lake, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

    When you reach point C, you’ve come half way. Lenin park. Lenin park is not big, but in crowded Hanoi it is one of the few places (including Hoam Kiem Lake) to enjoy some greenery and open space… and do skateboarding if you are a young Vietnamese boarder.

Hanoi, Lenin Park

Hanoi, Lenin Park

But the more interesting location is on your left. I am talking about the Vietnam Museum of Military History. The museum yard is full of captured US gear, including hellicopters and all kinds of military equipment. But it is not what’s most interesting about it. There are the famous words a US major said to journalist Peter Arnett about provincial capital Ben Tre (a town in South Vietnam) “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it“. And save towns this way they often did. Many villages, such as My Lai  in South Vietnam were saved too. But unlike all other nations which were bombed by the US all the way through establishing a US-friendly government who never wanted to fiddle with the ‘errors of the past’, Vietnam can afford to tell its own version of the war (still). So, except the great variety of military equipment on display – which is interesting to see by itself, you can also learn details of the indigenous techniques developed by the Vietnamese to push the foreign troups out for good (such as inventing smokeless stoves to avoid telling off their presence by smoke, and many more).

Vietnam Military History Museum

Courtesy:  John Tomlinson @

   Finally, you reach your final destination. Point D – the mausoleum itself. The open grass area around it is a favorite for families with children in the evening. Read more of this post

Practicing Engrish @ Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoam Kiem, Turtle Pagoda

      It would be incorrect to assume any expertise of mine regarding Sun Tzu’s treatise The Art of War (used today in all kinds of mentoring courses for improving anything from your business skills to your love life). Truth is, I have only read fragments from it and for all practical purposes my knowledge is limited. That said, one of Sun Tzu ideas which I found particularly interesting was the claim that a battle is in fact won before it even starts (if you followed Sun Tzu’s recommendations, that is). Digging deeper into it, here is the logic: the battle is won before it started, because you must only enter a battle under very specific (favorable) circumstances and avoid it otherwise. Under the correct circumstances, Sun Tzu says, events would unfold automatically, by themselves – just like pushing a ball on a slope. Of course, for this to actually work one needs to have secured all the prerequisites necessary for the victory beforehand. There are several of them, one being “earth” (what we might call “environment” in modern terms ). Simplifying Sun Tzu’s elegant logic, it all comes down to the realization that certain environments are more enabling than others for certain ends. Say, if you are interested in animal-watching in the African savannah, it’s best to hide near a pond rather than anywhere else, because all the animals would come to the pond on their own accord to drink water without you having to do anything more.


     Hoan Kiem Lake lies at the center of Hanoi. The beautiful Turtle tower in its middle, the surrounding trees, the grass and the benches – all of these make the lake the perfect recreational site. Old people would come to sit and chat or practice group dancing lessons, families would bring their little kids, teenage boys and girls would come to hit on each other. And of course, foreigners  would come to eat an ice cream or read a book (myself). Hoan Kiem lake is one of the very few places in the Vietnamese capital to escape from the heat and enjoy a wide-open space scenery not crammed full of buildings and speeding scooters. (One more such place is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, to which I will devote a separate post).

Hoan Kiem Lake

Read more of this post

My Vietnamese diet (in photos)

Food, food, food…

Hanoi Restaurant Entrance

Hanoi Restaurant Entrance

I made this shot near the Ethnographical museum in Hanoi. What is it that a foreigner would see here? Let’s count.
1) A goat, tied to a tree in front of the restaurant entrance
2) A logo of the restaurant, featuring a goat’s head
3) A text in Vietnamese (incomprehensible to me).

The seemingly inevitable conclusion: it was a restaurant where they served goat meat, and the poor animal was a fresh delivery destined to end up in the kitchen. Whether this assumption was correct or not, I leave it up to you to check (by typing the text in an online translation tool or sending the photo to a Vietnamese friend). As for me, I will get back to this photo later in this post.

What I ate in Vietnam is mostly a big mystery to me. Of course, if I’d been dead set on avoiding eating strange stuff, I did have a choice – eat a buffet in the hostel I was staying at.  Once you stepped out , the situation was more or less like this: Menu lists were non-existent.  If they were, they would be in Vietnamese and would have no photos of the food. If photos were present those would be too small and the foreigner could not grasp what was there. If there would be an English version of the menu, the translation would be quite vague. Etc. And the people – smiling and friendly, but speaking no English.

In a situation like this I decided it was preferable (and frankly, quite amusing) to just pick up whatever I reasoned might be good. And I were often wrong. Read more of this post