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Friday, July 27, 2007


30-hour journey

On Monday I reach Guangzhou from Wuzhou. I don't like carrying my two backpacks too far. Fortunately the bus station is almost next to the train station and I manage to find a hotel that isn't too expensive without having to walk too far. Then I go back to the train station to see about getting a ticket to Hangzhou.

There are about twenty booking counters. Each has a long queue. Only one has someone who speaks English. I join that queue. I'm sure I had read somewhere that the trip takes 30 hours. So when I am told the train leaves at 9 am and arrives at 3.40, that makes sense to me. I ring my friend Feng in Hangzhou and ask him to pick me up Wednesday at 3.40 pm.

I book myself into a soft sleeper. I had wondered what a soft sleeper was like because generally in Asia beds are firmer than we have in Australia. China seem to have the firmest of all. I like them. I didn't really want a soft bed. I also book the top bunk because I had read somewhere that everyone sits on the bottom bunks but if you have a top bunk you can leave your stuff up there.

Tuesday morning I get to the station in plenty of time. They have a special waiting room for the soft-sleeper travellers. I think it is their version of 1st class but in a communist (sort of) country there isn't any such thing as class, is there? Once you are told to go to the train you have to mix it with the masses—probably thousands of people pushing and shoving each trying to not be the last one on board. And me with my two backpacks that weigh more than 1/3 of what I do.

I get on and find my cabin. It is a four-berth cabin. The beds are quite firm. I wonder what the hard-sleeper beds are like. Probably just boards. When the train leaves there are only two other passengers in my cabin, a fortyish couple. They try to be friendly but they speak no English and I can't understand their Mandarin. Why can't people say the things I've learned to understand?

The ticket attendant comes to check our tickets and ID. She does speak English, well a little anyway.

I hadn't slept well for the last two nights so I make the most of my bunk and catch up on a bit of sleep. I wake up mid-afternoon. We are stopped at a station and the cabin is empty. My fellow passengers hadn't previously both left together. Usually one stays back to keep an eye on things. But they don't come back. They must have got off at that station. They paid for a sleeper when they weren't even travelling overnight. But of course there's no classes in China.

So this means I have a four berth cabin to myself for the rest of the journey. How's that for class?

My sister had suggested that I could use the 30 hours of this trip to do a lot of practice of Mandarin language. But my iPod batteries don't last for 30 hours and besides they have piped music coming into the cabin. I spend most of my time looking out the window. I love the greens of rice fields and I am getting a bit of a view of life in China—rural, town and city. I also do a bit of reading.

After a while I pull out my Lonely Planet China, the one that I managed to avoid being confiscated. I've already read the write-up on Hangzhou a couple of times but perhaps it won't hurt to read it again just before I get there. And guess what? The trip is not 30 hours, it's 23! So I do some sums. 9 am plus 23 hours makes 8 am the next day. This book was published in 2005. Times are not going to get longer. They probably have better lines, faster trains. You guessed it—the train's arriving at 3.40 am. Well, that's what I figure. But how can I find out? Who speaks English?

I go and have my dinner. After dinner I go and find the carriage attendant. We have a little chat. It takes a bit of work but she confirms that yes 3.40 means AM or it would be written 15.40. Mmmmm. The train does not end it's journey at Hangzhou. It goes on to Shanghai. But she says that I will be able to stay in the station until daylight. I don't particularly want to wake Feng at 3.40 am. I'll give him a call after he's had time to wake up properly.

I get a good night's sleep. Well, I sleep from about 9.30 pm till about 2 am. At this time the track becomes noisy. This train did not have the clack-clack noise that I usually associate with trains. Very smooth. I might add that this train is very modern, clean and efficient. I catch perhaps another ten minutes sleep before I get up, dress and pack. Am ready well before we reach Hangzhou at almost 4 am.

But there is no where to sit in the station. Once I hand in my ticket I am outside. There are hundreds of people outside, waiting for trains I guess. Many are sitting on the ground or the steps or the garden border. Nothing is clean.

There are touts from hotels. Perhaps a dozen of them. Several approach me and I say 'no'. One goes off to get another guy who actually speaks a few words of English. I explain to him that my friend is going to pick me up. He seems to understand and leaves me alone.

But as I'm looking around for somewhere to sit and my backpacks are getting heavier I'm starting to rethink the situation. I had noticed on the cards the touts are flashing one quotes 38 yuan. I figure maybe I would pay 38 yuan ($A5.70) to have somewhere clean to sit for a few hours.

I approach the English speaker and explain the situation. Eventually he seems to get the idea and tells me 120 yuan or something just as ridiculous.

Before Guangzhou, the most I've paid for a night's accommodation in this country is 68 yuan. I'm not paying 120 to sit in a chair for a few hours. 'No.'



How much you pay?

'Not that much. I only want somewhere to sit.'



'How much?'


'Fifty.' (Actually he says 'Five-ty'. They usually do.)


'OK. Forty.'

He then passes me off to one of the other touts who leads me off to a hotel within walking distance. When we get inside he asks for my money. I take the money out and then have second thoughts. 'See room.'

He rubs his finger and thumb together indicating pay money.

I point to my eyes. 'First, see room.' I hold up the money so he can see that I have money to pay.

He is insistent. But the more he insists, the more I figure he has something to hide. I'm not paying 40 yuan to lie on a bed with bugs. We both walk out.

There is another place almost next door. I am tempted to try it but they just stare at me. Don't seem interested in getting me inside.

Walking back towards the station I see there are some shops open, so wander towards them. One is a restaurant. I'm not hungry but I figure if I buy something it will give me a seat for a little while. I order some congee and put my bags down. After a couple of hours I ring Feng. By time he turns up I have sat in this restaurant for four hours. There's a new shift on duty.

As we walk to the taxi rank, both loaded down, we are approached by a tout speaking in Chinese. Feng ignores him. I say, 'Bu, xie xie' (no thank you). He backs off.

'You speak Chinese,' says Feng.

'Only the essentials,' I reply.

We take a taxi to one of the universities. He books me into a room in a hostel for international students. The room has everything I need. There is a shared bathroom close to my room, but not too close. It's clean, has a washing machine. It's quiet here. There's trees outside the window. Good security. For this I'm paying 70 yuan.

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Monday, July 23, 2007


Personal power

If I blame you because I have a problem, then I give you power over me whether you want it or not. The moment I accept personal responsibility for all my problems I have taken the first step to freedom.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Getting the message across

Many years ago my sister-in-law arrived in Australia and none of the family could speak English. Many migrants to Australia find themselves in this situation. I wonder how we, the rest of us, treat them. I suspect we mostly ignore them. It's too hard for us, so why bother. Ever try to walk in their shoes? I guess that's what I'm doing now.

I'm told that in China's larger cities more people speak English but in the smaller provinces they have less need to do so. On top of this the schools concentrate on teaching reading and writing. Speaking and listening are less easily examined so are taught less. An English teacher in Nanning told me that many students are fluent with reading and writing but can hardly speak. And, as I've written in relation to other countries, if your teacher is not a native speaker you may be learning bad pronunciation right from the start. When you do speak to a native speaker they may not understand you. Unless you are committed you might give up, thinking that it is just too hard.

From country to country people seem to handle this situation differently. Here in China I find I have to take the initiative to get people to acknowledge me. Otherwise they often pretend I'm not there. It's quite different from Vietnam. In Vietnam if you look like you might be half interested in buying something, or even if you don't, they use whatever techniques they have, even grunts, to get you to buy. Here it's common that they ignore you. Yesterday I stood in the internet cafe for about ten minutes before they accepted I wasn't going to go away and they had to deal with me. I felt like walking away but if I did where would I be? I don't know where there's another cafe. Even after they started to do something it took at least half an hour before they set me up. Now we've broken the ice I trust it'll be easier when I go back for my second visit. But after that I'll move onto another city and perhaps the process will start over again.

There appear to be cultural differences in relation to body language. In Australia we like to make eye contact with the person we speak with. When I was leaving Nanning I went to the bus station. It was huge. Way bigger than an airport in many Australian country towns. For that matter bigger than some international airports in some Southeast Asian countries. I needed help. I did not have a clue which gate to go through or which bus to get on. My ticket was printed in Chinese. There was one person in front of me at the information booth. When they'd been served I stood at the counter waiting for the person to stop doing what they were doing and make eye contact—to me a sign that she was ready to deal with me. Before that happened someone else barged in and put his request in Chinese. I thought I was at the head of the queue but I found myself pushed down one.

Eventually I was able to ask 'Do you speak English?' I showed my ticket. There were two people behind the counter. All they could do was jabber on in Chinese and point, none of which meant anything to me.

After they realized we were getting nowhere, one went off and in time came back with another young woman who said, 'How may I help you?'

Hooray! Someone I can talk to. She pointed out that my bus didn't leave for an hour but that if I wanted she could get me on a bus that was about to leave. I did, she did and off I went. The service was great. She was extremely helpful—once I found a person who could understand me.

I was the only westerner on the bus. The hostess seemed to have learned off a few sentences. She would walk back to my seat from time to time and say something like, 'Please fasten your safety belt.' And, when we made a comfort stop, 'If you need to wash your hands, please make the best use of the time available.' I suspect if I'd asked her any questions she would have been lost.

This is the situation in some of the hotels. If I am lucky enough to get someone who can speak a little English they have a cheat sheet under the counter which lists the standard answers to standard questions. Ask a non standard question and she may or may not be able to answer. Try asking for a towel for example.

Taking the initiative here has become a basic survival technique for me, especially if I want to eat. Menus are all in Chinese, even in the hotel. I wanted some chicken last night. The only way to get my message across was to squawk and flap my arms. It worked. Sometimes it pays to have been a children's storyteller.

Next time you have the opportunity to help someone who doesn't speak English (or whatever is your home language), I hope you'll remember to be patient and think of me in Wuzhou squawking and flapping my arms.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007


Persisting with the communication

My biggest challenge in this town is to get my needs met with my limited ability to communicate in the local language.

Eating is more challenging because of my allergies and preferences. I can't just point. I need to ask questions. But that is close to impossible.

I have a friend further north in this country. This is a big country and it will take several days to reach his city, so I've decided to move on. Today I went to the bus station to buy a ticket to the next major town. Before I did I spent about half an hour with my language course practising and writing down the appropriate words.

At the bus station I had the help of three people, two who could speak a little English and one who did the actual ticket booking. Occasionally I dragged out my notes. They were a little help but invariably their English was far superior to my Mandarin. And finally we did it. I have my ticket. But the bus leaves from another bus station. They gave me instructions for how to get to the other bus station. I even got them to write down my destination on a piece of paper so I don't have to try to say it to the taxi driver. What she wrote down takes several lines. She's obviously written more than the name of the bus station. I wonder what she's told the taxi driver about me.

All being well, by time you are reading this I will have moved on and will be in the next town. If it's photogenic you'll find a few pictures on my flickr page.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Communication challenges

I have chosen not to move on for the moment. There is nothing special in this city. It is the capital of the province. It is fairly modern in an Asian sort of way. Streets are fairly wide, some are tree-lined. Traffic flows fairly well but I've had to adjust to bicycles and motorcycles that insist on right of way in their lane even when I have a green light telling me to walk and their light is red.

The attraction for me at the moment is that there are few other tourists here. This means there are few, if any, people trying to exploit tourists. I can walk down the street in peace. Most alternative destinations in this province attract tourists and perhaps those who seek to exploit them. I prefer to simply observe how real people go about their lives in this town.

I like travelling alone. When you are with company there is less chance that someone will talk with you. When travelling alone I find it is common for someone to strike up a conversation. Perhaps that is less so here but it is starting to happen.

I found the area in town where there are many electronic shops. I thought perhaps there might be an internet cafe in the area. I had my laptop with me in the hope of finding one. But there are so many nooks and crannies here it would be easy to miss it.

As I walked around the corner of a major intersection I was hit by the blast of air conditioning from an open door. It was a hot day and it drew me in. I wandered around counters selling mostly mobile phones. There were some escalators leading to the basement. I peered down and could see row after row of computers. I ventured down.

There was a counter selling drinks and snacks. I asked a teenage girl, 'Do you speak English?'

'A little.'

I explained what I wanted. It took a while. Perhaps I repeated it in a few different ways but she eventually got the picture. She took me to the main counter and tried to bring the girl there into the conversation but she was a little shy even though she apparently knows some English.

The upshot was that I returned to my hotel room, got my computer and returned to the internet cafe. The girl from the drink counter told me I had to pay 10 yuan and I would get two hours. This is more expensive than the going rate in this country but I thought 'What the heck, perhaps it is a bit faster than the others. I can only give it a go.'

They put me in a private room and plugged a cable into my computer. It didn't work. With the help of Yi, the girl from the drink counter, we fed numbers into my computer and tried again. And again. For half an hour we kept trying. Eventually it worked. Now Yi told me I had three hours. She was keen to practise English with me and while all this was going on was trying to teach me some of the local language.

The speed was terrible. Often it would time out before the page downloaded. But with persistence and patience I was able to get a few things done. I was able to post a couple of blogs. But for some reason I was not able to see them. During all the time I was there those blogs would not show up but whenever I went to any admin pages on the site they downloaded quite quickly.

I had a similar situation with my flickr photos pages. It took a while to get in but my photos were all showing. I uploaded some more. They went quite quickly. All the old ones showed but the newly uploaded ones showed broken links.

I started to wonder if there was a pattern here. Both the blog and the photo captions mentioned the name of the country I am in. Is it possible that there is a filter that prevents blogs or perhaps pictures with the name of the country to show on computers connected to the internet within this country? I had had a similar situation with my blog the previous day when I uploaded at the university. My sister checked the blog for me and it was readable there in Australia. So why not here?

I did what I could and must not have used my full three hours. They gave me three yuan change.

By now it was well into the evening and the city was busy with people walking the streets in this area of shopping malls. I walked on to where there is a closed off street with many vendors and open-air restaurants.

I found a stall that makes noodle soup with tofu. I'd been there before but had avoided the sauces because I had no way of knowing what was in them. This time two women, also customers, spoke to me in English and helped me to choose a suitable sauce. One of them sat beside me as I ate and we chatted. I asked if she lived in the town and she said 'yes'. I asked what she did and she said, 'English teacher.' I told her that I was having difficulty finding people who could speak English. She said that their method of teaching English focused so much on reading and writing that while people could read and write fluently they were incredibly shy when it came to speaking English.

I asked where her school was. It was about 15 minutes walk away so I offered to come to the school so her students could practise speaking with a native speaker. Unfortunately the school is on holiday and will not return until after I have left the country. She finished her meal and went on her way.

It seems there is a reason that few people in this town engage me in conversation. However, I'm sure if I stay here a little longer I'll meet more who are prepared to take the challenge.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Travelling on trust

One of my inspirations as a traveller is my daughter, Melanie. Mel spent about eight years travelling in Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa. Sometimes I would hear little stories about some of the things she had done and I would wonder, 'Is she aware of the potential dangers or is she blind to them?'

After she'd been gone for about six years I took a trip to England where we met up. We talked non-stop for days and I learned that Mel knew of the dangers but was prepared to take a certain level of risk.

I remember the time, in Switzerland I think, when a group of backpackers, can't remember the details, were all killed on an adventure rafting expedition. At the time I thought of Mel. I thought that perhaps this is the sort of thing that she might have done and I asked myself how I would have felt if she had been one of those to lose her life.

The answer that came back to me was that yes, I would have felt very sad about losing my daughter, sad for me but not for her. By time Mel had reached 30 I believe she had lived as much in those years as others might live in six lifetimes. I would be happy that she had had the courage to put so much into her life. Fortunately Mel continues to live and to experience life to the full. I wonder how many lives she will have lived before she finally dies.

In the Vietnam travel forums there have been a couple of postings about people being robbed. This prompted a few posters to give their rules of how to avoid dangers while travelling. One such rule was 'Don't talk to strangers.'

I wonder what the travel goals of the person who wrote that are? I guess if all you want to see are sights then that's OK. But I love to meet people. Sometimes I go somewhere where I already have a contact and it's easy. Sometimes I go places where I know no one. Unless I'm prepared to talk to strangers I won't meet a soul.

When I'm in Kompong Chhnang in Cambodia, and people everywhere are saying 'hello' to me, of course I answer them back. I notice that most westerners visiting the town don't.

In Vietnam I talked to many people. Most were only talking because they wanted to sell me something. But I'm capable of saying 'no'. I can still have a pleasant chat with them before they go and try someone else. I made a few friends in Vietnam. They were all strangers at first. I don't automatically trust. One such person offered me a lift home the first night we met. I was wary. I declined. But we met again and built a mutual trust. Had we not talked in the first place my time in Vietnam would have been much less enjoyable. This friend proved to be totally trustworthy, just as my friends in Cambodia did. I'm glad I don't have that rule.

On Sunday I arrived in China for the first time. China is very different from anywhere else I've been. Is it dangerous? There are warnings here and there in Lonely Planet guidebook. When I booked into my hotel the receptionist showed me a sheet on which was written three rules, one of which was 'Don't accept a drink from a stranger.' I guess they are telling me people spike drinks in this town in order to rob travellers.

I'm in a town called Nanning and I've notice that there are very few western tourists in the town but my rarity doesn't make me an item of interest. I don't think I've been ignored so much in any part of Asia. When I have engaged people in conversation I have discovered that very few speak English. This does present challenges for me. I usually ask strangers for directions but most here can't understand me. Finding my way around town is not made any easier by the fact that about 99% of signs are in Chinese. They obviously don't feel a need to write bilingual signs which are not uncommon in other parts of Asia.

All this I see as a challenge that I take on with enthusiasm.

On Sunday after I'd booked into my hotel, I went looking for an internet cafe. The only one listed in Lonely Planet appears to have closed down. All that's there now are game machines and none of the staff could understand me. The best I could do that evening was to have a five minute trial on a demo machine at China Telecom. And for a demo machine I might add that the speed was quite slow.

Monday morning I went out determined to find somewhere close to the hotel to eat and an internet cafe. I had my laptop in my backpack. I also had my camera around my neck just in case an opportunity arose.

I hadn't gone far when I found a little hole-in-the wall place where I could see people eating noodles. I looked a bit closer and could also see they were serving congee (rice porridge). With sign language I ordered a bowl of congee with vegetables. The woman serving pointed to the Chinese sign on the wall where the price was listed as 1.50. Since one Australian dollar is roughly equal to 6.5 yuan I could figure out that my breakfast was going to cost me less than 30 cents Australian, not a bad deal. I nodded my confirmation.

While I was eating a young guy came in and ordered some noodles. As he walked past my table he said with the very careful intonation of an English learner, 'How-are-you?'

'Well,-thank-you.-And-you?' I replied with the very careful intonation of an English teacher.

After I'd finished my congee I went to his table and asked, 'Do you speak English?'

'A little.'

'Do you know where I can find an internet cafe?'

He didn't understand. I went back to my table and grabbed my Lonely Planet. I turned to the language section at the back and pointed to the word 'internet'.

'I send you,' he said. Many Asians use the word 'send' where we would say 'take'.

I waited until he'd finished his noodles. He led me a few doors down the street and into a building that had many signs but none in English. He led me down a corridor to the back of the building where there were stairs leading up.

I'm thinking, 'I don't know this guy. I don't know what's up these stairs. Is this safe?' I followed but kept a little distance.

On the next floor was a door. He opened the door and inside I could see many computers. We went in. He spoke to the girl on the counter and told me 'Two yuan an hour. I pay.'

'No,' I said. 'You don't need to pay for me.' I put five yuan down on the counter.

She gave me one yuan back and he told me, 'You have two hours.' He led me to a computer.

I got out my laptop and started to explain to him that I wanted to connect it. He understood and called the guy over. He got out the ethernet cable and I was able to plug it into my computer.

But it didn't work. Usually this computer connects automatically. I fiddled and tried a few things. I knew what I needed to do but I needed help from the guy who was running the place and with the language barrier it was too difficult. I decided to use one of their computers.

At first, my new friend sat beside me looking over my shoulder reading all the emails I wrote. Eventually, he picked up from what I was writing that I needed to go to an internet cafe where they spoke English. He got out his mobile phone and made a call. He told me 'Speak to my friend, he speak good English.'

I spoke to his friend who made a few suggestions.

Parn (that's his name) went off and came back with two Cokes. He'd also booked himself onto the computer next to mine. He got onto the chat lines and contacted a few more of his English-speaking friends and asked their advice.

The upshot of this is that when my time was up we headed off in a taxi to Guangxi University. While we were heading there I was reviewing the situation. I hadn't drunk much of the Coke, only enough to be polite. I don't usually drink Coke. But I had drunk a drink given by a stranger. He could have spiked it before he gave it to me. But it did taste like normal Coke. And now I'm going off in a taxi with him. I can't understand what he says to the taxi driver. He could be taking me anywhere.

But we ended up at a university and Parn, who has told me he doesn't have a job, insists on paying the fare.

At the university, which he is not familiar with, we find the foreign language department and an English teacher. He explains the situation to her and then excuses himself saying he has to go. The English teacher is going to send me to a computer lab with a note explaining what I want to do. But then she rethinks the situation and says I can connect my computer in her office.

I disconnect her ethernet cable, connect it to my computer and it works. I sit down and set to work. While I'm there students and teachers come and go. The teacher who set me up has gone off to a meeting. Others use the computer (without internet) next to me. At one point a student engages me in conversation. She comes from the same province I'll be heading to in a few weeks time. We chat for about half an hour.

I must have ended up spending about three hours connected to their network. The teacher is still at her meeting. I leave a 'thank you' note on her desk and take a taxi back into town.

When I look back, I had an enjoyable and productive day; I met many good, friendly people who wanted to help me, simply because I wasn't paranoid and was prepared to talk to strangers.

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Monday, July 16, 2007


Khao San Hanoi

Have I really seen Vietnam in my one month stay? Definitely no.

To those familiar with Thailand, Khao San Road is the area in Bangkok where many backpackers hostels are located. I've been there for the occasional visit. I am familiar with the area but I've never stayed there. The place is set up to cater for the needs of (and to some extent to exploit) the backpackers who come usually for a stay of a few days. I have spent a lot of time in Thailand, perhaps totalling about two years. Most of that time has been spent in Mahasarakham where travellers don't often venture. I'm happy that I have not spent a lot of time in the pretend Thailand that is Khao San Road but have got to know what I believe to be the real Thailand where Thai people live their lives as Thai people normally do with little or no interest in the needs of tourists.

My achievement in Vietnam is to have spent a month in the Hanoi old quarter, perhaps the 'Khao San Road' of Vietnam. I don't have a problem with this. During this time I have got to know one or two Vietnamese people. If it wasn't for these friends, perhaps I'd have moved on elsewhere. As it is, I feel I've had enough of being treated like a tourist every time I step out the hotel door (but not by my friends). When I return to Vietnam I hope to spend some time off the tourist trail.

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Friday, July 13, 2007


Next stop China

I have been preparing for my trip to China. I have made several visits to the Chinese Embassy. I like walking around, finding my way around Hanoi, there's always a lot to see, so I don't mind. I get lost nearly every day but somehow I get back home.

The first Embassy visit I went in the afternoon, not knowing their hours. They are only open in the morning.

I went back the following morning. There was a queue outside and they let people in one or two at a time. There is a form that you can fill in while you wait but it is only in Chinese and Vietnamese. There are instructions in English stuck on a notice board outside but unless you read one of those Asian languages you would have to guess what the questions are. There are people there who try to help you but they don't speak English either. Also, I forgot to take my pen and my reading glasses.

In the instructions there are all sorts of rules and regulations about what you can and can't do when you enter the embassy: no mobile phones, no cameras, no sunglasses and a few more that I don't remember. Is this a taste of what is to come in China?

I took a few copies of the form back to my hotel room. One of my Vietnamese friends helped me to fill it in.

From somewhere I got the information that the visa fee if you do it yourself is $US25 for a one month visa. You can save all the hassles by getting an agent to do it. They charge $US40 for the same visa. I talked to one of them and they didn't seem to know too much about the options or costs if you wanted anything other than the usual one month. $15 is a lot of money in Vietnam and I'm not rushing to hand over my money to someone whose knowledge is little better than mine, if that.

I wasn't sure if the embassy would take dong instead of dollars and I only had dong. I didn't want to turn up with the wrong currency and be rejected. I've had enough of going back and forward and if I don't act quickly I'd have to pay a late fee. I went to the bank and asked if I could exchange some dong for dollars. You would not believe all the rules and regulations involved to do this. Basically you had to prove you were leaving the country. The proof would be the visa that I needed to pay the dollars for but without the dollars...

I came up with another idea and went back to the bank. Yes, they would allow me to do an over-the-counter cash advance with my Visa card and take the money in dollars. The fee is 3% and this from the bank that is recommended as the one with the most reasonable charges in the country. On top of this I know that Visa will charge $A5 and my bank in Australia will charge 2.5%. It's costing me a lot of money to get hold of my own money—one of the travellers ripoffs that I haven't got around to writing about yet.

So, I got the money and headed to the embassy avoiding all the motorcycle-taxi drivers who wish to deprive me of my exercise so that they can make some money from the foreigner. The queue was a bit shorter at the embassy this time. Many Asian people don't seem to understand the concept of a queue. They just push past to the front of the line. There's no point in saying anything. They won't understand. Just stay calm. Eventually I'm at the front of the queue and I get to go inside and join one of the queues in there, in the air conditioning.

My application is accepted. I had requested three months but for some reason he made me change this to one. That's fine. If China won't let me stay that long, I'll spend my money in another country for those two months.

I picked up the visa on Thursday. It cost $30. Fortunately I withdrew a few extra. Everything looks fine. I've bought a bus ticket to take me all the way to Nanning, in China, on Sunday.

If you've been reading this blog regularly you will be aware of the trouble I went through to acquire a copy of Lonely Planet China. Got an email from friends who visited last year. They had their copy confiscated at the border. Apparently it's a prohibited import.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Overcoming poverty

I like to read the online travellers' forums for information that might be useful, particularly when I'm going somewhere that's new to me. There is an interesting thread at the moment about a hotel in Hanoi that made a deal with a customer to cut their price. The following day they kicked them out because they were able to get someone else to take the room at a better price. The customer posted the information not to whinge but to warn others so they didn't fall into the same trap.

Last time I checked, this thread had 47 postings. Many were suggesting that the hotel's behaviour was not bad and that it was OK for business people in poor countries to behave in such ways and that rich westerners have no right to complain. I find this attitude is not uncommon here in Vietnam. It seems some think 'I am poor, you are rich, therefore it's OK for me to rip you off.'

I believe that this attitude will help to keep people poor.

What happens when you go on a holiday? You get home you talk about it, perhaps you blog it or write in travellers' forums. If your experience was a positive one then those who hear what you have to say may be inspired to go to the same destination. If your experience was a negative one others will be less inclined to follow in your footsteps. Sometimes most of the experience might be good and there are one or two negative ones. Unfortunately it is often the negative ones that stick in the memory.

Every time someone in a developing country rips off a traveller they are adding to the negative attitudes that 'rich westerners' have of their country. In such countries tourism is often one of the major export earners. Negative behaviour towards travellers hurts the whole economy of the country. If we hear lots of bad stuff about a country we choose to go somewhere else.

If Vietnam, Cambodia or any other country wants to improve its export income through tourism and thus help the people out of their poverty there needs to be an education campaign to teach those who deal with travellers, from the street vendors and taxi drivers to hotel managers, that treating people badly only hurts themselves in the long run.

I might add that I am staying in a very cheap hotel in Hanoi. Despite this, I am always treated well by staff. They behave with complete integrity. I would like to think this is the way the majority of Vietnamese hotels treat their customers.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007


Rare book

I already own a guidebook for China but I left it behind in Cambodia because I figured it wasn't worth carrying that weight around for eight months. I figured I'd be able to pick up a cheap second-hand one in Vietnam.

The shops here have plenty of stock of many different guide books, usually in pirate editions. Up till a few days ago I hadn't seen one for China.

Around the corner from where I'm staying is a shop that Lonely Planet Vietnam describes as a 'big second-hand bookshop'. Big? I must have walked past it at least twenty times before I realized there was even a bookshop there. And as anyone who knows me knows, I am supersensitive to bookshops.

So, I dropped in. They had a second-hand copy of Lonely Planet China. Checked the edition—2005. Not too old. The previous owner had written copious notes in the margins and underlined half the book. I can live with that. Maybe some of the notes might even be useful. So what are they asking for this? On the cover are stickers that say: 'Original'. That's correct. It's not a pirate edition. 'New price $30.' Yep, on the back the US price is $29.95. 'Now rare. $28.' I burst out laughing. The woman at the counter looked up at me. I explained the joke that had made me laugh. She wasn't amused.

I decided to look somewhere where they didn't have such a humorous idea of pricing books. There is another shop I'd spotted a few days before that had a few second-hand guidebooks but none on China at the time. I went back there. They had one. Same edition. But when I opened it I saw that at least twenty pages had been ripped out completely and some animal, it appears, has bitten a piece of about 4 cm radius from most of the other pages and a smaller chunk out of a few others. Gee, I wish I could find the person who previously owned this one. There might be a good story in it.

There is another bookshop in town that Lonely Planet Vietnam says has 'the best selection of English language books in Hanoi'. They have both new and second-hand. I hadn't been to that part of town but decided it was time I ventured a little further from the old quarter. One of the staff members said 'hi' to me in an Australian accent. There was a pirate edition of the book I was looking for. The price? 250,000 dong. That's $18.50 in Australian money or $US15.50—for a pirate edition that can be bought in Cambodia for around $US3. Or at least could be back when I was last there.

Obviously I'm not going to Cambodia to buy the book. And I'm starting to think that perhaps 'now rare' is correct for Hanoi at least.

I decide to go back to the shop with the half-eaten copy. No, I'm not going to buy it. I'm just intrigued to see how much they're asking for it. The price? 50,000 dong. The woman explains that the book is out of print and will not be available until around November. She says she has a friend with a good second-hand copy that he will sell for 400,000 dong if I'm interested. I tell her I can get a pirate edition for 250,000. She is at first disbelieving.

I decided that the following morning I'd connect to the internet and see if the book is in fact out of print. But the next morning there is a bit of storm activity about and I decide against connecting my computer. I go straight to the bookshop with the pirate edition. I don't want to enter China without any information in my hands.

When I get there I have a chat with the Australian. He tells me that the book is in fact out of print. He says they would not normally sell a pirate edition but under the circumstances they feel they are helping people in need. (Like me.) Apparently they had to make a trip to Hoi An to get these books. He says there's none in Hanoi and I can agree with that. I've been looking in all the bookshops and all the pirate bookstalls. We chat on. I'm intrigued as to why the pirate books are so much cheaper in Cambodia than here. I ask if he knows where they are printed. He says he heard they were printed after hours at the Government Printing Office in Ho Chi Minh City.

I fork out my 250,000 dong and take my book home. That afternoon I connect to the internet and check the Lonely Planet website. It says that there is a new edition now available, released in May 2007. So why hasn't it reached Vietnam yet?

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Saturday, July 07, 2007


Don't fall for this one

I recently received an email inviting me to 'Desktopdating'. It came with the name of a friend on it but not from my friend's email address. I was interested to see what 'Desktopdating' is so I clicked the link that said 'Accept the invitation'. The page that opened is shown in the picture here, except that it had my full name and one of my email addresses filled in. As you can see, it is asking me to enter my password for my email addresses.

Now, why would I do this? Why would I give my email password to a site I am unfamiliar with except they were able to send me an email with my friends name on it?

If I give this site my password, they will have access to all my private emails. If I have mail stored from a bank or other financial institution they can read it. The can get access to all the addresses in my address book. They can also log into my account as me and use it to send spam. While it says 'Your information is 100% secure and protected. We never share your information or spam', I do not trust them. Why should I when they ask for information that they have no reason to request except to use it for purposes that could be harmful to me and others?

I forwarded my friend the email that came with her name on it. She replied that she was surprised that I had received the invitation as she had not authorised it. This confirms for me that this site is not above board. If you receive an invitation from them or any other site that asks for any of your passwords other than the one to that site do not proceed. If you already have, I suggest that it's time to change the password on your email account.


Thursday, July 05, 2007


Quick, police!

Some of the hawkers have come to know me now as the see me day after day wandering the streets of Hanoi. Occasionally they go through the motions but most of them know it is just a game and that I am very unlikely to buy anything.

On one corner there were three or four hawkers standing and sitting with their wares. I stopped for a minute chatting. Suddenly, someone said something that I didn't understand and they scattered. They all but disappeared, then stopped and returned. It was a false alarm. They thought it was the police coming.

There were two motorcycles approaching. They looked like police to me but I am often confused by uniforms in Asia.

'So what do the police do if they catch you selling?' I asked.

'They take all my t-shirts and make me pay money,' one answered.

I'm not sure exactly what that means except that for the hawker it is an overhead expense that must be factored into the price they charge for the goods.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Crossing the street in Hanoi

I can pick the new visitors to Hanoi. I see them standing on the side of the road waiting for an opportunity to cross. They start to rush, suddenly a bike is bearing down on them, they freeze. That's the quickest way to die in Hanoi.

On the other hand if you don't take the risk it is possible you could die of old age while waiting to cross.

In all Southeast Asian cities I've visited, except Singapore, it is a challenge to cross the road. In Singapore drivers are even more polite and considerate than we are used to in western countries. Anywhere else, crossing can seem impossible. Pedestrian crossings mean nothing. Green lights with a walking figure mean nothing. For that matter, footpaths mean nothing. To step out the door of a building is to risk collision with a motorcycle. Left side of the road, right side of the road, one way, pedestrians only—they all mean nothing. Almost anywhere a pedestrian can go so can a bike and they do; no matter that laws or common sense might tell you otherwise.

Bangkok has its overhead bridges that make it safe to get to the other side. I have not seen any in Hanoi. So if I don't want to get old on this side of the road, what do I do?

The longest journey begins with the first step. Yep, that's it. You have to take a step. No wait, look first and if there is nothing bearing down on you take that step. Now keep looking in both directions and keep stepping. Avoid the urge to run. After a while I realized that the motorcyclists don't really want to kill me. Maybe they don't care but it would delay their journey and they could also be injured. They prefer to avoid you. If you are visible, they will try to figure the best way to avoid you. I watch them and see they usually change direction— usually to go behind me which means I keep walking. Sometimes they aim to go in front of me which means I stay still for a second but ready to move on as soon as there is a space.

I tried this one night at a really busy intersection. It looked impossible to get across but once I made the move it wasn't long before I'd reached the other side. Everyone simply rode around me and I kept on moving. No heart attacks. I safely reached the other side.

It is perhaps more challenging walking along the narrow streets that comprise the Hanoi old quarter. The footpaths are impassable because they are used for motorcycle parking or people eating and the narrow streets are filled with motorcycles coming in all directions and honking to say 'Get out of my way.' Or so it seems.

I have had many near misses. On two occasions as close as one centimetre. One guy came around a corner apparently oblivious to the fact that I was walking on that part of the road. Fortunately he saw me just in time. I find the most dangerous are usually young women who beep and it really does seem to mean, don't expect me to give way to you. I was crossing at one intersection. There was nothing ahead of me. I hear a loud beep. I had no time to react but was missed by less than a centimetre by a motorcycle with two girls on it coming around the corner.

So please don't worry about me being ripped off by hawkers. The most dangerous thing in Hanoi is walking down the street.

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