Friday, August 26, 2011

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam: Travel Review

The UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay is world famous for a reason; it’s beautiful.  Nearly two thousand limestone rocks rise from the calm waters.  It’s the inspiration for dozens of local legends and poems and maybe that’s why it’s a fixture on the tourist trail.  Some think that’s reason enough to skip Ha Long Bay…too many tourists.  They’re wrong. Go, go, go!

There are many ways to see Ha Long Bay and tours are available for every budget.  Watch my video for recommendations.  I loved our trip, but the second time around I would do it differently.

Travel Tip:  You must join a tour to cruise Ha Long Bay.  Most people book their tours in Hanoi, which includes transport from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay.  However, even if you arrive in Ha Long City on your own, you will have to join an organized tour to see the area by boat.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hanoi, Vietnam: A Visit to Hoa Lo Prison -- The "Hanoi Hilton"

The Hoa Lo Prison was famously dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by the American pilots imprisoned there during the Vietnam War.  Today it's not a prison, but a museum.  Most of the exhibits focus on the time period before the Vietnam War when the prison was used by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners.  However, the small exhibits about the American POW's are interesting.  It seemed more like a propaganda display than anything else.

This is a copy of the video playing on a loop at the museum.  You'll notice the emphasis on the good treatment and privileges supposedly afforded to the POW's.  The pilots are said to be sorry for their "crimes" and to have realized the war in Vietnam was wrong.  Watch the video yourself and pay attention to the subtitles.  I thought the museum was interesting and worth the visit -- that doesn't mean all the displays are historically accurate.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ping An, China: Travel Review of Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

This was my favorite stop in China.  It was the rural China that I had imagined and longed for, and it did not disappoint.  If you will be stopping near Guilin, add Ping An to your travel itinerary.  And as I suggest in my video, stay more than a day to truly appreciate the peace and beauty the area has to offer.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ping An, China: Travel Tips for Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

When you arrive in Ping An, the thing to do is simply walk around and take in the views of the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.  For three days that's all we did.  I just couldn't get enough of my surroundings.  They were so beautiful and so unlike anything I had ever seen before.  This is one of those places you see on a travel show and think to yourself...I want to go there someday...and I kept pinching myself reflecting on how lucky I was to be there.

Not only can you walk around Ping An Village, you can take paths leading to other villages.  Some of those walks require stamina, but can be very rewarding.  In this video, I've included directions to find my favorite walk from Ping An Village.  This walk was peaceful, secluded and it won't leave you exhausted.  The path will also lead you to a neighboring village that isn't frequented by tourists. 

Aren't you be traveling to Ping An!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ping An, China: Bus Directions to Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

We had trouble finding good, reliable directions online to Ping An from Guilin, China.  With a bit of help from our hostel and some good luck, we found the bus we needed.  So, we wanted to let everyone else know how to get to Ping An to see the breathtaking Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.  Your first tip...the bus doesn't leave from the bus station, but the Guilin Train Station!  Watch my video to learn more.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Xian to Guilin, China: Train Trip in a Hardseat (Video)

I've never traveled like this before.  I'm used to air travel and occasionally a long car ride.  But, on this journey around Asia it's all about train travel -- it's cheap, convenient, and you can travel overnight.

I've tried out every class on the trains.  I've been a VIP in my own private cabin.  I've tried the soft sleeper, hard sleeper, bottom, middle, and top bunks.  I sleep well on the train, as the rocking lulls me to sleep.  I awake to a new city and a new adventure -- it's great!

But, what happens when all the sleeper cars are sold out?  You end up in a hard seat.  That's how we traveled from Xian to Guilin, the longest train journey of my life.  I was nervous about this journey.  It turned out better than I expected, which is not to say it was great.  It was an experience and as travelers share stories, this is our badge of honor.  We survived 28 hours on a train!

We survived the noise.  Chinese people are talkative, vivacious, and very loud.  I kept asking myself:  Why is everyone yelling?  The noise was never ending.  We survived the lack of personal space.  This isn't an issue for the Chinese.  They don't have that luxury in such a crowded country.  So, seated five across, knees touching, shoulder to shoulder we made our trip.  Some people had "standing room only" tickets.  They sat in the aisles, slept across the bathroom sinks, under chairs and clogged up the passage ways between train cars.  Just walking to the bathroom was like participating in an obstacle course.  We survived the stares.  As far as we could tell, we were the only Westerners on board.  Furtive glances are not the name of the game.  Some people flat out stared for what seemed like an eternity.  If I walked through one train car full of students, I was busy waving both hands as I was greeted with shouts of "hellos" and giggles.  We survived the bathrooms.  There is no toilet seat.  You squat and hope you don't fall over as the train sways.  Hold your nose, ignore what you're stepping in and don't forget to bring your own toilet paper.  Few bathrooms plus many people = stink. We survived the lack of sleep, boredom, achy backs and behinds and the swollen ankles.

It was no picnic, but it was worth it!  Our final destination was the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.  The views were simply breathtaking and it was my favorite location in China.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Xian, China: Biking the City Walls (Video)

Most people come to Xian, China to see The Terracotta Warriors.  However, there's much more to do!  One of my favorite activities was biking the old city walls.  Xian is one of the few cities in China where the old city walls are still standing.  This is a fun, easy and cheap activity for the whole family.  Watch my video for additional tips!

Bike Rental Expenses:
Enter through the South or North Gates to rent a bicycle.  First, you must buy an admission ticket to get up onto the wall.  The cost is about $6 (40rmb).  Renting a bicycle is very cheap.  The cost is about $3 (20rmb) for 100 minutes.  You must also leave a deposit of about $30 (200 rmb).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Xian, China: How To Get To The Terracotta Warriors (Video)

It's considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.  That's why so many people flock to Xian, China to see The Terracotta Warriors.  There are countless tours to see the life-size clay army.  However, you can cut your expenses in half by doing this trip on your own.  Pack a lunch, catch the public bus (#306/ #5 -- it's the same bus, but goes by two numbers), and finally buy your tickets on site.  This is any easy DIY trip.  For complete directions on where to catch the bus to the Terracotta Warriors, watch my video.

One more tip:  If you're saving money by skipping a tour to the Terracotta Warriors, then do your research in advance.  Signage in the museum isn't very good and you want to know what you're looking at!  So read up on the Terracotta Warriors before your trip to make the experience more enjoyable.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Beijing, China: The Great Wall of China at Badaling (Video)

If you're visiting China, you must visit the Great Wall!  There are many sections of the wall and we chose to go to Badaling.  This is the most visited section because it's close to Beijing.  We chose to travel independently for two reasons.  First, it saves money.  Second, we heard complaints that tours spend too little time on the wall and we wanted to spend an entire day there.

If you watch my video, you'll hear we had trouble getting to the wall from Beijing.  The directions we had weren't great and we got lost on our way to find the bus.  So, hopefully you can avoid the same problems by following these directions.

Directions to Badaling from Beijing:

Take bus 919 to Badaling.  There is more than one 919 bus -- although all go to the Great Wall, you want the Express Bus, because it makes few stops.  The cost is 12 yuan per person and you pay for your ticket on the bus.  The ride is about 90 minutes.  The bus runs every 30 minutes starting as early as 7:30am.  You pick up the 919 Express bus from the old gate of Deshengman.

Now, I'll tell you how to get to Deshengman!  Take the Beijing Metro to the Jishuitan Stop.  Go out through Exit A.  Walk East toward Deshengman for about 10-15 minutes.  Here's a helpful hint as you start your walk:  If you're walking along side a river, you are going the WRONG way!  Instead, after exiting the subway station you will soon see a bus station on your left.  This is not your bus station, just a landmark to let you know you're heading the right direction.  Although you can't see Deshengman Gate when you begin your walk, it's easy to recognize.  It's a large stone tower belonging to an old city wall with buses parked all around it.  Cross the street and find the 919 Express bus ( green and white color) and then get in line to get on the bus.

You can return to Beijing on the same bus.  Again, you'll pay 12 yuan on the bus and the ride is about 90 minutes.  Okay, now hopefully you won't get lost!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Beijing, China: How to Use the Beijing Subway (Video)

I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how easy it is to use the Beijing Subway.  All signs are in both Chinese and English.  Even the announcements on the train are in English.  No matter where you are going or how many transfers you make, one trip on the subway costs only 2 yuan.

I noticed that most Chinese using the subway wait in long lines at a ticket counter to purchase their tickets.  There's no need to do this!  Skip the lines and use one of the automated machines.  My video shows you how to do this.  It's quick, efficient and in English.

You'll need a subway map, but that's easy too.  They're printed on the back of the free tourist maps you can pick up at any information booth.  So, get out your map and get going.  This is a great, cheap way to see Beijing.

One warning -- Beijing is crowded, so during rush hours expect to by packed into your subway car like a can of sardines.  It's okay -- it's all part of the China experience!