Posted by: CS
VN Travel: The ‘Western’ Side of Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City

If you're entering Vietnam by air, chances are you’re either coming in through Ha Noi or Ho Chi Minh City. Both cities equally deserve some travel time during your trips to Vietnam, though each destination poses a very different experience. Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s largest metropolis, bursting at the seams with over 9 million inhabitants. With huge districts dividing the various parts of the city, you can have an extremely touristic experience in one place, and not see a single foreigner in another. Though there are loads of different facets to this gigantic Vietnamese city, most tourists end up spending their time around District 1.

With an infinitude of hotels ranging from 3 to 300+ USD a night, you can find all sorts of different experiences in this centrally located quarter. With main streets making city navigation quite easy, the only thing you’ll have to battle in Ho Chi Minh is the heat and traffic. Simply crossing the road in this stuffed city is a tourist attraction in itself- you sort of shuffle your way through constant oncoming traffic, with the vehicles and motorbikes somehow parting ways around you. Between the traffic, high temperatures and sporadic deluges of rain, you’re constantly kept on your toes in this tropical clime.

Whether you’re looking for history, culture, food or shopping, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, will most certainly have it. With Vietnam’s most ‘westernized’ city comes all the familiar faces like Burger King, Starbucks, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and all the name brand stores... as well as their knock-offs. Spend some time wandering the sensory overload Ben Thanh Market, where you can find those perfect kitschy gifts for everyone back home- or head a block away to Saigon Square Market, a more local and laid back shopping experience. With dollar t-shirt selling stalls and high-end retail stores- you can spend a dollar or 500, all depending on what you’re looking for.

If you’re not interested in Vietnam’s best shopping, head for the cultural side of the city, with its various museums, displays, monuments and iconic buildings. A tour of the War Remnants Museum is a must for anyone visiting Saigon, where you can get a poignant photographic taste of Vietnam’s tumultuous recent history, or head to the Reunification Palace for a visit to the historically significant stronghold. With the embassies, historic Post Office and main cathedral just around the corner, this part of the city has a day of touring in itself.

For a stranger side of the city, head to the Pham Ngu Lao/Bui Vien area to get a taste of the city’s budget nightlife. Vendors and beer joints scatter the neon roads, western restaurants come in dozens, and scandalously clad women make the streets feel more like Las Vegas than Vietnam. But as it goes with Ho Chi Minh City, there’s always another side to the scene. Huge clubs, jazz bars and unique cafes dot the outskirts of the District One and neighboring areas, giving you a totally different experience of this eclectic city. With great shopping and cultural sights to see during the day and endless opportunities to take on during the night, you won’t have a hard time staying busy in Vietnam’s largest city.

With the Mekong Delta, Cu Chi Tunnels, beautiful coastline and other top sites only a short drive away- you’ll have plenty of places to escape to when you’ve reached your fill of the Saigon madness. Whether spending a day or a week (a few days is the best amount of time) in the city, your experience and outlook on Saigon completely depends on how and where you decide to spend it.

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Posted by: CS
Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center

Urban planning may not sound the most exciting subject for a China vacation but it might be. If you want to connect with China's amazing growth during your China tour there's probably no better place to witness it than at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center. If your trip provides you with a chance to visit China's largest city then you might just want to travel to this museum to see what all the fuss is about.

What's at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center?

Shanghai wants to be a global contender. The city missed out on the Olympics to the capital city but has already held a World Expo. This has made people aware of the possibilities of China travel and trade. However, what the Shanghainese really want is for it to become the world's number one finance center and that means displacing the upstart offshore; Hong Kong.

You might think that this is a bit of a pipe dream if you see both cities during your China tour but the joy of the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center is the ability to see how far China has come in an extremely short period of time.

Old Maps and Photographs

We think it's best to start at the beginning and your tour of China's biggest city's heritage should begin with the old city. Here you can witness how insignificant Shanghai was to the world prior to pseudo-colonization by the European powers. You can catch hints of how romantic a China vacation back then would have been. You can almost hear the sounds and catch the smells of traditional China and then slowly watch it be replaced by a modern, busy, but uniquely Chinese and charming mega-city.

The Building Itself

You'll also want to check out the building itself. It was designed by one of China's best known architects and provides the backdrop for awesome photographs. It's located in what used to be the Shanghai Race Course and the space around it may be the largest open space in the city. If you want to catch your breath during your travel – the park is a good place to do so.

The Whole City

The best part of a visit to the museum is the absolutely amazing scale model of the city which includes all proposed buildings up to the year 2020. It is the best view you will ever get of Shanghai from there unless you're lucky enough to travel into space. Don't miss the 360 degree tour of the model playing in the cinema by the side of it. It's an astonishing breath taking journey that feels like you're flying through the future of China.

More of the Future

The urban planning department is based in the building too and that means there are often exhibits of new buildings in the proposal stage. These will go beyond the model city and into a future where Chinese architecture gets better and better and where Shanghai might achieve its' dream of becoming the world's financial center.

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Posted by: CS
Vietnamese Food: The Wild Side of Cuisine

During all tours to Vietnam, the food is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip. Boasting some of South East Asia's most fresh, healthy and delectable meals, you're bound to fall in love with any handful of selections around the country. From the breakfast soups and French influenced sandwiches to the glass stall food vendors selling dozens of dishes for only a dollar- Vietnamese food is both delicious and affordable. But head to certain parts of the country or step off the tourist path for a bit, and you're bound to encounter some meals that might surprise you- or even make you queasy.

One of the most famous dishes in Vietnam (for both its local enjoyment as well as its shock factor) is dog. Man's best friend is in fact one of man's favorite meals (mostly in the northern parts of the country)- and is considered a special, ‘manly' meal to eat (accompanied by beer and rice wine of course). You will see restaurants serving up this ‘gamey' meat with the sign above reading “Tit Cay” meaning dog meat- with a plethora of men sitting inside laughing, drinking and indulging on this testosterone empowering meal. Trucks carry stacks and crates of stray and captured dogs (legally or illegally) up to their final resting place (generally Ha Noi), where they'll be ‘prepared' for the always-willing clientele. Though dog meat isn't served exclusively in Vietnam, the country is famous for its love of canine. (Notice when you travel you only see small Chihuahua dogs?)

If you aren't morally or gastronomically able to eat what most would call a pet, Vietnam does boast some other funky dishes that will leave you squirming and satisfied. For a taste of the ocean, you can order up a nice crunchy yet gelatinous plate of jelly fish- another local favorite that many wouldn't consider edible… Or perhaps you'd like to treat your taste buds to some silkworm salad, stuffed snails or spicy frog legs? All served with fresh herbs and sauces giving it that distinct Vietnamese flavor, of course. A few other odd selections are pig ear salad (common in the countryside) or up north (around Sapa)… boiled rat- I won't get into this one, but it is a legitimate delicacy to some.

One final wild piece of Vietnamese cuisine is ‘trung vit lon'- or more universally understood- duck egg embryo. This Vietnamese favorite (another extremely popular delicacy around the country) is exactly what it sounds like- a duck's egg that has somewhat developed inside, then cooked and eaten for its high protein content. If you're looking for a real local taste, this can be purchased on the side of the street pretty much anywhere in the country.

With loads of different selections that (generally) aren't seen on ‘western' menus- if you're a food lover and gastronomic explorer, then Vietnam is the place for you. Whether it's fried worms, grilled frogs or man's best friend on a platter- you certainly will have something to talk about when returning from your Vietnam tours. For everyone else who's not interested in eating outrageous foods- fear not. Vietnam also boasts some of South East Asia's most delicious, regular food that won't leave you squirming or morally scarred.

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Posted by: CS
Say it isn't so; Myth busting in China

We know that some people are a little worried about booking a China tour – they've heard things about China that put them off travel to the country. We think it's a good idea to know the facts about China before you take the leap and book your vacation. So, this week we're going to put some of those myths to bed so you can take a China trip with peace of mind.

  • I'll be the only person in China who doesn't speak Mandarin Chinese! No, you won't. It might surprise you to know that many Chinese people don't speak Mandarin. In fact as you'll see on your vacation even when they do speak Mandarin they may not be mutually compatible. Accentual variation can make two native speakers unable to communicate. This is good news because everyone knows how to communicate through mime when language fails.

  • They'll make me eat dog! Actually, it's very unlikely that dog would be on the menu in a tourist location – the business savvy Chinese are well aware of Western prejudices on the matter. If you travel into the “real China” part of any city you may find dog on the menu (though it is getting much rarer) but no-one will make you eat it.

  • They can tunnel through the earth in China and come up in the United States. We're pretty certain that the Chinese aren't planning an invasion by moving through the earth shifting hundreds of trillions of tons of rock and it would be impossible even if they were – they'd come out in the wrong place.

  • You can see the Great Wall from outer space. We've said this before and we'll say it again – no you can't. As you'll see if you take a trip to China's most famous landmark – it is very long, but it's also not very wide without increasing the width by a factor of 100 or more you'd never be able to see it from space.

  • Pollution in Beijing is equivalent to smoking x packs of cigarettes a day. Actually, it isn't. We won't deny that the pollution in the capital can be a little unpleasant on some occasions but at its worst the effect on the body is less than that of smoking a single cigarette. Travel round China's biggest city is perfectly safe in the short time it takes to visit.

  • China owns America. Actually China's holdings of US treasury bonds do not make the country owners of the United States nor is the Chinese share equivalent to the share held by US institutions. In fact the Chinese invest in US treasury bonds simply because they are seen as safe and the Chinese are nothing if not cautious with money. So don't worry you won't find your China vacation turning into a "you have arrived in the United States of China" moment.

  • Well if the food is bad, I can live on fortune cookies! Sorry you can't. In fact the fortune cookie wasn't even invented in China and has never really been seen in a Chinese restaurant. In fact you might have to bring them with you if you must have them on your China tour as they are a completely American invention.

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Posted by: CS
Vietnamese Food: The Means of Delivery

The Vietnamese are generally light eaters. Most meals are based around rice or noodles, served in communal portions with a side of herbs, soups, small meat/seafood dishes and vegetables. For the hearty eaters who are used to large portions of heavy meats and carbohydrates, you may have to eat a few different plates to get full here. But despite the small portions and light meals, there somehow always seems to be food floating around the streets. Whether you're up before the sun or a long time after it's gone down- you shouldn't have a hard time finding something to eat. From the usual restaurants and street vendors to the pick-up stalls and motorbike chefs, there's always some form of food that can be purchased.

One of the most famous sounds for people when they visit Vietnam is hearing the motorbikes with loudspeakers shouting some strange, distorted words. There will be some contraption setup on the back of the slow moving bike, sometimes steaming and other times smoking from an actual open fire. These vendors sell anything from corn (bap) to steamed buns filled with meats, mushrooms and quail eggs. When you hear someone (or something) shouting 'Banh Bao đay!'- flag them over to get a real taste of Vietnam.

If the motorbike food vendors are a bit too rough for you, there are still plenty of other options to choose from. Banh mi (baguette sandwich), pho (Vietnam's famous soup), Chao (rice porridge) and Com (rice) stands are dotted all over the country, and generally from 5 am to 11 pm you'll be able to pull up or take away from these ever-present street stalls. Even after midnight, you can still find some vendors who are selling hot, hygienic and delicious food well into the early hours of the morning. It's not unheard of to pick up a bowl of mì hoanh thanh (wanton noodle soup) at 2-3 in the morning, or even waiting until 4-5 for the breakfast crowd to re-appear.

If you're looking for the more traditional means of eating, Vietnam is also (naturally) filled with traditional sit-down restaurants- serving up both local and western favorite dishes. The more touristic the destination, the more 'western' style eateries there will be; but beware: many of them are nothing to write home about. So if you're planning on eating at a sit down restaurant, do your research to make sure it's worth your while (and the extra price they'll have the food charged at). A good medium between the street food experience and the western-style eating can be found in the local markets. Most markets (in the more populated towns of Vietnam) have a food corner in them, where both tourists and locals can gather to eat hot, fresh meals. Going by the rule of thumb (always following the crowds), you are able to enjoy a covered setting with seats, tables and beverages, while still getting the 'street food' experience. If there are locals there, chances are it's probably good (and safe) food.

So despite being light eaters, the Vietnamese love to eat at all times of the day. So whether you're flagging down the shouting motorbike man, sitting street side to a famous local meal or getting served (not as fun) at a traditional restaurant- you'll be able to find a way to keep your stomach and taste buds satisfied.

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Posted by: CS
Dancing in Tibet

When your China tour passes through Tibet you’ll want to get in touch with the cultural aspects of the region. The influence of Buddhism is stronger here than anywhere else you will visit on your China vacation. That means during your trip you’ll have the chance to encounter wonders that you simply can't find anywhere else in the world. One of the best things you might see during your Tibet travel is the local dancing which is truly unique and extremely enjoyable.


Since the 17th century when the Dalai Lama decreed that Lhasa should hold a festival in June and July each year there has been fierce contest to see which Tibetan group can make the festival the most joyous ever. The Dui group of Tibet travel to Lhasa to demonstrate their musical and dancing talents for the Sholdon Festival and have done since the festival began.

It's a form of tap dancing and one that you might want to practice in secret unless you want to trip over your own feet if you join in. The secret is to begin on the second and not the first beat. Then change your movement every third step after that. It is accompanied by string instruments imported from China and you’ll also find bells and dulcimers. Don’t be fooled though the Diuxie starts slow but quickly picks up pace. If you find Diuxie performed anywhere else in Tibet or China during your tour – you’ll find that the rules are quite different from place to place and it may be the 5th, 7th or 9th beat where the step changes.


This dance might seem more familiar to those from the Americas. It's a circular dance performed by farmers and herdsmen. It is very popular in the East of Tibet but can also be found in Lhasa on occasion. All participants sing the Guozhang as well as dance but you may be happy to find that the final lyric “Ya!” is one that even the crowd can join in with. Men form an outer circle and ladies an inner one and they travel in opposite directions beginning slowly but rapidly picking up pace. Look out for the cowboy like chaps that the men wear though they are often decorated with rather un-cowboy like feathers.


This is the dance that was used to meld the original Tibetan religion (the Bon-Po) with the Buddhist faith that came after it. It’s used to calm the evil spirits and satisfied adherents of both faiths that proper protections for people’s souls were in place. You’ll be best placed to watch this dance at a monastery during your Tibet tour as these places require the most spiritual protection. The dances are very animist in nature and participants use animal-mimicry for much of the display so be prepared for oxen, deer and then demons and skeletons too. This may be the dance highlight of vacation in Tibet as it’s so varied and intricate that you can’t help but be impressed by the skills of the participants.

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Posted by: CS
Vietnam Customs: Learning the Language

When traveling to any new country, one of the biggest concerns for most people is the language barrier. Will the people speak English, or do I have to learn how to get by in the local language? For travel to Vietnam, this question really has two answers. Put rather simply, you don’t need to learn Vietnamese. Most people speak some level of English throughout the country, and any tourist can get by (for the most part) relying on this. However, there is something quite special about learning the Vietnamese language, and studying up on it a bit can seriously alter your trip to Vietnam

Vietnam Customs: Learning the Language

Sometimes when you visit a country, the locals have absolutely no desire to hear you speak in their mother tongue. They scoff at your feeble attempts to sound local, and would prefer for you to acknowledge their efforts in studying English their whole lives. Vietnam, however, is much different. If you even show a glimmer of attempting to speak their language, they respond extremely positively and often commend your efforts to learn the language. ‘Oh your Vietnamese is very good!’, or ‘Oh you speak Vietnamese!’ can be the response for a simple Hello, how are you, or asking the price of something in Vietnamese. They are an extremely proud people, and for a tourist to show the effort in learning their customs and language- it means the world to them. So for someone who’s visiting Vietnam, learning a few crucial words can mean a world of difference for your travel experiences.

The upside? Vietnamese is written in the same script as English- so it’s somewhat readable for foreigners (as opposed to Thai and Khmer). The downside? It’s an extremely difficult language to speak. For most westerners, we are not used to speaking in a tonal language- and Vietnamese is just that. It has loads of different symbols swirling around the letters that create rising, falling, short and long sounds, which for some aren’t even easy to hear (never mind speak). One word spelt the same way can mean 6 different things, all depending on the way you pronounce it. But with a bit of practice both inside and outside the country, you can find some medium of speaking and being understood.

The most basic of all words in Vietnamese is ‘Hello’, or Xin Chao (sing chow). If there’s only one thing you bring with you to Vietnam, it should be this. If you want to get local and a bit improper, you can just reduce it to ‘Chao’ (hey/hi). Another important one is ‘How are you?’ ‘Ban Khoe Khong?’ (bahn kway kawm)- or just ‘khoe khong?’ which loosely translates to: ‘are you well, no?’ This is a great icebreaker and good way to ease into the language. The response is just ‘Khoe’- (I’m well)… and if you aren’t well, just add the no (khong) before ‘khoe’. Some more important beginner words are as follows:

Excuse me/I’m Sorry: Xin Loi (Sin Loy)
You’re Welcome/No Problem: Khong Sao (come saow)/ Khong Co Chi (come coo chee)
How Much Is it? Bao Nhieu Tien (Bow Nyeew Tee-in)
Numbers 1-10: Mot, Hai, Ba, Bon, Nam, Sau, Bay, Tam, Chin, Muoi (moat, hi, baah, bone, nahm, saow, bye, tahm, ching, muhr-ee)

Though this is only the peak of a very large and intricate iceberg, simply having a few lines can make the Vietnamese look at you in a different light. Don’t be shy in using the phrases, as the Vietnamese would like to help you learn the language as much as they’d like to have help in learning English. So don’t worry about pronunciation (they’ll correct that for you), and try not to lean too much on English- it could mean the difference between being just another ‘tourist’ and making new, local friends.

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Posted by: CS
Interesting Facts About Macau

Macau makes for a great side trip on your China vacation particularly if you're passing through Hong Kong during your China tour. We’ve found that a lot of people are curious about Macau and would like to know a little more before their China trip. We’ve put together a few interesting facts about Macau to help make your China travel experience a little more fascinating:

  • If you visit a beach during your China vacation then the Hac Sa Beach in Macau is one of the best places to lie out and catch a few rays. It’s also home to an archaeological dig which has found many pieces of pottery dating back over 4,000 years!
  • The reason that so many Chinese people travel to Macau is simple. It’s the only place in China where you can gamble legally. Macau’s casinos are more profitable than Las Vegas.
  • $1 in every $2 spent in Macau is spent in a casino. 1 in every 5 people working in Macau works in a casino.
  • There are 4 gambling tables for every hospital bed in Macau.
  • The acropolis is not just in Greece. In Macau it’s also the alternative name for the Cathedral of St. Paul which was built in the 16th century and was the largest church in the whole of East Asia at that time.
  • While Putonghua (Mandarin) is now the official language of Macau the locals mainly speak a Portuguese dialect called Macanese Portuguese. There’s also a creole tongue commonly spoken in Macau called Patua.
  • Whilst Macau has a fine Christian heritage you’ll find during your China tour that over half of the people living on the island are now Buddhist.
  • In 2012 Macau broke an international record. As you’ll see during your trip it’s now the most crowded place in both China and the world with over 20,000 inhabitants for every square kilometer of land.
  • To further that record Macau also has the world’s fastest growing economy.
  • However, things may go off the rails in 2050 as the country also has one of the fastest ageing population rates in the world. By then there will 8 people not working in Macau for every 10 people that are working. In fact the people of Macau have the 2nd highest life expectancy in the world and can expect to live to nearly 85 years of age.
  • The first Western-style University in all of Asia can be found in Macau. St. Paul’s college prepared Catholic missionaries to visit the whole of the continent.
  • Macau was the first Asian colony for the Portuguese. It was also Portugal’s last colony in Asia and was handed back to China in 1999.
  • The most ancient part of Macau is the A-Ma Temple which was built before the city even existed in 1488.
  • In 2011 there were nearly 30 million visitors who took in Macau on their China vacations – that’s more than the number of people who live in Australia!
  • A car parking space in Macau would cost more than $100,000!
  • If you’d like to see the Macau Grand Prix on your China Tour you should know that the circuit was originally designed to be a treasure hunt for local residents and that the car race came later.

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Posted by: CS
Tours to Vietnam: Hoi An-Everybody's Favorite Destination

With the country being relatively small, tours to Vietnam always tend to include the same destinations. There's the must visit cities, Mekong and mountains, and of course- everyone's favorite Old Town. Despite being one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Vietnam, Hoi An still manages to stay true to its Ancient Town atmosphere. Anyone who's visited Hoi An knows how magical and captivating it is, and it's always on the top of the 'favorite' lists for all travel to Vietnam. Perhaps that's why so many tourists flock to this ancient port town, or why so many visitors keep extending their Hoi An stay, until they finally achieve the label of 'expat'.

It doesn't take long to be won over by the small town charm of this central Vietnam gem. The streets are tight and colorful, locals are always friendly and smiling (perhaps because the tourism has brought them endless work opportunities), and there are loads of sites and activities to experience. The main attraction of Hoi An is undoubtedly its “Old Town”. Magically preserved in its state as an ancient trading port, the mango colored streets and picturesque river life makes you feel like you've been transported back hundreds of years to when Hoi An was a bustling hub for commerce. Now the streets are filled with international tourists, conical hat-clad women and vendors selling everything from ceramic whistles to salted peanuts... But despite the rampant tourism, that unforgettable atmosphere can still be experienced. Locals wander downtown to the bustling markets with produce, meats and fish being hawked and bargained over, fishing vessels pass along the murky waters, old 'ba's' (elderly women) chew their beetle nut and row rickety old canoes through the rivers, and high water marks stain the walls and ceilings of shops and restaurants submerged during the annual rainy season. It's an unforgettable experience walking through the alleys and roads of the ancient town, and an absolute must do for anyone traveling through Vietnam.

Alongside the Old Town, Hoi An also has some other sites that make the trip equally as unforgettable. Renting a bicycle (at 20.000 VND, or one USD dollar per day) you can cruise through the back roads and quiet country side of this gorgeous town, with endless, flowing green rice paddies, buffalos resting under tall, swaying bamboo trees, and local children running and playing through the streets. Crime is nearly non-existent in this part of Vietnam, so there's nothing to fear if you get lost during your backcountry ramblings. Locals are always there to help, and a major site and attraction is never further than ten minutes away.

Another major draw of Hoi An is its beautiful beaches. Boasting some of Vietnam's most pristine, sandy shores, a trip to Hoi An is not complete without visiting Cua Dai or An Bang Beach. Soak in the warm Vietnamese rays under bamboo huts and beachside bars, or take a dip in the refreshing clear waters of the East Sea. For a real local treat, head to the beach early in the morning (5am to 6:30 am) or early evening (4:30-6) when all the Vietnamese bring their family and friends down to the waters for exercise and some fun. It's the polar opposite of the daytime at the beach (nearly empty), and hundreds of locals swim, wade or snack by the waters at the beginning and end of nearly every day.

With My Son Sanctuary, Da Nang City and Marble Mountain only a short cruise away, Hoi An has plenty of activities to do when you've reached your small town fill. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and internationally loved destination, a visit to Hoi An is simply a must for all trips to Vietnam.

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Posted by: CS
Hell can be Heaven in China – Fengdu Ghost City

One of the great things about a China vacation is the chance to catch a glimpse of the truly unique. If you're taking a Yangtze River Cruise then you're going to spend some time in Chongqing one of China's largest cities. While you're there you'll have the chance to take a trip to China's Ghost City, Fengdu. It's in Fengdu that you'll have the chance to travel to Hell without the fear of not coming back and that's got to make for one of the most interesting experiences you can have in China.

The City on the Mountain

As your Yangtze River Cruise passes the Ming Mountain you'll want to look up and see if you can spy your first glimpse of the city of Fengdu. It has always been a tourist attraction of sorts with over 2,000 years of history and may be the first "theme park" the world has ever known. If you take a virtual tour of China through its literature you'll find many references to Fengdu in China's greatest works such as Journey to the West and the Apotheosis of Heroes.

Fengdu began life during the period of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Two court officials were tasked with visiting Ming Mountain and preaching their Daoist faith to those nearby. It's said that they were so successful that they were rewarded with immortality for their devotion. Sadly their surnames "Yin" and "Wang" when combined are rather less pleasant; "Yinwang" means the "Lord of Hell" in Mandarin.

It was this legacy that inspired builders during the Tang Dynasty to erect a monument to Hell. It is possible that this was one of the first Chinese representations of evildoers being punished and tortured for their actions in life. It also reinforced that good people's souls in China would not make the trip to Hell but rather be rewarded in their afterlife by being granted admittance to Heaven.

Your tour of China's Hell begins with three locations at which souls must be tested before being condemned. The "Nothing-to-be-done" Bridge is made up of 3 stone archways and the one in the center was the scene of a soul's test. Specific protocols must be followed by the soul to cross and those that are found to be less than virtuous will fall from the bridge into the pools beneath. If you meet any Chinese people here they will encourage you to travel over the bridge as the locals believe that this will bring you good luck.

The next place is "Ghost Torturing" pass where the demonic sculptures are said to ward the trial of the soul by China's Lord of Hell himself; known as Yama. The final test is in the Tianzi Palace where a penitent soul is said to have been able to stand on one foot on the large stone that is placed outside of the gate for at least 3 minutes in order to free themselves from Hell. If they failed they would remain in Hell for eternity. Once you've take your Yangtze River Cruise to Chongqing you absolutely have to visit Fengdu Ghost City – it may be the only time that Hell feels like Heaven for any of us.

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Posted by: CS
Breakfast in Vietnam

Breakfast, as we all know, is supposedly the most important meal of the day. It gives us the energy and strength to cut through the most strenuous labors and menial tasks of the pre-noon day. When traveling, breakfast is simply a must, especially when battling the oven-like heat of Vietnam. Luckily, Vietnam takes its first meal very seriously, and there are loads of delicious options to choose from. Starting from outrageously early hours, morning cooks get their ingredients situated, pots and fires prepped, and carts loaded with food, utensils and plastic stools ready for the morning crowd. The market in the morning is a magical place in Vietnam, with families, friends, couples, students and elderly folks all gathering together over various dishes, bowls, fruit drinks and coffees to get ready for the day ahead.

Hotels often include (sometimes a measly) breakfast in their rates, restaurants are always ready and willing for early morning customers- but for the best experience of the morning, head to the streets or local market to kick off your day right. 'Sinh To' stands (fruit shakes) are a common sight during all Vietnam trips, with loads of fruits and vegetables stacked behind the stall's glass paneling ready for choosing. Fresh mango, orange, strawberry, pineapple, coconut (and more) juices are blended individually or together for a sum of anything under 20.000 VND- perhaps the cheapest and tastiest fresh juice drink you may ever have. For coffee lovers, Vietnam boasts some of the world's best mini-drip coffee, a must try at the markets as well.

To bring a bit more sustenance to your morning intake, keep your eyes open for the world-famous pho stalls- the Vietnamese iconic soup, generally cooked with beef (pho bo), rice noodles, and all sorts of family secret vegetables, herbs and spices (onions, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cilantro, basil and of course fish sauce). This is considered to be the national dish, consumed by millions every day… But what if you aren't interested in eating a hot soup at 6 am on a sweltering Vietnam morning?

There are still plenty of other options, like my personal favorite, the Banh Mi. A remnant of the French occupation, the baguette is equally as popular in Vietnam as it is anywhere else in the world. A regular Banh Mi sandwich consists of thinly sliced pork meat, cucumber, various herbs, chilies, and a special meaty soy sauce poured into the warm, fresh bread. For an even better treat, there's the Banh Mi Op La, which is nothing but an egg sandwich with some vegetables and herbs tossed in, covered with chili sauce; a delicious option with a close to home taste.

If you're looking for a more glutinous start to your day, you can either try Xoi, one of the Vietnamese' all time favorite dishes, or Chao. Xoi is sticky rice combined with a variety of different options, from green beans to sugar, coconut shreds and crushed peanut (all mixed together)- a great meal that's both cheap and filling. Chao, or rice porridge, is another morning option, though often a bit on the blander side. It's a good thing to eat on a cold morning, or if you're feeling a bit under the weather (traveler's bug perhaps?).

There are loads of breakfast options in the morning, and depending on where you're traveling, the choices can vary. These selections are only a few of the common sites (Bun being another- a different type of noodle-based soup)- and even if you're in Vietnam for a short period of time, you still should have the opportunity to try them all. For picky children, either Banh Mi or the sweet Xoi is a great option that's hard to argue. For everyone else, follow your nose and your taste buds.

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Posted by: CS
The Ultimate Experience in Vietnam: Motorbiking

If you're traveling to Vietnam for a short period of time, you may not have too many options for getting around. Plane rides quickly bring you from one destination to another, hop a taxi or bus out and you're ready to explore. It only takes an hour to fly from central Da Nang to both Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh- so for the few day or one week travelers, that may be the only possible itinerary. But if you have some time to spare, and are looking to get the real local experience, think about renting a motorbike.

With no license required, you can rent a motorbike for as little as 4 dollars a day, and the entire country is suddenly at your fingertips. Both automatic and manual bikes are available, so you can kick start and tap through gears if you know how, or simply turn your wrist and be on your way. The entire country is swarming with motorbikes, and it's undoubtedly the most popular means of transport. Unless you're interested in walking in the heat or taxiing around town, motor biking is both the quickest and cheapest means of seeing the country.

The rules of the road (or lack thereof) are a bit challenging to get used to in Vietnam, so I would suggest renting a bicycle for a day or two, just to get a feel for the flow of Vietnam's traffic pattern. Always keep an eye out for the cars, buses and trucks (automobiles have the right of way in every situation), and if you get confused- just do as the locals do. There is no right or wrong when it comes to motor biking, just keep your distance, regulate your speed and always, always wear your helmet.

Once you get comfortable on the two-wheeled machine, endless frontiers open up for your tours through Vietnam. You can rent a bike in Ha Noi and drive it all the way down to Ho Chi Minh city, you can head west from Da Nang and drive through the mountains and national parks, or you can take smaller trips within regions to the various UNESCO and historical sites dotting the way. The Ho Chi Minh Highway is one of the highlights of motorbike travel in Vietnam, as is the unforgettable Hai Van Pass run from Da Nang to Lang Co Bay. Motor biking immediately gives you ‘local' status, and exposes you to some sights, people and destinations that you otherwise may have never found.

Of course there are some things that you need to keep in mind if you're taking the motorbike route through Vietnam. Deaths on the road are a terribly common occurrence, and accidents are so often that it's not even surprising when you see one anymore. Even if you are doing everything you're supposed to do while driving, it doesn't mean others are as well. And sadly, a common occurrence in an accident with a ‘tourist' (even if it wasn't their fault)- is putting the blame on them because they're the ‘foreigner'. So be extra careful when driving, and if you ever see an accident (unless you're a trained medical professional) – you shouldn't stop. Many an expat has stopped to help in an accident situation, and the next thing they know, the finger is being pointed at them. So keep your wits about you and drive mindfully, but don't forget to enjoy the cruise- it's one of the most memorable means for all tours to Vietnam.

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Posted by: CS
Travel to Vietnam: Dressed Appropriately

One of the biggest concerns when traveling to a new, foreign country is what to bring for clothing. In a place like Vietnam where the temperatures are seldom below 30 in some parts, you're going to need to stay cool… but doing so without shocking the locals. Shorts, loose tops, hats and light dresses are always a good thing to have, but try and be conscious of leaving behind that super low slung top or outrageously cut short shorts. I have seen endless groups, couples, individuals etc. walking down the road in nothing but their bathing suits, with the Vietnamese nearly crashing their motorbikes while gawking at the scene. First things first- the Vietnamese are extremely modest dressers, and they don't flaunt their body parts or even expose much skin for that matter. If you're unsure what to pack before your trip to Vietnam, bring something cool, but also something that covers. Beach attire is appropriate on the beach- not anywhere else.

The Vietnamese, and many of the Asian cultures, have a strong distaste for darkening their skin (the polar opposite of the Western love affair with tanning). They seldom go out in the sun, and if they do, they are generally wearing pants, socks, jackets, gloves, face masks and hats- even if it's 42 degrees out. They do everything they can to steer clear from the sun's damaging UV rays (which are quite strong in Vietnam), and take every precaution there is to avoid them. You could imagine then, when they see a scandalously clad westerner strolling through the streets, baking in the hot sun- they are a bit taken back. Of course they aren't going to stop you from sunbathing on the beaches, but when you're in the streets, remember where you are and dress appropriately.

Another concern for tourists is what to wear when you're visiting temples or monasteries around the country. Most religious establishments require modest attire, with both long pants and long-sleeve shirts sometimes being the prerequisite for entrance. When you're visiting a holy place with monks who've taken vows of celibacy, the last thing you (or they) want, is for someone to come in exposing it all, sending them into waves of desire. So make sure if you plan on visiting any religious places or historical sites- bring some covering, modest clothing.

Despite being a relatively reserved country, the Vietnamese are still fashion crazy. Go through any city or town and you'll seldom see a girl (or guy) dressed like they're lounging around the house. Of course there are laborers who are dressed for the job, and the occasional person strolling around in their pajamas, but for the most part, the Vietnamese love their clothing and keeping up on the newest style. So don't exchange your Sunday's best for some grubby travel gear, bring along a few nice pieces of clothing and the Vietnamese will certainly give you their “dep” (beautiful) of approval.

Something you may want to look into before traveling to Vietnam is the season you're arriving. You certainly won't want to pack only shorts and t-shirts if you're visiting Sapa in the wintertime or even Ha Noi in the rainy season. Vietnam can get cold, and if you're visiting any time between September and February, you might encounter some nasty weather. So dress to keep warm in the winter, and dress appropriately in the summertime, for your sake and the Vietnamese.

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Posted by: CS
Interesting Facts about Xi'an

One of the places you're sure to want to visit on a China vacation is the Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an. In fact they're such a big deal that many people assume that's the only reason that a China tour stops in the city. There's quite a bit more to Xi'an as you'll discover on your China travel and before you make the trip to one of China's most interesting cities we thought we'd share some interesting facts about it with you:

  • Xi'an is one of the most ancient cities in China. It's been there for nearly 3,100 years and was once known as Chang'an.

  • Xi'an is also one of the "Four Great Ancient Capitals of China" and was the home of the Imperial Courts of the Han, Sui, Qin, Zhou and Tang.

  • If you fancy travel in the footsteps of one of the world's greatest explorers, Marco Polo, then your trip to Xi'an offers exactly that opportunity. The city is the Eastern most point on the Great Silk Road considered to be one of the great journeys of mankind as it passes through all of Northern China and much of Central Asia.

  • It's not just ancient secrets that lie locked within Xi'an's heart but the city is currently the home of China's space program. So if you see something racing towards the heavens during your vacation – don't panic, it's probably another rocket launch for the space station.

  • Xi'an is home to roughly 8 million souls and is considered to be one of the 13 cities in China most likely to become a mega-city (more than 10 million) by 2025. You might want to travel now to beat the extra queues at every attraction!

  • The city of Xi'an is the only walled city in China where the entire wall is still present. So don't forget to take a tour round the walls when you're there.

  • The Lantian Man which was discovered only a few miles to the South East is one of the earliest concrete proofs of civilization in China 500,000 years ago.

  • In 1965 a full Neolithic Village was found just outside the city limits. You can take a trip out to see this and find out what life in China 6,500 years ago was like.

  • Xi'an is also the center of time for China as the National Time Service Centre is based in the city and it is thus also considered to be the center of China as well. Interestingly for such a large country; all of China uses the same time zone and you should set your watch to CST (Chinese Standard Time) when you get off the plane and then no matter where you go – you'll have the right time.

  • Qingqiang (The Voice of the Qin) opera originates in Xi'an and it is perhaps the most extensive form of the art anywhere in China.

  • There's an art district where you can go and observe 40 or more painters at work. You'll find it in "Textile Town".

  • Xi'an has been trying to emulate America's Silicon Valley though a computer science graduate can look forward to a salary of only $200 a month!

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Posted by: CS
Vietnam's Northern Cuisine: The Ha Noi Street Food Experience

Ha Noi is the vibrant capital and must visit destination for all trips to Vietnam. It's an historic destination saturated with some of the country's greatest culture and most beautiful city-scenery. The streets are tight, packed full of motorbikes and cars battling their way through the Old Quarter and lakeside roundabouts, with endless streams of tourists and locals dotting the street sides and shop fronts. Upon arriving, the maze of intertwining streets with similar names (Hang Be's, Hang Ba's, Hang Bo's etc.) make navigating the city a bit confusing- but with a map and some daylight practice, it becomes easier and easier.

Aside from the chain fried chicken and pho restaurants scattered along the Hoan Kiem lakeside, one of the most noticeable things about Ha Noi is its lack of ‘western' style eateries. Without the proper knowledge of navigating the city, you could easily find yourself frequenting the same blasé restaurants over and over again. But with a bit of research, you'll discover that Ha Noi actually boasts one of the country's greatest food selections. The catch? You have to be willing to get a bit local.

Scattered all over the city, you'll find endless street food options that serve up original northern dishes that other parts of the country can only try an emulate. Delicious grilled chicken stands, noodle soup stalls with pork, snails and beef, steamed rice papers stuffed with mushrooms, meats and fried shallots- there's something for every meal of the day. So long as you're willing to squat down on the mini-plastic stools surrounding the child-sized plastic tables- you can eat some of the most memorable and flavorful foods in the country. Various in-city guides have long lists of the best food stands/stalls, which make the getting there half the enjoyment. You can end up basing your tours of Ha Noi around just trying to find that one ‘best' pho stall or the sidewalk vendor who sells the tastiest grilled, fried spring rolls.

Ha Noi is famous for their lunchtime Bun Cha, a soup-like barbecued pork dish soaked in fish sauce and served up with a side of soft noodles, or their unforgettable Ga Nuong- grilled chicken wings (and feet), marinated in honey and sugar. Pho Bo, the nation's favorite breakfast beef soup, is undeniably the city's most famous dish, but there are plenty of other less known options that also deserve some recognition. Eel (Luon) is a popular dish for local Ha Noians, as is Bun Oc- the snail noodle soup (supposedly loaded with Calcium). For the beverage side of the city, Ha Noi is most famous for their Bia Hoi, or fresh draught beer, which flows in endless streams and is made daily in the city. These beer-halls dot every corner of the busy city streets, with locals and tourists always indulging inside (anywhere from 11 am to 11 pm). For those who enjoy the golden brew- this stop is an absolute must, with beers costing as little as 4.000 VND a glass (less than 25 Cents).

Wherever you find yourself, whether it's wandering the Hoan Kiem Lake District, out near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum or Temple of Literature area- there's some form of famous Ha Noi cuisine to be found. Whether it's morning, lunch or dinner, just keep your eyes open for the signs, or most importantly the crowds- and dive right into the local scene. Vendors and waiters are always willing to pull another plastic table and chairs out of nowhere to accommodate the intrigued visitors who are looking for a local taste and experience during their tours to Vietnam.

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Posted by: CS
The Four Great Inventions of China

One of things you'll certainly already know about China is that it has a great history. Many people want to find out a little more about China's contribution to the world before they come on their China vacation. They find that a China tour is a bit more enjoyable when they can talk with the locals about the things which they are most proud of. So before you travel we think we should take a quick trip round the four greatest inventions that demonstrate China's contribution to the world around them.

Invention Number 1 – The Compass

The original Chinese compass is not one that you could traditionally carry in your pocket for use during your China vacation. Instead it was based on the use of floating a magnetized needle in a bowl of water. It was almost certainly invented during the 10th century A.D. though there are references in Chinese literature that suggest that the magnetic properties of iron were well understood back in the 4th century BC.

This led to an improvement for travel in the year 1088 when the suspended dry compass was invented. It was a little less practical than the European model which would become popular in China during the 16th century but it was several hundred years ahead of its competitor too.

Invention Number 2 – Gunpowder

Discovered in the 9th century gunpowder is an invention that you will be lucky enough to see in action if your trip to China coincides with the Spring Festival. That's because its primary use in modern China is for fireworks. It's a common myth that it was never used in weaponry in China – in fact from the 11th century onwards the Chinese were experimenting with firearms. However, it came at quite a price and in 1280 A.D. a gunpowder warehouse exploded killing over 100 people in an instant.

Invention Number 3 – Paper Making

While it's the Egyptians who hog all the credit for inventing paper; it's actually the Chinese who invented it. The Egyptians used a precursor of paper called papyrus instead. It was in the year 100 A.D. when Cai Lun a Chinese functionary at the Han Dynasty Court invented paper formally. Though, he may actually have re-invented it as there is evidence that paper was in use in the Gansu province back in the 8th century BC. Whichever is the case don't forget when you send a postcard home on your China tour that the reason you can send it is all down to Chinese ingenuity.

Invention Number 4 – Printing

It's Westerners who get the nod for inventing printing but once again it was the Chinese who got there first. In fact they invented movable type in the 9th century A.D. but quickly abandoned it in favor of woodblock printing which is simply much better suited to the huge range of Chinese characters available.

The Chinese would have been creating travel guides, religious works, etc. in mass produced form from the 11th century onwards if paper hadn't been so expensive. As is most print editions were limited to only a few thousand copies. It's one of the true wonders of China's manufacturing history. It's certainly an invention that people would be happy to discuss on your China vacation.

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Posted by: CS
Traveling to Northern Vietnam: The Ha Long Bay Experience
Traveling to Northern Vietnam: The Ha Long Bay Experience

Travel to Vietnam boasts some of South East Asia's most exciting and eclectic experiences. From the madness of Saigon city to the cool mountainous horizons of Sapa- there's loads of different options to choose from. Not only boasting some amazing history and culture, Vietnam also has some of South East Asia's most awe-inspiring landscapes. One major stop along all tours to Vietnam is the stunning Ha Long Bay.

Tucked into the northeast side of the country, Ha Long Bay is a massive collection of limestone islets jutting out of the belly of the East Sea. Backed by local myths and legends of dragons coming to the Viet-people's rescue, this tour is both a mystical, picturesque and unforgettable journey of the north. A three and a half hour ride from Ha Noi brings you to the Ha Long Bay pier, where huge clusters of domestic and international tourists gather to embark on their trips out to sea. Tours can vary from a few hours to multiple days and nights sailing around the giant rock faces, sleeping on boats or heading to the majestic Cat Ba Island.

Tours include transport, food, accommodation, guides, excursions- pretty much everything you need to be covered- which vary, of course, by how much you'd like to invest. One to Five-Star trips can mean anything from riding a rickety boat around the bay, to sailing through the UNESCO gem on an unforgettable vessel with all the bells and whistles you could imagine. Trips include visiting fishing villages, kayaking and wandering through various caves and caverns, and diving/swimming through the mystical waters surrounding the massive cliffs. Some opt for the overnight stay on Cat Ba Island, loaded with accommodation, food and activities, which provides a much less 'touristy' feel to the Ha Long experience.

Being one of the biggest attractions in the country, you will have to deal with hoards of other tourists embarking on their own unforgettable journeys- but as everyone who does the Ha Long tour says- you just have to look passed the tourism. Despite the bay being filled with some tired boats in much need of a good paint job, the surrounding sites of the trip are absolutely breathtaking. After a day of sailing around the timeless islets and secluded areas, you can get another extremely Vietnamese experience on the boat with karaoke, music, light shows and even squid fishing- available to those who want it. For the 1-3 star cruises, you'll be sharing the waters with other music blasting boats, fishing, swimming, cheering and just thoroughly enjoying their holidays. But once again, if you can look beyond the tourism, you can still enjoy the stunning surroundings and star filled skies.

The Ha Long Bay experience is a must-do for all travelers headed to the northern part of Vietnam. The sites of the bay are experienced the same by all, but the companies, boats and budget options are what can make the real difference. If you're just looking to see the sites and have a fun time, 1-3 star cruises are the way to go. But if you're looking for a quiet night or an unforgettable honeymoon experience, you may want to spend the extra Dong. A bit of research and some extra bucks can make a world of difference for your trips to Ha Long Bay.

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Posted by: CS
The Daming Palace – Xi'an

The Daming Palace – Xi'an When your China tour takes you to Xi'an you'll want to see all there is to see. One great place to see on your China vacation there which takes you a little "off the beaten path" is the Daming Palace. It's worth the trip and is considered to be a national heritage site of China. It was once the imperial palace of the Tang Dynasty and you won't have to travel very far to come into contact with one of China's most famous imperial legacies.

About the Daming Palace

As with many ancient places in China this one has had a few name changes over the years. It was originally called the Yong'an Palace and then had a name change to Daming Palace a few years after it was constructed. It then became the Penglai Palace and the Hanyuan Palace in quick succession. However, those names didn't stick and in 701 the name reverted to Daming Palace for good.

There was an older Tang Palace but this fell out of favor when the court physician decided that it was too damp and too hot to live in and the retired Emperor Gaozu was instructed to make a trip to the other side of the city and build a palace there. In the end it was his son Emperor Taizong who would build the palace to make amends after falling out with his father. Sadly for China's retired emperor, he died before it was completed and his son abandoned the project.

The Empress Wu then recommenced the project after a tour from the court architect of the site revealed it to be a favorable place for a better home for her entourage. She too died before it was completed and the Emperor Gaozong would finish the work in the year 663 A.D.

The Daming Palace is a big place and if you visit it during your China vacation you'll want to take comfortable shoes for walking round it. The layout includes three great halls around a single axis and access is granted through the Danfeng Gate which consists of 5 separate doorways. The outer court is nearly 700 meters across and borders on Hanyuan Hall. It is in this hall that affairs of state would be conducted and folk would travel across China to attend diplomatic meetings within its walls.

The middle court (Xuanzheng Hall) is another 300 meters further inside the compound. It would have once been home to the administrative team that helped run the empire. It is probably where much of the real decision making of the Tang Dynasty would have taken place.

The inner court (or Zichen Hall) was the home of the central government and the imperial family and there are pools and several small halls to explore here.

The Daming Palace was only discovered back in 1957 and excavation work began in 1959. UNESCO has been involved with the conservation work for nearly 20 years and it's one of the more unusual UNESCO heritage sites that you might see during your China tour. The heritage park that showcases the Daming Palace has only been open to the public for 3 years and that means you might be one of the first Westerners to make the trip and see China's imperial heritage in all its' glory.

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Posted by: CS
Vietnamese Customs: The Importance of Family in Vietnam

Vietnam is a country that has gone through some serious trials and tribulations throughout its long, tumultuous history. With various forms of governance and colonization constantly popping up, the Vietnamese people have had to adjust accordingly to their surroundings in order to maintain a stable life. Despite the constant external changes in society, there has been one thing that has constantly held the people together: Family.

Family is undeniably the most important aspect of life for the Vietnamese people, and their entire existence revolves around it. Children grow up in their parent's house and after marrying and getting a job, assume the responsibilities of caring for their parents. Property is passed down through generations and parents have a large say in the direction of their children's lives (even after they've grown up). The youngest man traditionally remains in the family's house, providing for and taking care of both his parents and children. Reproduction and continuing the family's name is a major concern for most, and consequently, having a boy is the ultimate goal.

Even religion in Vietnam seems to revolve around this importance of family. Though there are traces of Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity found- most families practice a form of ancestral worship. In each house there is a designated section where pictures of loved ones are kept (a mother or father who's passed), on top of an altar covered in incense, fruit, lights and other offerings. During major holidays (especially Tet- the Vietnamese New Year), families gather at the ancestral altar or down at the gravesites to remember/invite the 'souls' of the deceased to come home and celebrate. Memorials are also held during set times of the year after someone in the family has passed. Weeks, months, and years after a death, families gather to celebrate both the passing (and continuation) of the person's legacy, celebrating with food, drinks and close relatives/friends.

So what does this mean for those who will travel to Vietnam? For one, the importance of family and generations is something to understand and keep in mind when visiting. The older the family member is, the more respect they should be given- and if you visit a home or restaurant, you should try and stay conscious of this point. You never touch someone on the top of their head or point the bottom of your feet at them, and (if possible) try and learn the proper terminology when addressing them: a male a bit older than you is called Anh (AHN); female- Chi (Chee); a much older male- Ong (Om); Female (Ba). Though it's not necessary to know this, it is always appreciated.

For families who are planning a trip to Vietnam, this familial importance is a huge draw. The Vietnamese love children and are extremely friendly, helpful and accommodating, especially to someone traveling with kids. You may want to pre-warn your children of a strange over-affection (there might be some cheek-pinching and playful banter), but for the most part, it's all done in good spirits. It may take some getting used to for both the parents and the kids (having a stranger want to come up and hold or squeeze your kids), but just know that the importance of family for the Vietnamese trumps everything else.

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Posted by: CS
Culture on Track: Riding the Rails Through Vietnam

The reason you travel to a new country is, of course, to see the destinations. Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue- the list is quite long for those traveling to Vietnam. Each place presents its own feel of the country, with different locals, flavors- even dialects of the language change between city limits. But during South East Asian travel, and especially in Vietnam- the means of your getting somewhere is actually a huge part of the excitement. If you've ever had (or will have) the opportunity to travel via train in Vietnam, you'll understand exactly what I'm talking about.

Whether going a short distance from Da Nang to Hue, or making the arduous journey from tip to tip, your train ride is bound to be a cultural experience within itself. From the ticket counter to the berths, you'll be kept on your toes, wondering, watching, waiting- and perhaps even awestruck as you join the Vietnamese in the exciting journey to wherever the destination may be.

If you're part of a package tour to Vietnam, the tickets for almost everything should be squared away. You get brought to the station, someone's there to help with ticketing and you're sent on your merry way. If you're left to fend for yourself, however, the experience can prove to be a bit more challenging. Pre-paid tickets from travel agents often spend time swirling through limbo, leaving you sweating on the platform waiting for some stranger to arrive at the station to hand them over to you. Local tip: Buy tickets at the station ahead of time (cheapest option), or make sure you have them in the finalized form at the travel agent (not some receipt or voucher).

When it's time to board the train, expect nothing short of chaos (but an exciting chaos, I promise). The Vietnamese are inherently opposed to standard queues, and whether you're in the international airport or the bathroom waiting line, it's bound to be the same. As you wait to board the same train as everyone else, you'd think that they're only letting a few people on. Despite having a ticket and going to an assigned car and berth, it's a mad dash to get through the ticket collection, and onto the train. Once aboard, don't be surprised if there is someone in your seat, or in some cases, 3 families in your 4-person cabin. Simply show them your ticket, and they'll understand. Local Tip: Practice patience and embrace this cultural chaos, maybe take a picture or two.

As the train gets rolling, the celebration begins (especially on overnight rides). Plastic furniture comes out of nowhere, card games begin in the middle of cabins, beer cans fizz open and cigarettes are lit unanimously. Everything is an occasion for enjoyment in Vietnam, and the Vietnamese aren't about to wait until arrival to start their holiday. Families, friends and lovers all gather in their own (and other's) berths/cars, the same way they would on the side of the street- and unless you've purchased the right cabin, you're probably going to be in the midst of the excitement. Local Tip: If you want to avoid this scene, spend the extra money and book cabins with a maximum of 4 beds. Even better, book the air-con soft berth sleepers; your sleep, comfort and sanity are worth it.

Though it takes much longer than flying, some train rides through Vietnam are absolutely stunning. The short distance from Hue to Da Nang wraps around the gorgeous Lang Co bay, with some unbeatable scenery of the mountains and ocean. If you can spare the time, riding the train through Vietnam is an unforgettable experience; in addition to the scenery, it's a condensed version of the Vietnamese culture… put on tracks. Everyone is in great spirits, there's a constant buzz of activity going on, and you never know what sort of people and experiences you'll encounter along the way.

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Posted by: CS
The Biggest Celebrity in China

Just like in America, China has its love for celebrity. A little understanding of who's who can make for some great conversations on a China vacation. So before you make your trip to China we thought it might be nice to introduce you to China's number one superstar. The good news is that unlike with many of China's most famous people – there are plenty of English language versions of his work you can enjoy before you travel. You can then enjoy talking to the locals during your tour and sharing their delight in his work.

So Who is the Biggest Celebrity in China?

Andy Lau is the best known and almost certainly best paid Chinese superstar. He's a multi-talented chap; he's well known for his canto-pop (as a singer song-writer he's best loved in Southern China), his acting and his movie direction. He clears over $20 million USD a year.

Andy's career began in 1981. He took up an apprenticeship with TVB (Television Broadcasts Limited). His first starring role was as the lead in a very popular TV series called; The Emissary. His career with TVB was a spectacular success and he would soon travel to Korea and Japan to represent China as one of the "all-stars" of Asian TV. However, when TVB tried to strong arm him into an exclusive 5 year-deal which would have required him to give up all other interests – he took a permanent vacation and decided to concentrate on a film career elsewhere in China.

Andy Lau and the Movies

His first appearance in a film was as a guest in a music video for Susanna Kwan. He would double up his TV work with some fairly ordinary performances in movies from 1981 to 1988. In 1988 he began to become better respected thanks to his performance in a serious drama called; "The Truth". This role brought him to the attention of many of China's young directors and for a while it looked like he would become typecast as a "heroic gangster" during the late 80's and early 90's. His films would tour China near endlessly for the next 10 years where he gained popularity more for his attractive looks than his talent.

In the early 2000's he began to break type and finally win some respect for his acting too. He won the Golden Bauhinia for his role in "A Fighter's Blues". Then as began to travel regularly to Hong Kong cinema he starred in "Running Out of Time" and won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor. This would enable him to win more prodigious roles – including his best known performance for Western audiences in the sequel to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" – "The House of Flying Daggers".

Andy Lau as a Singer

Andy's current career sees him make regular tours of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong as a live performer. However, he started badly and his first album "Only Know that I Still Love You" released in 1985 was scorned by critics and the public alike. In 1990 he made the breakthrough to mainstream popularity in China and for the next 17 years he would release one of the Top 10 Gold Songs of China – you'll be guaranteed to hear one of these songs during your China vacation as they're played just about everywhere in the country. Andy has also been running his own production company and won the "Asian Filmaker of the Year" award in Pusan back in 2006. His film "Made in Hong Kong" is well respected globally and has won dozens of awards.

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Posted by: CS
Traveling To Vietnam? Why You Should Bring Your Sneakers...

Culture shock: One of the biggest worries for all travelers breaking the comfort barrier. For those traveling to Asia for the first time, this concept can be a real daunting thing. You can study up, read ahead of time and try to condition yourself, but in most situations, it probably won't help. For those who have traveled/are traveling to places like India, this shock can come in quite electrifying. Fortunately, for those traveling to South East Asia, the culture shock isn't so intense.

The entire South East Asian landmass is, on a whole, quite laid back and accustomed to tourism. There aren't so many uncomfortable situations or totally foreign concepts, but there are a few things that take some getting used to. During travel to Vietnam, there a few different things to be on the lookout for. You won't have to eat with your hands (though maybe with chopsticks) or greet certain classes of people in certain ways, but you may have to adjust your daily alarm clock...

One of the strangest and trickiest aspects of adapting to the Vietnamese lifestyle is getting used to the timing. As odd as it may sound, upon visiting the country, you'll understand what this means. Most Vietnamese wake up before the sun rises to either start cooking or to get in some exercise. With no 'daylight savings', this can often mean (for some) waking up as early as 3:30-4:00 a.m. If in Ha Noi, the masses gather at Hoan Kiem Lake, if in Da Nang, it's along the ocean's edge- but guaranteed, if you wake up at some strange hour thanks to jet lag or night tremors, there's bound to be Vietnamese waking up for the day.

So how/why, you may ask, does this have an effect on you, the tourist? If you're in Ho Chi Minh City or Ha Noi, it may not be a problem. But wander into any of the small towns or countryside of Vietnam, and you're bound to encounter something strange. Anywhere between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 pm, entire towns can shut down and disappear indoors; gates close, doors lock, tarps are pulled and signs are removed. A combination between the peak heat of the day (midday can be unbearably hot in some spots of Vietnam), lunch-time, and being up since 4 am... and most Vietnamese are ready for a nap. Introduce: the Vietnamese siesta (midday rest).

This midday nap is observed all over the country, with markets, shops, cafés and restaurants closing their doors during the noon hours to re-energize and get ready for the rest of the day. For those waking up at 4 am, this is a fantastic and much needed practice. But for the tourists who wake up anywhere between 6 am and 9 am- this proves to be a bit inconvenient. Just around when most people are looking to get into their day, eat lunch, shop etc.- the Vietnamese close their doors. Even in the business world, you can find Vietnamese eating their lunch for a half hour and heading home or to a back room for a quick midday nap.

In the tourist sections of the country, this usually doesn't prove to be an issue. But for those stepping outside the big cities and major Viet-destinations, you may end up wandering through a ghost town. So instead of staying hungry and bored between the hours of11 and 2- why not mix up your schedule? For the real Vietnamese experience, change your day around, wake up incredibly early, and join the country for an early morning exercise. You'll undoubtedly get smiles of approval, and by the noon hour, you'll be ready for a nap too.

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Posted by: CS
Pilgrims and Postcards in Lhasa

When your China tour stops in Lhasa, you'll want to get the most out of every minute you spend there. Tibet's one of the most fascinating places on a China vacation itinerary and travel to China's highest province is a rare opportunity for most of us. One place you'll definitely want to see during your trip is Barkhor Street. It's where all the madness of a typical China market meets the holiness of the Tibetan pilgrimage.

Barkhor Street - True Spirituality at Work

The Barkhor Street circuit is a circular one that moves around the famous Jokhang Temple. Tibetan lore says that the very first Tibetan King (Songtsen Gampo) built the temple in order to encourage faithfulness among his people. People would travel from all over the world and China to make a sincere Buddhist pilgrimage to the temple. This caused a queue of thousands waiting to enter the temple every day. This queue would tour the circular streets of Lhasa patiently waiting for admission and over time they left a permanent trodden path in their wake. It's a path that is still visible nearly 1,500 years later. It's now one of the holiest places in all of China.

During your China vacation you will see that this pilgrimage is still as popular as ever today. Pilgrims will clutch prayer wheels (small wooden wheels filled with written prayers - enabling the pilgrim to offer up thousands or more prayers in a minute). They will then walk clockwise around Barkhor Street from sunup until sunset spinning their prayer wheels. Many of them will have made a trip across China from many thousands of miles away - most of them will have made the journey to Lhasa on foot. The most committed will lie on their faces and complete their tour by pulling their bodies along the ground.

Barkhor Street - China's Tibetan Market

Given the spiritual significance of this area you may be surprised to discover that it is also a center of commerce. Given that Tibet is still a remarkably impoverished country and that the Jokhang Temple is on every visitor's itinerary it perhaps shouldn't be so surprising. The route is lined with hundreds of shops and market stalls and it may be the best place to buy a souvenir of Tibet during your whole China vacation.

You can pick up your own prayer wheel (number of prayers by negotiation) if you'd like. Non-believers are welcome to buy these and no offence will be taken. You could go for a "chuba" which is a long-sleeved flowing robe that is the most traditional form of Tibetan dress. You can also pick up ceremonial knives but please think twice about where you pack these before you go back to the airport - no airline in the world will allow you to take them on in hand-luggage.

One really nice souvenir options is to get a "Thangka" this is a painting on a scroll and you can find representations of history, religion, literature, etc.

You can also find goods from China, India and even Nepal in the market and there's plenty for everyone on Barkhor Street.

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Posted by: CS
An Introduction to Laos
Trip to Laos : An Introduction to Laos

Laos is South East Asia's only non-coastal country, wedged in between five other better-known landmasses. It's one of the region's less explored areas, which is perhaps one of its largest draws for some travelers. Though tourism is constantly on the rise, trip to Laos tend to present a more traditional, old-world experience when compared to its neighboring countries. Armed with plenty of Kip (the local currency), it's relatively cheap to get around the country. However, having this 'old world' experience comes at a bit of a different price. Barring air travel, getting around Laos can be a cumbersome, tedious experience, with many roads left damaged or unpaved. But like all countries, depending the experience you're looking to have, there are different ways to approach this problem. Tours to Laos can accommodate both the budget and luxury minded travelers (and everyone in between), so if a 13-hour winding bus ride through the mountains doesn't sound overly appealing- there are alternate routes.

The capital of the 'People's Democratic Republic,' or Lao PDR as it often appears, is Vientiane. A city of less than one million, this sprawling green capital is a fantastic introduction to Laos, with an ease in accessibility, loads of sites to explore, and a strange mixture between French Colonialism and Buddhist culture. The capital is quite behind in the times compared to that of neighboring countries (Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Bangkok etc.), but there is a ubiquitous charm to the city, which makes both travel and stay within Vientiane quite enjoyable. In fact, the slow-paced, sleepy lifestyle that differentiates it [Vientiane] from other capitals, might just be the reason you decide to stay a bit longer.

If you're looking to move around Laos, heading south from the capital presents an even more isolated experience (as most tourists head north from Vientiane.) But there are some notable sites and destinations to be explored. Between Savannakhet, Pakse and the Champasak region, there are gorgeous French Colonial buildings tucked into quiet towns, stunning Buddhist wats and stupas dotting the areas, as well as fantastic trekking through forests and local villages.

If your travel to Laos doesn't include unlimited time however, you might be better off heading directly north from the capital.

Three main destinations are usually on the radar for most northern Laos trips, Vang Vieng, Phonsavan (Plain of Jars) and Luang Prabang. It takes a rough ride to get to the former from Vientiane- though for many the stop is well worth the discomfort. Giant rocky crags jut out of the murky river, intricate cave systems are open for exploration and famous river tubing is something that many would not dare to miss (or dare to take part in.) More unforgettable drives bring you north to the Plain of Jars and Luang Prabang (enter the flight options from Vientiane)- which can breathtaking in a few different ways...

Luang Prabang is Laos' old capital and a UNESCO World Heritage City. With a population around 50,000 however, there's not much of a city feel to it. It holds more of a countryside air, with some of SE Asia's most stunning scenery wrapped around it. Between the tranquil, Buddhist atmosphere, stunning scenery and delicious food- you may end up staying here much longer than anticipated (plan accordingly). But wherever your Laos adventures bring you, the capital's colonial streets or mesmerized by Luang Prabang's charm, you're bound to have an unforgettable, unique South East Asian experience.

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Posted by: CS
Interesting Facts about Tibet

Tibet's such a mysterious place that many people can't wait to include it on their China tour. The memories of a trip to Tibet in China can last for a lifetime. We think your China vacation will be that bit more special if you know a little about the kingdom on the roof of the world. So to help your understanding before you travel to China, here's a collection of interesting facts about Tibet:

  • The airport in Lhasa is the highest in the world and makes for a dramatic start to your China vacation in Tibet

  • Tibetans do not bury their dead nor do they cremate them. Instead they use "sky burial" a practice where the body is left out to be consumed by vultures. If you do see this on your China tour be very respectful as it is an occasion normally only witnessed by locals.

  • Tibet is one of the very few places in the world where polyandry (the habit of a woman having multiple husbands) is practiced legally and traditionally. This is to preserve land allocations within a family and typically all the husbands will be brothers or close relations.

  • It is the only place you'll visit on your China trip where they consider it lucky for a dog to leave its "business" on their front door step. In fact it is said to symbolize good luck for the whole day. So tread carefully...

  • It is traditional for those under the age of 10 or those who are not practicing Buddhists to receive a special blessing at Tibetan temples. This is normally given by a monk in the form of black ghee being rubbed onto the visitor's nose.

  • You'll see plenty of Yaks during your Tibet travel. They have been domesticated in the country for over 4,000 years. They can carry up to 50 kilos on their backs at altitudes of up to 5,000 meters. The Yak is quite comfortable in temperatures as low as minus 30 (centigrade)! They are used extensively throughout the country for food, clothing, dairy and as beasts of burden.

  • The Himalayas are the famous mountain range that makes up Tibet's Southern Border. However, there's another mighty range on the Northern Border – The Kunlun Mountains and if you were to cross them into Mainland China you'd find Xinjiang.

  • It may be a long way from home but it is said that the Tibetan people are most similar to Native Americans in terms of their physique. You should also be able to catch another area of striking similarity between the two peoples on your China vacation – their dance. Dance rituals are used to display emotion or tell folk tales.

  • At some point during your China tour of Tibet you are likely to find that you are greeted by a local and have a scarf placed around your neck. This scarf is called, the Kata, and is a traditional gift for visitors though it may also be used to congratulate actors or musical performers on a job well done.

  • Tibetan writing bears no similarity to Mandarin Chinese. It has its roots in India and is in fact a form of Hindu script. The spoken language on the other hand is very similar to Burmese.

  • The word for "Tibet" in the local language is "Bod".

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Posted by: CS
An Introduction to Thailand

Thailand has long since been one of the world's favorite travel destinations. Tucked into the heart of South East Asia with a long, coastal tail- there are breathtaking sandy beaches when you want them, and mountainous climes when you don't. From tip to tip, Thailand holds one of Asia's most appealing cultures, boasting some of the world's friendliest people, tastiest food, and most interesting destinations. Of course, Thailand wouldn't be the same without its multi-faceted capital, Bangkok, fueling the life force of this ever-enchanting South East Asian country. So get ready to travel to Thailand and experience South East Asia at its finest: easy to access, cheap to explore and endless in its possibilities.

The beginning of almost all trips to Thailand start at the main hub. Bangkok is the central nerve of this culturally rich country, with so many different faces that it takes weeks of intensive travel to get to know her well. With over 8 million people calling the city home, it can come across as a bit daunting at first. But thanks to some serious facelifts in the past few decades, Bangkok has become a modern, easy to explore, relatively safe starting point for all South East Asian travel. With high-speed metros and ‘sky-trains' wrapping around the city, and as many shopping malls and skyscrapers as wats and temples- you can experience modern Asia at one stop and traditional Thailand at the next. From the wonders of the Royal Palace to the dregs of the backpacker's district- there are literally endless experiences and places to visit in this capital city.

But travel to Thailand shouldn't only be restricted to visiting this modern metropolis. The country boasts a huge number of other great destinations, both north and south of the capital. Head towards the bottom of Thailand and you'll encounter some of the world's most famous beaches. You can choose between endless partying and five star resorts, or basic bungalows tucked into nearly deserted strips of paradise- all open for you to explore. On the other side of the spectrum, head north of Bangkok for mountainous landscapes, jungle trekking and night safaris.

Both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in Thailand's northern province present an entirely different experience of the country. Chiang Mai, considered the cultural capital of the north, is a laid back city with down to earth locals, great food, shopping, and the stunning Wat Doi Suthep overlooking it all. Head a bit further north to Chiang Rai and you find unspoiled mountains ripe for trekking, worlds away from Bangkok's madness and the south's beach scene. But what makes traveling Thailand so special is getting out and exploring the lesser parts of the country. Friendly towns and smiling locals dot the routes and rails from Chiang Rai to Phuket, with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, awe-inspiring Buddhist temples and endless memories tucked everywhere in between. Thailand is truly a traveler's dream, and the perfect introduction for all South East Asian trips.

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Posted by: CS
A Crash Course in Vietnamese Cuisine:
Com Binh Dan

When traveling through South East Asia, there's always a plethora of new experiences to be had. Whether it's encountering a new World Heritage Site, touring an exotic, foreign landscape or even immersing oneself into a new culture- the travel is rich, diverse and constantly rewarding. Out of all the experiences to be had, one of the recurring highlights of traveling to a new country always seems to revolve around their cuisine. In travel to Vietnam, this is most certainly the case.

Regardless of where you are in the country, you're bound to bump into some delicious plates, some not-so tasty options, and even a few selections that may make you squirm. But overall, the dining experience in Vietnam is one of the best in South East Asia. Considered some of the freshest and healthiest food in the world, Vietnamese cuisine revolves around hard work, time consuming processes and only the freshest ingredients. Hours are spent every day preparing meals, between early morning market runs (daily), pounding, slicing, dicing and chopping all the intricate ingredients, and mixing them together in a traditional style that's been observed for as long as the Vietnamese can remember.

Try any of the specialty dishes from north to south, and you're guaranteed to taste the freshness and history behind each bowl (or plate). Meals are light but filling, usually revolving around a rice or noodle base with some form of meat or seafood tucked inside (though generally sparse). Meals such as pho, bun and banh mi are some of the staple names on the street, but if you really want to taste what the Vietnamese are capable of, keep your eyes on the lookout for Com Binh Dan (pronounced Come Bin Yahn in the central and south regions, and Com Bin Zahn in the north).

A popular dish for both lunch and dinner, Com Binh Dan stalls line the streets of Vietnam from one end of the country to the other, serving up what some label ‘daily workers food'. For around 20-30.000 Vietnamese Dong (USD $1-1.50), you can order up anything behind the glass window- within the agreed price range, of course. Based off a heaping plate of steamed rice, you can order anything from chicken, pork, shrimp, squid, beef and fish, with scores of vegetable dishes on the side (fried morning glory, peppers and broccoli, bamboo shoots, assorted vegetables, etc.) All heaped on top of the mound of steamed rice, it will be accompanied by a hot soup, dish of fish/chili sauce, and some local tea. So for the equivalent of $1.50, you've just ordered up what in some countries would cost you 15 dollars.

Com Binh Dan is the perfect introduction to Vietnamese food, first of all, because it is so cheap. You have the ability to try different things without breaking the bank, and can always go back for something different (or seconds). Next, there's no other food option in Vietnam where you can literally look at all the dishes, point out the ones you like, and avoid the ones that look a bit dodgy. You have free reign over what you'd like to try, and you don't even need to know the name beforehand (just point!). Of course, it's the perfect way to learn about Vietnamese cuisine, once you know what you do and don't like, you can remember the name and keep on the lookout. Finally, Com Binh Dan is set up to cater to the working Vietnamese person; the food on display is what most Vietnamese eat together (or individually) every day. It's as local as it gets, serving up traditional Vietnamese cuisine, without the tourist flare. So if you want to know what real Vietnamese food tastes like, now you know what to look for.

As for all street food, one of the biggest rules of thumb in Vietnam (and South East Asia) is go where the crowds are. This almost guarantees the food is fresh, safe, and delicious. Don't let the presence of locals or the idea of unrefrigerated food put you off- you're in Vietnam (finally), and the best experience to have is total immersion. So dive right in, order up those funky plates behind the Com Binh Dan stand, and fit in just like a local.

A tip? Agree beforehand how much you want to spend to avoid a post-meal overcharge. You can't argue what's already in your stomach!

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Posted by: CS
What to eat in Guilin

One of the best things about a China vacation is the amount of new food you'll be exposed to. A China tour ensures that you get to try something from every school of cookery in the country, from Sichuan to Cantonese and Beijing to Hunan – there's something for everyone. When you travel to Guilin, you'll find that all of China's food cultures come together to create an interesting fusion to delight the palate. Guilin is one of China's most beautiful cities and a trip to its restaurants can be made all the better if you know what to watch out for on the menu so you can try all the local specialties.

Street Vendors and Snack Food

As you tour the streets of Guilin you'll find hundreds of small vendors operating from carts on the road side. Our advice is not to be afraid of trying China's street cuisine but make sure you choose a vendor who is popular with the locals. That's the best indication that the food is safe to eat and that you won't be interrupting your China vacation by dashing to the toilet after you've eaten. These vendors dispense snack food at an extraordinary rate and you'll want to keep an eye out for the local rice noodles (better known as "mifen"), the chestnut flavored rice dumplings and several varieties of duck including stewed with ginko, wrapped in lotus leaves and stewed with ginger. The locals believe that Guilin duck is good for problems with your lungs but we can't confirm if there's any truth in that.

At the Restaurant

Watch out for taro pork during your travel in Guilin. This brings together locally preserved bean curds with cubes of taro and pork which are then blended skillfully with diced vegetables. This dish is a firm favorite with those who subscribe to China's traditional medicine because it is believed to cut down on inflammation of any kind as well as eliminating acne.

You also want to keep your eyes peeled for a mixed chicken and clam dish. This is prepared over hours gently stewing in pot and the flavors of the meat and seafood are blended with ham, longan and vegetables to produce a gentle, delicate flavor that often becomes a firm China vacation favorite with those who can find it.

Then there's the Lo Han Chicken which is a boiled dish where the chicken is combined with many local herbs to provide a clean, fresh broth that is also rumored to lower your blood pressure. It's uite delicious.

For something a little more unusual keep your eye out for "meat floss" which is a strange, very finely shredded offering served with sweet osmanthus. You'll probably want a decent glass of wine to combat the heady scent of the dish.

If you'd prefer to stick to the seafood then the "sour fried and dried fish" is perhaps the best option on the menu. You won't find anything like it elsewhere on your China tour. The fish is left to dry in the sun after it has been slowly smoked over a mixture of fruit peel. It is then stir-fried with bamboo shoots and a dash of local wine and pepper. It is then served with as many spicy side dishes as possible including many that rely heavily on the garlic – so be warned.

Guilin's a great place to include in your China trip and eating out can be a wonderful experience here. Make sure you get to enjoy all the local delicacies!

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Posted by: CS
Twelve Fun Facts about China

Before you head off on your China vacation we thought we’d share a few interesting facts about the country as a whole. We think it’s nice to have a few piece of cool trivia to tell your friends as you get ready for your China tour. China travel is one of the most exciting things most of us get to do in our lifetimes and it’s really great to bring your friends and family into the experience with a bit of fun knowledge.

  • We’ve often been asked where the name "China" comes from during our tours. The truth is that nobody knows but the best guess is that it comes from the Qin Dynasty which was the first dynasty to unify the whole country under a single imperial rule.

  • Chinese civilization is said to be the oldest continuous civilization in history. You could travel back as far as 6,000 B.C. to find early China being formed. That also means that Mandarin Chinese is the longest used written language of any nation too.

  • China is a big place. In fact only the U.S.A., Russia and Canada are bigger. Your vacation can only take in a tiny slice of the 3.8 million square miles of the mainland.

  • One thing you’ll be relieved to find in China is toilet paper. It was invented here back in the 1300’s but back then you wouldn’t have found it on your travels because it was only permitted for Imperial use.

  • The most popular sport in China is Ping-Pong and the Chinese have long dominated the international scene but strangely it’s not a Chinese sport. It was actually invented in the UK and was introduced to the mainland relatively recently.

  • The three gorges dam which you might encounter on a Yangtze River cruise is the largest dam in the world.

  • If you enjoy pork as part of your dinner then you’ll never run short during your China tour. That’s because the country is home to more than half of the world’s pigs.

  • You’ll probably never run short of goat either (though it’s not all that common to find it on the dining table in major cities) because China is home to over 170 million goats making it the largest producer of goat meat in the world too.

  • If you think everyone back home is addicted to the internet just wait until your China vacation; there are more broadband users in China than there are anywhere else in the world. This means that there are plenty of free wi-fi connections in every big city.

  • On a slightly less pleasant note it’s been calculated that the Chinese smoke 1 in every 3 cigarettes consumed around the globe too.
  • China is considered to be responsible for four of the greatest inventions of all time. The compass, writing paper, printing and gun powder.

  • The Chinese were the first people to adopt the decimal system – approximately 2,000 years before their peers in Europe. Interestingly they were also the first people to recognize the concept of zero.

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Posted by: CS
Traditional Chinese Dancing

When you take your China vacation you’ll get to see many different aspects of life in China. Your tour will take you throughout the most populous nation on earth and you’ll be able to enjoy the local culture. One thing many people enjoy during their China travel is traditional dancing. It’s nice to take a trip to see some of the locals getting together and having a good time wherever you are in China. We’ve put together a quick guide to some of the most popular dances in China so you can keep an eye out for them.

Dragon and Lion Dancing

Though both dragon and lion dancing are associated with Chinese New Year, the good news is that your China tour won’t have to coincide with the Spring Festival to catch a performance. Because both types of dance are associated with luck and power, they can be found at opening ceremonies and major events anywhere in China at any time of the year. You should ask your guide or in your hotel where you might travel to enjoy this.

Dragon dancing involves athletes with either a dragon costume or a dragon mounted on poles performing daring feats of acrobatics whilst keeping the dragon in motion. Up to 50 athletes may be involved in moving a single dragon. There are even competitive events when many dragons appear at once.

Lion dancing involves either 2 or 4 athletes in costume and if you though dragon dancing was impressive then a trip to see China’s favorite dance will blow your mind. The lion will normally perform on a series of strategically placed vertical poles and the acrobatics are simply amazing. We’ve found that lion dancing is often the cultural highlight of a China vacation for many travelers.

Ethnic Dances

There are over 50 ethnic minorities in China and during your trip you’ll meet many of them. Each minority has its own special dance and you’ll find that these dances are performed throughout the year in many places. Though it’s worth noting that some are only performed at particular festivals (which may not match the official Chinese festival calendar) so if there’s something you really want to see you’ll need to plan your China vacation carefully.

Or you could just cheat and go and watch the China National Ethnic Song and Dance Ensemble in Beijing during your China tour. This troupe consists of members of 36 different minority groups and performs over 100 times each year in the capital city.

Imperial Court Dancing

In Xi’an, one of the destinations on many tours of China, there’s a show dedicated to the Tang Dynasty period’s songs and dancing. The Nishang Yuyi (literally “The song of enduring sorrows”) was created back in the 7th century and is very popular with audiences from everywhere. It is about an Emperor who visits the moon in his dreams and dances in the skies. When he awakens he tells his concubine about it and she does everything she can to recreate the dance on earth. The feathery costumes are extremely ornate in this performance.

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Posted by: CS
The Double Seventh (Qixi) Festival in China

If the rapid industrialization of China makes you think that the Chinese have lost their sense of romance during your China tour – the Double Seventh might help convince you otherwise. If your China vacation coincides with the 13th of August, 2013 then you might find a lot of love in the air. You see whilst the 14th of February has survived the travel to China and been adopted with a certain amount of enthusiasm, the real Valentine's Day comes during the Qixi festival. It's the day when young (and not so young) lovers trip the light fantastic and show their affection throughout the nation.

About the Double Seventh

The festival is the "double seventh" because it falls on the 7th day of the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Being a lunar calendar the date of the holiday is somewhat flexible compared to the standard Western calendar so if you really want to be involved in Qixi check the dates of your China vacation carefully.

As with Valentine's days throughout the world it's women and girls who are key to this festival and whilst men have their part to play – the ladies are the ones who are supposed to feel special for it.

The Legend of the Qixi Festival

The double seventh is a celebration of a mythical Chinese love story. A young man, Niu Lang, was a good strong-hearted and kind fellow who made his living as a Chinese cowboy. Despite his warm nature he was regularly abused by his brothers at home. In the end their abuse drove him from his home and his life and he was forced to travel China doing odd jobs on farms.

Then one day as he passed through a particularly rough part of China he met an old man (who was in fact an angel in disguise) who asked him to take care of his sick cattle. When Niu Lang agreed he was taken on a trip to heaven. He took his duties seriously and under his loving care the cows recovered.

During this time he fell in love with a fairy Zhi Nu and when he Niu Lang made the trip back down to China she followed him. They founded their own farm, got married, and had children. But as with many folk tales their happy ending was only temporary. The God of Heaven found out about his fairy's defection to the mortal plane and ordered her to return. The Queen Mother of the Western Heavens went to earth and snatched Zhi Nu. Niu Lang called upon the celestial cattle and they took him for another tour of China's celestial realm. He nearly caught up with his bride but the Queen Mother cast a spell separating the two by a magic river. The lovers were left to weep on either side of the river forever.

However, their love wasn't unnoticed and the magpies of heaven were so impressed by the lovers that they came to build a bridge of magpies once a year on the 7th of the 7th.

Qixi Customs

If you're passing through rural China during your vacation then you may say the weaving and sewing competitions between young women on this day. In the evenings they make offerings to the Niu Lang of exquisite fruits. There may also be a story-telling recounting the tale of Zhi Niu and Niu Lang.

In the cities things tend to be rather simpler. If you're wondering what to buy your valentine during your China tour; flowers, chocolates and perfume have all become a firm favorite of China's urban population.

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Posted by: CS
Interesting Facts about the Yangtze River

A Yangtze River Cruise is a great part of many vacations in China and we've found that many people would like to know a little more before they begin their China tour. So to help you get up to speed with the Yangtze and all it has to offer before you travel to China we've got a whole host of interesting facts about the river to share with you.

Interesting Facts about the Yangtze River

  • Your Yangtze River Cruise can only take in a tiny fraction of the whole river as it's nearly 4,000 miles long. The good news is that the part we've chosen for your China tour package is the most exciting visually and geographically.

  • A trip down the Yangtze means travelling on the third largest river in the world. It's also the largest in Asia. Only the Amazon and the Nile are longer.

  • The real name of the Yangtze is the Chang Chiang River. Originally the word Yangtze was only used to refer to the part of the river that cut through the fiefdom of Yang one of China's old feudal territories. However, a misunderstanding by a visiting British missionary led to the wide-scale adoption of the name Yangtze.

  • There are more than 700 tributaries that travel from all over China to terminate in the Yangtze. It would take dozens of years to traverse them all. You certainly won't have time to visit them during your China vacation.

  • You may see many different types of wildlife during your Yangtze River Cruise though it's unlikely that you'll see the Chinese Alligator, the Yangtze Dolphin, the Yangtze Finless Porpoise or the Paddlefish as they're all critically endangered.

  • The water of the Yangtze is not blue. It's more of a deep brown color. While some of this can probably be attributed to pollution this is the natural color of the river as it churns up the mud flats below the surface.

  • The Yangtze's total river water network covers around 700,000 square miles of land that's nearly 19% of the whole of China. The vast majority of this network can be found in the drainage basin.

  • Today there are over 50 bridges across the Yangtze River. However, they're all very new and they were all built in the years following 1957. That was the year that the Wuhan Yangtze Bridge was constructed and became the very first ever bridge over the river. Up to that time the only way across the river was by ferry.

  • The last time the riverbed became visible because of drought conditions in China was January 13th, 1954. Previous to that you'd have had to go back to 1342 to find an occasion when you could see the bottom of the Yangtze.

  • More than 50% of the nation's food supply depends on water from the Yangtze. 70% of the crops grown along the banks are rice crops.

  • Despite beginning in the icy peaks of the Himalayas the Yangtze has never iced over.

  • The Yangtze passes through 11 provinces on its way to the sea.

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