Posted by: CS
Living life like a snail – Chinese style homes

We find that many people planning their China vacation want to know what life is like for Chinese people in China. Truthfully, it's unlikely that you'll spend much time in Chinese homes during your China tour. Like everywhere else in the world people generally want to get to know you before asking you to travel to their homes and the busy itinerary for a good China trip doesn't lend itself to that. So today we thought we'd take a look at the latest trend in Chinese housing.

Small and Possibly Not so Comfortable

You may have heard a lot about China becoming "the richest nation in the world” and whilst it's true that China's economy is in the process of becoming the world's largest – it's not entirely true that it makes China the richest nation in the world. As you'll see during your trip many Chinese people are still relatively poor in comparison to their Western counterparts. This is a fact of population size (there are 1.3 billion Chinese people sharing the wealth compared to only 300 million or so sharing America's wealth).

This means that many Chinese people never get to take a vacation apart from returning home during the Spring Festival and many more are struggling to get a foot on the property ladder.

In much of China the ordinary person has been completely priced out of the housing market. This can be confusing to visitors because if you travel round Beijing and Shanghai you'll notice that many new properties are completely vacant. That's because property has become an alternative to bank accounts for many of China's mega-rich. It's not even economic for these investments to be rented out – so they remain empty.

In the city of Xi'an they've decided to do something about this. You could, if you wanted, visit the latest fad in Chinese housing during your China tour but we'd recommend the terracotta warriors as a better option. For the truth is these may be the smallest homes of anywhere in the world. Each apartment is only 15 square meters in size. That's even smaller than the smallest apartments in Hong Kong (another China vacation destination) where space is at a critical premium. What makes them appealing to the locals though is the extremely low cost of ownership. They are only 120,000 RMB each (approx. $20,000 USD). There's a 50,000 RMB down payment required and the mortgage is likely to be 700 RMB (just over $100) a month

Believe it or not the demonstration version of these homes show each one fitted with a bathroom, a clothes closet, a desk, a double bed and a wardrobe – so they aren't totally unsuitable for single life in the big city. The rooms in your China tour hotel rooms are likely to be much bigger than these apartments though.

The Chinese media has already bestowed an affectionate nickname on these kinds of apartment and the term has already stuck in the minds of the Chinese public; "Snail homes".

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Posted by: CS
Five Great Parks in Beijing

A China vacation takes in an enormous number of sights and places in a short period of time. If you fancy a break from the hectic pace of a China tour why not get out and travel to one of the nicest places to be in China; a park? A trip to a park gives you a chance to connect with the real lives of China's people and to see many traditional Chinese pastimes in practice. You'll find music, singing, dancing, tai chi, kite flying and much more in almost all Chinese parks.

Our Recommendations for Five Great Parks in Beijing

Old Summer Palace
This park can be found at Yuan Ming Yuan subway station on Line 4. It's actually a set of 3 parks which were designed to serve the Summer Palace. The Palace itself is now sadly gone – it was destroyed once in 1860 by the British and then again in 1900 by a military tour of 8 allied nations which ransacked China.

However, there's still plenty to see in the park. Watch out for the zodiac water clock which is in the nearby Poly Art Museum. Otherwise just take a casual trip around the fountains, European style ruins, the maze (a hedge based labyrinth) and grab a picnic in the gardens. If you're feeling like doing something more strenuous then take a boat out on the lake. This park really is one of China's hidden gems.

Zhongshan Park
You might be surprised to find a park on the side of Tiananmen Square but it's a great place to escape the tour groups and grab a little tranquility in the most hectic location in China. There are some cool ruins of an ancient temple to be found. If you're lucky you may also find members of the Beijing Choral team singing their hearts out to classical music.

The Grand View Garden
This is one of China's most famous parks. You'll have to travel out by taxi to see it but it's worth the trip to Xuanwu District. It's a replica of a park that was described in one of China's four classic novels - "Dream of Red Mansions". It has pavilions, a beautiful scenic lake and a wonderful zig-zagging bridge network to take in. It also featured in the smash Chinese TV hit based on the book. It's truly lovely and a great place to see for something different on a China vacation.

Ri Tan Park
Jump on the subway and take Line 2 to Jianguamen and find one of China's oldest parks. Ri Tan which means the Temple of the Sun was originally built to display an altar for sacrificial rites. It's ringed with lovely restaurants and is very popular with the lcoals.

Di Tan Park
Also on Line 2 though this time at Yonghegong there's a park for the Temple of the Earth; it's built in a square format to represent the earth. Once again this park was originally designed for sacrifices but today it's a popular meeting spot for the elderly. There's a fantastic temple fair to be found here most days.

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Posted by: CS
The Qin Dynasty

Today we continue our tour of the imperial heritage of China. We've found that it helps travelers to enjoy their China trip when they have a better idea of Chinese history. This time we'll be looking at the Qin Dynasty who gave China its name. They were also the first truly Imperial Chinese dynasty and you'll see plenty of artifacts on your China vacation from this period in history. So why not take 5 minutes before your China travel and discover the Qin?

The Qin Dynasty

The Qin (or Chin) took their name from the Qin State which would have spread over about ½ of what is modern China. As with many dynasties they came to power through conquest and the leadership crushed 6 other states to bring them under a single ruler.

Feizi was the first Qin ruler and he was given the rule of Qin City back in the 9th century B.C. Today there's nothing left of the Qin City and there's a modern city called Tianshui on the site. It would be nearly 300 years before the Qin State began its first military tour of operations in China. However, the local tribes put up a strong fight and it took until the 4th century B.C. before the Qin established themselves as the true local power.

The greatest Qin statesman was Lord Shang Yang. His military victories came at the price of abandoning the tradition of honorable fighting that had been traditional in China until that time. This tradition resulted in military leaders waiting until their opponents were ready for them instead of attacking at the point of greatest advantage. Lord Yang's troops would not cede the advantage and his victories would travel the length and breadth of ancient China because of it.

However, Lord Yang's head was given a permanent vacation from his body for upsetting a Qin King and it wouldn't be until 221 BC that King Zheng of the Qin finally conquered the whole Qin state. 7 years later the Qin attempted to conquer Southern China but this was a disaster. 500,000 would travel south but over 100,000 were slaughtered when they failed to adapt to the guerilla warfare that was used in the South. However, the loss enabled the Qin to develop water borne infrastructure which would allow them to conquer during a second campaign a few years later.

The Qin could not hold onto power though. Their push into Mongolia was a disaster. Their troops could not gain sufficient purchase to conquer the Northern States. Then the inept Qin Er Shi came to power. He wasted the treasury, increased taxes, and punished messengers who delivered messages he didn't want to hear. The dynasty would trip and fall soon after and it may not come as a surprise that this ridiculous behavior led to civil uprising all over China.

By 202 B.C. the Qin capital had been destroyed, numerous uprisings had been put down and the Qin state was fatally weakened and deeply unpopular. This set the stage for the rise of the Han Dynasty – the imperial lineage that would lend its name to the people of China. When you encounter the Qin during your China vacation you may want to think of a people who spent hundreds of years to gain their objectives and then squandered it in a small handful of years.

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Posted by: CS
Jackie Chan – Chinese Superstar

If your China tour is taking in Hong Kong then you can take a walk down the Avenue of Stars and stand in the footprints of Jackie Chan. In fact the Avenue of Stars allows you to take a pleasant stroll along the harbor on your China vacation and stand in the footprints of a lot of Chinese film stars though you may not have heard of many of them. However, Jackie Chan is someone you are bound to have heard of before your China trip though you may not be aware of how influential he is in Chinese society. So before you travel to China – here's a quick guide to Jackie Chan.

His Early Life

Jackie Chan – Chinese Superstar

Jackie Chan's parents had to travel from mainland China to Hong Kong as refugees from the civil war. He did much of his growing up at the French Embassy in Victoria Peak as his parents worked there. In 1960 he began to study at the China Drama Academy where he would learn the Beijing Opera style as well as martial arts.

His first film role came at the age of 5 and his first starring role was in 1962 when he was only 8. When he turned 17 he began work as a stuntman for the Bruce Lee movies. Two years later he would make the only movie in which he does not carry out an action sequence; All in the Family – it is also famous for being his first nude appearance on screen (the other is in a nearly unknown work called The Shinjuku Incident).

His Acting Career

Jackie Chan made the trip from China to Hollywood in the 1980's and there he became a popular (if minor) star of action comedies. He would give up on Hollywood in the quest for Eastern superstardom in 1985 and began to make a series of lucrative martial arts movies in Hong Kong. During this period he broke the record for the most takes for a single scene in a movie – one that's likely to stand for a long time as it took 2900 attempts to get it right. He must have needed a vacation after that!

In the late 80s he returned to Hollywood from China again and this time he became a bigger success. Though he didn't achieve a blockbuster as a leading man until the 1998 comedy Rush Hour. His final action movie was the Karate Kid remake in 2011. He said that he was tired of action films and that he needed to begin looking after himself properly.


Every time you see Jackie Chan trip down some stairs or fall off a building – there's a good chance that he really did that. He is famous, not just in China but globally, for having performed almost all of his own stunts and holds the World Record for the most stunts performed by a living actor. This isn't without consequence – he has broken almost every bone in his body performing these stunts.


If you'd take a vacation in China during the mid-2000's you might have been surprised to discover Jackie Chan providing the voice over for his own animated TV series. He's also done some work as a judge on a show to find his own successor for action and stunt work.


If you're lucky then you'll hear some of Jackie's music on your China tour. He's released over 20 records and as a trained opera star – he's not bad at all. He even sung at the Beijing Olympics.

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Posted by: CS
Great Museums in Shanghai

Shanghai offers a world of opportunities for sightseeing on your China vacation. It's possibly the world's largest city and that gives you a chance to travel around and see something unique during your China tour. There's more to China than many people discover and today we'll help you prepare for your China trip with a whistle stop tour of some of Shanghai's less well known sights.

The Matchbox and Brand Museum

In Changfeng Park you'll find a couple of museums and the better of the two is the Matchbox and Brand Museum. This is a wonderful place to while away a few hours on your China vacation. It's a celebration of Shanghai's business history. Here you'll find Chinese advertising and marketing material from through the ages. One of the most intriguing parts of the exhibit is the enormous collection of vintage matchboxes. These are from all over the world and if you're going to make the trip to the museum you'll want to save them to last as they are absolutely spectacular. Don't forget to take a photo of the exterior of the building either – in true China style one of the walls is designed to represent a giant matchbox.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum

This museum in the heart of the Hongkou District is a lasting testament to China's contribution to World War 2. You may not know it but over 25,000 Jews made the perilous trip from Nazi-Germany to safe haven in Shanghai. This museum tells their story. It is, as you might expect, a shocking story so be prepared. The area around the museum is also worth a break in your China tour and the street next to the museum is a great place to find locals enjoying a wide variety of sports in the streets of Shanghai.

The Imperial Examination System Museum

If you're thinking – I'm not taking time out from my China vacation to spend it looking at examinations; we understand and the museum is a difficult one to make sense of at times given the minimal English language displays. Though the Imperial examination system was once the envy of the world; it's not enough by itself to take a tour over to Jiading District. There are some cool displays of waxworks too. The best reason to visit is that museum is in fact in an old Confucian temple and the grounds are wonderful.

The Gallery of Antique Music Boxes

There's something quite lovely about ancient music boxes. The craftsmanship is a wonder to behold and they can be genuinely delightful in their appearance. Don't bother waiting to join a free tour – they're in Mandarin only. Just head straight inside and enjoy the show. Inside you'll find the world's oldest example of a music box. When you've finished enjoying the spectacle hang around and wait for one of the tours to finish – you can then enjoy a demonstration from one of China's moving sketch artists – which shows how these boxes are developed, it's quite an extraordinary display and one you're unlikely to witness anywhere else.

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Posted by: CS
Vietnam Travel: The Northern Experience- Sapa

One of the most unique experiences during all trips to Vietnam is heading north to Sapa. From the train ride up to the stay in the mountains, it's an experience unlike any other in the country. Unless you charter a private helicopter (not possible), you will either have to bus or train up to the Lao Cai Station, which then takes you up to the hillside town. Even the train ride north is an experience in itself- if you choose the more expensive options, you may just enjoy a nice rest. If you choose the 6 sleeper bunks though, you'll be in for a real treat. Loads of Vietnamese are also heading north for their vacation, and they start the celebrating right on the train. Beers fizz, cigarettes fill the air like incense and families gather in every fire-hazard zone possible. If you want the real local experience, pick the cheap seats- if you want the more relaxed and rejuvenating ride, spend the extra money.

Once in Lao Cai, you'll be picked up either by your pre-booked hotel shuttle or you can just hop one of the vans sitting in the parking lot. Tip: If you don't want to sit waiting for 1-2 hours for a van to fill up, book your ride up to Sapa ahead of time- usually included in a higher rate hotel. Another couple hour switchback ride from the train station takes you up into the mountains, where the temperature starts cooling, the scenery gets more beautiful and the air gets cleaner. It's a scenic ride from the station to the top, which peaks in beauty once you get into Sapa itself.

The entire hill town is surrounded by gorgeous peaking mountains, green scenery and tall, waving bamboo trees- a scene unlike any other in the country. The population is mostly made up of ‘hill-tribe people', which are indigenous minority groups that have lived in the area for centuries. Each tribe has different languages or dialects, so a journey up here is exotic even for local Vietnamese. The arts, buildings and set up of the towns are entirely different than in the rest of the country, and everything about the experience is fresh and new. Activities in town usually revolve around meeting and working with the minority groups or hiking through the beautiful surrounding areas of the hills. Giant mountain faces are carved with tiered rice paddies (one of the famous images of Sapa), which make for some unbelievable hiking as well as great photographs. A trip to Sapa just wouldn't be complete without these mountain hikes and rice paddy experiences.

If you're looking for some shopping in Sapa, the main central area is filled with markets, vendors and local artisans. From bags and clothes being fashioned right before your eyes to local food and designer name rip-offs being sold at extremely fair prices, you should set aside some time during your Sapa stay to tour the main strip. For the rest of your stay, you can enjoy wandering the hills, eating in the delicious mountainside restaurants and relaxing in your cool climate hotel. All accommodation is available, from budget backpacker hotels to beautiful eco-friendly lodges overlooking the valleys below- all depending on what you want to pay. If you can afford the splurge, a higher end accommodation just might make your Sapa experience all the better. Whatever experience you're after, it's guaranteed to be a special one during your travel to Vietnam.

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Posted by: CS
Why you should visit China now

It's a funny world but one constant in it is procrastination. We're all good at putting off until tomorrow what we should have done today. The same can be true for vacations and if you've been thinking about booking a China tour but haven't got round to it; we've got some very good reasons you should book your trip to China today. Travel in China is an extremely exciting experience and it would be a shame if you didn't make the most of China while it's still easy to do so.

Reasons to Visit China Today

  • It will be more expensive tomorrow. If the Chinese RMB ever gets revalued to the level that the world wants it to be revalued to – your China vacation would be twice as expensive. Today there are 6 RMB to the US Dollar there would only be 3 RMB to the US Dollar after revaluation. Inflation is also a real concern on the mainland and that eats into the amount you can buy for the same money.
  • It will be more crowded tomorrow. This might seem like a contradiction in terms when you know that China's population is actually gradually shrinking but the truth is that most people visit Chinese cities and China is going through a rapid program of urbanization. If you'd like to enjoy your tour with the minimum of crowds – you really need to get moving before China does.
  • There will be less to see tomorrow. Unfortunately as with many developing nations sometimes history takes a back seat to progress. Many Chinese historical sites are under threat from vandalism, theft and plain neglect. By taking your trip to China as early as you can – you get to see more than those who will travel after you.
  • There will be less native culture tomorrow. While there's no threat to the overall Chinese culture and the Chinese are fiercely independent and proud of their identity – the multi-nationals are gradually making their mark on Chinese cities. If you travel round China today you'll start to see the globalization of high streets already and if you leave it too late – there'll be much less of a Chinese feel to the cities you visit.
  • There might be more pollution tomorrow in big cities. China is making real inroads in green technology but these technologies are not yet powerful enough to counter the mass migration of people into the cities. The longer you leave your China tour the more polluted those cities will become in the short-term.
  • There may be less choice of food. China's food culture is unique. However, as the Chinese people get richer many of the delicacies which stem from the hard times of the past may disappear. That means you'll lose out on the opportunity to try authentic Chinese delicacies during your travel.
  • Some of the quirkiness will disappear. As globalization and Chinese business influence becomes stronger many of the strange quirks of China will disappear. That will mean no more accidentally amusing t-shirt slogans and funny Chinglish signs. These are the little things that add real charm to a visit to the country.

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Posted by: CS
Vietnam Culture: A Culture of Bargaining

If you're planning a tour to Vietnam, then chances are you're going to spend a good amount of time in the markets. From the knock-off brands of Saigon to the world's greatest tailors in Hoi An- everywhere you go, and almost everything you buy, can be bargained for. Vietnam is a culture of haggling, whether it's a pair of socks or a glass of fresh beer- and chances are if you're a foreigner, you aren't going to be given the “best price” right away (even though they may say it is). Of course you want to be given a good price, but at the same time you don't want to offend the local vendor who is trying to make a buck. What to do?

A general rule of thumb when shopping anywhere in Vietnam- except a name brand store (supermarket, designer store etc.) is that you have room to negotiate. Some buyers want to base their price off what an item would sell for at home, but generally this is quite far off. It's not that the item is extremely cheap in Vietnam, but more so the fact that it's extremely over-priced and expensive at home (ever wonder why an easily grown herb costs 4 dollars a bundle?) So when you're trying to figure out what the price of something costs, use your best judgment, or at least what you'd like to get the item for. Depending on the destination, the prices will fluctuate a large amount- the more touristic the place, the higher the starting prices will be. For example, if you're buying a Banh Mi sandwich in Hoi An's Old Town, chances are you may be charged 30.000+ VND (1.50$ US). If you buy the sandwich on a side street in Da Nang city, you could get it for as low as the actual price (7.000 VND).

If you are shopping in a touristic spot, a good place to start the haggling is (at least) half. If someone says a t-shirt costs 100.000 VND in Saigon's Ben Thanh Market, you should comfortable and confidently say, ‘How about 50.000?' No matter what the act the vendor plays, try and hold your ground (without being rude and overbearing). The bargaining should be fun, almost like you're playing a game with the seller; as soon as you get angry or pushy, it ruins the shopping experience. The more practice you get and the more comfortable you get bartering with the locals, the better chance you have of getting a better price. If you happen to know some Vietnamese (learning the numbers is your best bet), then you'll really have a good chance in getting a better price. Depending on where you are and how prevalent the items you'd like to buy are- it's best to go around and ask the vendors first what they're selling the pieces for. The lowest sale you can get should be the basis for what you'll start your bargaining at.

Of course it's difficult to bargain with vendors if you absolutely have no idea what the prices are (or if they aren't budging in their starting price). Here are some of the prices that you should be paying for everyday items:

A Can of Coca-Cola: 10.000 VND
A Tourist T-Shirt in Saigon's Ben Thanh Market: 40.000 VND (cheaper elsewhere)
A Glass of Fresh Beer in Ha Noi: 5-10.000 VND
A Dish of Hoi An's Cao Lau: 20-25.000 VND
A Small/Tall Bottle of Water: 8-10.000/15-20.000 VND
Banh Mi (Op La- with egg): 10.000 (15.000)
Glass of Coffee: 10-20.000 VND
Tailor Made Dress: 25-30 USD
Bus Ticket from Ha Noi to Hoi AN: 15-20 USD
Local bus from Hue to Da Nang: 50.000 VND
Bicycle Parking/Motorbike Parking: 2-3.000/3-5.000 VND

(Though these are only a few items and prices, it gives you a general idea of what things should be sold for)

During your travel to Vietnam, you may see how cheap everything is compared to home, and not care if you get overcharged. However, if you encourage local vendors to try and sell high prices to tourists, chances are they won't get as much business afterwards. It's best to agree on a fair in-between price, which enables the vendors to still make money, without jeopardizing their future business with tourists. Have fun with your shopping experiences during your tours of Vietnam, enjoy the bargaining game, but also keep in mind that it's the livelihood of the seller- don't go too low with the bargains- but don't just pay the first price either, it's always best to meet somewhere in the middle.

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Posted by: CS
The Dong Community of Sanjiang

One of the most popular destinations on a China tour is the rice terraces of Longsheng. The natural beauty of the region has made it a firm favorite for photo opportunities and a little peace and quiet during a China vacation. It can be easy to forget during travel in China that there are many other people in the country as well as the Han Chinese. When you're in Longsheng you don't have to make too much of a trip to meet one of China's minority peoples – the Dong.

Sanjiang – A Starting Point

The best place to meet the Dong people is in the village of Sanjiang which is approximately a 30 minute taxi journey from the Longsheng terraces. It's a beautiful place in the countryside and well worth the trip just to stare out the windows and enjoy rural China. The area is famous for its drum towers which are the central feature of most Dong villages. There are roughly 150 in the area around Sanjiang. The most famous is the Mapang Drum Tower which is about 15 minutes' drive from Sanjiang. It has 9 upturned eaves and each of them is decorated in ornate carvings. You'll find floral displays, intricate grasses, wildlife and characters from Dong history and superstition. Inside the Mapang Drum Tower there are four central pillars that reach all the way to the top of the building. Then there is a smaller group of 12 pillars that each represent a month of the year and these extend to the middle floor. If you take a walk to the second floor then you'll find the drum from which the tower takes its name.

The drum is used for a warning system, so please don't be tempted to play with it during your travel; not unless you want to explain your ignorance of China's culture to a lot of angry and worried Dong.

For the most part the drum towers are used as casual meeting places and you will be allowed free reign to take a tour of the entire tower. However, occasionally they are used for private village meetings if you arrive at this time it might be politic not to intrude. Just take a trip round the rest of the village for a while and see if you can find a performance by the local Lusheng players. Lusheng is an instrument unique to China and it is a sort of reed wind instrument.

About the Dong

The Dong themselves are one of China's larger ethnic minorities and they're quite used to foreigners on vacation visiting their villages. They are a friendly people who in the main speak a Sino-Tibetan language though many have some facility with Putonghua (China's main language) as well.

They believe in spirits and gods of various forms. One of the most influential people in the village is the wizard whose job it is to scare off evil spirits when things aren't going so well.

The vast majority of Dong work in agriculture but there are some great craftspeople in their villages and if you want a souvenir from your China vacation you could do worse than the embroidery the Dong women make – it also helps support a minority people struggling in China's modern economy.

The diet in Dong villages is fairly basic and be aware of a local custom that means when you dine you will be given a 3rd chopstick. If you finish your bowl and don't return that chopstick with it – it's understood that you are still hungry and you'll be refilled, again and again.

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Posted by: CS
Vietnam Food: The Importance of Coffee

If there's one thing in Vietnam that's loved even more than the food- it's the coffee. Locally grown (within the country), Vietnam has some of the world's best coffee, and even its own method of brewing it. From regular beans to the famous weasel coffee (the beans are eaten, digested, "released”, and sold at a higher price), Vietnam is the java-junkies dream. Atop having strong, delicious, locally grown coffee, it also runs alongside the rest of the country's economic rates… it's super cheap! If there's one thing that makes a delicious cup of coffee even better, it's drinking it at an eighth of its usual cost.

Vietnam is able to produce and sell the coffee at such low rates, simply because the entire country is mad about it. From early morning to late in the evening, singles, couples, friends, families etc. are out at coffee shops, sipping down the dark brew and enjoying its caffeinated qualities. There's not an alley in the city or street in the country that doesn't have at least one coffee shop stuck right in the center. Usually you'll find 7 or 8 shops clustered on any given street, reflecting just how much the Vietnamese love their coffee. Accompanying the endless java joints are kitschy decorations, flashing lights, giant flat screen TV's or mini jungle scenes with larger than life coy ponds- all trying to coax the customer to choose that specific coffee joint (over the ten others next door). Once the Vietnamese have chosen their favorite spot, chances are that's where they'll be sitting for the next few years, bringing their family, friends, and foreign visitors for a special night out.

Drinking coffee isn't just done for its energetic qualities though- it's something to do, a place to go- similar to people in the West gathering at a bar or favorite restaurant. You sit down to relax, to meet up with friends, to have fun or perhaps to celebrate a special occasion. The men generally pick coffee, the women pick tea or some juice concoction, and the children get ice cream and run around the neon-lit java joint. There's always an occasion, always people sipping the brew, and always a coffee spot nearby.

Morning is obviously the most popular time for coffee, usually after the kids go to school and before it's time for work. Men line up in the cafE streets, sitting in their chairs, reading the paper and tossing back the murky sludge. The coffee slowly drips down out of the mini-metal filters, saturating the fine coffee grounds before collecting in the bottom of a glass (never a mug). The manly means of drinking the brew is café den- plain black coffee, sometimes with ice (da) in the summertime. The most popular style is café sua (sua being the sweetened condensed milk), also enjoyed over some ice (café sua da). If you're teeth or sugar levels can't handle the thick sugary milk in the morning, there's always a café sua tuoi (soo-ah too-ee), or fresh milk coffee, which allows you to add in your own levels of sugar (or not). Unless told otherwise, chances are you'll get a Central Highlands style coffee, which is served in a short glass with a recommended serving of coffee. Order up the Cafe Sua Da Saigon, though, and you'll get a fantastic tall glass of coffee, sweet milk and ice, brewed for the fast-paced southern city folk.

Tip: Unless you specify, your coffee will come sweet; say Khong Duong (Come Doo-ung) to leave the sugar out

Whether it's 4 in the morning or 12 at night, there's bound to be a coffee shop open somewhere, and most likely with a few people sitting inside. The Vietnamese love their java and drink it at all times of the day… well, except for noontime. If you're looking for your midday pick-me-up, you may want to look for something else, because even the coffee shops ‘close' for the noontime nap. So make sure you set aside some time during your vacation (other than noon) to experience the coffee side of the country- a trip to Vietnam is not the same without it!

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Posted by: CS
Cool Chinese Folk Arts to Watch Out For

When people take a vacation in China they're in for a wild ride of experiences; from the Great Wall to the Longsheng Rice Terraces there's so much to see. There's another intriguing side to Chinese life that you should miss out on during your China tour. The country has many forms of folk art and they're so different to Western art forms that you'll want to catch as many as you can during your trip to China. Here are some things to watch out for when you travel round China:

  • Basket weaving – this is a popular form of folk art and one that keeps many a rural family fed during the winter. In the main baskets are woven from either bamboo or other robust plant materials and they tend to be very durable. They make a really nice souvenir from a China vacation and for great gifts for friends and family too.
  • Kites – The kite originates from China. The first records of kites can be traced back to the Song dynasty of 960 A.D. Chinese kites come in all shapes and sizes and it's easy to find participants in sporting kite flying in every park in China. You'll find people out flying kites from the early morning and many people travel to the parks in the evening. These events are very competitive but good humored.
  • Food as Art – The Chinese are very creative in the kitchen and that's not always with the ingredients themselves but also the form of those ingredients. Sugar people are created by boiling huge vats of sugar and then pouring them into figurines. You may also find figures made of colored flours at the markets on your trip.
  • Paintings – Chinese traditional paintings are generally made up of long florid brushstrokes that suggest both movement and form. They are quite lovely and they're very popular with visitors for the walls back home. They often represent scenes from history and from Chinese mythology.
  • Paper as Art – China has always excelled in paper as an art form. It began during the Han Dynasty and has become an extraordinary means of self-expression today. Watch out for both paper folding and paper cutting. The Chinese hand fan is one of the more popular items with folks on a China tour as it can get quite warm in some places particularly during the summer months.
  • Puppetry – In China there are two forms of puppetry that are performed all over the country. The first tends to be a form of rod puppetry and occasionally wire puppetry where ornate figures from Chinese history are used to reenact exciting events from the past. Another form is shadow puppetry and this is more commonly found at Chinese opera events.
  • Textiles – You may also find during your travel that you come across a form of art based on knotted thread. Chinese Knotting has been practiced since the Song Dynasty and it has just begun to emerge again as a popular art form. The pictures that are created from these knotted threads are astonishing to behold though they can be quite expensive so ask how much they are before you buy.

You should be able to see all these art forms on your China tour without having to go too far out of your way to discover them. Why not see if you can tick them all off before you come home?

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Posted by: CS
Total Immersion in Vietnam: The Wedding Experience

One of the most colorful, memorable and hectic events someone can experience during their tours to Vietnam is going to a Vietnamese wedding. Drive down any side or main road during the noon time hour, and you may hear a distant thumping, shrieking or cheering. Get a bit closer and there will be an entire house and outdoor seating area wrapped in red and white ribbon, cordoned off from the rest of the town with a celebrating crew stuffed inside.

As in the rest of the world, a wedding day is one of the most important milestones in a couple's life. Unlike in the west though, the newlyweds don't necessarily choose the actual day of the event. Depending on the lunar calendar and the 'lucky days' that are selected- there could be anywhere between 2 to 20 weddings taking place in a small town during any given (lucky) day. The event begins with the immediate families gathering together inside their homes where the actual wedding ceremony takes place. If the couple is older in the lineage, they will most likely move to their own home and start a family from there. If it's the youngest son that is getting married though, they will stay in the parent's house and assume the role of caretaker. Rings are exchanged, vows are said, and with both families as witnesses, the couple is officially 'married'. The exciting part of wedding is still to come however.

Between the hours of 11:30 am and 1 pm, the wedding ceremony will take place with huge spreads of food, endless flowing beers, an eccentric MC, and extremely loud karaoke. The hour and a half chosen is the Vietnamese 'break' time, so everyone comes home from work, heads to the wedding for a crammed ninety minutes of food and fun, and then heads out like clockwork at one. If you're a lucky tourist that happens to get invited to one of these special events, you'll not only be treated like a VIP guest, but chances are you'll be overloaded with food and brew as well.

It's highly regarded for a Vietnamese to have a foreigner at their wedding (especially a westerner, even if they don't know them)- so if you're invited to a Vietnamese wedding, you'll most likely be put front and center at the reception. The other guests at the table will be filling your plate with food and your glass with beer, often at rates that can't even be kept up with. There will be music playing at stadium concert decibels, and the top form of entertainment will undoubtedly be karaoke (alongside drinking beer and “yo!”-ing, the Vietnamese form of “Cheers”). Taken almost as seriously as the wedding ceremony, the Vietnamese love their karaoke and use weddings as the platform to show off their skills. As the bride and groom go table to table (often times many guests don't even know who they are), the songs play on and the beverages flow. Yo!, clinking, gobbling, singing, cheering, chatting- silence.

All of a sudden, just as quickly as the party kicked off- everything ends. 1 pm comes around and the music ceases, seats are cleared, service stops and everyone leaves. Like clockwork everyone gets up, heads out back to work and people go on with their day. The couple is now married (sometimes there is another evening ceremony for people who couldn't attend the morning), and if you're a foreigner, the chances are you'll be heading back into your day foggy headed and a bit twisted. But if you have the opportunity to attend a Vietnamese wedding, you should absolutely go for it- it's one of the most memorable and culturally rich experiences you can have. My best advice is to eat some food beforehand though, as the body usually isn't so accustomed to drinking copious amounts of beer at noon. No presents are required, just wear a nice outfit, shake the couple's hand when they come around (don't worry about not knowing their names), and oblige every “yo!” that comes your way.

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Posted by: CS
China's New Wave of Literature Coming to Your Neighborhood Soon

We find that when people take a vacation in China that they're fascinated by the culture and want to know more before they travel to China. However, it can be difficult for Westerners to immerse themselves in Chinese culture mainly because of the lack of translated works into English from Chinese. The good news is that this may be coming to an end. In future it should be easier to read up on modern China before you embark on your tour thanks to the huge investments being made in Chinese literature by Western publishers. So before you make your trip to China here's a little low down on what's happening.

Mo Yan was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 2012. This has spurred real interest from Western publishers in Chinese literature. They can see the interest in Chinese travel experiences and the thirst for knowledge about the enigmatic nation. The first on board with this new trend was probably Penguin China.

Penguin China took two popular novels from modern China; Northern Girls and The Civil Servant's Notebook and translated them into English. Then the London Book Fair got involved and asked several Chinese authors to take a vacation in England and join them to present about their work. This isn't to say that Chinese literature has become a run-away success in the United States yet. Last year there were only just over 450 foreign language titles translated by major publishers into English in the US. Of these only 16 works had made the trip from China.

However this year things are changing. Harper Collins just put down a $60,000 advance for a Chinese novel. That's a huge sum of money for a Chinese author. One of the difficulties that most Chinese writers face is that in China their books are more like to be copied and sold by pirates than people are to buy the original. This means that many writers have to give up their vacation time from their day jobs to write as even selling millions of novels won't pay the bills in China.

That novel; Zu Jie by the writer Xiao Bai won't be available for consumption until 2015, so until then you might want to check out some of the best of the small number of English works available before your China tour. These include Wild Swans (Jung Chang), Falling Leaves (Adeline Mah), and Shanghai Baby (Wei Hui). In fact Shanghai Baby is a particularly scandalous release and is currently unavailable for sale inside of China.

It's worth noting that in general the Chinese writing style is markedly different from a Western one. Where Western writers place great emphasis on characterization even at the expense of the story as a whole the reverse is true in China. There tend to be more characters with less developed back stories and the literature tends to focus on the overall events. It can be quite difficult to get used to this but it is worth persevering. If you want to understand China before you travel there's no better way to do it than through the eyes of its contemporary authors.

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Posted by: CS
The Cool Side of the Country: Vietnam's Central Highland Da Lat

Of all the destinations in Vietnam, there are a few that stick out above the rest. If you fear the desert like heat, tropical humidity and uncertain weather patterns of the country, there's a central destination that's just for you. Located in Vietnam's Central Highlands sits the mountain town of Dalat. World's away from the traffic of Saigon, tourists of Hoi An and heat of Ha Noi, Dalat sits above all the rest (literally), with cool, spring-like temperatures and extremely Vietnamese settings.

The romance capital of the country, both foreign and domestic tourists flock to Dalat not only to soak in the refreshing weather and delicious food- but also to consummate marriages and rekindle the flames of love. A mini Eiffel tower, man made Xuan Huong Lake swarming with plastic swans and giant hearts carved out of roses – nothing says ‘I Love You' like the settings of Dalat. A home base for everything kitsch, this town is the number one honeymoon destination for all Vietnamese newlyweds. But don't worry- when you visit this highland town, you won't be swarmed with smooching lovers or endless hand holding crowds; the Vietnamese are (generally) quite modest about their love affairs. For most foreigners though, this isn't the reason they come to Dalat.

With a climate unlike the rest of the country, the town and surrounding areas are filled with stunning gardens, bustling vibrant markets and some of the country's freshest food. Inhabited by the French during their occupation, they introduced various farming techniques to this perfect growing climate, and Dalat has long since become the hub for the nation's freshest fruits, vegetables and flowers. Head outside town to visit any of the amazing fruit and vegetable gardens, or simply head to the town's center where you can find some of the most vibrant looking greens and berries you'll see in Vietnam (most of the country's produce is coming from Dalat). Different jams, honey, coffee, fruits and fresh food selections are swarming the stalls at this central market, with outrageously colorful and kitsch flower arrangements scattered about as well- a perfect place to bring your camera.

If you've reached your fill of produce, Dalat has a number of other activities that are bit more exciting and unique. A huge attraction in town is the ever-growing Crazy House. One of the strangest sites in Vietnam (for various reasons), this attraction/guest house is the product of Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga Its' eclectic styles and fantasy atmosphere draws in foreigners and domestic tourists from all around. With twisting, curling walls, fake trees/giant spider's webs meshed into the living quarters, and an exterior that looks like nothing else in the country, a walk though this odd construction is one of the main sites to see in Dalat (also available for an overnight stay). Other local attractions include a cable car ride to Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery (very picturesque ride), a trip to the mountains and hills outside of town- either in a car or (preferably) on a motorbike (hired or one's own), or simply walking around town soaking in the beautiful French architecture and pine covered hills. As normal as this seems, enjoying a walk during warm days and cool nights in Vietnam is actually quite the treat. So whether you've come for the fresh food and coffee, to explore the highlands and fantastic temperatures, or to rekindle the flames of love in Vietnam's ‘petit Paris'- Dalat will, if nothing else, be one of the most unique experiences you'll have during your trip to Vietnam.

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Posted by: CS
The Zhou Dynasty of China

History buffs always enjoy a China vacation. With nearly 5,000 years of continuous history China offers travel that always brings you up close with its past. In fact during your China tour you'll come into contact with nearly every era of China's development and it's always nice to know something about that history before your trip. Today, we're going to look at one of the longest running dynasties in China's evolution – the Zhou dynasty.

A Dynasty of Two Halves

The Zhou were rulers of China from 1045 – 256 BC. However, there are two distinct phases to their rule the first is usually known as the Western Zhou Dynasty and the second the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.

The Western Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou people are said to have begun when a consort of the Emperor Ku conceived immaculately after falling into one of God's footprints. Her son, Qi, is said to have miraculously survived being abandoned by his mother 3 times. He was then sent to travel China to improve the lives of the peasantry which he did by making advances in agricultural processes. He became known as the Lord of Millet and is said to have been worshipped at harvest festivals.

Qi's own son was disillusioned with politics. He took a trip away from court and then gave up his ties to the imperial dynasty of the day and took up the life of a nomad. His son, Duke Liu, became a respected military leader of these people and eventually won a huge battle in 1046 B.C. to establish the Zhou Dynasty on the banks of the Yellow River. The last Shang Emperor of China was slain during the battle.

A new capital for the Western Zhou was built at the city of Hao in Western China several hundred miles from modern day Beijing. The early rule of the Western Zhou was a tumultuous time for its leaders. The Shang dynasty may have been beaten in battle but their leaders were still taking major tours of China to question the legitimacy of the new government. In particular they called upon the Mandate of Heaven to demonstrate that one could only be born to rule rather than win the crown in conquest.

To combat this the Western Zhou developed a decentralized system of power where local rulers could instantly make decisions on areas of policy that might trip the balance of power. However, as with all examples of decentralized rule in China this quickly led to weakness in rule and the Marquis of Shen joined with several powerful Chinese rulers to sack the city of Hao in 771 B.C.

The Eastern Zhou

The capital of Zhou authority was quickly reestablished this time in Chengzhou. It is here that much of the philosophy and greatest art was produced in China. During your vacation a lot of the cultural references you encounter will be from this period in China's history. Unfortunately for the Zhou the next 5 centuries would oversee a gradual dismantling of their empire. Never able to exert centralized control over China, they would find as local leaders became powerful enough – they would break away and create their own mini-states.

It was during this time that Confucian bureaucracy began to dominate the Chinese way of thinking and Zhou ambassadors and tax men would tour the country lecturing the peasantry on their obligation to their masters. This system of obligation dominates thinking in China right through to the modern day.

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Posted by: CS
The Gourmet Side of Cuisine: Hoi An's Western Vietnamese Restaurants

When traveling to Vietnam, there are endless food options from Sapa in the north to Can Tho in the south. From delectable dishes to strange selections that may not seem like they're edible, Vietnam certainly will send your taste buds on a wild ride. For culinary adventurers, there will be plenty of stops along the way to tantalize and challenge your food tolerance. For people who aren't interested in eating questionable meats or alongside main highways- fear not. Vietnam has plenty of higher end food options that still stick to traditional Vietnamese ingredients, while changing the atmosphere to something a bit more… palatable.

One of the most famous destinations in Vietnam for this 'gourmet' food experience is in Hoi An. Central Vietnam's famous Old Town is home to some of the country's most notable, high(er)-end restaurants. Capturing the favorite flavors of Vietnamese cuisine, these restaurants serve up the traditional plates and tastes, while putting hygiene, western comfort and service at the front of the line. Head into Hoi An's lantern-lit lanes where you'll find some of the area's most well known restaurants serving up some of the best meals you'll have in the country.

Morning Glory, the Market, Mermaid Restaurant and Cargo Club are four of the most frequented restaurants in the Old Town area, well known from both word of mouth as well as all top travel guides. Started by local chef and entrepreneur Ms. Vy, these restaurants are dedicated to serving up the famous Vietnamese flavors, while adding a 'western' flair to them. Sure you'll be paying a bit more for the meals than you would on the street, but the patrons and reviews don't lie when it comes to these spots- they are simply a must visit. With all the famous dishes from Cao Lau (local pork/noodle dish) and Banh Xeo (Fried pancake and fillings) to perfectly prepared duck and some more exotic dishes (grilled Stingray or even jellyfish)- you're bound to have some unforgettable meals… without any unwanted after effects.

Another group of restaurants in the Hoi An area that serves up some high-end, world-renowned cuisine are Mango Mango, Mango Rooms and Mai Fish. The first two selections are a bit on the pricier side, with your final bill feeling as western as the experience, but sit down for a meal at one of Duc Tran's top spots and you'll be anything but disappointed. His Mai Fish Restaurant is another local favorite, serving up both delicious local food and drinks at an equally attractive price. With hygiene, service and food quality of the utmost importance, you can enjoy your meals here without worrying about spending the rest of your trip to Vietnam in bed (or in the bathroom).

With these seven restaurant selections, you'll be able to taste all the best local and national flavors, perfected by the Vietnamese chefs/owners and served up in a way that keeps tourists both comfortable and satisfied. You won't have to worry about being overcharged or taken advantage of (everything operates as a western menu style restaurant), and you can even use a major credit card to pay. So while there are the street side stalls, motorbike vendors and popup restaurants, there are also five star dining experiences that will give you both the local and western experience all at once.

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Posted by: CS
The Suzhou Rural Tourism Carnival is Ready to Welcome You

If your China tour is stopping in beautiful Suzhou you might want to consider fitting in a truly unique China vacation experience. The real China is still rural and despite the huge rate of travel from the country to cities the majority of people still live in relatively undeveloped areas. If you'd like to experience that authentic way of life then a trip to the Suzhou Rural Tourism Carnival might be the best way to get involved with the heart of China.

The Ten Themes of the Suzhou Rural Tourism Carnival The festival runs throughout August and September and if your China vacation coincides with it then you'll find that there are ten themes running throughout the carnival to make your trip an interesting and engaging one.

  1. The opening ceremony – you probably couldn't have expected this to be on a par with the Beijing Olympics but it would be a nice diversion from a China tour anyway. The focus of this theme is on local dramatics set in splendid countryside; they'd like you to enjoy the natural beauty of the region and its people.

  2. The Water Side – Boat trips through the magnificent water features of the Zhouzhang Scenic Area with a finish in the local town to watch a production on the importance of water to China's agriculture.

  3. Happiness – A tour of the improvements in rural life in China over the last few years and how technology is helping China's farms become more efficient and productive.

  4. Modernity – A trip through the nice aspects of modern farming including a living breathing ecological home made from live trees and plants. Includes a photo exhibition from China's micro-bloggers.

  5. Love – This will include a wedding (between a genuine couple in love and not a mock ceremony for tourists) and exhibits from China's wedding industries. This could be a really nice way to add a little extra cheer to a China vacation.

  6. Camping – It's a pursuit shared by folks from all over the world. Come and see how the Chinese farmer takes their vacation. It's all in an area of outstanding natural beauty too.

  7. Fashionable Cars – Not so much about automotive cars but the stationary cars used for rail and shipping that have been decorated with flowers and other foliage. There's also a treasure hunt for everyone to take part in and the prizes? Umm… ducks.

  8. Youth – There will be an 8 day period celebrating local youth and their achievements and contributions to greater society. This will almost certainly be a lot of fun as the Chinese really dote on their children.

  9. Tongli Rumours – This is really the closing ceremony but involves a cooking festival in Tongli for several days too. That's a great way of getting try local delicacies.

  10. The Elderly – The last theme is a private one. The carnival organizers are organizing a trip through the countryside for some of the area's oldest residents. You can't join in this but it's nice to know that your support of the carnival will help some of the more vulnerable members of Chinese society have a great day out.

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Posted by: CS
Vietnamese Customs: The Lunar New Year Experience

Arriving into Vietnam during January and February (some of the best months for weather) can bring an unexpected surprise. Depending on the lunar calendar (which day the lunar new year falls)- you may find that your trip to Vietnam coincides with the beloved Tet, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year. By far the most popular holiday in the entire year, this can mean a few things for tourists visiting this small South East Asian Country. It could be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life- meeting locals, becoming completely immersed in their culture and customs and celebrating like you wouldn't believe… or it could mean wandering through ghost town streets with shop fronts, restaurants and tourist sites completely boarded up for as long as two weeks.

The Vietnamese Lunar New Year is celebrated nation wide, and locals prepare for this week-long party/feast for months in advance. Money is saved up, houses start getting fresh coats of paint, and streets are suddenly lined with huge bouquets of vibrant flower arrangements- getting purchased as quickly as they can be brought out. It's an entire family affair, and for some, it's the only time certain members of the family get to see each other. Houses are decorated to the nines, new outfits are brought out and Vietnamese workers start getting into ‘Tet' mentality a week or so before the event rolls around.

If you're lucky enough to know or meet someone during this special time of the year, it can be one of the most unique and unforgettable experiences you'll ever have during your travels. Families gather and head out to gravesites to visit relatives who've passed, make offerings and beckon their spirits back home to partake in the festivities. After the spiritual side is finished, the two to ten day partying begins- with loads of delicious local cuisine, special ‘Tet sweets' and, of course, endless flowing beer. It's the most exciting and enjoyable time of the year for Vietnamese, and with some local friends of your own, it could be the same experience for you. It's not frowned upon to bring foreigners along for any of the Tet activities, so bring a nice pair of clothes if you think you'll have the chance to join in.

But what does this mean for the first time visitors to Vietnam? Those who do not have the scheduled time to set up life-long friendships during their 4 day tour of the country? In all honesty, you should try and book around it. If you don't have the time to partake, you may have a very skewed and uneventful visit to Vietnam. Almost everything closes (that's not directly tourist related), and the places and shops that do stay open are not often manned by overly enthusiastic workers. (Would you want to spend the best holiday of the year away from family and friends??) So check the calendars if you're trip to Vietnam is scheduled for the beginning of the year. If you have the time to fully enjoy the Tet season, it could be the best experience of your tour to Vietnam. But if you don't have the time- then it could make your trip a terribly strange and absent one.

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Posted by: CS
The Mid-Autumn Festival and China

This year if your China vacation coincides with the 19th of September you'll be able to take in a little something extra on your China tour; the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is the second most popular festival in China after Chinese New Year but unlike Chinese New Year there's much less local travel and you won't trip over people in packed transport areas. If you've not come across this one of China's festivals before, here's a guide on what to expect.

A Long History but Recent Beginnings

There has been a celebration of the full moon's travel to the pinnacle of the sky during Autumn in China since the 10th-16th centuries B.C. However, like many other Chinese traditional holidays, the practice was abandoned during the early days following the Cultural Revolution. As time moved on it became clear that despite an official edict against these holidays, they were still celebrated and as importantly that they somehow defined China in the eyes of the rest of the world. This led to them being gradually reintroduced officially and in 2006 the Mid-Autumn Festival was recognized as an official vacation day in China.

Many Festivals in One

The Mid-Autumn Festival carries many other titles thanks to its importance and over the years some other minor festivals have been incorporated into the festival:

  • Moon Festival – Given that the Mid-Autumn Festival is a tour de force celebration of the moon announcing the harvest time, this is perhaps unsurprising.
  • Mooncake Festival – Travel round China during this time and you won't miss these delicacies – the whole of China goes moon cake mad!
  • Lantern Festival – Not so popular on the mainland as there's another official vacation that is called the Lantern Festival but very common in Singapore and Malaysia.
  • The Festival of Reunion – This is the time that a young bride would travel to meet her parents elsewhere in China. She would then return to her husband and his parents to complete the celebration.
  • "Valentine's Day" – This isn't as important as the real Chinese Valentine's day or the Western one to most people in China but there is still a certain amount of matchmaking going on behind the scenes.

What Does it All Mean?

The Mid-Autumn festival has three separate messages and each is interlinked with the others:

  • Togetherness; given how many Chinese people work away from their families as huge distances this is a time for those who could not go home during Spring Festival to get together with those they love.
  • Thanks; to show gratitude for a bountiful harvest or a good partnership between husband and wife.
  • Praise; the Chinese pray for things at the Mid-Autumn Festival and their prayers are sent up to ask the gods/spirits for the material (money, food, etc.) or spiritual (love, children, etc.) needs that are unfulfilled in their lives

Things You will See During Mid-Autumn Festival

Keep your cameras at the ready; you should be able to see lion and dragon dances, as well as lantern displays and possibly other more-modern acts of celebration.

One thing is for sure – you'll not only see a moon cake but you will have the opportunity to try it too. Be warned that the savory interior usually holds a whole boiled egg and isn't to everyone's taste. It's best to take a tiny piece and try it before making off with a whole cake…

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