Tag Archives: Asia

Miss Saigon, miss out

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Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known (and still referred to by the locals) as Saigon is a must see place – even if you hate it, as many do – just so you can believe the traffic!

With a population of 10million (and an estimated 7million motorbikes), it is busy, hectic, filthy (in parts) and only the brave survive crossing the road.

Despite following the ‘walk slowly, do not stop or hesitate’ rules, on my first solo road crossing only a Matrix style hips-forward manoeuvre helped me to narrowly escape being run over by a moped who’s driver was picking his feet rather than avoiding petrified pedestrians!

First day there I wasn’t impressed and, although I still feel Saigon lacks soul, after a few days settling in it grew on me and I enjoyed the contrast with the rest of Vietnam.

Walking is the best way to get around (if you are brave enough to cross the road), but regularly repeated warnings of bag snatchings and pickpockets mean minimal valuables are advised.

A US$15 bus trip and guide to the gruesome and impressively masterminded Cu Chi Tunnels (where the Viet Cong lived during the war) and then a drop off at the war remnants museum is a fascinating  and spine chilling day out, as well as a lesson in propaganda at its best .

The beautiful architecture of the Colonial Post Office and the Catholic Cathedral are worth a trip, as is the hidden gem of an Art Museum. It’s 30,000 Vietnamese Dong (about £1) entrance fee gives you admission to two buildings of exhibits, which are impressive enough without the paintings. And, out through the courtyard are four or five smaller commercial galleries are all worth a look.

The Imperial Palace could be given a miss, unless Soviet style war strategy basements and 70’s architecture are your thing. And, if you’ve been to China, the central market doesn’t offer much variation – only in attitude and it’s not more positive!

For a treat and a glimpse of expat Saigon, the rooftop bar at The Rex hotel is great, but not cheap and the opera house, tourist information and high-end shops are close by.

On the flip side, Pho 2000 does some of the best (and cheapest) beef noodles in town – without the frills!

I had high hopes for Ho Chi Minh City and am happy to say I’ve seen Saigon, but three days were probably enough to soak it up.

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Vexed, lies and Red red tape

My declaration...!

Despite giving my passport to my ‘employer’ to get a work visa two weeks prior to its expiry, I found myself sitting at the Personal Security Bureau (PSB) in front of a stern but friendly enough immigration official questioning my intentions for the following 30 days.

‘Why do you want to stay in China?’, ‘What is your schedule for the next 30 days?’ ‘You have already been here for four months…that is enough for most travellers, what is there left to see?’ Hardly the entrance exam for Cambridge is it? And, under normal circumstances his questioning would have been a breeze.

However, the small flaw was that I didn’t really want to stay, my remaining schedule was teaching business English to Chinglish speakers who didn’t want to unlearn the mistakes they were fluent in. The only reason to stay was for the money and to work…but I wasn’t allowed to say that, as I was ‘working’ for a corrupt, unscrupulous liar who wasn’t true to his word on any of the things I had been originally told.

It turns out his usual Government contact who passes visas for him was on leave, so we had to go through the ‘official’ channels, which meant concocting a story of how we knew each other and what delights I had planned in TEDA, Tianjin and Tanggu for the next month (and if you’ve been to any of them, you know that is a tall story in itself). He came out of his interview saying under his breath ‘You know Peter, an old colleague of mine, he is your friend, we are friends.’ And then, in an audible voice “Your turn to go and speak to the immigration officer”

The preceding two days I had spent going from one branch of PSB to another, been ushered into a car with three Chinese men and driven around the city trying to get a residents permit, been forced to open a Chinese bank account whilst photocopies of my bank details, passport and most important travelling documents were strewn around willy nilly and given to complete strangers without explanation. At one point four people were all telling me conflicting information (in Chinese) on how to complete a bank form and telling me that I could withdraw my money (or not) in a number of different ways…so I dealt with it in the mature, calm and collected manner befitting such a situation and burst into tears!

So, already on edge, a little fractious and mortified with myself that I didn’t have the strength of character to say ‘stick your job up your…’ and walk away, when the immigration officer said “So how do you know Mr X?” and “What are your plans to invest here?” and the lie fell out of my mouth I felt corrupted, unclean and very alone – not my finest hour!

After waiting a few minutes I was granted a 30 day extension. It all turned out more than OK in the end, but a lesson to anyone else thinking of teaching English in China – check out your visas, get honest recommendations about your employer from other teachers in advance and if you are not comfortable, don’t be afraid to move on!


Teaching in TEDA(ious)

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Tianjin Economic Development Area (TEDA) is not in Tianjin, nor is it 29 minutes by bullet train from Beijing as I was told when I accepted the job (whilst standing outside Hong Kong Botanical gardens in the pouring rain!).

TEDA is an hour Chingway ride to Tianjin and half an hour from Tanggu (rough looking Chinese town) where you can catch an hour fast train to Beijing if you can bear to wait in the queue for over an hour and watch the Chinese chavs fight the customer service rep to get a ticket.

Attractions comprise of a man-made beach, a man-made lake, a lame botanical garden, a park, two shopping malls, a library, two supermarkets (including a TESCO) and several seedy entertainment centres (laughingly called bathouses in an attempt to hide the hookers and legitimise the business in the eyes of the Government). It is a new and affluent place, built for growth and where McDonalds deliver!

The weather is grey and oppressive. Pubs (if you can call them that) are expensive and full of lonely Western guys looking for a Chinese wife or bored, desperate expats unable to find much else to do but drink themselves into oblivion. So, what exactly kept a single, white, female entertained in TEDA for nearly four months…?

Well, there was tutoring the Governor of TEDA’s four year old son – one to one – five days a week. Five hours a day of playing shop, make-believe cinema, watching Peppa Pig, learning the names of fruit and veg, making pop corn, going to the park, playing bubbles, finding fun ways to remember new words, playing cars (or more accurately car crash) and having an absolute ball!

Then there were the evening and weekend classes, teaching business English to senior Government officials, public servants and middle managers of petrochemical companies who didn’t want to unlearn their poor pronunciation. They did however display an unparalleled enthusiasm for role play, debating, asking bizarre questions which regularly blind-sided me, such as “Do you believe that the world will end in 2012?” from the lady who couldn’t even pronounce her own job title! And, the students in my Government class were amazing. I only hope that I taught them a fraction of what I learnt in return.

Oh and there’s my surrogate Chinese family too! I ended up privately teaching the daughter of ‘Great’ (the guy who came to fix my internet). For three months, two nights a week, I taught the beautiful Emily at their apartment and was overwhelmed with hospitality, kindness, iPhone translations and mountains of food (and leftovers) from duck neck to shrimp brains and everything in between!

Last but not least there were my incredible flat mates who waxed lyrical with me about everything from communism to cartoon fights, cooking to quitting and talked travelling tales from around the world into the wee small hours (when we weren’t having a movie marathon!). Thank you guys!

I never intended to spend so long in China, but TEFL jobs are very easy to come by (standards and conditions vary) and the longer you spend there the more complex and fascinating it becomes.

I can honestly say, as much as there were a few “what the hell am I doing here?” moments, it was an emotional, exhilarating, exhausting, infuriating and incredible experience that has left me wanting more.


Hong Kong highlights

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I LOVED Hong Kong. Despite a traumatic arrival, it was a place where acquaintances became life-long friends, I was re-energised to tackle the world and, above all, I had a really, really great time.

After being put in touch with an old school mate through a mutual friend (Facebook does have some benefits), a suggested catch up for coffee turned into two weeks of home comforts, family feasts and an expert expat take on the best of Hong Kong that I will never forget.

There was so much to do and such diversity of culture and landscape… Whether it was tasting life as an expat in Sai Kung or bunking down with the backpackers in Causeway Bay, I could wax lyrical about Hong Kong all day long, so here’s the condensed version…

Hong Kong Island…

Vibrant, bustling and cosmopolitan – a rich blend of Asian alley ways, western consumer culture and corporate skyscrapers.  Whether it’s brand name shopping, top notch cuisine, an evening’s entertainment, a visa run or a walk along the waterfront, you’ll find everything around Causeway Bay, Central and Wanchai.

Lang Kwai Fong and Soho, in and around Central/Mid-Levels (ingenious escalators), are the places the rich kids hang out. It ain’t cheap, but so many great spots to soak up the after work drinkers vibe, sample menus from all over the world, take in the antique streets and meandering markets. You’ll also find Asia’s first comedy club – which is a very entertaining night out indeed!

For a unique experience, the funicular tram up Victoria Peak is fantastic way to see the city and beyond. Not to mention the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co restaurant at the top (which fellow Forrest Gump Fans will find fabulous!), that has some of the best views over Hong Kong from its bar. Nearby, the Zoological and Botanical Gardens offer respite from the tourist trail and is home to many plant and animal species.

Happy Valley Races are a must for any racing fan (or horse racing virgins). At HK$10 for a ticket on Sundays and Wednesdays, it’s a great night out on the cheap and you might even get lucky backing the winner!

In the south, a short bus ride to Stanley, passing Repulse and Discovery Bays on your way, is a relaxing way to escape the city, check out the market, get some beach action and see a slower side of Hong Kong life.

And that’s just the Island, I haven’t even got started about the other stuff!

For a more authentic Asian experience, Kowloon offers up even more delights – from the Rolex and Gucci lined Nathan Road and the infamous Chungking Mansions (where I had the best curry ever – thanks Jordan), to the markets of Mong Kok and Temple Street. There’s also a LA style ‘Avenue of Stars’ with a free light show every evening that illuminates Hong Kong in musically accompanied neon lights!

Over on Lantau there’s the Ngong  Ping 360 cable car taking you to the Big Buddha Temple (and that is one massive Buddha)and an illegal drive (apparently you should have a permit) takes you to the quaint and quirky fishing village of  Tai O.

Towards the New Territories there‘s the lesser known, but fascinating Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery in Sha Tin and for a bit of nature there’s the  beautiful Sai Kung Country Park.

Then there’s the food, the trams, the Star Ferry and so much more…take your walking shoes, extra memory cards and go and see for yourself!

Dedicated to Family Atko…you are the best and I can’t ever thank you enough for making a good trip GREAT x x x


How not to arrive in Hong Kong…

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The general consensus on the best (and cheapest) way to get from China to Hong Kong was the sleeper bus to Shenzhen and then on the MTR…”It’s really easy and low cost. So straight forward you can’t go wrong.” Yeah right!

Collected at 8pm from Monkey Jane’s by a tiny Chinese lady in a pink and white golf buggy, we travelled the short distance to Yangshou bus station and the sleeper bus.

From the outside it looked like a luxury coach. Inside was lined with three rows of stainless steel bunk-beds with thick fleecy blankets. I’d never been in a bus with beds before – an ingenious design, but pretty cramped for anyone not of Asian build. Any luggage not stickered and stowed underneath detracts from bed space, as I found when I tried to pack boots, backpack and both legs into the tiny foot well!

Wedged in, I curled up to watch Jackie Chan’s “First Strike”. Managing to get a few hours sleep in between noodle stops and fretting about where to get off, I shivered my way through the night (the blankets do take up room, but don’t put them on someone else’s bed as you won’t get them back!)

Around 4.30am I was ushered off at a desolate bus stop under a flyover in the middle of nowhere. I had seen signs to the port (you don’t go there apparently) but none to the railway station (as I had been advised to go to). I asked the three other non-English speaking passengers how to get to Hong Kong…nada, so I flagged a taxi and hoped like hell I would arrive at some kind of border crossing!

Driving through the pitch dark (and reportedly dangerous) streets of Shenzhen with a driver who could not understand me, my dictionary or my guidebook, I was totally aware this was the most ill-considered stage of my travels to date (despite having it all written down and even seen iPhone maps of how much of a smooth and easy station transition it is!).

Thankfully we arrived at something that resembled an immigration checkpoint. As I passed through Hong Kong side I realised  I was at the wrong place (the one you don’t go to) and the promised ATM and money exchange didn’t exist, so I couldn’t “just hop straight on the MTR” as I had only Chinese money; the trains were not yet running and no-one could tell me how to get where I needed to go.

I got on a shuttle bus to another bus station, then caught a second bus and then wandered around with all my kit for an hour looking for the MTR.

With no cash, mobile, knowledge of Cantonese, English speakers, cashpoint, nor useful map and it still only 5.45am I was starting to panic (as well as turn puce from the heat and the weight of my bags). From out of nowhere a well-dressed Hong Konger appeared and asked me where I needed to go. He packed me onto the right bus, spoke to the driver and gave me 35HKD to get on with my trip, accepting nothing in return.

Twenty minutes later I was at the MTR station, ticket in hand and en route to my new destination – exhausted, panic subsiding, adrenalin pumping and amazed at the kindness of strangers.

That unknown man is an absolute legend…wherever and whoever you are, THANK YOU from an eternally grateful traveller.


A flash and inspiration at Moganshan, Shanghai

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For art lovers and explorers alike, Moganshan Art District in Shanghai, is well worth a visit – even if modern art isn’t really your thing.

Easily accessible by subway and a bit of a walk, the graffiti lined hoarding (that Banksy would be proud of) which leads you to a maze of exhibition spaces has an urban, industrial feel. It leaves you wondering whether you are actually entering a part of East London’s derelict industrial past rather than a contemporary corner of downtown Shanghai.

In a country where originality and innovative thought are largely quashed at birth and state controlled communication offers only diluted input from the outside world, the creativity and controversial pieces on display are a testament to the rebellious youth borne out of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.

There is an inspirational mixture of sculpture, ceramics, paintings, traditional techniques combined with state of the art digital installations – some with a communist theme, both satirical and historic. Huge models and handmade goods have an interesting take on global icons and propaganda paraphernalia. There’s also a range of quirky eateries and watering holes, all showcasing the best work from some of China’s rising stars.

We stumbled upon one gallery with an opening party and were given a giant glass of French red – the first all trip and it was divine! That, combined with the cosmopolitan café culture vibe, an alfresco cappuccino and an eclectic display of talent in a peaceful, funky and modern setting was the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of Shanghai.

And, just when we thought we’d seen enough, on our walk back to the subway a guy cycled past on his bike shouting “Hi….You like?” only for us to realise his trousers were underdone around his waist and he was frantically flailing his flaccid penis around with the hand that wasn’t on the handle bars! Shocked and stunned we giggled our way back to the subway station like a pair of kids!

A perfect place to spend a Sunday in Shanghai, but you might see more than you bargained for!


Enough to make me sweat…

Deodorant...apparently!

Despite being in central Shanghai – one of the most cosmopolitan and forward focussed metropolises in the world, finding basic toiletries such as deodorant was somewhat of a challenge. 

Antiperspirant, it seems, is not a common item in Shanghai, even in the most Western of stores. Having searched every supermarket, Seven Eleven and Family Mart in a three subway stop radius I found an old skool glass bottle of Nivea extra perfumed, whitening roll-on in Carrefour (highly unsuitable for a backpack that gets thrown from the top bunk of a train on a regular basis). And, despite my lack of deodorant, I refused to pay 50 Yuan (5 quid), as I’d already been fleeced for a tenner the previous week buying a razor.

So, I finally plucked up the courage to go into the pharmacy and ask! How hard can it be? Armed with my Mandarin- English dictionary, I approached one of the maroon smock wearing ladies for help. Actually, she got to me first and spent the next two minutes following me round in an uncomfortably close manner, trying to assess whether I was about to rob the place or perhaps hoping I’d buy everything that my roaming eyes stumbled upon.

After a couple of minutes of unsuccessfully reading the Chinese labels that lined the aisles and not being able to spot anything obvious, I put my new shadow out of her misery and got out the dictionary to show “deodorant”. To my horror the word was not there, but by then it was too late, I was in the hands of not one but six mature, maroon-clad and well-meaning pharmacy assistants wanting to assist.

Did I mention that no-one spoke English and I cannot speak Mandarin? So, in trying to explain my requirements I ended up acting out applying deodorant and miming “no smelly armpits”, to which they all squawked in agreement about what I needed, handed me a white, blue and yellow box and ushered me to the payment desk.

After parting with 14 Yuan (about £1.40), I returned to class with my bottle of liquid, detachable spray nozzle and what looked like ear drops. I asked my Chinese teaching assistant what I had just bought  – she had no idea! We looked through the items, instruction booklet (which had some drawings very similar to the mime I had just performed) and deduced that I had been given something for body odour – which I should not use under any circumstances!  

The experience alone had been enough to bring me out in a sweat. So, if you’re travelling for a while in China, take your own toiletries!