Ten things that you (maybe) didn’t know about China

yangshuoLandscapes of Yangshuo and the Li River

1. The countryside is as huge as the cities

China tends to bring two things to mind (at least it did for me): dim-lit restaurants with high piles of steaming bamboo baskets filled with dim sum, and huge industrial cities. So starting my trip in Yangshuo took me by surprise. The city, situated in the south of the country, is surrounded by the greenest countryside, with tall mountains to hike up, snaking blue-grey rivers, cool caves to explore and little trails to cycle along. Even though Yangshuo itself is very busy and attracts a massive amount of domestic tourism, the surroundings felt calm and untouched by the pollution I encountered later…

yangshuo

yangshuo

yangshuo

yangshuo

2. To say Chinese history is complicated is an understatement

The Chengdu Museum taught me two main things: first, I know nothing about Chinese history. Secondly: learning anything at all is damn confusing. China has known countless dynasties, emperors, kingdoms, unifications, dissolutions, wars, capitals and invasions in the years since its history started being recorded, circa 1500 BC. I felt like it’s something to look into geographically rather than chronologically, as territory passed from one hand to another so quickly, and the nations of old often covered what is today Vietnam, Mongolia and Russia.

3. Food is much more varied than what we know of Chinese food in the west

No, it’s not all fried rice and sweet and sour chicken. Shanghai is home to the most amazing xia long bao and attracts locals for boiled chicken; Chengdu as capital of the Sichuan province is where spice sings (especially in hot pots) – but its ‘pizzas’ are also worth checking out; Beijing is the home of roasted duck and small dim sum shacks… You’ve got a dozen different styles of noodles per menu (my favourite were spinach sauce with spicy roasted beef, and sesame paste), meat sometimes boiled, sometimes fried, sometimes sizzled, and the best eggplant recipe in the world. No question.

chinese dim sumBreakfast in Beijing

4. Trains are great

While The Darjeeling Limited did wonders for romanticising Indian railways, I never associated China with trains. I should have. China is home to the biggest high-speed railway system in the world. Stations are as big as airports with security to match. High-speed trains leave from gates rather than platforms, go up to 300 km/h and have screens that show exercise videos on a loop. Slower night trains are just as popular, with a hot water tap in every carriage for all your pot noodle needs, and men with trolleys walking up and down the trains selling cheap dinners.

great wall of china

5. There are many ways to visit the Great Wall

Like any touristic attraction, I expected the Great Wall to be busy and slightly disappointing. It just depends on where you go. The Great Wall, as per its name indicates, is pretty long – with plenty of semi-abandoned parts without another soul around. We visited such a location and had all the wall in sight to ourselves. It made sunset, sunrise and the Super Moon even more exceptional.

great wall of china

great wall of china

great wall of china

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super mon 2016 great wall of china

6. China is a well-oiled tourist destination

Domestic tourism is massive in China. What this means is that there are a lot more spots accessible to visit than just the ones you’ve heard of. Beijing and Shanghai, of course – but how about Shaolin, the home of kung-fu, or the roundhouses of Fujian? Although, disclaimer: the Chinese speak as little English as stereotypically expected and I wouldn’t backpack in some off-the-beaten-track areas as conversations might be a bit difficult.

kung fu shaolinKung fu lesson at sunset in Shaolin

xian city wallXi’an’s city wall

xian city wallXi’an’s city wall

terracotta warriors The terracotta warriors near Xi’an

fujian roundhouse A roundhouse in Fujian

7. The Chinese have a very special relationship to the other

There are about a thousand pictures of me on strangers’ cellphones and cameras in China. That’s because everyone, everywhere wanted a picture. Some were polite and asked, giggling, if they could have a selfie. Too many, unfortunately, would simply stare and snap; or worse, grab my arm and drag me in front of the camera without warning. Better be prepared to be very patient, and perhaps learn how to say ‘please stop, this is very rude’ in Chinese.

‘Selfie please lady.’

8. Everything about China is monumental

shanghaiShanghai’s skyline

Cities? Immense. Railways? Kilometres and kilometres. Stations are like airports. Quick train rides are eight hours; long ones are over a day long. Local shopping centres are huge malls. Smaller cities have millions of inhabitants. The biggest one have hundreds of millions. The scale of things in China is difficult to wrap your head around and left me dizzy.

9. China has its own Venices

This particular neighbourhood surprised me so much I wanted to mention it in particular. The town of Zhujiajiao, on the outskirts of Shanghai, is in fact only one of many water towns in China – but this one might be the most famous. It’s known for its many bridges, made up of wood, stone or marble, that criss-cross over the river’s many streams. We got on a boat to discover it, then walked around the narrow lanes filled with pickle stores and cute coffee and porcelain shops. It’s a one-hour to 90-minute bus ride from Shanghai’s city centre, but worth seeing.

Zhujiajiao water town

Zhujiajiao water town

Zhujiajiao water town

Zhujiajiao water town

10. China is a country of contrasts

That’s the overwhelming feeling I took with me at the end of the month I spent in China. I kept expecting China to be very much one thing (a mistake due to my own ignorance, no doubt), but I was continuously surprised at how it manages to be one thing and its opposite. It’s fiercely traditional with great importance given to elders, history and religion, but also so very modern, with cutting-edge technology, and super sharp fashion. The rural regions can feel so very quiet, peaceful, almost barren; but the urban areas are huge and alive at all times, and the Chinese love a good party. It feels like a society full of taboos, but that’s until you’re in a Chinese club in the early hours of the morning… In short: whatever you think China is, it probably is – but it’s also a million very different, very surprising things, too.

Noodles, soups and pancakes: get hungry for Vietnamese food

Food is always the thing I’m the most excited about when travelling. It’s just my favourite thing. I’d take Dalat pizza over the Crazy House and pad thai over a waterfall any day. Oddly, though, I wasn’t expecting much about Vietnam – I think because I haven’t had the chance to have Vietnamese food often back home.

Vietnamese food blew me away.

My first dish in Ho Chi Minh City was a plate of simple cơm tấm. Broken rice, a grilled pork chop and a fried egg. It doesn’t look like much, but eaten on a small stool on the side of the road, at night with rain trickling and the loud crackle of Saigon’s thousands of motorbikes, it felt like being a local. Rich and crispy pork with rice dribbling with egg yolk… Add to that a spoonful of the sweet rice vinegar that’s always on the table, and a little soy sauce, and you’ve got yourself a winner.

com ga

Like Thailand, Vietnam’s got a big street food culture, with vendors everywhere up and down the streets, hailing locals and tourists alike. You’ve got your banh mi, obviously – the star of Vietnamese food. No two banh mis are created equal, though. The bread must be right, the filling generous, with meat that actually tastes like meat, plenty of salad and crunchy cucumber, and the perfect amount of dressing to get everything going. A sheet of brown paper to wrap it in, a tight elastic band and off you go. The best by far is from Huynh Hoa (26 Lê Thi Riêng). Also known as the ‘banh mi ladies’, the women from this shop make one hell of a generous banh mi.

banh mi

banh mi

Same goes with pho. It’s not all about standing next to a big pot and dropping some meat and noodles in there. There are lots of different phos, depending on the meat, the thickness of the noodles, the level of spice, the toppings… I don’t think I quite found my pho, actually. I only tried it from off-looking stalls, and ended up with a handful of chicken feet at one point (not as traumatising as it may sound, but still startling). I did love the first bowl of hủ tiếu I had, though – a big, fuming bowl of glass noodles in pork broth.

pho

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banh xeo vietnam

Vietnam’s also a big market trade, with huge fruit and vegetable markets in every town. Hoi An’s was my favourite. I came back again and again to sit on those little metal benches, facing glass panels displaying all of the day’s goods, waiting for a plate of something delicious. White rose (or banh vac) are steamed clear ravioli filled with shrimps. Their name makes sense when the plate is put before you: delicate, a pinkish-orange hue, with droplets of chili oil creating a plate worthy of a modern British restaurant back home. You’ve also got cao lau, the local noodle dish that’s got thick, special noodles you can find nowhere else, braised pork, but no soup; and the wonderful banh xeo. One of my favourite dishes in Vietnam, it’s a small, shallow-fried pancake with pork and shrimps, folded and stuffed with fresh leaves, then eaten rolled into rice paper and dipped in nuoc mam. It’s the stuff of dreams.

vietnamese white roseWhite rose dumplings

vietnamese food banh xeoBánh xèo at a Hoi An market counter

vietnamese foodBanh beo dumplings

vietnam street foodBánh cuốn rolls

At dawn the market welcomes the street vendors coming to pick up their bitter lemons and cucumbers; later it’s the groups of cooking students that criss-cross the alleyways. I joined the Bay Mau Eco Cooking Tour with my friend Reema, learning to place prawns properly along the rice paper to make Hollywood-level spring rolls (gỏi cuốn), and discovering Vietnam’s fascination for peanut everything – cold noodles in thick, creamy, sweet-and-salty peanut sauce as delicious as it sounds wrong. Trust me.

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vietnamese food spring roll

Other standout dishes, in no particular order: a wonderful platter of bánh bèo, small steamed rice cakes topped with dried fish that hail from the imperial city of Hue; spring rolls packed full with dried mango, peanuts and greens and dipped in sweet peanut sauce, eaten on the night bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An; small, round fried dumplings stuffed with sweet bean paste; glass after glass of sweet, tangy, wonderful nước đá me, or tamarind juice; thick, creamy, sweet tiramisu-like egg coffee on a balcony overlooking Hanoi’s Hồ Hoàn Kiếm lake.

tamarind drink vietnamNước đá me by St Joseph’s Cathedral

vietnamese food

vietnamese mango rollSpicy mango rolls on the streets of Nha Trang

egg coffee vietnam

But if there could only be one… it would be bún chả. A Hanoi speciality, it’s a dish of fatty grilled pork served with white rice noodles, a deliciously sweet and vinegary dipping sauce and lots of foraged greens. It’s rich, sweet, savoury, crispy then mellow; it’s hearty and fun; it’s a bit of a mess. It’s Vietnamese food.

bun cha hanoi

So… Who’s getting on a plane to Vietnam with an empty stomach?

Snapshots from Halong Bay

I finished my Vietnam trip with three days spent on a cruise in Halong Bay. It’s truly a paradise – as well as being, like many of my favourite spots, a Unesco World Heritage site. What makes the bay unique is the thousands of big-and-small islands that dot it, all covered in thick green rainforest. From jumping off the boat’s bow straight into the water, to skinny-dipping at midnight on our lil’ private island… It was an indulgent end to an otherwise quite cheap trip and the photos are making me want to go back!

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Review: Bamba Experience bus in South-East Asia

Like most young travellers I’ve met on the road, I organised my trip with STA, back home in London. I booked all my flights through them along with a flexipass – which means I can change my flights if I want to – and also bought a few more services through them.

One of them was Bamba Experience’s “hop-on hop-off” bus tour of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam called Spicy Ways. I have, at best, mixed feelings about my experience about it so I thought I’d share to warn potential travellers…

 

Hop-on hop-off, except not

To me, hop-on hop-off means you’ve got a bus ticket that you can show up to a bus stop with, get on, get off, and again until it runs out. Since that’s the label with which STA sold me the package, that’s the way I understood it. Big red shining sign here: it’s not.

You’ll have to email Bamba anytime you want to make a bus journey, at least 24 hours in advance, and request to be booked on. Bamba and/or STA will have given you an itinerary brief before your departure that includes most bus departures. Don’t take that for gospel, as there are sometimes more or less. Be wary of the arrival times they give you, too; I booked a sleeper bus that I was told would arrive around 5 or 6am, and found myself alone in Phnom Penh at 2am, with every hostel closed.

In addition, there were a couple cases where I showed up to get on a bus and the bus company had no notice of my booking. Make sure you always have with you both the booking confirmation sent by Bamba, and the phone number for the local travel agent so they can be called to sort out the situation if need be.

My main problem with the whole system is that it lacked the spontaneity I was expecting the system to provide, and that I was relying on a daily basis on people I could only contact via the internet, which isn’t always easily accessible while on the road.

I was lucky that I never had a problem with a bus being full at the time I wanted it, I think it helped that I was travelling in the off-season. That’s one thing worth taking into account, too.

 

Activities

Aside from travel, the other thing included in this pass is a number of activities, ranging from bike tours to monument visits and mini-trips. Like the bus bookings, these need to be booked by email at least 24 hours in advance.

I enjoyed all the activities I did as part of the pass, and would’ve happily booked them myself if they hadn’t been pre-booked. But that’s the thing: I wish I’d just gone and booked them myself. This one’s my mistake – it was the first part of my trip and I wanted some reassurance, when really the best and easiest way to travel South-East Asia is just to wing it. I ended up on a lot of those activities by myself or with large tour groups, rather than with the pals I’d make in hostels. There were a few activities that I ended up not doing, or doing via a different company so I could join friends. Overall, I think this pass is better suited to groups of friends with limited time, rather than flexible solo travellers.

On the plus side, there were definitely some activities in there that I wouldn’t have done, or dared doing, if they hadn’t been pre-booked (cycling in Bangkok traffic on my third day? Hell no.) In that way, the pass has its upsides.

 

As for the money…

I’ll be honest, I didn’t keep precise track of the prices of the activities so I can’t exactly tally up what I paid against what it all would’ve costed had I paid as I went. However, South-East Asia is dead cheap, so I have no doubt it would’ve been cheaper to do without the pass. Besides, I would’ve selected lesser-class buses which would’ve no doubt reduced the price, too.

 

I think it’s rather obvious, but overall I would not recommend travelling South-East Asia with one of Bamba Experience’s bus passes unless you’ve got a strict schedule on a backpacker budget. I found it uncomfortable and hindering most of the time, which is at odds ends with what I wanted my trip to be. It won’t make the memories of this trip any less fantastic, but it was definitely the most unpleasant part of the trip, only second to losing my wallet on day one

If you’ve travelled with Bamba Experience too, I’d love to hear your thoughts and how it went for you – I hope this post and its comment section can help future travellers.