1.09.2015

How to be rested and bright eyed after a long haul flight

The long haul, image via brownpau

If you have taken more than one trans-ocean flight, then you are most likely of the opinion that the in-flight entertainment provided by airlines doesn't cut it.   The armrest headphone music, advertisement-filled seat-back mags, and already-seen-it in-flight movies might take your mind off the cramped seat and recycled air for a few minutes of a 12 hour flight.  But for the other 11 hours and 55 minutes, the monotony and butt-ache take over.  

1.08.2015

Survey says Vietnam's airports are among the worst in Asia, but...

Ha Noi Noi Bai, image via David McKelvey 
 Sleeping in Airports, the sometimes-cheeky and always-useful guide to spending time in the world's terminals, recently released the results of a survey about Asia's worst airports. Islamabad's Benezir Bhutto International had the lowest score in the region, while Manila's Aquino was just above.

Ha Noi's Noi Bai International also scored poorly, while HCMC's Tan Son Nhat fared slightly better. Vietnamese officials were in a bit of a huff over the results of the survey, pointing to a new pod hotel at Noi Bai and a new international terminal at Tan Son Nhat.

Even with these upgrades, both Vietnam's main airports can indeed be crowded and noisy at times. Most of the complaints about these two hubs involved the air conditioning, or rather the lack thereof. I have noticed this in the past, but I never really had a problem with it. The slightly thick air at TSN's old immigration checkpoint, with only a hint of air con, was the perfect "welcome to the tropics."


1.03.2015

72-hours in China's best cities without a visa

Dalian by ashley wang
A growing number of Chinese cities are deciding to allow tourists to visit for a weekend without a visa.    Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, the boomtown (and corruption capital) of Chongqing, the northeastern hub of Shenyang, and Dalian, one of China's most user-friendly and pleasant metropolises, are all on the list of cities offering 72-hour visa-free stays to international tourists.

Travelers from most major EU countries, Australia, the US, and Canada are all eligible for these extended visa-less layovers.  This new policy might entice people to take an extended layover or to add a China leg onto their East Asian itinerary.  Hey, if time and money allow, why not add a weekend in Shanghai or Dalian (my personal favorite) onto your Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore vay-cay.

For a vast majority of travelers, though, getting a standard Chinese tourist visa, while an extra pre-trip step, is not nearly the headache it once was.  So if you want to spend a longer time in the Middle Kingdom, it's easy to do so.  But if you want to introduce yourself to China for the first time or discover a city besides Beijing and Shanghai, the new visa-free policy could make a quick stopover feasible and convenient.

12.31.2014

Can't get to Rio? Enjoy Carnival in Asia this year

Tokyo Carnival via LuxTonnerre

Even if you've never been to Brazil in February, if someone mentions the Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, images of gaudy floats, colorful costumes, over-the-top revelry, and perfectly proportioned scantily-clad dancers come to mind almost immediately.  Yes, if you really want to experience this pre-Lenten bacchanal, Rio is the best destination on earth.  Things are more toned down in Asia, but thanks mainly to centuries of Portuguese influence, a few destinations do have some very fun Carnival celebrations.

12.27.2014

Vietnamese cities are planning for a future without motorbikes

m m

It is the trademark of Saigon, Hanoi, and every city in between: tens of thousands of motorbikes buzzing through the streets with the riders almost elbow to elbow with one another.  The nerve-testing street crossings and chaotic rush hour rides are all part of the urban experience in Vietnam.  But the Vietnamese government is considering a plan to ban motorbikes in city centers.

The goals of doing this are pretty obvious: to easy congestion, curb pollution, and create a safer environment for pedestrians (namely, money-spending tourists).  But the drawbacks are equally clear.  In a country where everyone gets everywhere by motorbike, imposing a motorcycle ban would kill downtown economies and make it difficult for employees to get to work each day.

dmitry teslya

For this reason, some prominent government officials have publicly come out against an immediate ban.  A kind of gradual phasing out of bikes is more likely.  Both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have major urban rail projects in the works, and there are other initiatives to limit the number of bikes on the road (by some estimates there are more than 35 million motorcycles in Vietnam).

So if you are looking forward to the adrenaline buzz of a rush-hour street crossing in Downtown Saigon, fear not.  In all likelihood, there will be no changes anytime soon.  Five or ten years from now, though, you can expect Vietnam's downtowns to have cleaner air and safer streets.  And of course, the motorbike culture won't be going anywhere, even then.  The streets outside of the no-go zones will probably be even-more crowded with smoke-spewing two-wheelers.

12.23.2014

This undiscovered destination in Vietnam is cool in more ways than one

credit: weendang

Vietnam can be a very chaotic country for tourists.  The traffic, the crowds, the heat and humidity, the ever-present hustlers: there is always a lot for travelers to deal with.

These negatives are all reasons why places like Da Lat became so popular for both international and domestic tourists.  The highland city was a place to get away from it all.  Cool weather, a chilled-out vibe, and natural scenery provided the perfect antidote to the crowded, aggressive streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the touristy beaches of Nha Trang, and the other crowded tourist zones.

Today, Da Lat is still a place to chill out.  The vibe is still unique, and the weather is always cool.  But it is no longer the untouched mountain town it once was.  There are more farms, more hotels, more people on those "secret" trails that lead to beautiful highland views.

credit: weendang

Enter Mang Den.  This mountain town is very similar to the Da Lat of the previous century.  Like Da Lat, this kilometer-high town has cool weather year round.  Unlike the highland hotspot, though, Mang Den is almost completely untouched.  Pine forests are everywhere, and the local streams are still unpolluted and filled with fish.  The "secret" waterfalls, lakes, and scenic overlooks that define the Da Lat experience are also found in Mang Den.  The difference: in Mang Den, you will be alone on the trails and you won't have to share the view with anyone else.

Mang Den is about 30 miles from Da Lat, so if the larger city doesn't live up to your expectations, there is another option only a short ride away.

12.12.2014

Some Asian airlines consider adding a child-free zone to their planes

We've all been there: sitting next to a crying baby or sharing a row with a kid whose parents think it's fine to let them climb on you, throw things at you, or even hit you (yes, I was slugged by a kid once...his parents pretended not to see).

Having flown with my own child a number of times, I usually give flying parents the benefit of the doubt when it comes to cry or complaining).  Flying sucks sometimes, and babies and toddlers aren't shy about letting everyone know that they are unhappy.  Most parents are embarrassed and apologetic when this happens, but, even so, it can be frustrating to have to listen to crying or tantrums for the whole flight.

A survey by Skyscanner has a number of airlines considering adding child-free zones on airplanes.  The survey, conducted in India, showed that a majority of fliers favored having an adults-only section on every flight.  Fliers 12 and under would not be allowed to sit in this part of the aircraft.

Implementing such a zone would probably be impractical.  Airlines wouldn't not sell tickets to fliers with children because the child-zones were already filled up.  Profit margins are simply too low for carriers to have any policy besides "you pay for a seat, you get to sit there no matter how old or young or ugly you are."  So while a noise-free flight might be a nice idea, it's probably better to invest in some decent headphones and practice your menacing "get away from me kid" looks instead of waiting for the day when child-free zones come to the air travel industry.

12.06.2014

Tips for relaxing in East Asia's biggest and busiest airports

alex castro

Long haul flights are a test of endurance.

Sleeping in an upright position (or, if you are like me, trying – and failing – to sleep), eating food that you'd never consider eating otherwise, watching movies you've already seen, and dealing with the constant din of noise and desert-dry cabin air are enough to make you count the minutes in a way that you haven't done since you counted down until the final bell in elementary school.

 Uncomfortable long haul flights are one of the certainties of travel for people heading to East Asia from other continents. It's ten, twelve, or even fourteen hours inside the plane, often followed by a layover and another few hours aloft. There is a bit of a silver lining to this air travel ordeal, though. East Asia has some of the world's best airports.

Yes, we all know about the golf course and other attractions at Hong Kong International. I don't know about you, but for me, over-the-top amenities like that matter little to my sleep-deprived, dehydrated, cramp-plagued body when I land for a layover after an international flight. I want clean bathrooms, hearty food, a bottle of water that isn't completely overpriced, and a place where I can just chill out for a few hours and forget about the next leg of my journey.

After I figured out where to look, I was often able to find this kind of relaxation in Asia's airports.    Here are tips for relaxing in East Asia's busiest (and best) airports.