Where I’m At: September, 2018 – Hanoi edition

Where I’m At: September, 2018 – Hanoi edition

Greetings from Hanoi and another edition of Where I’m At; a monthly update of what I’ve been up to and general site news.

Where I’ve Been



The month began in Katowice where I stayed for a few days while waiting for a flight. Katowice is one of the biggest hubs for the low cost airline Wizzair, and it was close enough to the conference I was at in the Czech Republic to consider flying out of.

What I like about Katowice is that it’s a nice enough city to hang out in, but a place to go sightseeing. I like visiting these secondary cities as an antidote to overtourism. Of course everyone should see the Krakow’s of the world, but its good to balance out the overrun cities with places that don’t get many visitors.

In Katowice I enjoyed the Soviet-era architecture such as the Spodek building, which is shaped like a UFO (or what we think a UFO should look like).


And the Galeria Skarbek looks like it hasn’t changed since the Iron Curtain fell, and I love it for that. There are of course modern malls in the city, though a good city should have a variety of architectural styles from different eras.

Galeria Skarbek


Beach at Larnaca

My plan for this trip was to visit a European country I haven’t been to before. Most of the Mediterranean remains unexplored for me (a single visit to Rhodes being the only island I’ve been to) so Cyprus was my new country of choice.

Here is my trip report for Cyprus, and my visit to the divided city of Nicosia.


I Heart Beirut

I had been trying for some time to fit Beirut into my travel schedule. When I was planning my trip to Cyprus I had forgotten how close Cyprus is to Lebanon. It’s so close that it seemed rude not to go. I was also on the way to Dubai next, so I couldn’t pass this opportunity to visit Beirut on the way there. I spent four days in Beirut, which was better than nothing, but I left feeling like it’s the sort of place I’d like to stay longer. The city is still recovering from the civil war, with some buildings still in ruins and a modern city being built around it.

Stay tuned for a blog post this month.

Sharjah / Dubai

Al Itihad Park

Finishing up my Europe trip I did a stopover in the UAE on the way back to Vietnam. This was part of my travel strategy to hop back to Asia via short flights, avoiding overnight flights. I did that on the way to Europe with a stopover in Almaty and Astana in Kazakhstan.

It had been about 10 years since I was last in Dubai (outside the airport) so I was overdue for a revisit. From Beirut I got a flight to Sharjah, which is the emirate next door to Dubai. I stayed in Sharjah and then Dubai, so I will be posting about my trip later.



After a full month away it was good to return to my adopted home base and unpack for a little while. Whenever I return I do the rounds of my favourite cafes and street vendors, and I get asked where I’ve been at my most regular places.

While I was away the Landmark 81 tower was finished and is now open for business. At 461.2 metres it’s the tallest building in Vietnam, and is nearly 10 metres taller than the Petronas Towers in KL.

Landmark 81

There is a mall at the base with shops, cinemas, and food courts. There is also an ice skating rink, which is great to see the city accumulating more things to do.

Ice skating

I had two weeks between trips, and my plan while back in Saigon was to apply for a China visa. The visa office at the consulate is open from 8.30 to 11.30. I got there at 8.15, which turned out to be too late. The door closes at 11am, so if you aren’t inside by 11 then you are out of luck. I was about 10 people away from the door, and the queue moved slowly all morning. I’m told I should start queueing at 6.30 to get in.

China visa queue

When I went to China for 2 months in 2010 I applied for a visa in Melbourne, where there is a dedicated building with a ticketing system and seats.

I used a visa agent in 2012, but things have changed since then. I was willing to pay another $80 on top of the $109 for Australian passports, but you still have to go with the agent to the office, which seems to defeat the purpose.

I had planned to go back the next day, but as I kept thinking about queueing up outside for 4 hours, I had talked myself out of taking the trip. I don’t desire to go to China that much, so I would rather go somewhere easier.

Given how modern China has become it’s surprising they still rely on such tedious paperwork. There were four pages to fill out, and I ran out of space where they ask how many countries you’ve been to in the last year.

China visa form

It’s not like they don’t know who we are. Once you are in China your face is surveilled the moment you arrive. I’m surprised the whole visa process isn’t done online, where you can just scan you WeChat QR Code.

The China trip wasn’t urgent so I’ve changed my plan. At least I have that option. Most of the people in the queue were Vietnamese, who have to go through this circus for most countries outside of Southeast Asia.

My China plan was to get the train from Hanoi to Kunming, where the China-Laos railway begins, and then travel around Yunnan Province. I will now wait until the railway is open and visit via Laos. I suspect applying for a China visa would be easier in a smaller city, and I would be interested to know where is the easiest place in Southeast Asia to get a visa for China.

I’m kind of relieved that the trip fell through as I have a lot of work to do, and going behind the Great Firewall of China is a pain (even with a VPN). Instead, I have extended my trip in Hanoi, which is always a good thing.

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  1. Edgar Paul McCord Jr says

    When will the train to Kunming to Hanoi be operating?

    • Currently you can get the train from Kunming to Hanoi but but changing trains at the border. There have been talks but no official commitment for a through train yet. The Train from Kunming to Laos is expected to be finished in 2021.

  2. Edgar Paul McCord Jr says

    Thank you .

  3. James,
    we encountered a likewise situation, only slightly worse, in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) on Wednesday August 22, 2018.
    When we checked the visa center for info that day, we were told by a queuing gentleman to make sure to be at the center at 12 o’clock Thursday if we wanted to be admitted inside Friday August 24. The Chinese office there opens only 3 times a week and only allows 10 foreigners in.
    So we decided to chance it. Dressed in warm clothes, it’s cold in UB at night, and prepared to spend the night in front of the Chinese visa center, we got there at around midnight.
    We fell upon a group of 12 people already camping across the visa center (the police don’t allow anyone to camp next to the center), and discovered we were unfortunately # 13 and 14.
    There, we were told that # 1 and 2 (nicely tucked in for the night in their tent) had been there since midday!
    In UB the 1st person to arrive makes a list of 10 people (first come, first served) that s/he then hand over to the police officer in charge in the morning, who then delivers it to the officials inside and each person on the list gets his ticket to get in.
    Like you, we decided to dedicate our time to better things while in Mongolia, rather than waste days in front of the Chinese visa center. There are after all many other places to visit beside China where the authorities are very welcoming.
    As a result, we adapted our plans, got the cheapest flight we could find (Seoul) instead, and bought a $100 plane ticket to Hanoi, where we really intended to go.
    China was on our list because we wanted to travel the Trans Siberian Express from Moscow to Beijing, but heck we can surely do without the hassle.
    Thanks for relating your experience here as we thought we’d apply for a Chinese visa from Hanoi and do the trip by train the other way around. Now we know we don’t have to even think about it, LOL.

    Maybe we’ll meet in Hanoi, flying there this Thursday September 6. Booked at this supposedly great hostel in the Old City.

    • Oh wow you definitely had it worse than me. I can’t believe that for a neighbouring country they process so few visas. Funnily enough I was going to go to China from Hanoi last year, then before I was going to apply I read that if you don’t have any full pages left in your passport you may not get it. I had one page left so I didn’t risk it. I ended up booking a flight to Seoul from Hanoi (yay for visa on arrival!)

  4. James,
    when will the ‘Where to Stay’ in Hanoi appear?

    I know it will be too late for our arrival but we plan to visit again during our tour of SE Asia.

    • I’m flying out on the 5th, so I’ll just miss you. I’m putting together a Where To Stay guide for Hanoi on this trip, but basically staying in the old city is ideal.

      • Pity we’ll miss each other. We’re booked in the old city so that seems a good thing.
        Looking forward to the new Where to Stay guide.

  5. You’d think they would come up with a less primitive way for obtaining a visa. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post though!

  6. I think the China visa office in Singapore is much more efficient than this.

    • You might be right about that, I would not know. In general obtaining a visa for China is a big pain that I personally can easily avoid.
      They are far too nosy about our private life (they want to know everything about you, your family and which countries you have visited before visiting China).
      They might be efficient but they certainly are making it very difficult for people to want to go there. After all we go there to spend money and contribute to the economy of their country; so far I’ve not seen one country not interested in attracting tourism money except maybe North Korea. Even obtaining a Russian visa was far easier than attempting to obtain the Chinese visa.
      But there are many, many other countries happy to have us so that is where we are visiting.

    • Yes I think no one would tolerate queueing outside in Singapore!

  7. Hi James,

    Thank you for sharing! I am planning a trip to Vietnam, and I would love to visit Ha Long Bay, Do you know what is the best way to get there from Hanoi?

  8. Hey James,

    I actually obtained a Chinese visa from Luang Prabang in Laos very easily a couple of years ago. Standard amount of paperwork but zero queues. Not sure if that helps you at all – possibly handy for future reference.

    Apart from that, I have numerous times over the years obtained a Chinese visa in HK (I know, not really on your route!) – paperwork is very minimal via an agent, a very quick and painless process.

    • Hi Ronnie, I was wondering if Luang Prabang would be a good option so thanks for the report. I think I will do that next time. HK is also a good option for future visit. I went by the HCMC consulate again this week and the queue was even worse, so won’t be doing that again!

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