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My Vietnam War, or how I ruined my Chinese New Year vacation

January 26, 2011

This is not as bad as backpack!gate, but it’s pretty bad.

Chinese New Year (CNY)  is the largest vacation here in China. It’s like Christmas in the US. In the lead-up, nobody wants to do any work. Starting about a week before, a huge travel rush begins. Everybody goes home. One estimate I read said that half the population of China — about 700 million people — would be travelling during the month surrounding CNY. And everyone gets a week off from work, including me.

Being the smart, thoughtful, plan-ahead type that I am, about a month ago I began planning Rick’s and my CNY vacation. At first, I thought we could travel within China, but after some thorough research on and, I noticed that flights to pretty much anywhere in this country around CNY were on average three times as expensive as during any other time of year. Ouch.

My next thought was, let’s travel to Southeast Asia to avoid those price hikes. Indeed, research revealed that the prices of flights to places like Vietnam and Thailand did not soar to the sky during CNY, but stayed pretty consistent. Vietnam seemed to be the cheapest place to go, so I started looking into cities. Hanoi, long-time capital, appeared to have lots of interesting things to do. Ho Chi Minh/Saigon seemed to be more of a shopping/nightlife city, like Shanghai. So I picked Hanoi as our destination.

I also thought to myself, how can we save even MORE money? Two things crossed my mind:

  1. I’d be willing to miss a couple days of work for better prices. My time off work starts on Wed, Feb 3, so I figured I could leave as early as Friday night and only miss two days of work.
  2. I’d be willing to take the train to another city if I could score a cheaper flight that way.

Turns out, my hunches for saving money were both spot-on: if we flew out in late January out of Guangzhou (the largest City in southern China), we could score round trip tickets for less than USD 200 a person! Amazing! This was less than half the cost of flying to Hanoi direct from Shanghai. We would just need to take an overnight train (on “hard sleeper” bed-seats, of course) on Friday evening to get to Guangzhou; with the added cost of the train ticket, the trip would be significantly cheaper still than flying out of Shanghai.

The only trouble was, in China, train tickets aren’t released to the public until about a week before the ride (in an effort to curb scalping). So, we couldn’t know for sure whether we’d get the train tickets… However, after talking to Rick, we decided there was little risk if we just woke up really early and got to the train station just as they started selling tickets. And there were at least three different trains that could get us to Guangzhou.

I booked the flights. Then I booked a hostel (for a small fee).

A couple weeks later, I discovered three annoying things:

  1. I had accidentally booked our flight on Friday, NOT Saturday (shoot), which means I’d have to miss an additional day of work on Friday;
  2. Because of the holiday schedule, Sunday Jan 30 was a damn WORK day, which means I’d miss yet another day of work, making my total four missed days of work. Damn – I might as well have booked this trip on any random work week.
  3. I looked up the weather in Hanoi during our trip and saw that the temperature would be in the 40s and 50s (F), not tropical hot weather like I was expecting. You see, Hanoi is in the North.  Damn damn damn. Should have picked Ho Chi Minh (which is in the South).

But none of this ended up mattering at all. You see,  few days ago, on the day of our tickets release, Rick and I woke up at 7am and headed to the train station. We got there around 8am.

They were COMPLETELY SOLD OUT of train tickets. On ALL the trains.

I found out later that this was because travel agencies of all sorts buy up all the tickets during CNY season way ahead of time, and it’s nearly impossible to buy tickets the conventional way.

Needless to say, we will not be going to Vietnam. There goes $200.

On the plus side, I get to spend CNY in Shanghai, where I can blog up a storm in my boredom!

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