China FAQ General Vietnam

Reader Q&A: China Travel, Budgeting, and a Fire-Breathing Dragon [Bridge]

Peggy asked us a bunch of great questions in a comment on our “10 Things… Yunnan” post, and we figured we’d share the answers with everyone! We’ve also included a few other recent questions from commenters. It’s a fun format of writing for us, so if the questions keep coming, we’ll keep making these Q&A posts.

Do you know how to speak/read Chinese? I have heard independent travel in China was really hard if you only know English. What is your take?  -Peggy

Neither of us speak or read Chinese. Over the course of our travels in Taiwan and Yunnan, we have learned to say and write a few basic phrases and key words in Mandarin (mostly related to food, beverages, and bathrooms), but in order to communicate, we relied heavily on the support of phone apps and the timeless art of dramatic hand gesturing. I’ve been using the Pleco app, an amazing offline dictionary that is very tolerant with recognizing handwritten characters, and I would definitely recommend it to others as a good resource.

I’m also a Duolingo addict and used it to practice as we traveled. It was fun and satisfying to recognize characters around town as I learned them on the app. I have actually enjoyed learning Mandarin so much that I have decided that I’d like to learn more! We are planning to take a one month course when we go back to China over the summer.

We had heard similar warnings that independent travel in China was not advisable or even feasible without speaking Chinese. However, I think for experienced travelers with access to current technologies it is completely reasonable. Communication was not simple, and we made mistakes here and there, but with some patience and a healthy amount of awkward interactions, it all went just fine. I should mention that I actually enjoy the challenge of being in place where a lot is unfamiliar. Tarick does not feel similarly, but he had a great time anyway.

One important point to bring up is that pre-trip preparation is key for travel in China, because many of the tools you may be used to relying on are not accessible in China without a VPN (most notably for us: Gmail, WhatsApp). Some others are essentially nonfunctional even with a VPN (most notably for us: Google Maps). The VPN is straightforward to set up, but it must be done in advance, as you cannot set it up after you arrive. As for living without Google Maps, we relied on It failed to impress us, but it did the job of preventing us from getting entirely lost. I’ll also add here that China was the first place that we did not get a SIM card, because it was really pricey! We just relied on Wi-Fi and our phone GPS.

At this restaurant, I hastily used Pleco to translate a dish as “sesame pepper” noodle. When my entire mouth went numb eating it, I looked it up again. Could there be a more memorable way to learn that 麻辣 (“málà”) means “numbing hot”?

Can you talk more about the land border crossing [from Vietnam to China]. How difficult was it? – Peggy

As far as land border crossings go, Lao Cai – Hekou was a breeze. We crossed midday on a Saturday and had very short wait times both to exit Vietnam and to enter China. We had “evisas” for Vietnam, which (for some unexplained reason) limited which land crossings we could use. The land crossing we had planned to use to enter Laos was ineligible for our visa type, which is why we changed our plans to go to Yunnan instead.

About to enter Hekou (河口), after leaving Vietnam

Did you have a [Chinese] visa in advance? – Peggy

Yes. We had to apply for our Chinese visas from our “place of residence”, so we got them back in December before we left (same situation for our Russian visas). Now we have 10-year multi-entry tourist visas to China, which for some reason are identical in price and logistical complexity to single-entry Chinese tourist visas.

Any idea of the schedule on the train opening [from Kunming] to Vientiane? – Peggy

Based on what I read, it is expect to open next year in 2020. The portion to Bangkok is expected to open in 2021.

In general, How much would you say you are spending per day (including transportation, lodging and food)? – Peggy

During the first two months, our average overall spending came in at just under $100/day. This includes all transportation, with the exception of our flight to Taiwan, the cost of which we are spreading out over the course of the whole trip. This number also includes regular monthly charges like subscriptions and paying for our storage unit. [Clarification added in post update: The $100/day covers both of us, so it works out to essentially $50/person/day. All cost estimates below represent total costs for both of us, rather than per person costs.]

Accommodations friendly to our budget ($20/night max, always private rooms) have been easy to find everywhere except for Taiwan, which was much more expensive. We have also succeeded at eating cheaply, and we only on occasion spend over $20/day on food. Transportation is the killer for us, and we recognize that it’s our best opportunity for cutting down costs in the future. Occasionally, the cost of a pricey activity or admission takes a hefty chunk out of our budget, but by now we’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing when it’s worth it or not for us.

Taiwan was the most expensive place we traveled so far, mostly due to accommodation costs, and we have been making up for it ever since! Now that we’re in Nepal, we have a great opportunity to get ahead and offset our future spending, because we’re mostly staying put and our housing and basic necessities are all covered.

Big shout out to Della and Eric for their amazing Budget article series from their Around the World trip. Their information was a great resource for us in planning a realistic budget.

Tarick crunching the numbers on our February spending and discovering we can’t afford beer for the next few days

On your [Tiger Leaping Gorge] trek, were there options for shorter days hiking? It didn’t look like you were carrying all of your stuff, where did you leave it? – Peggy

Tarick is working on a detailed post about Tiger Leaping Gorge right now, so stay tuned! Spoiler alert: (1) Yes, (2) We left most our stuff at a guesthouse (Tina’s) in the Gorge. We didn’t actually stay at that guesthouse, nor did we have to pay for them to hold our luggage.

Explain how this dragon bridge [in Dang Na, Vietnam] blows fire?? – Dana

Fire starts at 0:15. The dragon also shoots water!

Where did you take the [Vietnamese] cooking class? – Anonymous

We took our cooking class in Hanoi at Apron Up. It was a good experience — we made pho, bun cha, spring rolls, egg coffee, and papaya salad.

Bring on the fish sauce

How’s your leg, Chiara? And how [did you spend] your birthday??? – Maryann

(1) My leg is totally healed! (2) On my birthday, we were near Ninh Binh, Vietnam. During the day, we took boats through beautiful grottoes in Trang An. In the evening, we had drinks overlooking some amazing scenery, and then we had banana pancakes for dessert (in lieu of cupcakes). Interestingly, banana pancakes have been really popular everywhere we’ve been so far.

Some of the boats got a bit competitive… (Trang An Grottoes)

All healed!

That’s all for this edition. Thank you for the questions! We really appreciate them.


  1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful answers. I am amazed in that photo of Tarick, there are handwritten Chinese characters. Someone looks like they are quite an artist! On your budget — is that $100 per day, per couple or per individual? I assume the latter? What fantastic information about the Chinese visa!
    P.S. I too have become addicted to Duolingo, although with the much more mundane goal of learning Spanish. Dana accused me of simply playing video games, but I think I actually am learning something, although maybe not the oral comprehension I would like.

    1. Hi Peggy! The $100/day actually covers costs for both of us, so it works out to essentially $50/person/day. I’ll update the post to clarify that. Duolingo totally works! I used it recreationally for Spanish for a year or two and learned a lot. I had never learned Spanish before Duolingo, and I was able to place into an intermediate level class. I agree, the speaking/oral comprehension is the most challenging part. Without practicing in person, it’s hard to build confidence in those areas, but that doesn’t stop Duolingo from laying really important groundwork. In other words, don’t listen to Dana 😉

  2. Thanks for the shout out! Glad the budget posts were useful. Random- we signed up for Amazon Kindle unlimited while we were traveling. Think there was a promotion for a free month and then $10/mo and we could access all completely new lonely planets as well as some Rick Steve’s. Don’t know if that works but it was awesome for planning purposes!

  3. Here’s a big question for you. You said Tarick wasn’t as big a fan of being in a place where a lot is unfamiliar. Tarick–how are you coping with the unfamiliar and uncertainty presumably popping up all the time? Are you starting to like it? Just tolerating it? Sending Chiara off to find the answers? (;

    1. I actually love the unfamiliar when it comes to: food, culture, people, wildlife, the environment, the weather, the cities, the experiences, etc. It’s part of the reason I love traveling! What I don’t always enjoy are logistical difficulties getting from Point A to Point B. Obviously, I know these difficulties come with the territory while traveling. I do my best to anticipate the issues beforehand and plan accordingly, but sometimes confusion and frustration are unavoidable. In these situations, I try to muddle through and figure it out, and yes it can make me grumpy! Chiara is the one that gets weirdly excited about being lost or on the wrong bus. She treats it as an exciting puzzle that must be solved! While I do not share her enthusiasm! 😉

    1. That’s such exciting news! We can’t wait to meet her and see you when we get back. Send hugs to Andrea from us!

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