THERE is no doubt that there is a market for books that show you what it is like to visit an exotic foreign place. An exotic and foreign place is, of course, a relative thing. For me, Pittsburgh or Poughkeepsie are quite foreign and, I dare say, rather exotic. For the native of Harrisburg or Baltimore it is surely Beijing or Hanoi. Many of the residents of these places may secretly wish they could have a look at how the others live but I somehow do not imagine there will be too many books or CD-ROMs about Pittsburgh. I am, however, ready to be corrected. That leaves us, then, with books and CD-ROMs on China, Vietnam and other 'exotic' places. Cymbidium, a local multimedia company, has produced a few titles in this vein and is indeed in the middle of producing a few more. For some, the whole idea of a travel CD-ROM is anathema. I do understand and in many ways sympathise with this view. It must be said, however, that it is a big market. Many people like reading about other places. Those people tend to be American or European, but that is not very important, except that it narrows the definition of what is exotic and . . . well, you get the point. So, we have three travel CD-ROMs. One on China, another on Vietnam and a third on Hong Kong. The China one is subtitled 'Chapter One', there being more in development. This, presumably, is due to the fact that it is a little bigger than the other two places. China in a Nutshell covers the main cities of interest - Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Xi'an (Guilin, one must assume, will be dealt with at a later date). Navigation could not be simpler: point, click, wait and watch. That's it. All text, as far as I was able to determine, was spoken. There were no screens full of text to read. This will be seen as a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view. For the chap who wants to get the information and move on as quickly as possible, it will probably be considered a pain. For those who do not like listening to a less than pleasant female voice, it will be equally painful but for different reasons. For those who do not care, it will not matter. The information is cursory, the pictures pretty and the video clips almost give you a feel for the place. It does sound like a textbook in places. The woman pronounces the Chinese names in perfect Mandarin, giving full weight to each tone. Each of these CD-ROMs is similar and yet a little different. An attempt has obviously been made to create each one according to what the creators thought was suitable. In other words, they were not simply produced like sausages by throwing the bits and pieces in one end and having the finished product extrude out of the other. Nevertheless, one can detect a guiding hand in all three of them. Everyone says that the great thing about CD-ROMs is that they allow you to navigate, to go where you want to go. This, of course, is utter rubbish. A CD-ROM may well give you the illusion that you are controlling where you go, but in fact you can only go where the designers let you. You do, it is true, have a little more control over what you do than you would if you were watching a television programme or reading a book, but it is more illusion than you think. All these things aside, one must not be too unkind. After all, the point of this kind of CD-ROM is to give an idea - an impression - of what an exotic and foreign land is like to those who may never get the chance to see for themselves. The design and production of these CD-ROMs is of the 'minimalist meets hi-tech' variety. The information is standard, the design and layout is simple - navigation is a breeze - and the whole effort is quite adequate for the task it was set out to accomplish.