Posted in Asia, Bangkok, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 2

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

19 March 2018

Today we had to get up very early to have breakfast and head to the Damnoen Saduak floating market at 7am. It’s a bit hard to assess how far the place really is from Bangkok, since today is Monday and the traffic is simply incredible, the roads are much more packed than yesterday, and we had to spend ages in traffic jams which were aggravated by the very long waiting time at traffic lights.

On the way to the floating market we stopped to see how oil and sugar are produced from coconut – something similar to what we’d already seen in Vietnam.

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If I continue comparing with Vietnam, where the floating market didn’t quite meet our expectations, here it was the same. There were lots of boats, but most of them were carrying tourists, with only a couple boats here and there selling fruits and snacks.

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So we didn’t get to see that iconic postcard view of the canal crammed with boats full of colourful flowers and fruits. Maybe, again, we’d had to be here at 5am for that. On the other hand, along the banks of the canal there was a whole flea market kind of thing, with souvenirs, handicrafts and other stuff, so the boatman kept stopping every minute at one shop or another to get us to buy something off his friends. One of the sellers introduced herself as his wife and, when she faced our languid refusal to buy anything despite her persistence, she asked us to at least give tips to her husband at the end of our ride. Floating by another shop, we saw a woman washing her plate and hands right in the canal, which raised serious doubts as to the compliance of the food sold at the market with sanitary norms. Which is why, having got off the boat and having arrived to a local coffee shop, as agreed in advance with Vanna, we got hot coffee rather than the much desired iced coffee – common sense suggested that the ice could have also been made from frozen canal water, who knows?

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Another attraction at the market was the opportunity to take a picture with wild animals: sloths, loris and pythons. A thought flashed through my mind: maybe I should get a photo with a snake hanging around my neck? But I finally decided that I didn’t want to spend 200 baht (just under 7 USD) to support such a cruel business. Social responsibility, you know!

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What also deserves a separate mention in this place is the toilet. It’s a whole single-storey building with enticing inscriptions and a car park, the interior reminds of pharmacy, there are snacks sold inside and even a wi-fi hotspot!

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In short, we weren’t extremely impressed with the floating market, and we left for Bangkok well before 11am, which was our deadline in order to make it to our cooking class at 1.30pm. What cooking class? – you may ask. Well, actually the tour we chose is called ‘The Taste of Thailand’, so in addition to sightseeing and beach recreation, it also includes three cooking classes in different cities!

We were brought to the corner of some street in Bangkok and handed over to a guy, who assigned us to a group of 8 people and sent us off to the market nearby with his colleague – our current instructor.

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At the market, there were already baskets and a set of vegetables prepared for us, and we had to take them with us. That is, the market trip was a mock one – in fact, there was only one stall still open at this time as the market as such operates very early in the morning. It was just that the instructor – a very funny guy – took the opportunity to show us some essential ingredients, indispensable in Thai cuisine. As he explained, for example, the mushrooms or beans used here are, of course, local varieties, but can easily be replaced with any other variety, as they are used not for the taste, but for the texture, just like most other vegetables. As for galangal (a close relative of ginger), Thai basil, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, though, they can’t be replaced even with closely related plants – it wouldn’t be Thai cuisine anymore. From this we concluded that it is unlikely that we would be able to hone our Thai chef skills in Baku: there’s no way we can find kaffir lime leaves there. He also pointed out the important difference between Thai and Indian curries – in Indian curries the flavour is created using dried herbs and spices, and in Thai curries – using fresh herbs and roots. For instance, ginger and turmeric are always used fresh, never dried and ground.

A funny episode – there was a very nice Colombian couple in the group with us, and right upfront the lady warned the instructor that she couldn’t stand onions or any related plants. The instructor joked that he would then pass onions off as cabbage, and so till the end of the class he continued referring to all kinds of onion-like plants as cabbage.

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Having picked up our baskets with vegetables and herbs, we headed back to the cooking school and immediately got down to work. We had five dishes to cook: Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, green curry, spicy chicken salad and sticky rice with mango for dessert. Frankly speaking, we didn’t cook the last two ourselves, but rather simply observed the process. Our only contribution to the dessert was participation in making coconut milk from grated pulp, and the milk was then used for the soup and curry as well as for the dessert. We started actually doing something when we moved on to the Tom Yum soup.

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All we had to do was cut up the vegetables (tomatoes, green onions, mushrooms and chili peppers – I boldly took two), prep the “flavour ingredients”: lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves – these are the three ingredients that actually create that distinct Tom Yum flavour and that are not supposed to be eaten, by the way; all the rest can be replaced if necessary – and then put everything in our individual wok, and add fish sauce, chili paste and lime juice to taste. The fish sauce, which we first came across in Vietnam, features in absolutely every dish here, apart from sweets. It replaces salt and enhances the flavours, being a natural source of sodium glutamate. While we were cooking, the instructor was walking around, adding water and coconut milk, then adding shrimps. Generally, I noticed that we were only trusted with processing vegetables and greens, while all the meat was provided already prepped and added straight to our woks.

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Once we cooked and happily consumed our own Tom Yum soup portions, it was time to cook the Pad Thai. The instructor had pre-soaked the rice noodles in cold water, so we just had to cut up the tofu and leeks and return to our woks, already washed and seasoned with soybean oil for us. First of all we fried off some crushed garlic with tofu and spices (fish sauce, coconut sugar, chili flakes, ground peanuts and something like pickled radish). Then we broke an egg into the wok and gave it a quick fry too. Finally, in went the noodles, leeks and soybean sprouts. The instructor told us that in Thailand no one cooks Pad Thai at home, and this is exclusively street food. Interestingly, some type of sugar is added to almost any dish here.

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By the way, at some point the instructor told us that almost everyone in Thailand knows about Azerbaijan, due a lot of Thai players in our volleyball clubs, and since volleyball is the only team sports which Thais are good at, this fact is widely known. Good to know, as we were quite surprised that hearing about us being from Azerbaijan, no one here makes a puzzled face and asks what on Earth it is, like we’re used to.

After Pad Thai we tasted the spicy chicken salad prepared for us by the instructor, as mentioned, using onions, boiled minced chicken, chilis, ground roast rice and of course seasoned with fish sauce. And then we had to cook green curry. The instructor prepared the curry paste himself, explaining in the meantime that no one does it at home and everyone buys readily made paste. He mixed a lot of ingredients in the mortar – coriander and cumin seeds, the “holy trinity” (if you remember, that’s lemongrass, lime leaves and galangal), red and green chili peppers, turmeric root, garlic and something else, and then we took turns to mash it all with a pestle. Then, one last time, we returned to our woks, where coconut milk and chicken slices were already added for us, and cooked that with Thai eggplant, basil and finger root ginger with the addition of fish sauce, sugar and curry paste.

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At the very end we were served our dessert – a slightly salty sticky rice mass (yes, salt is added to desserts and not to savoury dishes here – for the latter this mission is given to fish sauce!) with fresh mango. We really liked the class overall: we acquired new skills, plus it was fun and tasty!

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For the evening we had a ladyboy cabaret show planned. It sounds a bit dubious, I understand, but there was absolutely nothing bawdy there. Just normal singing and dancing, the performance was pretty good: they were portraying Beyoncé and Marilyn Monroe, acting scenes in Chinese and Korean style, and for some reason dancing to “Hava Nagila”. If you don’t know they are ladyboys, you could totally take them for women.

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By the way, the show wasn’t included in our tour programme, therefore, even though Vanna kindly arranged tickets for us, even with a discount, we had to take a taxi ourselves. The cabaret is on the Asiatic embankment – it’s a very pleasant place with a ferris wheel, restaurants, shops and a night food market. We went for little walk after the show, and the street food looked very tempting to us, but firstly, we were still full after the cooking class, and secondly, we are still slightly apprehensive about street food.

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Posted in Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand – Day 1

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

18 March 2018

Off we go to another Asian trip, with the same travel agency that organized our Vietnam tour – this time we are in Thailand! After the virtually sleepless overnight flight from Abu Dhabi (toddlers on board are an absolute evil!) we arrived in Bangkok at about 7am, found our way out of the enormous airport pretty quickly and met our guide – an elderly lady named Vanna.

Later she told us that she used to work for a large logistics company, and when she retired at 57, she entered the university and became a tour guide, so as not to sit around. She also learned to swim and play tennis at the age of 40 and driving a car at 45. We found her very nice, positive, full of energy and helpful.

First of all, we were taken to our hotel. Of course, on our way we kept staring around and comparing everything with the last Asian cities we had seen – that’s Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Bangkok looks (and indeed, is) much more developed in terms of infrastructure and economy. It’s a very green city, with lots of tropical vegetation and flowers.

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In the hotel we were offered breakfast right away, and it was quite good, but as we understood, unlike in Vietnam, here three stars mean exactly three stars, and you don’t get an abundance of all kinds of fruits, dim sums, sushi rolls and whatever else your soul may desire.

Then we were given 40 minutes to get ready, and right after that we went on a city tour. What immediately caught my eye were photographs of the late king, deceased two years ago, all around the city. Vanna said that he was not just a king for them, but almost like a father, as he cared a lot about the people. For a whole year after his death, the entire nation wore black and white as a sign of mourning – not because they were forced to, but voluntarily.

The first item of our programme was the Grand Palace – a complex of buildings, with temples and pavilions, built in the 18th century. There is a strict dress code on the premises: knees and shoulders must be covered. Given the thirty-plus degree heat, it doesn’t feel extremely nice but is not fatal. What spoils the impression a bit are crowds and crowds of people, mostly Chinese. I wrote this phrase – and felt deja vu, remembering how I had written the exact same thing about the Forbidden City in Beijing. Here as well, 99% of the tourists seem to be Chinese, Vanna said that it gets this crowded all year round, and even worse so during the Chinese New Year.

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The highlight of the palace complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (or Wat Phra Kaew), where taking photos was not allowed. The Emerald Buddha is actually made from a solid block of jade (as for emerald, it’s not even suitable for carving), his clothing varies depending on the season, which there are three of in Bangkok (winter, summer and rainy season), and it is the king himself who “dresses” the Buddha. In general, the statue is quite small, only 66 cm, and according to a legend, was found in the 15th century in Chiang Rai among the ruins of some pagoda, then transported to Chiang Mai (we are going to see both cities, but at that time they did not belong to Thailand) and to a bunch of other places, before finally making it to Bangkok. The figurine is highly revered in Thailand and even considered the Palladium of the Kingdom, which is said to stand for as long as the Emerald Buddha is in Thailand.

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Vanna keeps drawing our attention to elements of the architecture, as we are examining various stupas and pavilions. Everything is made by hand, whether it’s ceiling paintings or porcelain shard mosaic work.

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Some buildings are purely in Thai style – this is evident both from the shape of the roofs and the abundance of gold in the finish. Others are in Cambodian style, with more pointed domes and without gold, although also with a very rich finish. There is even a model of the Cambodian Angkor Wat temple.

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One group of buildings includes a newer palace built in European style in the 19th century – after a European trip, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) wanted to demonstrate that in Thailand (or actually, Siam back in the days), which unlike its neighbours in Indochina and thanks to Chulalongkorn’s politics, wasn’t anybody’s colony, they could build at the same level as in Europe.

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At the exit from the Grand Palace, we saw numerous wall paintings from Indian mythology – in general, Indian influence is largely felt here, even Buddhism seems to be in its Indian form, not Chinese like in Vietnam.

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After the Grand Palace we took a boat across the river to the Temple of Dawn (or Wat Arun). Here we saw Buddhist monks, some of whom were young boys – probably novices – having lunch. They are allowed to eat only twice a day and only before noon, and also women aren’t allowed to touch them.

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The dome of the temple is in the Cambodian style and also decorated with porcelain shards. Vanna said that back in the days the royal court ordered porcelain tableware from China, and far from everything survived on the way, so this is how the broken crockery was utilised.

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Today’s last stop, not included in our tour programme, but suggested by Vanna, was a visit to a gem factory to purchase jewelry. We bought silver jewelry – gold was either too expensive, or too inconspicuous.

On the way to our hotel, we popped into a restaurant nearby and tasted the local versions of the famous tom yum soup and green curry. Delicious but spicy! And then, after a hearty lunch and a sleepless night, we immediately went to bed and slept for 2-3 hours, until it was time to get ready for the dinner cruise on the Chao Praya River. Vanna and the driver were already waiting for us, and we drove right to the pier.

There were quite lot of people on the cruise boat, but fortunately we had a table on the open upper deck, and not on the closed bottom one (although, perhaps, this wasn’t sheer luck, but rather what our ticket included). The cruise was very pleasant – there were small kerosene lamps burning on the tables, the buffet dinner was delicious, we passed by the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, which we had seen before and which were now magnificently illuminated, and in the meantime we were entertained by the cultural programme: the singer was singing famous languid ballads (including ones in Chinese – probably also famous, just not to us), and then we say a mini ladyboy cabaret show.

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Posted in Asia, English, Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 10

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

14 June 2017

Here we got to our last day – or actually the last half-day – in Vietnam. We didn’t have much to do today, and the only plans we had were to walk around and possibly buy something.

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So we had a really slow breakfast, yet still managed to leave the hotel before 9am. Therefore, many clothing stores were still closed – and actually, we were pretty interested in local brands. A lot of other shops were open though: those selling household goods with buckets and mops; repair shops, littered with all sorts of junk; shops selling faxes or coils for electric stoves etc.

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That is why, we decided to walk to the lake again and try something we hadn’t tried yet: the famous egg coffee. This is a typical Hanoi invention and we headed straight to the Giang cafe, owned by a family which invented this drink back when cow’s milk was in short supply – so a certain Giang came up with the idea of ​​replacing it with egg yolk. The drink is very interesting, has a dense consistency and tastes like egg-flip, consisting of egg yolk, whipped with sugar, robusta coffee and condensed milk.

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Since we really liked the coffee in Vietnam in general – it’s so fragrant, not sure whether it’s because the Vietnamese drink mostly Robusta rather than Arabica or for some other reason – on our way we went to a coffee shop and bought coffee beans to take home with us.

We walked back along the same shopping street as before, and the clothing stores were already open, but on closer examination somehow didn’t impress us too much: it felt like the clothes were better in Saigon, where unfortunately, we didn’t have time to walk around shops.

But we did get to buy fruits to take home! We were looking for a street market, which we saw on the first day near our hotel, but didn’t find it – apparently they are off today – so we popped into an ordinary fruit shop and got pitahayas (dragon fruit), litchis, mangosteens and rambutans there.

Now we only had to have lunch, and we walked into a Japanese barbecue restaurant, where you could pay 300,000 VND (about 13-14 US dollars) and get an unlimited amount of meat and seafood, which you had to grill right in the centre of the table. Unfortunately, our stomachs have limited capacity, so pretty soon we had to ask to stop bringing food and just serve the dessert (which, along with bottomless beer, was also included in the price).

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Then we returned to the hotel, took a quick shower and went to check out. The staff of the hotel were very nice to us: we were seen off by pretty much all of the reception staff, who even gave us hanging decorations with rag birds as gifts! At half past two in the afternoon the travel agency car picked us up and took us to the airport.

Goodbye, beautiful country of delicious food, fragrant coffee, wonderful massage, rich history and culture, stunning nature, crazy traffic and lovely people!

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Posted in Asia, English, Halong, Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 9

13 June 2017

I did manage to get up very early: when I woke up, it wasn’t even 5am and the sky was already brightening. Alas, I couldn’t photograph the phenomenal sunrise – firstly, because it was quite ordinary and not as stunningly beautiful as I had expected, and secondly, once I took my camera, which had stayed the whole night in an air-conditioned cabin, out in such a humid environment, it immediately got water condensed on it and it took a very long time to wipe the lens and the mirror.

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The captain of the ship was also up, doing yoga at the upper deck, and at 6am he started the tai chi class. At first I didn’t like it at all, because we were given rather heavy wooden sticks and started stretching using those, which neither me nor my lower back appreciated much. I really liked the actual tai chi exercises though, but they took only five or ten minutes out of the whole half-an-hour session.

After breakfast there was one more motor boat trip planned for us. This time we went to a cave called the Surprise Cave.

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The reason it’s called so is because it’s very spacious, which you don’t expect at all looking at the island from the outside.

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The cave, in fact, consists of several “rooms”, and is not just a wild spot where you can walk anywhere and climb the rocks, no, it is fully equipped for tourists. There are man-made stairs, lighting – with the illumination being multicolored and very well thought out – and identification signage, so quite obviously, the entrance isn’t free, but the ticket is already included in our cruise.

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Luckily, it was very cool in the cave, as the weather outside is again very stuffy and humid. I have to say, I found the cave absolutely amazing and not only because of the size. I’d never seen anything like it in my life, it’s incredible to discover such places. Just look at those stalactites and stalagmites of freakish shapes, or patterns on the rocks, looking like a dragon or a heart!

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Upon returning to the ship, we only had to check out, have brunch and disembark on the shore.

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We were back in the office of the cruise company, where we had to spend an hour waiting for our minibus. And that was the exact moment when we felt all the power of our luck, for literally the very minute when we sat down in the waiting room, an incredible downpour started and didn’t stop for the whole hour that we were waiting. Moreover, later in Hanoi we were told that yesterday, when we were not there, there was a heavy storm with rain and that today it had just moved to Halong, to the extent that some cruises got canceled altogether. Just imagine that if our cruise was only a day later, we might have not even got to the place which was the main reason why we actually organised this Vietnam trip!

The road to Hanoi took the same four hours and again was not particularly interesting, except for the fact that at some point our Peruvian fellow passenger snapped at the driver, saying that he was carrying 8 people and not potatoe,s so he had 8 lives in his hands and it wouldn’t hurt to drive more carefully. I’m not sure if the driver was actually doing any dangerous maneuvers, but one thing I know was that I didn’t manage to sleep in the back seat, as every time I was falling asleep and my mind began drifting away, the minibus jumped and I immediately was wide awake.

In Hanoi, we checked in at the same hotel, only now we were upgraded to a better room free of charge – a much larger one and with a nice view from the window.

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Even though it was only 4pm, we felt too lazy to go out, especially after we saw how crazy the Hanoi traffic was on that day. Especially that we had a visit from the travel agency representative who we had corresponded with when booking the tour and who came to meet us personally, thank us and give us lacquered boxes as gifts. Of course, we warmly thanked her too, both for the gifts, and for the wonderful organisation of the tour, since not only was it very interesting and educating, but also everything went without a hitch: we were always met and seen off perfectly on time and were very well taken care of.

Since today was our last night in Vietnam, we decided not to economise on ourselves at all, but to splash out on a massage in the hotel spa, which was twice as expensive as our previous massages (those had discount offers) and dinner in a high-end restaurant at the hotel as well.

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The massage was indeed of a little higher class than in Hue and in Hoi An: even though tea had been served there as well, and in Hoi An we had also been offered to choose a fragrance oil for massage, but here we had our feet washed in some cinnamon decoction before the procedure (plus the tea came with biscuits! 🙂 )

Dinner also was a very pleasant experience, not only with the meal being great (it included a pomelo, prawn and squid salad, beef stewed in coconut milk and served right in a coconut shell, baked Hanoi fish, passion fruit cake and creme brulee with flambéed banana), but also the service being excellent and friendly.

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Service in Vietnam is generally excellent – only once we sat down to have coffee in some fancy café in Hanoi, and were completely ignored by the waiters so had to indignantly leave without ordering, but that is more likely an exception, and besides all TripAdvisor reviews about this place mention the awful service. As for all other places – whether hotels, spas, restaurants or means of transport – everyone is very friendly, knows their work well and many are very eager to do more than they should. Perhaps this is somehow related to the fact that the country has a very developed tipping culture: the salaries of staff are usually very low making them really count on tips from customers.

Posted in Asia, English, Halong, Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 8

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

12 June 2017

Yesterday’s excursion was the last one with a guide, but the Vietnam tour continues. At 7.30am we were picked up from our hotel by a minibus – and off we drove to Halong, where we were supposed to take a cruise around the bay

The drive from Hanoi to Halong took about four hours, including a stop halfway. There wasn’t anything remarkable on the way, and there were seven of us in the minibus: a Vietnamese lady, a company of three Colombians and one Peruvian, and us, obviously. Finally we arrived on the Tuan Chau island, looking like a proper resort, with an aquapark – and merged into a large crowd of people awaiting the ship. At first we were unpleasantly surprised, as we’d been told that the cruise was designed for a rather small number people (44 guests max), but then it turned out that all these people were actually waiting for three different ships.

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As a result, we boarded ours with our fellow minibus riders and a few more couples, families and companies. As a welcome, we were offered some juice, instructed on safety and itinerary, placed in cabins and served lunch.

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Halong Bay is probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, if not the most. We are surrounded by lots of limestone cliffs and islands covered with greenery, jade-green sea, cruise ships and small fishing and trading boats.

After all the excursion rush on previous days it felt so blissful to just lie in a chaise longue under the sun on the upper deck.

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But in any case, we didn’t get to lie for long – in about an hour, everyone was offered to get on one of the two small motor boats that were traveling behind our ship in tow. We were first taken to some sort of cove, fenced off by rocks from the rest of the bay, with an entrance through a small grotto. There were actually two options to get into the cove through the grotto: either on a bamboo boat with a group of people and a local boatman, or in a kayak, paddling yourself.

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At first, although the idea of ​​kayaking seemed pretty tempting, we were somehow feeling scared – neither of us had ever tried before – and were more inclined toward the bamboo boat. But once on the spot, when we heard that the staff were happy to watch our cameras, we changed our minds.

First, when we just were seated in a kayak, given a paddle each and pushed away from the pier, we felt a bit lost and couldn’t figure out how to paddle, clumsily navigated our way into the grotto, crashed into another kayak, hit the wall, hit a stalactite – and then we finally figured things out and learned to properly paddle, turn and navigate the boat. It felt great, especially that we learned a new skill, even though paddling was pretty difficult – too bad we were only given 25 minutes. By the way, on the rock above the grotto we found an inscription saying “Lesozavodsk 1962”, I wonder how and why it even got there!

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The next stop of the motor boat was the Ti Top Island with a beach. But apart from the beach, there was also an observation deck, right at the top. Of course, I totally had to go there, and that is when I realised that all the time I’d spent on the StairMaster machine in the gym had not been wasted: I managed the 400-something stairs leading to the deck surprisingly easily, while many others struggled and had to settle for an intermediate viewing platform halfway.

Even though, having made it to the top in this humid stuffiness, I was absolutely drenched in sweat, but the full view of the bay which I got to see, was more than worth it. Such incredible beauty, it’s not for nothing that Halong Bay is named one of the seven wonders of nature!

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The descent on the way back, seemed harder and scarier, I must say, but the refreshing sea down below seemed like a reward!

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Kudos to the cruise organisers, who provided for everything: we were given beach towels; then as we stepped off the motor boat back onto our ship we had our feet washed with a hose; the dirty towels were then spread on the floor to make sure we didn’t slip or wet the floor.

After that, they announced the happy hour and gave us some time to relax on the upper deck with a nice tropical cocktail.

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But we didn’t have time to get bored, since a master class on making fried spring rolls started very soon. It didn’t require too much effort from our side actualy: all we had to do was to wrap the prepared stuffing, consisting of rice vermicelli, white and spring onions, minced pork, two kinds of mushrooms, carrots, raw eggs and spices, into rice paper. The rolls were then deep-fried in soybean oil for us, and we tried them, dipping them into fish sauce (that stinky one).

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That wasn’t our only meal for the evening, and dinner was served pretty soon. After the dinner, there was see some French film about Indochina and squid fishing planned – but we weren’t too keen on the former and completely forgot about the latter, going to bed at 9pm instead, because we have major plans for tomorrow: wake up at least at 6am for a taichi class, and preferably even earlier, to catch the sunrise.

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Posted in Asia, English, Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 7

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

11 June 2017

Once again we’ve had a very intense day, and our legs are almost falling off. As usual, the morning started with a breakfast, a very varied and tasty one, like we’re already used to. At 9am, Sunny was waiting for us at the hotel reception for a tour of Hanoi.

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We were offered two museums to choose from: the History Museum or the Ethnology Museum, and we chose the latter, which turned out to be an excellent choice. What was especially good was that Sunny went with us and made very interesting comments about most of the exhibits.

The museum is dedicated to the culture and lifestyle of 54 different nationalities officially recognised in Vietnam, 86% of which are viets.

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Hmongs, for example, still have the custom of kidnapping brides. The kidnapped girl is brought to the house of the potential bridegroom, where she is locked in a room for three days, after which she is unlocked and free to leave. If she does, the rejected groom either switches to another “victim”, or kidnaps her again, but without the chance to leave this time. But in this case, she can demand a huge ransom for herself, whether it’s 300 or 3000 buffaloes, and if the groom can’t afford to pay that, his family becomes the laughingstock of the whole community.

The architect, who designed the museum building, was so impressed by the sight of a peasant on a bicycle loaded with hundreds of fishing baskets, that she bought the whole batch along with the bike itself.

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One of Vietnam’s major ethnic minorities are Tai people, akin to the Thai. A woman is very highly regarded and revered much more than a man in the Tai culture – there is even a house decoration, consisting of small bags, hanging on the window, according to the number of girls in the family.

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As for the roofs, these are decorated with such crossbred sticks as in the photo. A newly married couple would use the simplest version – the first on the right in the photo. When the wife becomes pregnant with the first child, the decoration changes to one like the first on the left, and then, when the child is born, like the second on the left. The house owners are free to do this themselves. But the remaining two decorations are awarded by the community, depending on this family’s contribution to the community life: the greater it is, the greater the chance to get more “antlered” sticks.

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The Yao people’s tradition obliges all boys to complete the male initiation ceremony when they are about 14, after which they are considered full-fledged men, are allowed to participate in community meetings etc. Without this ceremony, even a 50-year-old man has the status of a boy – and the rights of one too! By the way, it’s interesting how community is mentioned in connection with almost every ethnicity here.

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The second part of the museum is open-air, where we get the opportunity to see traditional houses of different nationalities. And, according to Sunny, these houses were brought from the respective regions, and not built specifically for the museum. In the Cham house, we feel a cognitive dissonance evoked by a TV set hanging on the wall, amid a simple and traditional interior. I understand that there is nothing strange about this, but on the other hand, Sunny himself, pointing to a picture of an ethnic minority representative in traditional clothes with an American T-shirt visible underneath them, tells us how surprising he finds it that when asked where they get such clothes, these people respond that they do it online. He also notes all the time that the state and society have done a lot to improve the lives of these isolated peoples, who have a very traditional lifestyle and who don’t always come into close contact with modern civilisation.

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A traditional house of the Viets must have an altar where the ancestors are worshipped. And the daughter-in-law of the family is not allowed to pray there, because she has her own ancestors. In one of the pantries, a collection of dolls made of some kind of light wood, perhaps cork, is collected – these are the dolls for traditional water puppet shows, one of which we were to see in the afternoon.

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The house belonging to the people of the Bahnar is the highest here, about 20 metres. It’s not a residential house, but a communal one – it should be the highest in a Bahnar village and no one has the right to build higher.

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And the longest house is that of the Ede people. I thought right away that it looked somewhat Indonesian, and almost immediately Sunny explained that the people are akin to the Indonesians. They also put the woman in the first place, which is why the most honourable places in the house, and the wider and more comfortable staircase are for women, and a woman’s breast is sculpted on the latter, so it’s pretty self-explanatory. Actually, the reason why the house is so long is because each daughter is entitled to a separate room, where she lives alone before her marriage, and with her husband thereafter. The sons all share a common room, as after marriage they will move into their wife’s house anyway.

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There is also a tomb, pertinent to the Giarai people, and it features figurines depicting all stages of a human life, placed around its perimeter.

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We spent around two hours in total in the museum, and as I already said, absolutely didn’t regret our choice, as the visit was very interesting and informative. From there we headed to the Temple of Literature, which was founded as early as in the 11th century and which had the first university of Vietnam in its territory.

There is a tiger depicted on one side of the gate and a dragon on the other, and Sunny explained that any place with these two animals present on the gates (the tiger should be descending from above and the dragon is together with a koi carp) is somehow connected to science and education.

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The temple has been destroyed several times, including during the Indochina War, so almost everything that we see here was reconstructed. As for the residential premises for students, for example, these don’t even exist any longer. Only one of the original buildings remains, and it’s also depicted on a 100,000-dong bill.

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The best students used to get selected for prestigious government jobs, with their names immortalised on special stone steles. For that the students had to pass difficult exams, some of which took years to prepare for, and the examinations were conducted in several stages, the last one being assessed by the emperor himself.

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The temple is dedicated to Confucius, hence his statue here. But apart from him there are others, for example, on the upper floor there are statues of the monarchs who contributed the most to the development of the imperial academy.
Sunny explained the difference between a temple and ta pagoda, but I still can’t say that it’s crystal clear to me. It seems like a pagoda is an exclusively Buddhist place for worshipping only, whereas a temple can also be Confucian, like this one, or for worshiping real people or even one’s own ancestors, and can be used not only for worship, but also for meditation or even community gatherings.

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After a lunch break, which consisted of the freshest spring rolls with prawns and pineapple and delicious beef noodles, we moved to the French Quarter. Here, of course, you mostly see colonial buildings rather than the narrow houses attached to one another, as in other places.

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We were brought here to see the house where Ho Chi Minh lived, and walking across a fenced square with a flag, we see his mausoleum. The mausoleum is open for visits in the mornings several days a week, and we were offered to come here this morning, but we would have had to queue for a couple of hours, as it is Sunday, so we refused. Sunny told us that in Vietnam, especially in the south, there is a very ambiguous attitude towards Ho Chi Minh, but he personally respects him and believes that he has done a lot for the people.

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Next, we went to the botanical garden nearby, where the house museum is located, but first we saw a luxurious presidential palace in colonial style, which was built by the French, with tax money. Later, the palace was painted in a much brighter tone of yellow than what would have been appropriate for a French colonial building: the palace was to be seen among all this rich vegetation, and besides, the yellow colour symbolizes the power and the emperor in Vietnam, just like in China.

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Nowadays this palace is used very rarely and for very special occasions, yet during Ho Chi Minh’s times it was used quite extensively. However, Ho Chi Minh refused to live there, choosing a more modest one-story yellow house right next to it instead. Through its windows we could see his dining room, study and bedroom, all with very modest decor.

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According to Sunny, the leader only spent four years in this house, as it had a very bad feng shui location. After that, he moved to a wooden stilted house – located pretty much next door and which I somehow didn’t take a picture of – and lived here for eleven years until his death. By the way, he lived alone, and officially didn’t have any children, although he was married, but Sunny claims that he has an illegitimate son who still lives in Hanoi and who the government still refuses to officially recognise as Ho Chi Minh’s son.

There is yet another attraction in this garden, a much more ancient one that has nothing to do with Ho Chi Minh: it is a pagoda standing on a single pillar in the middle of a lotus pond and built in the XI century. There are only two pagodas like that in the world, the second one being in Thailand. In fact, later, when viewing the photos I’d taken, I got a strong feeling of déjà vu, as if I had already seen this pagoda, and then I remembered how a very long time ago I had seen a book with the works of the Russian artist Ilya Glazunov, with a sketch of this very pagoda.

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The last place, where we reached by walking, was some kind of temple, not identified by Google, with a pretty crude interior design. On the walls there are images of scary-looking people, and Sunny said that people come to this temple to appease infernal sinners, so that those don’t try to spoil their lives out of envy. This is done very generously: with fruits, ChocoPie’s and even chicken and beer. We can hear loud chants from the next room.

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We then got in the car again and drove back to the Old Quarter, where we walked right up to the Hoan Kiem Lake.

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We already came here yesterday, but as I wrote, didn’t enjoy it too much, having to push through the impassable crowd. Today, there were much less people, and besides Sunny took us to the Ngoc Son temple, located right on the lake. Once again we saw the same kind of tiger and dragon on the gates, indicating something related to education.

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The lake is home to a rare kind of turtles, and the name Hoan Kiem literally translates as the Lake of the Returned Sword – according to a legend, General Le Loi received a magic sword that helped him repel the Chinese attack, and then a golden turtle surfaced from the lake and took the sword back, deciding that the General no longer needed it and had to return it.

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The Ngoc Son temple itself is dedicated to the hero Tranh, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century, preventing them from seizing the country. Sunny said that there are three historical figures who are considered the “fathers” of the Vietnamese people: the emperor Lac Long Quan, believed to be the ancestor of all the Vietnamese; the aforementioned hero Tranh and, of course, Ho Chi Minh.

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After the temple visit we had about 45 minutes of free time, which we spent walking along the lake and watching the locals.

And then we went to see a water puppet show. The idea of a water puppet theatre is that the actors hide behind a screen, knee-deep in water, and control the puppets with long bamboo rods, which can’t be seen under the water. Obviously, the culture of such performances originated in rice fields. We were shown a dozen of acts, including separate dances of a dragon, a phoenix and a unicorn, and then one featuring all three plus a turtle (these four animals are considered sacred in Vietnam and are symbolic: the dragon for power, the unicorn that looks pretty strange and doesn’t even have a horn – for peaceful life, the phoenix for beauty, and the turtle for longevity), scenes showing peasants growing rice or repelling a fox trying to steal a duck from them, Le Loi returning the sword to the turtle, etc. The whole performance was accompanied by national instruments and singing, very interesting.

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After the performance, we said goodbye to Sunny and went to have dinner at the Ngon Villa restaurant, where you can pay 360,000 dong, or about 15 USD and choose anything from the menu in any quantities (out of dishes marked with one and two asterisks – for those marked with three we’d have had to pay 580,000). So we tried meat and chicken cooked in different ways, a jellyfish salad (which we didn’t like), baked oysters, clams, snails (didn’t like them either) and a dessert of coffee jelly with coconut milk. Unbelievable, but this was our most expensive meal in Vietnam so far.

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Posted in Asia, English, Hanoi, Hoi An, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 6

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

10 June 2017

Yesterday we felt a bit disappointed that we were staying in this wonderful hotel with a swimming pool one night only, so even though today’s excursion was supposed to start at 9am, we were up at 6.30 already, to have time to enjoy both a lovely breakfast with lots of fruits by the pool, and the pool itself.

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So at 9am sharp we checked out from the hotel and went on a walking tour around the Old Town. We were there last night already, but under daylight the streets look totally different, not to mention that we had explanations this time.

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The Old Town is really beautiful, after all it’s included in the list of UNESCO’s cultural heritage for a reason – in fact it’s so beautiful that even the 38C heat and the scorching sun, under which we had to walk for two hours, didn’t spoil the impression the least bit.

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We walked into the Old Town through the Japanese bridge, which back in the days used to separate the Japanese quarter from the Chinese one. The bridge was built almost 400 years ago, and since then is being periodically renovated, especially during the rain and flood season, when the water level rises and floods it. The bridge, just like everything in the Old Town, is decorated with lanterns – white ones, which is perfectly normal for the Japanese, and which, according to Nam, used to cause the displeasure of the Chinese, who consider white to be the colour of mourning.

The Old Town consists of several streets adjoining the Thu Bon river, on the other side of which we can see much newer buildings, but also stylized as old to attract tourists.

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I guess, in the daytime, the streets we are walking around look even more beautiful than in the evening, as the architecture of buildings and pretty blossoming trees are better visible, plus it’s much less crowded, and the lanterns, although not lit, are still there.

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Our tickets included four attractions of choice, and Nam started with the Chua Ong Pagoda located in Chinatown and built in the XVII century.

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Next in our programme was a visit to one of the oldest family houses in Hoi An. The family still lives here, on the first floor. We were only shown only the ground floor, where the interior was decorated with elements of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese styles. For example, there was an interesting writing in Chinese characters, where each character was comprised of birds cut out of mother-of-pearl.

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Next, we visited a little performance with songs, traditional dances with pots and fans and a game like bingo, where everyone was given a card with different Vietnamese words, and the singer sang a song and picked out the sticks on which the words were written. We weren’t the lucky ones to win, but some lady got a small silk lantern.

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I’m not really mentioning another pagoda we visited, especially since I don’t even remember its name, but the Old Town tour ended with a visit to Central Market. The idea of a big food market is nothing unheard of, but the goods displayed are very exotic to us: there are tons and tons of tropical fruits, and a huge amount of unfamiliar herbs (I already mentioned how I had the impression that the Vietnamese eat everything that grows), and different types of hot pepper, and also something looking like a huge dining area with cooked foods.

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That marked the end of our Hoi An tour, and we headed back to Danang, because that is where the airport, from which we were later supposed to fly to Hanoi, was located. But our tireless guide still had plenty of energy, so he arranged two more photostops for us. The first one was on the beach, from where the Lady Buddha statue was distinctly visible. To be honest, a beach doesn’t make much sense unless you can swim and sunbathe there, but nevertheless we took a couple of photos.

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The second stop is by the Han river, because one of the main attractions in Danang, where our guide lives, by the way, is a dragon-shaped bridge across this river. And nearby there is a marble statue shaped like a fish with the head of a dragon, for which Danang is sometimes called the second Singapore. The origin of this strage creature is from the legend about the koi carp, which will turn into a dragon if it can climb up a waterfall. The sculpture depicts exactly this moment of transformation.

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But even that wasn’t it yet – there was still a museum visit awaiting us. It was the Museum of Cham Sculpture and, quite honestly, it was already superfluous, as we were too exhausted by the terrible heat. But we still made a whirlwind tour around the museum. The museum hosts sculptures and architecture elements of the Champa kingdom, which existed in the Middle Ages in Central Vietnam and where Hinduism was practiced. The French archaeologist Henri Parmentier discovered these artifacts in the early 20th century, and this museum was opened as a result in 1919, thanks to which, they are still intact, as many other Cham sculptures and temples were damaged during the Indochina and Vietnam wars.

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Completely exhausted, we headed to the Danang airport. Nam escorted us to the check-in desk and even checked us in for the flight. We also had lunch right at the airport.

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The flight was delayed by 20-30 minutes, but then again we didn’t have to hang around at the airport on the back end, since there is no passport control on domestic flights. In Hanoi, we were picked up by our new guide, Sunny, and headed to the hotel.

On the way from the airport you immediately notice that Hanoi is different. But I haven’t yet fully understood what exactly makes it different from Saigon, for instance. Perhaps, it’s the fact that the city is more modern, yet has more old buildings, and even the people look different – I mean, however ridiculous this may sound, they more look like urban residents. The façades of buildings are very narrow, like everywhere else in Vietnam, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned before, but here we actually asked Sunny about the reason, and he explained that in the old days there was a special tax directly related to the width of the façade.

Our hotel is located in the Old Quarter, apart from which Hanoi also have the New and the French Quarters. While we were waiting to check in, we were treated to some nice refreshments, as usual.

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In the evening we walked up to the lake, also in the Old Quarter, to get some food, but the walk turned out to be more stress than pleasure. The traffic in the streets is even crazier than in Ho Chi Minh City, and the sidewalks are mostly non-functional – they are packed with parked scooters, street vendors and street food stalls with low tables and stools next to them – so one has to walk on the road, constantly shying away from scooters. On the other hand, there was such a thick crowd in the pedestrian zone near the lake, that even in the absence of vehicles it wasn’t too much fun either.

One of our observations in Vietnam, by the way, is about the general cleanliness. I mean, the streets are often chaotic, the sidewalks are cluttered, there is street food everywhere – yet, despite all this, there is no dirt, stench, rot and filth. Everything gets cleaned. Even toilets, albeit sometimes very shabby, are always clean and not disgusting.

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