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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Posted in Asia, Danang, English, Hoi An, Hue, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 5

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

9 June 2017

The day has been very intense, but, to be honest, with the occasional feeling that everyone wants money from you. In Ho Chi Minh City this feeling wasn’t there and we even got the impression that Vietnam is a country not yet spoiled by tourism, because this industry is still developing here. But the further you move to more tourist places, the more this impression is dissipated.

I’ll come back to that, but first things first. In the morning, we checked out of our hotel in Hue and headed to see the imperial tombs nearby.

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Today we have a new guide, a young man named Nam, who seems very diligent. Right on the outskirts of the city, we saw a lot of aromatic sticks for temples being sold along the roadside, and he asked the driver to stop the car so that we could see how they are made. Of course, the seller immediately started actively persuading us to buy regular souvenirs…

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As I said, according to the programme, we had mausoleum visits planned, and the first one was the mausoleum of Tu Duc, who was the fourth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and the last emperor of independent Vietnam – his successors ruled the French colony already. The presence of the ruling dynasty was perfectly acceptable for the French, since it facilitated the governing of people, so they didn’t get rid of it.

The mausoleum was built when Tu Duc was still alive and is not just a tomb, but in fact a whole complex that functioned as the Emperor’s summer cottage until his death, and later became home to his numerous wives and concubines.

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By the way, despite the fact that Tu Duc had a hundred or two wives and concubines, he did’t leave any offsprings, so his nephew inherited the throne after him.

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Interestingly, no one knows where exactly Tu Duc is buried in the mausoleum – it would seem logical that if there is a tomb, then that’s where he should be buried, but Nam explained to us that the emperor was clever and, considering the amount of treasures to be buried with him, he ordered to dig numerous tunnels under the territory of the mausoleum and bury him in one of them, so that no one knew where exactly. Nowadays, although with modern technologies determining the exact location wouldn’t be much of a problem, the government specifically decided not to do so.

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Our itinerary assumed that next we would go see the tomb of his grandfather – the very Minh Mang that I already mentioned in connection with traditional medicine. But Nam pointed out that even though the standard programme includes this mausoleum because of its convenient location, it is too similar to the first one, and, perhaps, we would find it more interesting if we went to see something different. So, he suggested another mausoleum instead, located slightly further – that of Khai Ding, the 12th and the penultimate emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, who ruled in the early 20th century. We agreed.

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This mausoleum was indeed completely different – the architecture contained mixed elements of both traditional Oriental and European styles. The territory was quite small in comparison with the previous complex, which had pavilions, gardens and a lake, but the mausoleum took 11 years to build, whereas the previous one took only three.

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This is not surprising at all, because the tomb itself is truly luxurious: the walls are decorated with various types of ceramics – local Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese – and the ceilings are painted with 99 dragons, in such way that you can’t track the beginning and end of each.

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So, the buildings are impressive, I could totally have walked around here for a long time if it hadn’t been for the unbearable heat, which made me want to get back into the car as quickly as possible.

It’s time to say goodbye to Hue and move on, heading to to Hoi An, where we should spend the night. But on the way to Hoi An there is still much to see!

The road started climbing up the mountains, and the places around were becoming more and more picturesque. We stopped every now and then to take pictures, then had a short comfort stop in some roadside cafe, which was part of a family business for production of oysters and pearls – right here, across the road, there was a large shallow lake where the molluscs were bred.

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There is actually a tunnel through the mountain, but we drove over the Hai Van Pass instead to enjoy the picturesque views of the green slopes and the sea.
At the summit of the pass we made a photo-stop yet again, as there are some ruins that used to be a French fortress, and later an American bunker.

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The road from Hue to Danang, where we are going, takes two hours. We don’t stop in Danang itself, but Nam told us that the city is quite new, industrial, and has a large seaport – back in the days, the port was located in Hoi An, where we are heading eventually, but the French transferred it right here.

Actually, back when we were booking our tour, we made a special request to visit Danang, as we wanted to see the statue of Lady Buddha. That is why we were taken to the Son Tra mountain, also known as the Monkey Mountain, where this statue is located. Besides the statue, there is a whole complex with carved gates and the Linh Ung pagoda.

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The pagoda is quite new, built in 2010, and the statue is even newer. I must say, Lady Buddha is very impressive, and no wonder: it is 70 metres high, made of a single piece of marble and can be seen from a long distance, almost 35km. It’s facing the bay, since it is supposed to protect sailors – it resonates with the Chinese goddess Tin Hau, perhaps the idea is even inspired by her. I was generally surprised by the idea of a female Buddha, but Nam explained that even though Buddha is a man in Indian Buddhism, in the Chinese version of Buddhism, under the influence of which this temple complex was built, there is also a female Buddha for balance (like yin and yang).

Apart from Lady Buddha, there is also a small Laughing Buddha statue nearby, which is said to bring good luck if you rub his belly. We stand in front of him to take a picture of Lady Buddha, and suddenly we hear loud sounds from the pond, resembling a dog barking, which turn out to be toads croaking!

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Nam suggested that we have lunch in Danang on our way to the statue, but we were anxious that it might rain like it did yesterday in the pagoda of the Heavenly Lady and ruin the sightseeing experience that we’d been looking forward to from the very beginning, so we preferred to see Lady Buddha first, while the weather was still good (albeit very hot) and have lunch later when we get to Hoi An.

Along the coastline all the way from Danang to Hoi An we saw a huge number of hotels and fancy five-star beach resorts, but even more than the already existing ones were still under construction – clearly, tourism is developing extensively in this region and in the future Danang intends to compete with the resorts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

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On the way, we made another stop, although our stomachs were already dreaming about food, at a marble factory, which there are quite a few of in Vietnam, and they showed us how marble statues were made. Looking at the statues themselves was actually more interesting than observing the production process: there were smaller replicas of the Lady Buddha statue, other Buddha statues, various animals and mythical creatures, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary (10% of the Vietnamese population are Catholics). At the factory we were also very actively solicited to buy souvenirs, but we didn’t like the little figurines that much and the big statues would obviously be quite problematic to buy.

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Thank goodness, there were now only a few kilometres separating us from our desired lunch, and finally we stopped at some roadside restaurant. First, for some reason, we had pretty low expectations of the restaurant – probably, because it was located right next to the noisy highway and, since the owner was apparently working in the kitchen by himself, the service wasn’t too prompt – but then we were served delicious salads and grilled fish, and also treated with orange slices and chewing gum when we asked for the bill, so our opinion of the restaurant made a complete U-turn.

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What Nam told us about Hoi An was that it is an old trading city, where the big seaport was located between the 16th and the 18th. Trade with China, Japan and European countries was conducted through the port, which is why there were many Chinese and Japanese living here.

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The city is famous for silk production, so we made yet another stop, this time at a silk factory. Here we saw all the stages of silk production – first some gross white worms swarming among mulberry leaves, then the cocoons, and then the thread and the finished fabric. Right at the factory, there is also a store selling ready-made fabrics and clothes and you can also order something from a tailor and get it ready the next, or even the same day. Generally in Hoi An, as we noticed, many ateliers provide similar services.

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Finally, we got to the Little Hoian Central hotel, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise for us. The hotel is a three-star one, but cannot even be compared, for example, with London three-star hotels, where you get a tiny room and a rather meagre breakfast – this one has an outdoor pool and a spa, the room is huge, with a balcony, and the interior is in the typical Asian Colonial style of the 19th century: even the phone and the plumbing are stylised.

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Since we were extremely tired, the pool and the spa came in really handy: first we washed off all the fatigue in the pleasant water, and then once again went for a wonderful massage.

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We had the evening free, so we made a sortie to the Old Town. One of Hoi An’s features is silk lanterns, and the whole Old Town is decorated with them, which makes it look particularly cool in the evening. The Old Town is only accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, and boy is it great to finally relax from these chaotic scurrying scooters everywhere! The zone is clearly very touristy, and there are mostly shops selling souvenirs, silk clothes and lanterns. The crowd is very thick, there are lots of foreign tourists, and even more local ones: it’s summer now, children have holidays, so many families travel around the country.

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There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants, and we decide to have dinner in one of them, attracted by the nice view of its outdoor seating area among bamboos. It was a good choice – we ordered grilled fish again, and mine was wrapped in banana leaves and incredibly tasty. Plus we were entertained by lovely music: there is an international choir competition happening now in Hoi An, and the performance took place right in the street near our restaurant.

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Posted in English, Hue, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 4

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

8 June 2017

As I wrote yesterday, the Ho Chi Minh part of our trip is over, and this morning we said goodbye to this lovely city. At about 9am we were picked up from the hotel by the travel agency’s driver and carefully delivered to the domestic airport terminal, from which we flew to the city of Hue in central Vietnam, the former capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945.

The flight only lasted an hour, and there wasn’t even passport control at the Hue airport – so we basically left the plane, collected our luggage and headed straight to the exit where our today’s guide Lan was already waiting for us.

While still on our way, we already noticed that Hue looked quite different from Saigon – in terms of both vegetation and buildings.

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Since it was lunch time and we were already massively hungry, before going to the hotel we were taken straight to a restaurant. The restaurant reminded us of the “Istirahet” in Baku for some reason, even the smell was remotely similar. However, this initial impression vanished quickly, especially when we were seated at a balcony and served a menu with local Central Vietnamese dishes. It seemed that the food tasted differently from that of the southern region, even the spring rolls weren’t quite the same, but again everything was delicious.

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Our hotel is located right in the heart of the tourist district, on a small street with many restaurants and bars. The room is bigger than in the Ho Chi Minh City, plus there is a balcony with a superb view over the Fragrant River, and complimentary fruits in the room (bananas, rambutans and some other unidentified fruit).

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In the hotel, we literally just had time to change our clothes, since we were supposed to go on an excursion with Lan. We headed straight to the Imperial Citadel, which is a huge palace complex with at least a hundred different structures (including a theatre, a library, a meditation pavilion etc.) and was built in the early 19th century in just 27 years.

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Inside the Citadel was the Imperial City, consisting of several blocks, and the Purple Forbidden City, which served as the residence of the last ruling Nguyen dynasty that existed throughout the colonial era and ended in 1945 with the outbreak of the First Indochina War. As a result of this war and the subsequent Vietnam War, the complex was badly damaged by bombing and today it only consists of the remnants of former luxury. The destroyed buildings are being slowly rebuilt, while the complex in its original grandeur can be admired on either a model or the video animation.

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I must say, the Imperial City reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing, but I liked it a little more, most likely because of the opulent vegetation all around.

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Besides individual pavilions and palaces, there are several gates that survived the bombing, and Lan explained to us that each had been intended for certain people: some were exclusively for the emperor, others for women, others for mandarins of a certain rank, and so on.

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We also got to see the Palace of Supreme Harmony, which was used as a throne room for memorable celebrations. It was very impressive, but unfortunately taking pictures was not allowed.

Then we went to the Imperial Museum, which, as I understood, also belonged to the palace complex, but maybe not, because walking there took quite some time. In the museum, we had to put some ridiculous shoe covers on top of our shoes, and we were the only visitors. Once again, they requested no photography, which was such a pity, since there were a lot of interesting artefacts: lacquered furniture, dishes, jewellery, clothes, and even a set for some traditional board game.

As we were walking from the museum to the car, it started to rain, and on the way to our next destination – the Thien Mu Pagoda – the light rain turned into a heavy downpour, and we had to visit the pagoda under it.

Therefore, unfortunately, the visit turned out to be too brief. The Thien Mu Pagoda, or Heavenly Lady Pagoda, is the oldest in Hue and was built in 1601. In front of the main gate there is a seven-storied tower, constructed some two hundred years later. We did not get in the pagoda, probably because of the rain, or because it was already about 6 pm – and in fact, according to Lan, there was a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni inside, which would have been really interesting to see.

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We then got on a boat to get from the pagoda to the city centre on the opposite side of the river, and this trip was not the most pleasant. Actually, even back in Ho Chi Minh City our guide Phuoc had explained to us that the tipping culture is very important in Vietnam and a dollar or two should be given practically to everyone – waiters, drivers, porters – of course, if you’re happy with the service. So pretty obviously we were intending to leave a tip to the boatwoman. But during the trip she began to show us souvenirs arranged on the boat for sale – various pictures, postcards and bookmarks – doing it very insistently, literally demanding us to buy them, which, in truth, didn’t seem quite nice. When we refused, she didn’t even help us get off the boat, therefore we didn’t leave any tip…

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But this little incident was very quickly forgotten when we returned to the hotel and decided to take advantage of the 50% discount on spa services that was offered. We were seated in the lobby of the spa, served some tea and showed a list of services to choose from. Both of us went for one-hour full body aroma-massage, and… oh goodness, it was amazing, such a wonderful relaxing massage from head to toe!

After that, we again felt surge of energy and went for a walk along our tourist street in search of a restaurant, and then a bar or pub. We found the restaurant at once – I’d actually noticed it earlier when we were driving somewhere – it was La Carambole, positioning itself as a French-Vietnamese restaurant. And indeed, the menu had both French and local Hue dishes. Since we still haven’t had enough of Vietnamese food, we can’t yet understand how one could want a cheese platter, for example, but as for fried rice and grilled meat with lemongrass and chili – they are always welcome!

Among other things, there are quite a few hotels and hostels on our streen, and one of the latter had a buzzing bar downstairs, where we saw big company, mostly dressed in the same shirts with bananas (which were hung right in the clothes shop across the road, there might have been some promotion like “buy 20 – get 1 free”), and some guys walked around in sun dresses or pareos with a bikini top 🙂

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Generally, it seemed that there were more tourists in Hue than in Ho Chi Minh City. On the other hand, the latter also has its own backpacker area, where we hadn’t been in the evening, soit’s quite possible that we don’t have the full picture.

Posted in English, Europe, Georgia

Georgia – Day 1

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

27 December 2014

We arrived last night, and found Zviad, the guide meeting us, very easily, so logistic-wise everything went really smoothly. The smooth start actually began at the passport control, where each of us was handed a bottle of Saperavi wine – turns out, they are given out to all foreigners entering the country, isn’t that surprising? Zviad drove us a bit around the night Tbilisi, which immediately aroused nostalgia – the non-central streets seemed very similar to the Baku of my childhood. We got particularly excited when shown the river Kura and then the Avlabari neighbourhood, and started quoting the Khanuma movie.

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It was decided that on the first day we would make a sortie out of Tbilisi and leave the city sightseeing for the second one. The weather promised to be nice (and honestly fulfilled the promise), even though it was quite chilly near the Jvari (meaning ‘cross’) monastery where we headed first, and the puddles were flecked with ice. The monastery is located atop a rocky mountain, from which one can see the Mtskheta town and also exactly what was described in Lermontov’s poem ‘The Novice’ (‘Mtsyri’): “…where soundingly together flow Aragva and Kura – the place, where, like two sisters, they embrace…”, i.e. where the blue Aragvi merges with the yellow Kura, and the line separating these waters is very clearly noticeable. The reason why the monastery is called the Holy Cross monastery is not because it has the shape of a cross, as one might expect, but because it was here where St. Nino of Georgia, a female evangelist, erected a cross. The legend says that this very cross lies in the foundation of the monastery.

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We drove off along Aragvi, on the Georgian Military Highway, to see the ancient fortress of Ananuri. The places around were very picturesque, even though it’s not the best season now – in autumn or spring it must look absolutely spectacular! On our way we took pictures of the Zhinvali reservoir from various angles. It’s also very beautiful, but that’s somewhat overshadowed by the fact that to create this beauty (which of course has practical use too!) three villages had to be flooded. We visited one of the churches in the castle complex, while the other one was closed. Zviad told us that once all the walls in the first church were painted with frescoes, but then during the stay of a Russian garrison in the fortress, they were all covered with a thick layer of lime. Relatively recently a small area was cleared and a really impressive fresco of St. George was discovered. I climbed to the top of the tower, which was quite difficult and scary, considering the narrow passages and steep, broken stairs. But I got the chance to look out of a loophole, although it was so narrow that I couldn’t really see much.

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From here we drove back to Mtskheta and stopped in the old part of the city. In general, as we noted, it is peculiar to Georgia that most of the ancient and old buildings are restored in their original form. Therefore, all the houses are colorful, neat, with traditional Georgian balconies and look very good. There are little shops selling souvenirs, wine, churchkhela (Georgian sweet “sausages” made of fruit and nuts) with sellers strongly beckoning tourists to drink with them all along the road to the Cathedral of Mtskheta. Our guide even argued with someone, reproaching him for trying to “recapture” his guests.

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The Cathedral of Mtskheta, or Svetitskhoveli (translated as “the life-giving pillar”) is a patriarchal cathedral with the seat of the Patriarch standing right in the centre thereof. It’s a burial place of the last kings of Georgia and various princes, including a few from the Mukhrani branch of the famous Bagrationi dynasty. The Cathedral is one of the three main cathedral in country, symbolising the central Georgia, or the Kartli region. The Alaverdi temple in Kakheti, respectively, represents the east of Georgia and the Bagrat temple in Kutaisi represents the west. Even in Soviet times, it was common among the youth of Tbilisi to wed in Svetitskhoveli, so every spring after Easter endless wedding processions stretched from Tbilisi.

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Instead of the anticipated three hours we spent five on the road, by the end of which we were absolutely starving. We wanted to taste some proper Georgian cuisine, and on our return to Tbilisi we were taken to a restaurant called “Zakhar Zakharich”. The food there was really delicious. Our menu consisted of the kharcho soup, Imeretian khachapuri (cheese pie), aubergines with walnuts, ojakhuri (roasted pork with potatoes and onions), shkmeruli (fried chicken with lots of garlic) and jigar (liver) on the grid. As for the wine, we had red Saperavi in pitchers. In short, we had a great treat and only paid 127 GEL for four of us, which makes about 70 USD , or 54 AZN.

The only thing we could do after that was taking a two-hour nap. In the evening, we walked along the holiday-decorated Rustaveli Avenue, which was right around the corner from our hotel. It was beautiful, but in many ways reminded of Baku – potholes here and there, lots of construction, cars on the sidewalks, cigarette smoke everywhere – as most of the population seems to smoke. However, the walk was still nice.

Posted in Asia, China, English, Hong Kong

Hong Kong – Day 5

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

4 December 2013

Today we made a particularly good choice, visiting the Chi Lin Nunnery and the adjacent Nan Lian Garden.

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It’s hard even to imagine such beauty, peace and tranquillity as in this garden, which is essentially an amazingly harmonious composition of water, rocks and trees, and also traditional Chinese pagodas, bridges and pavilions. As for the skyscrapers in the background, not only don’t they seem to disturb this harmony, but they actually emphasise it in a rather unique way.

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Overall, the garden is somewhat oval-shaped, and each turn of the track uncovers a new charming scene, e.g. giant banyan trees, or exquisite bridges over a pond with large colourful fish, or a waterfall with a water mill. And there you are, walking and admiring it all, accompanied by the low-pitch, vibrant, ’nasal’ sounds of guqin, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, which feels like the most appropriate accompaniment in this place.

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There are some lotus ponds right in front of the monastery. The petals move gently under the light breeze, and you feel like you could spend hours and hours just looking at them – at least, you somehow begin to understand Asians who find pleasure in the long contemplation of beauty. Neither taking pictures, nor even talking is allowed in the monastery, even in the public section (the other section, where the monks actually live, is closed to public altogether). There are sanctuaries on both sides, while in the centre there is a magnificent gilded statue of Buddha Sakyamuni. The monastery is also filled with music, not guqin sounds any longer though, but the chants of the monks. Even though we have nothing to do with Buddhism, still a sense of the sanctity of the place was definitely present.

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As we returned to the Nan Lian Garden, we decided to try the tea ceremony there. The tea house has a couple of requirements: first of all you have to remove your shoes, leave them outside and put on the slippers provided, and also to switch off your mobile phone and put your camera away, as taking photos and videos is prohibited. The order has to be at least one portion per person. And a portion in this case is not one cup but rather 6 grammes of dry tea, which can be brewed in a small teapot six times. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – before talking about brewing I have to mention that there is actually a high degree of self-service here – you fill the iron kettle yourself and put it on the stove to boil, then you call the waitress. She brings you teaware and dry tea leaves, explaining how to brew them. It is actually a whole science (or should I say art?) in itself: you first rinse and fill the teapot with boiling water (the teaware stands on a grid with a drain underneath it). Then you pour the same water into a jug and cups, which thus get rinsed as well. You carefully add the tea to the tiny teapot, fill it with boiling water up to the top, then immediately pour it away – this is how the tea leaves also get rinsed. Now comes the final part: you fill the teapot with boiling water once again, keep it there for just a few seconds, and then pour the tea into the jug (so that it doesn’t get any stronger), from which it can be poured into cups.

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It’s worth emphasising that these six grams is a lot for such a small teapot, way more than the portions we are used to. The tea that we had is called Da Hong Pao, which grows high in the mountains and is considered one of the most expensive teas in the world.

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Our lunch that day was quite unusual too – it was vegetarian, as it is always the case with monastery restaurants, with a very high content of various types of mushrooms.

In the evening we went to Lan Kwai Fong yet again. Even though it was only Wednesday and not Friday, the place was way more crowded and fun than during our last visit – which in fact is quite logical. The last time we were here was Sunday, when pretty obviously very few people are keen on drinking and hanging out late before a Monday. And on a weekday, of course, many people want to relax and chill out after a hard day at work – this is exactly why we saw such a considerable number of ‘white collars’ there.

Posted in Asia, English, Singapore

Singapore – Day 5

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

28 November 2013

The day turned out very diverse in content which ranged quite impressively from the Universal Studios amusement park to a classical concert. But – one thing at a time.

Since the day before we had spent very limited time on Sentosa, we decided to repeat the visit right in the morning, and started again from the beach, and from the same one. We had kind of got used to it somehow, but the beach attendant must have been having a senior moment: he asked us literally all the same set of questions as yesterday: where we were from, whether we spoke Russian, what kind of country Azerbaijan was and whether it was close to Kazakhstan.

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Even though the attendant caused a puzzled laughter with his repetition, the sunny weather which also replicated that of the previous day, was accepted with joy. The water was unpleasantly different though: tons of algae had been brought by the wind, and there was also something stinging in the water.

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We hesitated a lot whether to visit the Universal Studios after all, or not. Having googled it thoroughly, we found out that it was basically nothing more than just an amusement park, and I personally am not a big fan of those. Nevertheless, we still decided to go and take a look – a very expensive look, I have to say.

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As a result, we, limited in time (due to the concert in the evening!) visited only three of the attractions. The first one was a complacent and almost childlike Sesame Street ride. The second one could have been the Transformers, but we noticed just in time that the ride included rotation and tipping upside down, which I absolutely can’t tolerate – and escaped.

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Universal Studios

The one we found tempting was the attraction themed on the ‘Mummy’ and ancient Egypt. And that’s where our adventure began! First of all, it turned out that we were not allowed to take anything inside – so everything, including bags, had to be locked in a locker. We accidentally shut the first one, even before we had time to read how to set a passcode for it, and had to call the attendant and ask him to open the locker, promising to show our passports as soon as the bags containing them would be removed from there. We then put our belongings in another locker, properly following the guidance. There was a sign saying that the first 45 minutes were free of charge, and we recklessly trusted the digital clock showing 15 minutes waiting time in the queue – so we didn’t take any money with us, especially that we didn’t even have pockets to put it in. And there we went, right into this hallway, imitating an Egyptian temple, where we got stuck in an endless queue in a totally dark corridor, which took nearly an hour. The ride itself was very short. We expected something absolutely scary, but it was rather fun, despite the dizzying turns forward, backward, up and down, as well as the roars and spits of fire of the Egyptian priests. When we finally got to our locker, we couldn’t open it again – the free time had expired, and all our money was locked inside – so we had to call the attendant for help once more.

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And the third attraction was simply a little 4D cartoon about Shrek with shaking, water splashing and some hairy stuff, supposed to represent spiders, touching our legs.

Of course, we were ‘felled’ by the Egyptian attraction – if it hadn’t been for the hour-long standing, we could have caught another attraction. And all we had time for was having lunch at a Chinese bistro on Hollywood street right at the Universal Studios. At least we were precisely on schedule.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

And finally the long-awaited concert! It opened with Lyadov’s ‘Enchanted Lake’, but the word “enchanted” can be also applied to our overall impressions of the concert. It was truly an awesome event! Actually, it was a concert of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, considered the best in Asia, directed by Lan Shui. And Lang Lang – a phenomenal, brilliant pianist – was taking part in it, playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It’s difficult to find words to describe the amazing impressions that his performance left on us. I was literally taken away, even being aware that if a piece of music as difficult to grasp as this one, had been played by someone else, it could have just seemed to me a set of random sounds and nothing special. Lang Lang’s virtuosity, power and dexterity are striking, and you just can’t imagine how anyone possibly can perform this piece at all. We were seated so that his face could be seen, so we had the opportunity to observe the infinite palette of his emotions.

Taking pictures and videos was prohibited (that’s how the lockers theme was continued – we had to lock our cameras in one before the concert), but when Lang Lang gave an encore, I, like some others, contrived to take a few pictures with my phone. Talking about the encore – the public went so wild that, despite all his efforts to simply take a bow and leave, he had to stay and play an intermezzo by Manuel Ponce and a waltz by Chopin.

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At first I thought that Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which was to be played in the second part, was just an unnecessary appendage to the great genius Lang Lang. But in this case there was another genius – actually Tchaikovsky himself, with a very good performance of the orchestra and Lan Shui’s conducting.

Overall, I enjoyed the concert so much that even having to wait an hour for a taxi, which wasn’t extremely pleasant, didn’t spoil the great mood.