Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Day 3

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

06 February 2019

Today has been a particularly busy day, and the weather played up very well: the forecast that promised non-stop rain turned out wrong, and it actually only rained in the morning while we were still on the bus on our way to the tour around the main sights of Istanbul’s Old City.

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Surprisingly, although we had reserved yesterday’s and today’s tours on different websites, we were greeted by the same guide as yesterday, Muzaffer, in our English-speaking group. Apart from us there was also the same Indian couple as yesterday and an Irish family. Looking ahead, I will say that after lunch we were joined by another couple from Hong Kong and some British Indians.

The day started getting a spiritual direction right from the start – from the Hacı Beşir Ağa Mosque. It is small, not particularly remarkable, but it is where we were explained how to behave in a mosque (believe it or not, I hadn’t been to one before!): there is an obligatory requirement to take shoes off and, for women, to cover their head with a scarf. The mosque itself was closed, and we could only look at its interior from the upper floor for women. What was interesting to see was a special chamber, where a believer would spend the night before having to make an important decision, praying for Allah to send them a clue in a dream.

Next followed one of Istanbul’s main features – which became especially famous after the Magnificent Century TV series – the Topkapi Palace. It is constructed on the first of the seven hills of Istanbul and dominates the surrounding area. As we entered the very first room – if I remember correctly, it was the Imperial Council, or Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn – we immediately understood why the Dolmabahce Palace, despite all its pomp and splendour, didn’t cause a storm of delight. The domes, the paintings and the décor of Topkapi are much stricter, more harmonious and, one might say, more majestic. What I see here is spirituality vs. Dolmabahce’s depersonalised grandeur. And all this despite the fact that this palace’s harem was not included in our tour.

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There are four gardens in the palace complex – the first two are external, while the third and fourth are internal, and the latter was only reserved for the closest members of the sultan’s household. Photography is allowed in many parts of the palace, but not in rooms with expositions – which is a shame, given that they contain the most interesting things!

First of all, there is a magnificent collection of clocks and watches – both from Turkey and Western Europe, from small pocket watches to tall grandfather clocks. Next, there is an extensive collection of weapons – mostly local Ottoman ones (such as firearms, bows, swords, yatagans, chain armours, shields, helmets, including those for horses), but also trophy and gifted weapons. For us it was particularly interesting to see Safavid weapons among the last (or maybe the penultimate!): who knows, it may have been my ancestors who used it! At the same time, we couldn’t help having a strange feeling, that today we are walking around this exposition and looking with great interest at something that once presented a mortal danger and was created to kill people.

The next exposition consists of huge kitchen premises, which were used for preparing food for six thousand people. And nowadays they contain a collection of ceremonial tableware and kitchen utensils. We found the latter more interesting, since they are functional, as for tableware — well, it’s just tableware!

We were really impressed with the collection of religious relics – at one point the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire extended over Mecca and Medina, making it inherit the status of the caliphate, as well as Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, it was in its capital that a collection of items belonging to the prophet Muhammad (weapons, personal belongings, even beard hair and teeth) and his closest entourage, as well as other prophets — for example, the staff of Moses and the sword of David — was collected.

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We also really liked the library of Sultan Ahmed III, in the midst of which there is the sultan himself (well, obviously a figure!)

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The last exposition we got to see contained the portraits of all the sultans, but this one was probably the least interesting. From the palace, where we spent about two hours, we went straight to lunch, which was very well organized. In general, the impression is that restaurants in Istanbul are often placed on the top floor of a hotel to provide a beautiful view. So there we sat, eating delicious mezes and kofte, drinking tea and admiring the views of Istanbul and the seagulls proudly sitting on the roofs.

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After lunch, now in a bigger group, we headed to Hagia Sophia. This place is truly unique, bringing together values that are almost incompatible by modern standards. Outside, it is very clearly visible that the minarets are attached to a Christian church. However, the building itself does not look particularly outstanding. Looking ahead, I will say that the Blue Mosque, located directly opposite, is much more beautiful on the outside.

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However, the interior of Hagia Sophia is stunning. Despite crowds of tourists – as always, mostly Chinese – you get a feeling of extraordinary holiness and admiration for the fact that the images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the first Roman emperors and the symbols of Islam peacefully coexist in this place.

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In fact, this has not always been the case. At first, Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople, simply ordered the main Christian cathedral to be turned into a mosque, covering the Christian images with plaster. They weren’t cleared until 1935, when by a decree signed by Ataturk, Hagia Sophia became a museum.

The happy free cats of Istanbul feel great here as well, causing a smile, which somewhat dilutes the sublime feelings evoked by the place.

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The Blue Mosque, aka the Sultanahmet Mosque, as already mentioned, is very beautiful outside. It has as many as six minarets (usually, there are one, two or four). But unfortunately, there was almost nothing to look at inside – there is renovation going on, so, for instance, the dome is completely covered. Since, unlike Hagia Sophia, this is a functioning mosque, there are a separate entrance and exit for tourists, who therefore have to carry their shoes with them in specially provided plastic bags.

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To finish with the mosque topic, I will say that there are more than two thousand of them in Istanbul. This seems like a huge number, but is actually normal for 20 million people.

We had thought that the Hippodrome – our next destination – was a visit to some ancient sports facilities or its remnants. It turned out to be even more than just remnants, located right here, at the Sultanahmet Square: there is only one Egyptian obelisk and two Greek columns, one of which is made of weapons and armour of the defeated Persians.

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And finally, the last destination of our tour is the Grand Bazaar, or Kapalı Çarşı. The visit was preceded by a meeting with experts of Turkish carpet weaving, which we had in the Istanbul Handicraft Centre not far from the Bazaar. They treated us to apple tea, piled up a bunch of carpets in front of us and explained the difference between the local and, say, Persian technique(double knots instead of single ones). Of course, this was done with an eye to enticing us to purchase carpets, but no one in our group was willing to. At least us, the Azerbaijanis, could hardly be tempted by carpets.

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We had 40 minutes to explore the Bazaar itself, but in fact that was more than enough. Frankly speaking, yesterday’s Spice Bazaar impressed us a lot more, because Kapalı Çarşı, although of course much bigger, seemed less beautiful and more chaotic. We walked through one of the galleries back and forth and found that this “drop” was enough to appreciate the entire “sea” of the Grand Bazaar.

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Moreover, even though the day had been very interesting, it had also been exhausting, so our bus, which accurately dropped us off at our hotel, seemed to be the most tempting place.

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We were so tired that for dinner we found a restaurant literally around the corner from our hotel, and made a right choice: it was very nice and cozy with delicious food and great service.

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Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Day 2

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

04 February 2019

Today’s weather clearly demonstrated that February is February, and yesterday was just a gift to mark our arrival. Today was pretty windy, with almost no sun, and, according to the forecast, this is not going to be the worst day of our stay.

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We had a Bosphorus cruise planned for today, and at 8am we were picked up by a minibus. Apparently in order to prepare us for a boat ride, the minibus hurled us from side to side, rushing down narrow streets, past countless (for some reason!) shops selling lighting fixtures.

There were six of us in the group – a couple from Southeast Asia, two Indians, and us – the Azerbaijanis. The first item on our agenda was Misir Carsisi – or Spice Bazaar, aka Egyptian Bazaar, with beautiful gilded passages, tons and tons of spices, nuts, Turkish delights, gold and silver! We entered this kingdom of Middle-Eastern goods with a firm intention to just look around. But resourceful sellers immediately involved us in a “round dance” of offers, treats, promises of discounts, and we changed our determination to not but anything – anyway, we didn’t end up making any completely impulsive purchases: we bought sweets, spices, a cezve and silver jewelry. What contributed most to our purchases was, first of all, our understanding of Turkish (which allowed the sellers to elaborate extensively on the quality of their goods) and secondly, the fact that we accidentally came across our fellow countrywoman at one of the shops – she seemed to be either the administrator or the owner.

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Having left all our purchases in the minibus, with the kind consent of our guide, we transferred to the cruise boat, where there were a couple of other tourist groups apart from ours, but overall the boat was far from being full – apparently, it’s a low season now.

Yesterday the concierge at our hotel was trying to convince us to sign up for another cruise in the afternoon, scaring us with the usual morning fog, which would prevent us from seeing much. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. I mean, some fog was present indeed, but firstly, it didn’t really bother us, and besides, it didn’t dissipate in the afternoon either.

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The cruise starts at the Kabatas ferry port, and first goes along the European part of the city, past such attractions as the Dolmabahce Palace, the Rumeli Fortress and the Ciragan Palace, converted into a Kempinski hotel – the most expensive one in Istanbul. We made nice photos, but cannot really say that our delight went through the roof. By the way, we were accompanied by seagulls during the whole of our journey, however, compared to those at Galata Tower yesterday, these ones seemed smaller.

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What looked more interesting was the Asian part, which we sailed along when the ship turned around from the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. And here, even more than the actual sights of interest, including the Anadolu fortress, the Beylerbeyi Palace, the Kucuksu pavilion, we enjoyed the coastline, strewn with variegated mansions. Their unique location with direct Bosphorus views makes them the most expensive real estate in Turkey, with prices reaching up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

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This morning we still had no exact plans for the afternoon: we had a thought to dedicate the day entirely to water travel and visit the Princes’ Islands. It was the weather that finally discouraged us. The Princes’ Islands are mostly good for walking around – there isn’t even any transport there, besides horse carts. Therefore, we changed our minds in favour of the Dolmabahce Palace, and we took an Uber there, which didn’t go perfectly well. He dropped us off near some beautiful (but locked!) palace gates and rushed off into the sunset. The street looked deserted, in particular, we didn’t see any crowds of tourists storming the palace.

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To our luck, literally the only passer-by, whom we naturally addressed, knew exactly where the palace entrance was (it turned out that we had just been dropped off in the wrong place) and kindly showed us the way. By the way, she herself turned out not to be local, but an Afghan living in the USA and working here just temporarily.

The location of the palace is simply amazing – the sultans did know a thing or two about choosing the perfect place. The carved fences and the garden gates overlook the Bosphorus. One can imagine the pleasure of walking in this garden!

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Dolmabahce is not the old residence of the sultans (which we aren’t going to see till tomorrow), but a 19th-century building, reflecting all of the contemporary European trends, which is especially noticeable in the furniture. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside the palace, and although not all visitors were quite law-abiding, we decided to comply.

There are two types of tickets: including and excluding a visit to the harem. Of course, the first type is preferable: in fact, the harem is much more interesting and luxurious than the rest of the palace, and better reflects the actual life of the sultan’s family. Along standard apartments of sultan’s wives, consisting of a bedroom, a living room and a bathroom (with a squat toilet, as everywhere in the palace!), there are also the luxurious and extensive apartments of Valide Sultan, the reigning sultan’s mother. The latter include a prayer room, a large reception room, a private room, and a spacious bedroom. Even the sultan’s own apartments in the harem are superior in luxury and decoration to his apartments in the official part of the palace.

The latter, of course, has beautifully furnished rooms, but the one that can be considered truly exclusive is the main hall with an incredibly painted domed ceiling. There are also two display rooms: the first one contains tableware and kitchenware, and the second one has medals, weapons, household and leisure items.

It’s interesting to note that after the fall of the monarchy, Atatürk chose Dolmabahce as his residence, and this is where he died – in one of the rooms (a very simple and modest one) of the former harem. This room is also open to visitors, and the bed in it is covered with a blanket representing the Turkish flag.

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We stayed in Dolmabahce almost until its closing time. From here we were supposed to go for dinner, to a fish restaurant, booked in advance, in the Cihangir area. And this suddenly turned into a whole adventure. We hadn’t ordered a taxi in advance, and tried to hail one in the street, but the cars were going in the opposite direction and the taxi driver refused to pick us. Google showed that the restaurant was relatively close, literally a 22-minute walk.

What Google didn’t show, however, is that we would have to climb countless stairs a good deal of the way. Possibly, I would even say most certainly, there should exist a longer way without stairs – I mean, cars do get there somehow! – but we, naively and recklessly, not realising how much we would have to climb, went up the stairs. It was a breathtaking experiment! The stairs were quite steep and chipped, some parts of the way had no handrails, occasionally a stair was interrupted by a sewer manhole. Afraid to look back and feel dizzy, we climbed up and up, like cats, who can climb only up trees, out of fear. Speaking of cats, their appearance was the pinnacle of the whole climb. Five of them simultaneously ditched their food bowls (apparently, kindly provided by residents of the houses located along the stairs) and rushed at our feet. They were meowing loudly and rubbing against us, a couple of cats even smacked each other, fighting for the right to get in our way, and then followed us for a long time. I struggle to imagine what that was. In that situation, they totally seemed like messengers from hell, but perhaps the poor animals were just trying to welcome us and cheer us up. They only left us at the very last part of the staircase. Alas, there are no photos of the cats – it was not the right moment to take pictures, you know.

After we successfully overcame this “hurdle”, we still had to meander a bit more more around the streets going up and down, but this felt more tolerable. We entered the restaurant totally exhausted. But then we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the city from the 8th floor, delicious fish, and excellent service.

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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 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.