Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Phuket, Thailand

Thailand – Day 7

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

24 March 2018

This post is also supposed to turn out short, as well as devoid of any particular enthusiasm. But anyway, the morning started pretty well. We got up, had a slow breakfast at the poolside (by the way, the breakfast in Chiang Mai is leading so far, compared to breakfasts in other cities: there’s more variety, the food is tastier and the place looks more pleasant overall), and went for a walk to the Old Town on our own.

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Basically, just as during our evening walk with the guide, we didn’t discover anything particularly remarkable in the Old Town. Well, there is a medieval city wall, but I’ve seen better walls. Otherwise, there are lots and lots of temples at literally every step – I think, Chiang Mai has around 300 of them, in fact, that is what it’s famous for.

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On the way we noticed an interesting procession. First we saw school-aged boys in identical white clothes. They were followed by girls, in the same type of clothes, only with skirts. Then we saw young monks of the same age in monastic robes of the same white colour. There were also occasional adults, dressed normally, but all carrying beautifully folded orange cloth in their hands – it looked as if they were carrying robes for monks as a gift. Some schoolchildren were carrying some flags or portraits of the king and members of the royal family. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to figure out what kind of event that was and where they were all heading.

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We didn’t get to do a long walk, as it became very hot, so we returned to the hotel, packed and came downstairs to the lobby to wait for our driver for our airport transfer. Kudos to the driver, he arrived exactly on time – it’s not for nothing that we liked him (moreover, in the driver-guide tandem, he was definitely our favourite).

The flight to Phuket itself was on time and went fine. But at the airport there was a surprise waiting for us – or rather, there wasn’t anyone waiting for us at all. Based on our experience working with this travel agency, this came completely unexpected, as neither in Vietnam, nor in Thailand so far had we faced such issues. We tried calling the agency, but no one responded – it was Saturday, after all. To our great luck, though, we had a business card from Vanna, our Bangkok guide. We called her, she followed up, and it turned out that there was someone waiting for us after all, but he didn’t have our names written on the paper, or maybe forgot about us completely. By the way, he wasn’t a personal guide, but merely a representative of the transfer company, and, having made us wait for some more time, finally organised a car with a driver for us. In total, we had to wait for at least 45 minutes. Honestly, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience, because while our Vietnam trip had left us with the impression that we were much better off taking a tour than if we’d organised the trip ourselves, in a situation like this we definitely felt that it would have been way easier for us to just get a taxi and not spend ages waiting.

As for tomorrow’s cooking class, no one left us any instructions either. Once again, many thanks to Vanna, who came to our rescue and found out everything: who would pick us up and when.

As a result, we arrived at the hotel already in the dark, and didn’t get to see much. The beach is right across our hotel, and there seem to be many different restaurants around. We wend to one of them straight away to have seafood and really enjoyed sitting on the terrace overlooking the sea (in the dark). The prices in Phuket are significantly higher than elsewhere and apparently, the restaurant itself wasn’t cheap as well. By the way, alcohol is relatively expensive throughout Thailand. A glass of wine or a cocktail here will cost the same as a main dish, if not more.

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Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 6

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

23 March 2018

We had our second planned cooking class today in Chiang Mai. In the morning we got picked up from the hotel by the cooking school’s own car, along with the a few more people from two other hotels.

Once we arrived at the school, it took us a while to understand what was going on – for some reason we were seated at a table, while our fellow car travelers were left to wait at the entrance, and then were put on a different car together with another group of newcomers and taken somewhere. Only after seeing the school’s advertising leaflet, we realised that they were offering classes both here, at the school, and on a farm, and apparently those guys had booked a farm class.

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Eventually, our group was formed – apart from us, it consisted of a French couple and two different companies of Americans. We were then given the menu. Here the concept was slightly different from what we saw in Bangkok. Out of seven categories of dishes, we were supposed to cook five on our half-day class, and three of them – curry paste, curry and spring rolls – were pre-selected for us, so our group had to agree and choose two more out of the remaining four. We chose stir-fry and dessert, and did not choose soup and salad. And then, everyone could individually pick their own dish from each chosen category. For example, I chose hot basil stir fried chicken (many went for pad thai, but we had already made that in Bangkok); a local kind of curry called khaw soi and the respective curry paste; bananas in coconut milk for dessert; and as for spring rolls, there was only one variety.

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The school has its own vegetable garden, and we went there to see and smell the ingredients frequently used in Thai cuisine: green onions, leeks, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, various kinds of basil, roots of ginger, galangal, turmeric and ginseng.

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Then we walked all the way to the local market, passing by very interesting places with guest house and cafes, apparently for backpackers and other budget tourists.

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At the market, our instructor named Da showed us different spices, ready-made curry pastes, various kinds of noodles and rice. Here I found both a short-term and a long-term solution to my problem of the lack of vital ingerdients back home – and bought a pack of dried ingredients for tom yum soup, as well as kaffir lime seeds.

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And then we came back to the cooking school and got down to business. I must say, here we were given more independence and almost made everything by ourselves. By the way, before we started cooking, we were given a snack – leaves, in which we had to wrap peanuts, small pieces of ginger, onion, chili, roasted coconut, and add a spoonful of sweet sauce. Then everyone had to say ‘chok dee’ – which kind of means ‘good luck’ – and, however funny it may seem, toast each other by “clinking” the little wraps before putting them in our mouths.

The stir fries, as usual, were very quick and easy to make, and I got some pre-cooked rice to go with mine.

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Then, two volunteers were chosen from the group, and they made a slightly larger portion of a somewhat generic stir fry, for the spring roll filling. And everyone had to wrap the desired amount of this filling in a provided pancake and deep fry their spring roll.

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After that, we made the curry paste. It turned out that no one chose green curry, and for all the others – red curry, panang curry, khaw soi and massaman curry (nobody chose the last one either) – the base paste is exactly the same, with several different ingredients added later on.

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What goes into red curry paste is the following: pre-soaked dried chili peppers, garlic, turmeric, ginseng, kaffir lime zest and lemongrass. And then you would need to add dried curry powder to make khaw soi paste or crushed peanuts for panang curry paste.

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By the way, red curry itself is made just like green curry – i.e. with Thai eggplants and basil in addition to meat, curry paste, sauces and coconut milk. As for panang curry and khaw soi, they are made without the vegetables. My khaw soi was more liquid than the other curries and had to be served with noodles rather than rice. As I understood, that’s exactly what we ate and took for noodle soup in that roadside eatery the day before yesterday. I even added an extra spoonful of curry paste, since it wasn’t spicy enough!

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At some point between making the curry paste and the curry itself, we somehow managed to squeeze in the dessert preparation. In my case, this was a simple matter: I just had to boil sliced ​​bananas in coconut milk with sugar. Interestingly, while slicing this kind of bananas, we came across big black seeds which we had to pick out – I had never seen anything like that!

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In general, we really liked the Chiang Mai cooking class as well, especially its slightly higher level of complexity after the Bangkok one. There is yet another cooking class awaiting us in Phuket, we have to see what it’s going to be like!

Our guide and driver picked us up at the culinary school, and from there we drove to our last temple in Thailand, planned in the tour programme, on Mount Doi Suthep.

The temple and its surroundings are very croded (as usual, Chinese tourists predominate). To get to the temple itself, one has to walk up 306 stairs in the heat. Fortunately, there is a nice cool breeze atop the mountain.

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You walk into the temple – the golden shine all around makes your eyes hurt. The view is, of course, magnificent, but interestingly – and we agreed on this with my friend when sharing our impressions of the trip – the temples here don’t give you that sense of peacefull bliss, they seem too pompous for that. However, it’s quite possible that it’s just us being taken to such temples, and that somewhere in the mountains, hidden from the tourist’s eye, there are temples and monasteries where you’d find peace and tranquility and want to meditate. Here, even though there is a meditation corner, you don’t quite feel like using it as intended.

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The gilded stupa (or chedi, as they are also called here) in the center of the temple also contains a sacred Buddhist relic – a bone of Lord Buddha – and according to a legend, this relic was loaded on an elephant, which was given an opportunity to pick a spot for the temple, and so the animal came here.

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By the way, as I have already said, there are stupas scattered all around Indochina, which have a special symbolic significance for those born in a certain year of the Eastern zodiac. The local stupa is associated with the year of the goat.

There is also an observation deck on the territory of the temple, with a view of entire Chiang Mai, but it’s too foggy to see anything at all.

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And we’ve been seeing this foggy haze during all the time of our stay both in Chiang Mai and in Chiang Rai, to the extent that in the morning and closer to the sunset the sun looks like an orange tangerine in the sky.

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Once back at our hotel and having said goodbye to our guide, we rested for a bit and headed out to a massage parlor, which we had found based on Internet reviews and booked online. I must say, I liked it less than the one in Chiang Rai, although it was slightly more expensive.

For dinner, we chose a nice Japanese restaurant with a terrace on the second floor and a view over the night market, and sat down outside. But then the whole dinner nearly got ruined by a sudden rain – our first one in Thailand! – and while we waited to see whether it would stop quickly, all the outdoors tables under the canopy and decent tables inside were already occupied, so we had to sit at some tiny table in the corner inside. Luckily, the rain soon stopped and the waitresses kindly moved us back to a lovely table on the terrace.

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The only thing that brightened our time at the stupid corner table inside, was a funny episode at the next table: there was a young Chinese lady sitting there and waiting for her take-away. Suddenly, two older women approached her – perhaps, her mother and aunt, for example – and started showing her some harem pants they bought at the night market, with such delight and enthusiasm, almost jumping up and down with excitement, that we couldn’t help staring at them which made the younger woman quite embarassed, so she asked them to behave more quietly. I have to say, it’s not very often that you see such sincere and genuine joy, let alone when it’s caused by two pairs of pants! 🙂

Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 5

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

22 March 2018

And once again we had to forget about our sundresses and put on our elephant harem pants purchased in Bangkok, as pretty much the whole of today is dedicated to temples in Chiang Rai and its environs.

In general, there are lots and lots of temples in Thailand, people seem much more religious than, for example, in Vietnam or China, and it’s much more common to see monks everywhere. That’s quite understandable – the country hasn’t been colonised recently, it has no communist past or present, so obviously, religion hasn’t been historically oppressed. And by the way, Buddhism here seems to contain elements of Hinduism.

The first temple we went to was Wat Phra Singh, founded in the 14th century. The name of this temple comes from the golden Buddha image, almost as famous (and as ‘well-traveled’) as the Emerald Buddha. Our guide Dino said that the temple’s architecture is in Burmese style.

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What was specifically remarkable about this temple is the large number of stray dogs that are fed here, apparently with rice, given their state of utter apathy; and sal trees, sacred to Buddhists, with large and very fragrant flowers.

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From here we headed to another temple – Wat Phra Keo, or the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Yes, yes, it has the same name as the one we saw in Bangkok. The temple is very old and was originally called something else, but in the 15th century, it was here, among the wreckage of a stupa split by a thunderbolt, that the Emerald Buddha statue, believed to be of divine origin, was found. Since the 18th century and up to this day, the statue is in Bangkok, just where we saw it, but before that it traveled a lot around the territories of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Dino talked about the statue’s displacements in the most thorough details – who and when took/stole it, who robbed whom etc. – but we didn’t even try to memorise all this, especially since he wasn’t the most interesting narrator ever…

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The Chiang Rai temple currently has a jade replica of the Emerald Buddha (in fact, as you may remember, the original one is also made of jade) but at least, unlike in Bangkok, you can photograph it.

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Right here, on the territory of the temple, we noticed a pond with turtles and spent quite a while watching one particular small, but proud turtle trying to crawl towards the fence, walking on the heads of its fellow turtles.

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The third temple we saw was really the best – it was the White temple, very beautiful and unusual. It’s quite new, having been built in 1997, and in fact I would rather call it a modern art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist Temple.

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The white colour represents spiritual purity.

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To get into the temple itself, one has to walk along a bridge past the “hands of sinners” sticking out of the earth – very symbolic.

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Right next to the temple there’s a museum containing paintings by Chalermchai Kositpipat – the artist who built this temple with his own money. The paintings are quite interesting, many depict paradise with different buildings in the same style as the White Temple, or mythological animals.

The gorgeous gilded building on the territory of the temple is nothing more than the ‘happy room’ (or rather a whole happy palace!), that is, a toilet.

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Fortunately for us, the thickest crowds of tourists started arriving just as we were leaving – most probably from Chiang Mai – so we were really lucky to walk around and take pictures without them.

The White Temple was our last stop before we drove off to Chiang Mai – we had already checked out from our Chiang Rai hotel this morning and loaded our suitcases in the car. We stopped on our way for lunch, again in a cheap roadside cafe, with a hot spring next to it. In one fenced well, the water was boiling and bubbling up, another one was used for cooking eggs, and there was also a bigger section of the spring which was cool enough to put one’s legs into it, which is supposedly very good for health. Some people managed to sit knee-deep in the water, but I was barely able to dip my feet for a couple of seconds, as the water was very hot – around 50 degrees Celsius – the exact opposite situation of yesterday’s pool visit in Chiang Rai!

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We arrived at our hotel in Chiang Mai at about 3pm. The hotel is located next to the night market, so there are lots of market stalls, massage parlours and bars around.

The hotel has two excellent swimming pools, and this time we had better luck and managed to take a dip. And we knew right away that we’d be more lucky – unlike in Chiang Rai, the poolside area was full of people.

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Our tour programme for the evening included a trip to the street food market and dinner right there. We tried pork satay (i.e. pork skewers) with peanut sauce, snapper fish in salt and some pork dish with rice. It was quite tasty, although not necessarily much cheaper than in a restaurant.

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On the way back to the hotel our guide Dino took a longer route so that we could walk around the Old Town, which we didn’t enjoy much – there was little to see in the dark, plus we wanted to rest a bit and enjoy some guide-less time.

Once we said goodbye to him, we went for a drink at one of the bars near the hotel, but left very quickly – the place seemed a bit dodgy, with a few foreign men and a lot of half-naked local women (if they were all women, of course), rushing with open arms towards every white man in sight trying to lure him into the bar. It seems that all the bars around are like that, and many are even completely empty, except for the stacks of women waiting at the entrance.

Posted in Asia, Bangkok, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 2

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

19 March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in 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, English, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 3

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

7 June 2017

Today’s Ho Chi Minh City tour was supposed to happen yesterday, but as the presidential Reunification Palace, which was one of the items on our list, was closed yesterday for a government event, the travel agency had to slightly amend our schedule.

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It was actually at this palace that our tour began this morning. Before the war there was the South Vietnamese Independence Palace here, however, it was a different building, a 19th-century one in the French colonial style. During the war, that one was bombed, so a new, more modern palace was built in its place later, becoming a symbol of the unified Vietnam.

Generally, there was a lot of history today and in the first half of the day it was mainly contemporary history. So, standing next to this tank, which is a replica of the exact North Vietnamese tanks that rammed the Palace gate in 1975 and actually marked the end of the Vietnam war and the victory of the North, Phuoc gave us a brief overview of Vietnamese history since the First Indochina War against the French colonialists, which began in 1946, followed by the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War of 1955-1975.

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The palace itself has maybe a few dozens of rooms and halls, but only three are currently used for government events. Some of the rest are only demonstrated as a museum, and I don’t even know what they do with the others. The basement, for example, used to be a bunker, and is now closed for reconstruction.

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Next, we stopped at the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon , built by the French, obviously, and also located directly opposite the Post Office building, which is another place of interest. There isn’t particularly much to tell about either, especially that we didn’t spend a lot of time there, just walked in, looked around and left.

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What followed next felt kind of like bitter medicine – unpalatable but useful. It was the War Remnants Museum, which, by the way, before the restoration of diplomatic relations with the USA used to be called Exhibition House for US Crimes. It’s a rather eerie place exhibiting military equipment, war photos (including those of the Songmi massacre and the victims of napalm and white phosphorus bombs), a guillotine, the replica of a South Vietnamese jail for political prisoners, and – most horrible of all! – photographs of victims of Agent Orange (a toxic chemical, repeatedly spread by Americans in Vietnam) with birth defects and mutations. And not only local people had children born with defects, so did also American soldiers after returning home. In Vietnam, there are still a lot of disabled people who are victims of those chemical attacks: we saw some of them both at the Notre Dame Cathedral, asking for alms, and at the museum itself, producing various crafts for sale – unfortunately, the state doesn’t have enough money to support them, so they have to find means to survive on their own.

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It was all very sad and made me think a lot – mostly about the fact that history doesn’t teach people anything at all, especially in the light of the most recent political events in the world… Now of course, the inscriptions under the exhibits in the War Remnants Museum are characterised by political propaganda, in particular, the northerners are only mentioned as “patriot soldiers” and the South Vietnamese government is called a puppet. We so didn’t expect such evaluative language in the seemingly narrative description of military events, that when we saw a table listing the number of troops from various states, among which the South Vietnamese Puppet was mentioned, we asked ourselves whether the word ‘puppet’ actually meant something different in military jargon, because we simply couldn’t believe that it was meant in its most direct sense.

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We decided to grab food in a coffee shop right at the museum, and had banh mi –
traditional Vietnamese baguettes (French heritage, as I mentioned before) with chicken, tasting like ordinary doner kebab .

After contemporary history we plunged into more ancient one, also much more positive and entertaining: we went to the privately-owned FITO Museum of traditional Vietnamese medicine. The interior was very interesting, in the traditional Vietnamese style of the 19th century, although the building itself is new.

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We got to see an introductory video and then a nice lady showed us the exhibits – there was a huge number of antique dishes, medicinal substances (herbs, minerals, mushrooms etc.), tables listing medicinal plants, half-decayed medical treatises by ancient doctors, written in Chinese characters, etc. We were offered to try on traditional clothes of Vietnamese doctors and pose for a photo behind a pharmacy counter. And also, some of the medicines are mentioned in connection with the emperor Minh Mang, although I can’t remember whether he made them himself or had them invented specially for him. But what’s noteworthy is that the emperor had 500 wives and could visit 5 of them in one night!

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By the way, I didn’t mention Chinese characters just randomly. In fact they were used in Vietnam up until early 20th century, when the French colonial government imposed a switch to a romanised alphabet. In this alphabet, the standard five vowels (or six, if “y” is also considered as one) come with all sorts of diacritical marks: not only are there twelve vowels in Vietnamese, but each one can also be pronounced with six different tones, changing the meaning of the word.

Phuoc tells us all this in the car on the way to the local Chinatown. There are about a million Chinese in Vietnam, many of which don’t even speak Chinese anymore. In Ho Chi Minh City they mainly own wholesale stores. In Chinatown we visited the Thien Hau temple of the Chinese sea goddess. By the way, I’ve already been to another temple dedicated to her in Hong Kong. Among other information about Chinese traditional beliefs, Phuoc told us about the 12-year cycle of the Eastern calendar – in particular that previously before a wedding the bride’s and groom’s horoscope signs used to be checked for compatibility, but nowadays clever couples come up with ways to avoid incompatibility, such as arranging the marriage ceremony at midnight instead of midday, or walking into the house for the first time through the back door instead of the front door.

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And finally, we visited a lacquer factory. Initially, the technique, like much else, as we have already found out, was brought by the French, but then local craftsmen mastered the skill so much that they pretty much took it to the next level. This work is manual, and very laborious and complex. First, a black wooden board is prepared – which of course should be absolutely smooth – then a picture is drawn on it, then either a part is cut out of mother-of-pearl along the outline of the pattern and stuck to the board, or the contour of the picture is filled with pieces of egg shell (which can even be completely crushed) or paint, and then the painting is covered with fifteen layers of lacquer made of lacquer tree sap, and each layer must fully dry before the next one can be applied. Unfortunately, taking pictures at the factory wasn’t allowed, otherwise it would be very interesting to capture the process of creating lacquerware.

This was the end of the Saigon part of our tour, and we said goodbye to Phuoc. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and we decided to find an electronics store to buy additional memory cards for our cameras. I must say, the walk was rather stupid: the store which Phuoc had noted for us on the city map didn’t have the card I needed, and the sellers gave us the address of another store, which we spent ages looking for and as a result found out that it was quite close to our hotel. Had we known that in advance, we wouldn’t even have had to drag ourselves that far in this humid heat. We were quite lucky today that there was no rain at all, but the flip side of that is this sticky heat, as the rain would have refreshed the air.

We continued walking until we reached the Barbecue Garden restaurant, which we chose for today’s dinner. The restaurant is open-air, mostly attended by foreigners, and has a very interesting concept: the barbecue ingredients are served raw, which you then have to grill yourself over the gas burner located right in the centre of your table. Once again we really liked everything and the prices were shockingly low: only 32 dollars for two for snacks, barbecue, side dishes, fruit juice, beer and dessert!

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And after dinner we decided to finally walk up to the river, taking advantage of the dry weather. We reached the river and walked along the embankment, but couldn’t locate that beautiful skyline with illuminated buildings which we’d seen on some postcard. We slightly got used to the traffic, but it still feels stressful for me – I guess, after this in Baku I’ll be able to cross roads with my eyes closed. At some point, we wanted to cross a wide avenue along the embankment, and spent at least five minutes in front of the zebra crossing, because we couldn’t bring ourselves to step into this uninterrupted stream of traffic, before some local girl – thanks to her! – rushed to our help and literally took us across the road, like old grannies!

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