Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Travel”

Vietnam – Day 9

13 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vietnam – Day 8

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

12 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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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.

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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Vietnam – Day 2

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

6 June 2017

I may well be unoriginal and repeat what I’ve said before, but I will say it again: what’s particularly nice about breakfasts in Asian hotels is that apart from the usual boring cheeses/sausages/croissants/toasts you can get stir-fried veggies, noodles, dim sum and even pho! Which is exactly what we did before heading down to the reception at 8 am, where our tour guide Phuoc was already waiting for us, ready for the Mekong Delta excursion.

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First of all, we took a two-hour drive in a comfortable SUV to the town of Cai Be in the Mekong Delta region. As we were driving out of Ho Chi Minh City, and also afterwards, I was thinking of my impressions about the surroundings. There are places which make you say “so beautiful that it takes my breath away”. This is not the case. The Vietnam, which we have seen so far, is best described by the epithet “charming”. And in many respects, it’s charming precisely by its imperfection, including chaos on the roads; assemblages of narrow buildings, sometimes shabby, not wider than a single window; street vendors on the sidewalks, and so on.

On the way, Phuoc was telling us how people live in country – about low salaries, about taxes and cases of tax evasion, about how, with the emergence of a free market economy, many are striving to own a business, even if a very small one, and that often all family members, including the elderly, need to work as it’s very difficult to make ends meet otherwise.

At some point, we started talking about dogs and the fact that in Northern Vietnam people still eat them despite the government’s attempts to ban this. In 1945, a terrible famine raged in the north of the country and it were dogs that helped many people survive (not by their own will though!), so some still believe that eating a dog brings good luck. At the same time, this doesn’t prevent the Vietnamese from treating the dog as a man’s best friend and even to welcome stray dogs in their shops or cafes – it turns out that dog barking somehow sounds similar to the Vietnamese word meaning wealth, so again it’s believed that dogs bring good luck, even without being eaten. As for cats, the situation is exactly the opposite, since their ‘meow’ is consonant with the word meaning poverty.

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On the way, we stopped to visit the “happy room” (that’s the euphemism used here for toilet, which is quite logical for travellers) in some interesting place, looking like either a garden or a restaurant. Through Phuoc’s efforts, the stop turned for us into something like a botanical lecture: she basically showed us every plant and explained how and for what purposes it’s used. We really got the impression that the Vietnamese eat almost any stems, leaves, fruits and roots (well, except for poisonous ones obviously), including banana tree stems, and literally every part of the lotus. Then, already back in the car, she showed us some books about tropical plants, flowers and fruits.

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Another fifteen minutes’ drive – and we arrived at Cai Be, where we had to get on a boat and continue the journey on it. The boat was big – like a sampan – enough for 10 people, but it was just for our mini-group. First, we headed off to see the famous fruit and vegetable floating market. The population in the Mekong Delta area is mainly engaged in farming, and growing fruit is a very profitable business. The local climate and fertile land definitely help. But as for rice, for example, growing it is not that financially rewarding – the market price of one tonne barely covers the labour costs of the workers involved in producing this very tonne. Coming back to our floating market, we were told that in the early morning there are particularly many boats selling goods, and by 10 am (which is the time when we arrived), mostly everything is already sold out with only a few boats remaining. That is, to enjoy the floating market in all its glory, we would have had to spend a night in Cai Be.

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Our first stop is a local village with several family businesses. Here, for example, they make coconut candy by boiling coconut milk with sugar and sometimes flavour additives like coffee and chocolate. Coconuts, by the way, are used very extensively here – pulp and milk are used for food, and the shell is used as fuel, for crafts or even for activated charcoal production.

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And here there’s clearly a rice business. A woman is making edible rice paper on a brazier. Not far away, rice alcohol is being produced and there are big jars of alcohol infused on bananas, lychees and even venomous snakes. Rice is also used for making pictures – every rice grain gets painted in the appropriate colour and used for the kind of mosaic as in one of the pictures below.

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And a little bit further they are making puffed rice, frying it on a hot pan with hot black sand. Further on, this rice is mixed with various additives – sugar, salt or ginger, and even pieces of pork or beef – and pressed into something similar to the rice cakes that we know.

I have to say, all these braziers and pans make me feel like in hell in this not-very-cool weather, I sweat a ton, but finally we are sat under fans for a cup of jasmine tea with different sweets made of banana, ginger, sesame and peanuts. Jasmine tea here is very special, much more fragrant than, say, in China or elsewhere. Phuoc explains this by a higher proportion of jasmine flowers relative to tea. Enjoying the tea, we look around and notice that they sell all sorts of things here – coconut oil, crafts made of coconut and other trees, some ointment with cobra venom and even the famous Tiger Balm, although not in the familiar little red tin.

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After the tea break, we again board the boat and drive on to the An Binh island, where we are supposed to enjoy fresh fruit and local music. Just as we take a step off the boat and onto the ground, we immediately feel knocked down by the smell of durian, and in a minute, we understand why: right in front of us there are durian trees, laden with large “fragrant” fruits.

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Fortunately, we aren’t offered any, instead on our plate we have pieces of ordinary watermelon, exotic but familiar pineapple and mango and quite unusual guava (something like feijoa and, as it turned out, closely related to it) and jackfruit (similar to durian, a bit smelly too, but, oddly enough, belongs to the mulberry family, and the pulp is bright orange, slippery and sugary-sweet, tasting like either melon or bubble-gum). At the same time, several performers entertain us with Vietnamese songs accompanied by guitar and some kind of folk instrument, and even with small performances.

The next item on our schedule is a ride on a traditional flat-bottomed rowing boat along a narrow canal. There are cork trees growing right in the water, which, according to Phuoc, protect the soil from erosion. Generally all the vegetation around is pretty luxuriant, often covered with unfamiliar fruits. Behind the plants one can see houses on stilts. Some of them look better – obviously, the owners are making good money by growing durians – and some are pretty shabby. And yet, as I already said above, there is a particular charm to all of this, especially when you pass by a house where a nice-looking middle-aged lady is sweeping her terrace to the sound of some Vietnamese song playing at full blast.

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Not counting the Vietnamese song, there is a peaceful silence around, broken only by the splash of water under the oars and by boats occasionally passing by.

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Meanwhile, the helmsman on our sampan is already waiting with young coconuts for us. Once again, so far we are very impressed with our tour, everything seems to be arranged at the highest level! And so, sipping refreshing coconut water, we headed back to the island, moored and walked to an eco-tourism complex with an orchard, where we were served lunch. The lunch was home-cooked and pretty tasty, consisting of fish that had to be wrapped with vegetables in rice paper and dipped into fish sauce, deep-fried spring rolls, grilled shrimps, vegetable soup (we liked it the least) and pork with rice. Fish sauce, I must say, is an extremely smelly substance, but it tastes a lot better than it smells. Phuoc said that the Vietnamese fish sauce is much better than the Thai one, because it is made of anchovies, while in Thailand it’s made of mackerel.

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We washed it all down with Vietnamese coffee, stronger than many varieties of coffee, but less strong than Turkish coffee. That’s when Phuoc told us that the tradition of drinking coffee is a French colonial heritage, as well as colonial architecture and baguettes, and this, in her opinion apparently shared by many Vietnamese, exhausts the list of positive effects of colonisation, absolutely not offsetting the complete plundering of royal treasures.

We also starting talking about the Vietnam War – how Saigon was much more developed, more or less in step with Singapore and Hong Kong, and then, destroyed by the war and the communist regime, fell hopelessly behind – and about relations with China, which are much better than in the 80s, but, according to Phuoc, quite dangerous and could potentially lead to the occupation of Vietnam by China.

Actually, we went into these lengthy conversations for one simple reason: while we were having lunch (luckily, under a canopy), a heavy downpour started. I have to say that we’d been lucky with the rain from the very beginning – all weather websites I know were forecasting it right in the morning and for the whole day. And it only started when we’d already finished sightseeing.

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After lunch, the only thing left was a boat ride to the town of Vinh Long, where our driver should have already been waiting for us. The rain kept pouring. Fortunately, the boat also had a canopy (unlike the flat rowing boat we were on literally a couple of hours ago), but at some point a wind broke out forcing us to put on raincoats so as not to get wet. Because of the rain, we didn’t stop at the Vinh Long market, and headed straight to the pier. As there were only a few metres remaining to the pier, the waves became so strong, making the boat reel so much that I seriously feared that it would scoop up water and capsize. But thank God, it didn’t, and we drove off back to Ho Chi Minh City. The rain was pouring non-stop throughout the whole two-and-a-half-hour drive, but not as intensely as before.

Today we decided to have dinner at the Ngon restaurant, recommended by Phuoc, which turned out to be a good choice. The restaurant is a ten minute walk from our hotel and is located in that fancier area we didn’t reach yesterday. The interior is very pretty with palm trees everywhere. The menu has several sections: Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, and of course we went for the latter – aren’t we in Vietnam after all? I had bun bo hue (spicy beef soup with rice vermicelli and greens – more precisely, it is the chili pepper served separately that makes it spicy), chicken thighs barbecue and for dessert, something like banana cake with coconut milk – not sweet at all, which I really liked. Generally, I’m enjoying the Vietnamese cuisine and finding it somewhat less intrusive compared to, say, Chinese (which I like as well but tend to have had enough of soon) – mainly because dishes taste precisely like their ingredients and all sorts of sauces and spices are served separately: you can add/dip/sprinkle if you want, but you don’t have to. It all cost us twice as much as yesterday’s dinner (almost 30 USD) – it’s a fancy restaurant after all, but we also ate a lot more.

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Vietnam – Day 1

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

5 June 2017

Our Vietnamese trip began last night, when we left Baku for Doha and from the latter, after a 2-hour connection, flew straight to Ho Chi Minh city. The flight, albeit a long one, felt okay, in many respects due to being an overnight one: we literally got on, sat down, went to sleep, woke up – and suddenly it was already brunch time with just two hours remaining.

In general, everything went pretty smoothly, even though getting the visa took ages. First, we had to fill out a long form asking about everything one could possibly ask about, including religion and information about family members. Then we handed the documents to the officer and were asked to wait. And wait. And wait again. In total, the waiting time was less than an hour, but it felt like eternity.

We were anxious that the travel agency representatives wouldn’t wait for us, but obviously they were aware of the speed of the visa issuing process, so of course, our fears were groundless – we were greeted by a nice lady called Phuoc, picked up by an air-conditioned car and taken to the travel agency office to settle the outstanding payment balance. On the way, she showed us some flashcards with basic phrases in Vietnamese and told us about the history of Ho Chi Minh city and how it was only in the 1970’s when it was called so, because its previous name, Saigon, was too reminiscent of the Vietnam war. By the way, the name Saigon, as per Phuoc, is the modified form of the old Khmer “Prey Nokor” (yes, yes, don’t be surprised!), which used to be the name of the city in its pre-Vietnamese (i.e. Cambodian) times.

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The office turned out to be a small room with a couple of computers, piled with boxes and smelling of mothballs for some reason, where we were warmly welcomed, served iced tea, handed an ancient Nokia with a local sim-card to stay in touch with them, and, of course, charged the outstanding payment. Overall, for the time being, it feels like the agency is taking good care of us!

Then we were brought to the Lavender Boutique Hotel, where they left us – nothing is planned for today and we have the evening free. So after freshening up, we went out to explore the surroundings and get some dinner. The moment we stepped out into the street, we felt like in a bath – the air temperature is about 30 degrees Celsius and it’s very humid. The vegetation around is quite tropical with lots of greenery, palm trees, etc.

Walking around proves to be very, very difficult. Firstly, one must take into account the crazy traffic: most people here don’t drive a car, but a scooter, which there are lots and lots of. And if car-owners at least follow some traffic rules – that is, stop at the red light and before zebra crossings – you can’t expect the same from motorcyclists, so you have to manoeuvre between them literally risking your life! They even drive on sidewalks! Secondly, the sidewalks themselves are tiled pretty badly – chicken soup to our Bakuvian souls! – and are very uneven. And thirdly, the sidewalks, which aren’t very wide anyway, are clogged up with all sort of things: parked motorcycles, low stools with people sitting on them, street food and fruit stalls. And very specific scents are exuded both by the food and the fruit, as among the latter, durian dominates confidently with its unique smell, and it is at every corner!

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Among all this unglamorous disorder, we discover a nice-looking restaurant, where, as we can see through the window, most customers are Vietnamese but there are some foreigners too, which we perceive as a good sign: the place is, therefore, not very touristy, but still foreigner-friendly. We tried local beer, some drink made of aloe vera with chia seeds and rice noodles with pork, cucumbers, peanuts and something else, and everything was tasty. And it all cost us less than 15 USD for two!

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After dinner we tried to walk to the Saigon River, which was supposed to be nearby, but had to give up as a terrible shower started pouring and didn’t stop for a good half an hour. Our Singapore raincoats, which we’d prudently taken with us, came in handy, but didn’t help much – we still had to wait under canopies every time the rain intensified (that is every 5 minutes), until we finally got our feet so wet that we decided to turn back, almost making it to a fancier-looking area than ours. The people here are obviously accustomed to downpours, especially since now it’s the rainy season – everyone has raincoats, huge umbrellas, even scooters are covered with waterproof covers. While waiting, by the way, we walked into a shopping centre selling clothes, which even smelled of cheap clothes – not a sight that can surprise us, who had seen the Baku street markets in underground passages.

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So here are my first impressions of the city: very colourful, much poorer than the previously seen Asian cities (such as Singapore or Hong Kong or Shanghai), scooters swarming all around and everywhere smells of durian.

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Georgia – Day 2

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

27 December 2014

We dedicated our second day to a tour of Tbilisi. First of all, we were taken to the Turtle lake which is located in the posh Vake district. The lake is called like that for a very obvious reason – there are small turtles on its shores. The lake was coated with a thin layer of ice, and the park impressed us with its clean pine air and the sources thereof.

Yesterday we thought that Tbilisi was pretty small, but when we were taken to see it from one of the highest points today, so that not only the old part, but also the new districts were visible, it turned out that the sizes are much larger and the city, extended in length, lies in the cleft between the mountains. In short, the size of the city could be seen well, but the details could not really be made out – it was very foggy. On the way to this lookout point we saw a very original building of the 112 rescue service in the form of a flying saucer.

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One of the planned visits was the Pantheon – the burial place of famous Georgian figures of culture, science and politics – situated on the slopes of Mount Mtatsminda. More precisely, it was our guide who told us about the Pantheon, as we only knew about the graves of Griboyedov and his wife, Nina Chavchavadze. It turns out that these very graves initiated the Pantheon. We came as close as we could by car, and then had to walk, making pretty steep climbs. The guide was encouraging us by showing the place of destination. From this high point, we looked at Tbilisi again, from a different perspective now, and suddenly it turned out that the grave of Griboyedov was just behind us. The grave had a very touching monument to a weeping woman clinging to a cross, and a no less touching famous inscription: “Your spirit and achievements will be remembered forever. Why still does my love outlive you?” With regard to the Pantheon itself, I found all the graves interesting, even though I had only known the names of Stalin’s mother, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Nodar Dumbadze.

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After such a spiritual visit we moved on to a purely prosaic activity – food consumption, for the purpose of which we were taken to the Agmashenebeli avenue (former Plekhanov street). By the way, I really liked the avenue, even more than the Rustaveli ave. I can’t now recall the name of the small restaurant we went to, but the interior was purely Georgian, with antique items, such as cameras and phonographs, and reproductions of Pirosmani’s paintings on the walls (we ate our khachapuris right next to the famous “Feast of Five Princes”).

If yesterday we visited ancient churches and temples, today, having driven us through a quarter that was very reminiscent of the Kubinka and generally the area of Teze Bazar in Baku, Zviad brought us to a modern temple, visible from almost any point of Tbilisi – Tsminda Sameba, the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It occupies a large area, around which you can still see construction works, like columns being built and stone carving works going on.

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Apparently, the plan of our guide consisted of alternating spiritual visits with pure entertainment – undoubtedly the cableway to the Narikala forthress at the same Mount Mtatsminda was part of the latter. It is not at all scary here – unlike the one I took to the Great Wall in China, where you literally float over the abyss, risking dropping your shoes there (while also afraid to drop yourself!). Here you just sit in a closed cabin for 5-6 people and peacefully look at the Kura and its banks underneath. We didn’t get to see the fortress, but had the opportunity to be photographed with a falcon, and then descended to the Europe Square using the same cableway. We saw a few people dressed as Santa Clauses riding bicycles, and also something that made me really emotional – street vendors of roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds, which are measured with a large or a small faceted glass and then sold in paper cornets: where are the days when we had the exact same thing in Baku?..

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Both today and yesterday we saw a lot of purely Tbilisian houses, clinging on the steep cliffs over the Kura, with a lot of balconies. Today we also went into one of the old quarters. Here we found the famous sulfur baths, which we could sense even from afar for the very specific smell of hydrogen sulphide. We walked up to a waterfall in a narrow crevice.

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Ever since yesterday we really wanted to buy churchkhela – the traditional sausage-shaped candy made of grape must with nuts, but Zviad had told us not to buy it not just anywhere but in trusted places, and so he took us to one. The tiny convenience store seemed to have a whole market squeezed in it: they had meat, and cheese, and pickles, and a variety of fruit-vegetables, and well, of course, the coveted churchkhela. Unluckily, we had to wait for the sales assistant of this particular department for quite a while – it turned out that he had been queueing at a supermarket nearby to buy a box of champagne.

Towards the end of the day we went up the Mtatsminda for the third time, this time by a cable car. The first stop was near the pantheon we’d already seen, and the second one led us to a large park, with lots of swings and carousels, with New Year’s songs coming from the speakers, with a house with upturned balconies – as if it was standing upside down. And again I was wrapped in nostalgia – the Baku Boulevard in the days of my childhood looked exactly like this, even the benches were similar. But it’s not that I’m trying to say that anything around looks old and shabby, straight from those times – the park is exactly maintained like this, just as the buildings are restored, as I said before.

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Overflowing with impressions, we ended the day in the khinkali restaurant right near the hotel, where we tried different kinds of khinkali: with meat, mushrooms, cheese – and were very pleased. Thus, our stay in Tbilisi was brief, but very impressive.

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