On this two-day trip out of Hanoi, we passed trucks loaded with pigs, and dozens of duck farms, all supplying restaurants in Hanoi. At the Cuc Phuong National Park’s conservation center, we were hoping to spot a pangolin (a rare, scaled animal that, in photos, reminded me of an armadillo), but they were only on view at certain times of day, so we missed them. We did visit the monkey and turtle sections though. After a night in our Ninh Binh hotel, we visited a temple and then boarded a small, flat-bottomed boat for another river trip where all the rowers used their legs and feet at the oars. Dozens of tourist-filled boats joined us as we made our way down the river, past even more spectacular scenery, and through three low-hanging caves. I was sure we would have to duck or bump our heads, but the rowers knew the safest channel to take. Outside the caves we encountered a floating market of sorts. Several sellers in boats tried to entice us to buy their wares, imploring us to at least buy food for our rower.
On a day trip from Hanoi, we headed southwest, ostensibly to visit the Perfume Pagoda in a Huong Son mountain cave. The only way to get there, following a 2-hour drive, is a boat ride along the Yen River, then a cable car up to the cave—a pilgrimage site to which thousands go during the religious Tet festival in March and April.
The drive out of Hanoi showcased Vietnam’s watery countryside. When we arrived at the river, the tiny boat was big enough for us, our guide, and the boat’s rower, and the one-hour trip upriver proved serene and scenic. We passed watery fields of pink lotus blossoms (which apparently start closing at noon), travelers in other boats, a red foot bridge high above the river, and kingfisher birds clinging to branches, before arriving at the elaborate Thien Tru Pagoda temple complex. Fortunately, we were there in November, and the place was almost deserted—a situation that was perfect for exploring and photography but posed some problems: The Ladies restroom was locked, so I had to use the Men’s, while our guide stood guard outside. Also, we were told that the cable car was not running (not enough people, I suppose), so we couldn’t go up to the Perfume Pagoda. After a bountiful lunch, we explored the extensive temple complex, then rejoined our boat and rower for the trip back down the river. By this time, all the lotus blossoms had closed, but the scenery was still spectacular.
Please enjoy! Just click on a photo to enlarge, then arrow back and forth.
About five hours drive (or 8 hours overnight train trip) north of Hanoi is the mountain hideaway town of Sapa, in the shadow of Fan Si Pan—one of Vietnam’s tallest mountains. This is a land of steep hillside rice terraces and colorfully dressed hill tribes like the Black Hmong and Dao. There’s a beautiful lake, of course, French colonial buildings, and a town that’s constantly under construction (like the rest of Vietnam). We roamed the town, took in a buffet dinner and dance show at our hotel, and visited an eclectic mostly-outdoor market. I had come down with a bad case of bronchitis, so couldn’t hike to the hill-tribe villages as we had planned. A local doc gave me some antibiotics, which perked me up for awhile.
So, let me take you on a photo tour of Sapa. As always, click on any photo to enlarge and then arrow back and forth. Please enjoy.
Normally, I avoid museums. No matter how revealing the dishes, weapons and other elements of a past civilization are, looking into little plexiglas cases does not excite me. I am definitely interested in how people of the past lived, worked and spent their time, but a hands-on exhibition is more my style. That’s why I loved Hanoi’s Ethnology and War Museums. At the Ethnology Museum, I admit we skipped the indoor exhibits (in plexiglas cases) for a chance to wander around the recreated villages outside.
Some notes about three of the houses. The communal house is 19 meters in height including 3 meter stilts. Its floor area is more than 90 square meters.
A team of 40 Bahnar people came from Kon Rbang Village in Kontum City, in the Central Highlands, to build this house. It was modeled after the village’s early 1920’s communal house. The most important tool in its construction is the axe, which is used to cut the wood and carve the trunks. The axe can also be used as a chisel to mortise the columns.
The high roof is supported by eight massive pillars, four of which are 60cm in diameter. The structure is composed of many other posts and beams arranged horizontally, vertically or diagonally at different heights. They serve to both connect and support the house. The longitudinal beams and purlins are 14 to 15m long. The sloping and curved roof is rounded at its lower part. It is not only attractive, but also helpful for wind resistance. This curve brings lightness, elegance, and the impression of a greater height.
Role of the communal house
The communal house has a significant meaning in villages. It is the largest and the most spectacular architecture, showing the power and talent of the community.
Traditionally, the communal house was used for social and ceremonial activities. It was a place for guests to be received, for men to be together during their free time, for the elderly to transmit knowledge to younger generations, for old villagers to deal with village affairs, and for villagers to concentrate together in community events. Collective rituals were also held at the communal house. In the past, the youth were on duty here to prepare for fights or to defend the village. Young bachelors and widowers also spent nights in the communal house. Women did not usually enter this house.
Heads of sacrificed buffalos and hunted animals are often hung in the communal house. These are the trophies and pride of the community. Other ritual objects and protecting talismans of the villages are also preserved in the communal house.
The long house is 42.5 meters long and 6 meters wide and sits on one meter high stilts. It was reconstructed at the Museum in 2000. It was originally built in 1967 and belonged to Mrs. HDiah Eban’s family (Ede Kpa) in Ky Village, Buon Ma Thuot city, Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands.
The house is oriented in a north-south direction according to Ede tradition. The north side is the front with the main entrance. The south end was where families lived. As a house of a powerful family, it was built with big columns and beams, on which many decorations were carefully carved. Its original staircase, over one meter wide, was carved from one large wooden board.
Traditionally, extended matrilineal families lived in long houses. The more people who lived in a house, the longer it was. Some houses were 200m long. In the 1970s, there were still houses 50m to 60m in length. Since the 1980s, extended families have split into nuclear ones that live in smaller houses.
The tomb house was built in 1998 by five Giarai Arap men from Mrong Ngo Village, ChuPa District, Gia Lai Province.
About thirty dead people can be burried in this large tomb house in the village. The decorated sculptures are carved from tree trunks using axes, chisels, and knives. Statues of men and women showing off their secret parts, and pregnant women symbolise fertility and birth. The wooden roof is covered with plaited bamboo planks on which designs are painted with natural red pigments. Figures on the roof depict activities of the tomb abandoning ritual.
It is thought that the tomb house is for the dead in the afterlife. Broken dishes, bottles, cups and trays, and wooden models of tools are put inside the tomb to provide necessities to the deceased in their other world. After the ritual, the tomb is abandoned.
The War Museum
This was our biggest surprise. I didn’t expect to like it, but the exhibits were extremely well done, with actual tanks and shot-down U.S. planes, as well as recreated scenes indoors of wars throughout Vietnam’s history. Check out the exhibit of a battlefield with men crawling through tunnels below. Also a bicycle equipped with a rocket launcher. The country was constantly fighting off invaders.
More photos from Hanoi, including beautiful tiled artwork along roads and streets, lots of scooters of course, graduation (high school, I think) pictures at the Temple of Literature, cows in the street, the country’s tall and skinny apartment buildings, temples, soldiers in formation at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum (his body is taken to Moscow once a year for refurbishing), and me with a group of delightful school children who were passing through a temple complex on their way home.
If you cursor over the photos, you’ll see the captions. Click on a photo, it will enlarge, and you can arrow your way forward or backward. Please enjoy.
I was in high school/college in California while the Vietnam war had been raging for ten-plus years, and I knew many young men who were drafted into the army and sent to this far-away country. Years earlier, the U.S. had teamed up with other UN countries to stop communist North Korea from taking over democratic South Korea (remember the tv show, MASH?). In Korea’s case, the UN forces were able to push back the N. Korean forces to the 38thParallel, where the country remains divided to this day. I suppose, when the U.S. went into Vietnam with the same aim (to keep the North Vietnamese Communist party out of South Vietnam), they felt it was doable. But this time, the U.S. was alone, without the backing of UN troops. As we now know, the war in Vietnam was a disaster for both the Vietnamese people and U.S. soldiers. The Communist north took over the south, many Vietnamese U.S. collaborators were killed, and I’ll never forget the news videos of panicked crowds trying to get on the last U.S. planes to leave Vietnam.
Since then, Vietnam has fostered good relations with the U.S. and has welcomed tourists from all over the world. Even so, memories of the war-ravaged country remained in my mind, and since it is a Communist country, I wasn’t sure what to expect when Jerry and I traveled there last November (2019).
We had taken a southeast Asia cruise a few years earlier and joined excursions to central and south Vietnam, but we had never seen the North.
So please join me as I take you on a virtual tour of North Vietnam, starting with its capital, Hanoi. As far as I could tell, there is no central transportation in Hanoi. Everybody, and I mean everybody, rides mopeds or bicycles, but mostly mopeds (tourists can take rides in pedicabs (called cyclos). It must be the moped capital of the world. Crossing a street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, you must watch for a good open spot, step out onto the street and keep going. If you don’t stop or hesitate or waiver in your direction, the moped riders and any other vehicles will swerve around you. It takes getting used to.
In “How to Take Better Pictures,” https://www.blurb.com/b/9590931-how-to-take-better-pictures-photo-class-in-a-book, you’ll see that an intriguing composition is the basis for all great photographs. One aspect of composition I discuss in the book is “Lines.” Today, I’d like to add to that by discussing “Shapes.”
Look around and you will see that the world is made up of shapes: ovals, circles, squares, rectangles and triangles, among others. Mountain ranges, for example, are a series of triangles. Bridges are often full of squares, rectangles and triangles. When you look at it that way, shapes literally hold our world together.
The shot you see here is composed of several shapes: a circle, a half dome, many rectangles in the building and windows, and a cylinder-shaped main section. I could see the moon getting closer to the building, so I waited until it looked like it was sitting on the roof before taking the shot. The building, by the way, is actually an observatory in the town of Trelew, Argentina, making the combination of shapes particularly poignant: The moon is attaching itself to the observatory.
The challenge of this post is, then, is to photograph two or more shapes together to tell a story or make a statement. Can you come up with something?
In 1883, whimsical creative architect Antoni Gaudi started working on Sagrada Familia (sacred family), a huge Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, Spain. At the time of his death in 1926 (he was hit by a streetcar), less than a quarter of the building was finished. Slow progress then and later was partially due to lack of funding (it relied on private donations) and the Spanish Civil war (1936-39) By 2010, when I first visited, it was more than halfway done, but the central nave was stacked with building materials so we had to walk around the edges. On my second visit, last September (2018), the interior was complete and spectacular. The outside towers, however are still under construction, and the expected finish date is 2026—100 years after Gaudi’s death.
Known as God’s Architect, Gaudi felt that the Medieval Gothic style of his day was limited. It relied on large support structures called buttresses, and he believed that God’s house should be free of bulky supports, yet limitless in its height and grandeur, so he turned to nature, or what he saw as God’s architecture. The support columns of the church resemble the stems of plants, making the design stronger and lighter and allowing for more natural light. Gaudi built many of his models upside down to show how the weight would be distributed.
The main entrance, in the nativity façade, contains a complex variety of scenes featuring Jesus, Mary, Joseph, angels, kings, shepherds, flowers, animals and birds, all depicting the adoration at the birth and life of Jesus. The rear entrance, or Passion façade, depicts the death of Jesus with simple lines and figures. Many architects have worked on the church since Gaudi’s death, and all did their best to stay true to his plans and vision. Sagrada Familia has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I’ve heard mixed reviews about Venice. Some say it’s the most magical city in Europe. Others complain that it’s too touristy and over-rated. Yes, Venice calls to tourists like the hive calls to a swarm of bees. If you stay in the areas around St. Mark’s Square, you’ll encounter similar swarms of tourists and long lines. But even there, the magic is palpable.
We wanted to visit the Doge’s Palace and infamous prison while avoiding the crowds, so we went late in the afternoon. At one time, Venice’s powerful Doges ruled much of Europe from their palace in the sea. Anyone who opposed them was thrown into the palace’s dungeons, but eventually, more room was needed, so a separate prison was built across a small canal next to the palace and the two connected by a covered bridge. Writers later referred to this passage as the Bridge of Sighs as it was thought that prisoners sighed as they looked out at the pleasures of Venice, which they would never experience again. As we crossed into the prison, we peered out through the small, decorative window openings at a crowd of tourists taking pictures of this famous bridge.
After our palace/prison tour, we decided not to stand in the long, snaking line waiting for the elevator to the top of the Campanile, a tall tower in the square. I bet the view was amazing from the top. Instead, we found a table at one of the outdoor restaurants, ordered some food and a spritz (a Venetian specialty drink) and listened to an orchestra playing classical and contemporary music as the setting sun turned the façade of St. Mark’s cathedral to gold. Definitely magical.
We had planned to ride in a gondola, but in the small canals around St. Mark’s Square, dozens of gondolas, each carrying a couple or family, lined up like a traffic jam on a watery freeway. Many of the couples looked bored or were staring at their cell phones. Not romantic. Not magical.
Instead, we walked the narrow car-free lanes and crossed tiny canal bridges as well as large ones such as Rialto and Accademia—two of five spanning the Grand Canal. Rialto was the first built. Its premiere incarnation in 1181 consisted of a row of boats tied together side by side and planks laid on top of them. With its second incarnation in 1255, it became a wooden drawbridge allowing ship traffic up and down the canal. It collapsed in 1444 (under the weight of a crowd gathered to watch a boat parade in celebration of a wedding) and again in 1524, then was redesigned and built in 1591 as a covered stone structure lined with shops on both sides.
Instead of a tourist hotel, we opted to rent an apartment near the outskirts of Venice island. After taking some wrong turns trying to find the address while dragging suitcases behind us, we eventually arrived at a door in a building down an alleyway. One flight (but lots of steps) up, our apartment was perfect, with a balcony overlooking the small canal below. Our landlady, Sophia, lived next door and her dogs barked each time they heard us coming home. Below, along the canal, a string of restaurants and a wine bar made up the social life of our neighborhood. Sometimes we cooked our meals (there was a grocery store not far away); sometimes we ate out. We felt like we belonged there.
We also adapted to life without cars. Once we located our vaporetto (basically a bus on water) stop, we bought passes and went everywhere. The vaporettos were always crowded with standing room only, so we positioned ourselves near the “door” enabling us to get on and off easily. Coming home in the evening, the Moorish-style palaces and casinos with their twinkling lights spread golden reflections on the water of the Grand Canal.
Leonardo da Vinci was a genius artist, inventor, town planner and architect. In 1516, he accepted an invitation from French King Francois I to live and work in Amboise, France. Until his death in 1519 at age 64, Da Vinci lived in Chateau du Cloux (now Clos Luce) near the royal castle, so, of course, we had to visit the house, now a museum.
Da Vinci’s inventions are displayed in miniature in the house, and full-size around the extensive grounds. Flying machines, paddle-wheel boats, revolving bridge (portable, for armies on the move), helicopter (aerial screw), machine gun, armored car (precursor to the modern tank), giant crossbow, a double-decker bridge that was supposed to help stop the spread of the plague, and his artwork hanging from trees.
We were also lucky enough to be there for a special exhibition on the progression of flying machines, from a man-powered set of wings to hot-air balloons and beyond.
Castles fascinate me: their steep-sided walls meant to repel invaders, their dungeons, their turrets and worn stone steps. Amboise’s fortifications were originally built around the 4thcentury AD, and since then, its appearance has been added to and changed many times as France’s rulers called it home (when they weren’t off making war or consolidating their holdings). A few were born, married or died here. For some time, it was considered a hunting lodge, and 75% of its late-14th-century construction remains today.
After exploring the castle, we found, between castle and garden, a full orchestra preparing for a concert. We made our way across the garden, up the steps leading through rows of round bushes, found a couple of chairs and settled in for a while, relaxing to the strains of music floating through the air. It was heavenly.
You’ll notice one of my photos looks like a framed painting or photo of the castle. Two empty gold frames were cleverly placed at the top of the garden, and we saw many people standing behind the frames to have their selfies taken with the castle in the background. Only one problem: They stood so close to the frame, filling it, that you could barely see the castle. I lined up my shot of the castle through the frame, and then a group conveniently stopped on a landing within my view to admire their surroundings. That’s what I call serendipity.
My husband retired early this year, so we decided to celebrate with a 7-week trip to Europe (while he was working, vacations could only last 3 weeks). We did all the planning, and now consider ourselves travel-agent worthy. For the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing the adventure with you, starting with our stay in France’s Loire River Valley, which is known for its many chateaus (castles). So, let me first introduce you to the charming medieval town of Amboise.
Getting to Amboise was fairly easy. From Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport we took a train to St. Pierre des Corps, and then a 12-minute train ride to Amboise. As we walked with our suitcases from the tiny train station in Amboise to our bed-and-breakfast, a man riding a bicycle shouted at us that we were going the wrong way. He apparently assumed we were going TO the train station. We laughed, waved and kept on going. A few blocks later, when we found our accommodations, the big, wrought-iron gate was closed and locked. We tried phoning, but no one answered. Uh oh. Next door was a café/bar where the townspeople came to place sports bets (It was odd to see a Chinese family—obviously residents—chatting with the locals in French). We waited there for a few hours, checking every so often to see if the gate had been opened. Finally, we found a woman who lived at the B&B (not the owner), and she let us in. Our room was delightfully French, with a splendid view of the castle across the river.
Colorful ripples reflect our boat’s passage under and past this remarkable color-and-pattern-changing bridge on the Yangtze River.
Remind you of anything?