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.
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.
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.
Beautiful nature to brighten up the day
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?
In a faraway land called India, a great emperor named Shah Jahan adored his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. When she died giving birth to their 14th child, he built her the most magnificent tomb in the history of the world—the Taj Mahal.
“We’ll meet at the bus at 5:30am,” our India tour guide informed us the night before. “We want to be first in line.”
Ugh! Near the front of the line, we stood in the dark for what seemed like forever, waiting for the gates to open. Luckily we were squeezed between “stand in line” railings, so I had something to lean on in my groggy condition.
When we finally entered at sunrise, all sleepiness disappeared, and we were struck by the ethereal beauty of one of the world’s most beloved edifices. Consistently named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the ivory-white marble tomb takes your breath away when you see it up close for the first time. Its name is Persian for “Crown of Palaces,” and so it is, reigning on a marble base, or plinth, at the far end of a narrow reflecting pool, and guarded by a minaret at each corner.
The tomb was commissioned in 1632 and finished in 1643 using materials from all over Asia (white marble from India, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka), and it’s thought that more than 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials. The rest of the 42-acre complex—finished between five and ten years later—includes a mosque, guesthouse and formal gardens. Total cost in 2015 U.S. dollars—$827 million. The project employed some 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects. In 1983 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India.”
Clever subterfuge: To protect the building during WWII, the Indian government erected scaffolding around it in anticipation of air attacks by the Japanese Air Force. Scaffolding was again used during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971 to mislead bomber pilots.
To this day, the Taj Mahal still stands as a symbol of love. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore poetically described it as “the tear drop on the cheek of time.” And so it was for Shah Jahan. When he died, he was laid to rest in a sarcophagus next to his beloved Mumtaz.
In my previous post, I took you on a visual tour of Lake Pichola in the India city of Udaipur, district of Rajasthan.
Today we embark on an exploration of Udaipur’s City Palace, which is one of the architectural marvels of Rajasthan.
Indeed, Udaipur City Palace on the banks of Lake Pichola is the most-visited tourist attraction of Udaipur and the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. It was started in 1559 and not completed until the 18th century because each new ruler kept adding on to it using granite and marble in a surprisingly harmonious blend of Medieval, European and Chinese architecture.
Inside its walls are eleven palaces, including Manak Mahal (Ruby Palace) that features figures of crystal and porcelain, Bhim Vilas and its collection of miniature paintings, and Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors). Other palaces hold Chinese and Dutch ornamental tiles, murals, wall paintings, silver art, inlay, and an amazing amount of colored glass.
There is also an arena where elephant fights were staged, and an area of marble arches where eight times, maharanas were known to weigh themselves and then distribute their weight in gold and silver to lucky locals.
In addition, there are bird cages and carrier-pigeon boxes in tower rooms; glass mosaics of peacocks representing the three seasons of summer, winter and monsoon; ubiquitous Indian scalloped arches, and towers that look out over the city on one side and Lake Pichola on the other.
Check out workers cleaning the palace walls while perched on bamboo scaffolding, which is really amazing when you remember that bamboo is a grass.
My apologies for the blurry photo of the palace gate. It was a grab shot as the bus was driving past, but I did want to show you the gate’s spikes. They were installed to prevent the enemy’s elephants from pushing through the gate.
Click on any photo below to enlarge, and then use the arrows to move back and forth. Likes and comments are always appreciated, and if you’ve been to India, I’d love to hear about your travels there.
Last September, we embarked from Shanghai on a 17-day cruise that made port at Nagasaki, Japan; Busan, South Korea; Taipei, Taiwan; Hong Kong; Vietnam; Bangkok, Thailand; and finally Singapore. My story (with photos) of the journey is featured in the Spring issue of TravelWorld International magazine, starting on page 6. http://issuu.com/travelworld/docs/_twi_magazine_spring_2015/1. Please enjoy the tour.
In 1956, actor Yul Brynner, as the king of Siam, sang and danced through a gilded palace in the movie, “The King and I.” The country of Siam has since changed its name to Thailand, but its Grand Palace in Bangkok is still something to sing about.
The older Thai capital at Ayutthaya in the North had been destroyed in 1767 during a war with Burma, and newly proclaimed King Rama I ordered his men to remove bricks and other materials from the forts, walls and palaces (but not the temples) of this ruined city and send them by barge down the Chao Phraya river to the new capital city of Bangkok. Not only was he updating his wooden palace, but to solidify fortifications around his riverside capital, Rama I dug canals along its eastern edge, turning the city into an artificial island.
The Grand Palace is not one large structure in the tradition of most European palaces. It’s divided into four main courts separated by walls and gates and originally housing royal offices, state ministries, the royal chapel, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, ceremonial throne halls, and the king’s harem quarters. After a second expansion during the reign of Rama II, the palace covered an area of 2,351,000 square feet and was Thailand’s administrative and religious center, with thousands of inhabitants including guardsmen, servants, concubines, princesses, ministers and courtiers. And just like Rome’s Vatican City, the Grand Palace was considered a city within a city, subject to its own set of laws.
Gradually the government ministries grew in size and moved to other locations. The King, too, relocated to more modern palaces. In 1932, a student-launched revolution overthrew the absolute monarchy of King Rama VII, replacing it with a constitutional monarchy. Today, the Grand Palace still serves as a royal ceremonial venue, as well as a museum and tourist attraction.
I found the Grand Palace to be a photographer’s eye-candy wonderland rife with golden temples; bejeweled pavilions; and giant, elaborately painted warriors. I’d love to return, without having to follow a tour guide, and get lost in the visual magic of it all. Have you been to Bangkok’s Grand Palace? If so, what were your impressions?
Click on any image to see the slideshow.