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A Curtain of Rain to Close Out Taiwan

Finishing up in the capital of Taipei

rain 85 °F

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Scenery in Taiwan rushing by my train window

In the week leading up to my trip to Taiwan, I'd checked the weather every so often. Every day showed rain, which made me worried about what would happen once I got here. Luckily, it had been sunny virtually every day. For my final day, I took the High Speed Rail from Kaohsiung to Taipei, the capital. I had only this day do sightseeing, which I realized didn't really do the city justice. Then again, does only one week enable you to really see the entire island? I decided to sacrifice relatively expensive Taipei and reduce it down to one day's worth of sightseeing.

I transferred from the rail station to the metro, and finally to a taxi to my hotel. It took me awhile to embrace taxis in Taiwan, but with the average trip costing only US $3 or so, it makes more sense when looking for an unfamiliar place with all your luggage. The Hotel Imperial was gorgeous, but my room would not be ready for two hours, unfortunately. I checked my luggage with the concierge and headed out the door to visit Taipei's UNESCO World Heritage sight, the Bao'An Temple.

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Wall paintings at the Bao'An Temple in Taipei, Taiwan

My guidebook raved about the wall paintings and the overall quality of the decorations. It was impressive, but then again, I'd seen lots of cool temples during my week in Taiwan. I focused in on some high quality decorations, and snapped photos of them. Worshippers crowded the various shrines in the temple, bowing, kneeling, and lighting joss sticks as offerings. here and there, you heard the clatter of moon stones being tossed to foretell futures.

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Gorgeous mask in a shrine at the Bao'An Temple, Taipei, Taiwan

Returning to my hotel, I checked into my room and did a very abbreviated unpacking. My flight for Vietnam left at 8 am, and after weighing my options, decided to arrange a taxi for the 30-minute drive to the airport. The alternative was a bus that got mixed reviews on the internet. And considering my own lick so far with buses in Taiwan, I decided to go by the "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" philosophy. If I had done more research ahead of time, I could have booked a later departing flight, which would have allowed me to use the high speed rail and shuttle transfer to head from Taipei to the airport.

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Exterior of the Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

When I went back outside, I saw that'd it had begun raining. The spell of good weather was broken. It would rain off and on for the rest of my day in Taipei. Honestly, though, it was perfect timing. Next up was an indoor attraction and Taipei's premier sight: the Palace Museum. This massive collection of the artwork from China's long and interesting history, is housed in a huge, three story complex. For all its space, the exhibits are often thronged with a staggering number of tour groups. My guidebook had warned me about it, so I went in mentally prepared to be jostled, elbowed, and nudged aside by large numbers of tourists from the Chinese mainland. Speaking of which, this collection of imperial Chinese treasures is in Taiwan because the Nationalists lugged it with them during their retreat from the Communists during the post-WW II struggle for control of the country. You have to wonder how many of these priceless treasures might have been destroyed during the excesses of Chairman Mao's cultural revolution. The world (and Chinese culture) probably owes the Nationalists a debt of gratitude for taking the trouble to secure these links to their civilization's past.

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Bronze charioteer helmet in the Palace Museum -- one of the few photos I took before if fin out it was forbidden

I'd been keeping my eye out for signs about photography. I hadn't seen any saying it was forbidden, despite museums like this usually being adamant about it. I saw others snapping pictures with their cell phones, so I discreetly began to take a few shots. I felt awful when a young lady, watching me do it, took out her phone and snapped a shot. She was immediately accosted by a worker who threatened to take her to the office and make her delete all the photos shed taken. She was obviously mortified. To her credit, she did not rat me out, and I was able to come away with a whole 3-4 shots from the museum's exhibits. I think my favorite part were the landscape paintings. I've always loved those minimalist images with their delightful details of mountains, villages, travelers, famers, and all the little snippets of rural Chinese life they depict. It got me thinking how cool it would be to decorate a room of my house with those as a wallpaper or something. I'll probably never get around to doing that, but it would be very atmospheric, I think,

Elsewhere in the museum, the massive bronze cauldrons, statues, and weapons were cool, too. The exhibit on ivory carving had a number of magnifying glasses set up so you could see the amazingly intricate details. I had to chuckle when I saw the unfortunate photographer again. She was looking through the magnifying glass at one ivory carving of a tree with individual leaves. When a face was pressed up against hers to also look, she thought it was her boyfriend's. Her look of amazement when she turned to see a random, elderly tourist cheek to cheek with her was priceless.

The displays on European style snuff boxes and the Jade exhibit did get a little old after a couple rooms, though. My hours there went by quickly, though. Before long, it was closing time. I half expected us to be shouted out of the facility by harpies like the anti-photography enforcer. It was very civil and low key, though. From there, I took a taxi back to the nearby metro station (I ignored the guidebook's recommendation of a bus). I hunted around and found a place for dinner. Yes, I "ate local," and did not wimp out like the night I had KFC in Kaohsiung. My Yunnan spicy chicken and rice was good. The bean sprouts that came with it were so-so, the tofu chunks unappetizing, and I have no idea what the sticky orange stuff was. I wasn't going to try it...were you going to try it? And my name is even "Mikey" -- for those who remember the Life cereal commercials.

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Taipei lit up at night from the observation deck of Taipei 101 -- the tallest building on the island

My last sight for the trip was to ascend Taipei 101 -- the island's tallest building for a chance to view the city lit up at night. For the world's fastest elevators, the very short line seemed to take forever. The view from the indoor platform (the outdoor one was closed due to the weather) was nice. The rain clouds that drifted in beneath us from time to time obscured the view. However, when it cleared, it was neat to see the metropolis all lit up with colorful lights. Taipei is no Las Vegas with its neon colors, but it was worth seeing. The exit though the jewelry store was a tad forced, I thought. I saw only one unfortunate man with his wallet out and a resigned look on his face, as his wife seemed insistent on buying.

The metro ride back to my hotel went smoothly, and I called it an early night. With an 8 am flight, my wake up time began with a "4" -- never a pleasant number to see on vacation in the morning. My week in Taiwan had been very pleasant, though. Before I decided upon going, I had no idea how much natural beauty the island has. The central spine of its mountains, cloaked in their dense green vegetation, makes for an exotic landscape. Throw in some amazing temples to light up your sightseeing with gold and smoky gilded interiors. And finally, organize it all with prompt, modern and efficient public transportation (well, except for maybe the buses...), and Taiwan becomes quite the nice package for an enjoyable week or more.

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Photo of the night market in Kaohsiung, which I didn't mention in my previous entry

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:29 Archived in Taiwan Tagged night temple palace museum taipei taiwan 101 bao'an Comments (1)

Revisiting the Vietnam War

My first day in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon

rain 84 °F

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Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I actually slept in, today. I am not sure if that means my body is adjusting to it getting light so early, or if staying up kind of late last night after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City did it. Either way, I got a leisurely start to my sightseeing, today. That is so unlike me. Normally, I'm a crack-of-dawn, "time's a wasting" type of traveler.

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One of the meeting rooms in the luxurious palace

I started off with a walk to the nearby Reunification Palace. This former presidential mansion is a museum to the corruption and opulence of the South Vietnamese government. It has been left intact for the most part, but is clean and sparkling -- well maintained by their victorious Communist opponents. If you look at old photos or movie footage of the fall of Saigon, you ll doubtless see scenes of helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop. It certainly looked familiar on the outside. I enjoyed wandering the inside, too. The 70s details are there, from the style of furniture to the rotary phone sitting on a desktop. My favorite room was the Chamber of the Ambassadors, where newly-arriving diplomats would present their credentials to the President. The Japanese wood lacquer wall scene behind the desk was amazing. The propaganda here was more subtle than I expected, letting the lavish decorations and photographs of the rich and powerful hobnobbing with the government officials tell the tale.

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Helicopter displayed on the roof helipad where the U.S. evacuated many as Saigon fell

I returned to my hotel to arrange an afternoon tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. I hadn't been 100% sure that was what I wanted to do, but the palace had whetted my appetite for Vietnam War sights. While I was at it, I booked the Mekong Delta day trip I'd been considering for tomorrow. I had time on my hands at that point, since the tour left shortly after noon. So, I decided to wander down towards the outdoor market, which is not too far from my hotel. I also had a full-blown, Vietnamese-style lunch with a God-awful number of dishes brought to my table. The pork was good, the rice and onion-tasting veggie were okay, the chicken was way too gristly, and the green, spinach-looking vegetables were not too appetizing. The soup was the worst dish -- such a change from yesterday's tasty, rice noodle soup in Da Nang. Overall, I would rate it a "bleh" on my scale. If I've said it once, I've said it many times: Anthony Bourdain I am not!

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B-52 bomb crater at the Cu Chi tunnels

It probably takes a military history buff to truly enjoy exploring the Cu Chi tunnel complex, about 70 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. This was a hotbed of the Viet Cong (communist insurgents, fight the U.S. allied South Vietnamese). Try as they might, the Americans had a tough time suppressing these guerrillas. One of the reasons for this is the elaborate tunnel complex they built to conceal and protect themselves from American attack. Our guide summed it up when he said the South Vietnamese ruled the area by day, when the fighters remained hidden underground, but the VC controlled it at night when they emerged to launch attacks against U.S. allied troops. The drive up there was long and bouncy, albeit in an air-conditioned minivan. It rained off and on most of the way up. My long spell of good weather on this trip seemed to be over. The downpour had stopped by the time we arrived, but the soaking gave the forest an authentic drippy feel, and the paths were muddy and full of puddles. It felt like a Vietnam War film as we walked into the tunnel complex.

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One of the onsite guides in period uniforms demonstrates a tunnel where soldiers may pop up, fire, then disappear back into

The Cu Chi complex tries to do a faithful mix of preserving what is still there and recreating or rebuilding accurate, tourist-friendly fighting holes, tunnels, booby traps, bunker complexes, weapons and equipment production facilities, and so on. The highlight is -- without a doubt -- an up to 100 meter long scramble through dirt and cement lined rebuilt tunnels. You are a good 20 meters or so underground. There are electric lights every 10 meters or so, but it is dark, cramped, hot, and claustrophobic. Every 20 meters, there is a ladder for you to opt out of going further. I soldiered on until the site guide (dressed in an NVA uniform) advised me that it got really narrow after that point. Had I worn jeans instead of shorts, I probably would have gotten down on my hands and knees and finished it. Instead, bent over double wasn't going to work beyond that point for this well-fed American invader. So, I "tapped out" after 60 meters. Still, I was proud I got further than anyone else on my tour! The reconstructions of various VC booby traps was probably the next most interesting part after that. I never realized there were so many varieties, all intended to wound rather than kill, because that took additional soldiers out of the fight to treat or move the wounded.

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One of the reproductions of booby traps employed by the VC guerrillas

Many of the bunker complexes had uniformed mannequins, dressed as guerrilla fighters. There were also a number of onsite guides dressed in either the trademark "black pajamas" of the rural VC insurgents, or the green uniforms of the North Vietnamese army. They were friendly and helpful to us visitors (unlike the real thing 40 or so years ago!), and willing to pose for photographs. There is even a firing range set up for those who want to pop off some rounds from the various weapons of the war, including machine guns. I deferred, as I'd fired all the American ones they had during my six year stint in the Army Reserve. I know, shocker. But I'm sure it wouldn't be as good as what I got to do while I was in the army, as any shots I'd heard while exploring the tunnel complex were single ones -- no full-auto blasts. An American tank that was taken out by a mine is also onsite, rusting away forlornly. You come upon quite a few bomb craters from B-52s -- photogenically filled with muddy water. There was even an outdoor theater viewing area for watching a 70s-era propaganda film produced by the Vietnamese government. It extolled the heroic qualities of the rural guerrillas of the Cu Chi area. When visiting places like this, I'm able to separate my political views and instead enjoy the raw details and experience of exploring a battlefield.

For being one of my only two days of sightseeing in the Ho Chi Minh area, it was relatively light on sights. I'd seen a lot in my more than two weeks in Asia, so far. Maybe I was slowing down, or maybe I wanted to focus on a few places rather than cramming in as many as possible. Tomorrow's day trip to the Mekong Delta will squeeze in quite a bit. So, I guess if I started the day sleeping in, there is nothing wrong with taking it easy for one day in old Saigon.

Posted by world_wide_mike 22:24 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tunnels palace city vietnam saigon cu chi ho minh reunification Comments (0)

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