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If You Can't Beat the Scooters in Vietnam, then...

Ancient Cham Ruins, Da Nang, and Hoi An

sunny 92 °F

Scooters rush across the Dragon Bridge in Da Nang, Vietnam

I'd planned my Vietnam trip dividing my time between the north, center, and south equally. After Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, it was off to Da Nang by plane. Distances are huge in this north-south oriented country. Given a choice of a more than 12-hour train or bus ride, or a one-hour flight, it was an easy decision. What's more, domestic flights in Vietnam are very affordable, at less than $100 a piece. I do have to say my fight from Hanoi to Da Nang was the noisiest I have ever been on in my many decades of flying. Tons of kids, and passengers that shrieked every time we hit an air pocket, made me put in the ear buds early and try to tune out my fellow passengers.

A couple dragons carved by the ancient Cham people in the Cham Architecture Museum

A quick taxi ride to my hotel, and I unpacked for my three days in central Vietnam. The only real sight I'd planned for Da Nang itself was the Cham Architecture museum. I had only an hour left before closing time, so I hopped a cab there to maximize my time. The Cham are the cousins/enemies of the Khmer, who built Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat. The statues and stone carvings in the museums are very similar to what I'd seen in Angkor years ago -- and you may have seen Angelina Jolie dodging around in the movie Tomb Raider. I would see similar carvings the next day when I visited the ruined Cham temple complex at My Son.

A line of asparas -- Hindu dancing priestesses -- in a Cham carving

I wandered around the museum, snapping photos at depictions of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahman (Hindu gods), and their assorted colleagues and servants, such as the great bird Garuda, water snake Nagas, and temple lions. Halfway through, I did a Homer Simpson and remembered my tripod allowing better shots in the museum's low lighting. The museum director was getting interviewed by a TV crew. The camera man laughed when he shook hands with him and joked, "Ho Chi Minh." The director did indeed have that Colonel Sanders of KFC appearance. I saved the gift shop for last as I'd glimpsed some pretty cool looking statues in there while wandering the museum. I thought they'd be ticked off since I was shopping 5 minutes before closing. On the contrary, the two ladies were eager to sell, and cut the price of the aspara statuette (Hindu priestess dancer) that I wanted in half. I could even pay by credit card, which for me always makes the deal better.

Da Nang's colorful Dragon Bridge

On the way back to my hotel I wandered along the riverfront. Da Nang's riverfront was the first true pedestrian-friendly place I'd strolled in either Vietnam or Taiwan. Joggers, parents with babies in strollers, and families all enjoyed the wide brick pavement, river views, and pretty slanting, late-afternoon sunlight. I wandered out onto the Dragon Bridge with its gaudy yellow stylized dragon snaking its way along the bridge's uprights. Colorful boats were lined up along the opposite bank, which are used for evening river cruises. Returning to the river walk, I came upon a half dozen clusters of men encircling paired chess players in friendly competition. At first I thought it was checkers, but it was later explained to me the flat disks represent chess pieces. Another interesting difference was they use the intersections of the board's grid -- not the inside of the squares themselves -- for placement of the pieces. A friendly Vietnamese college student wanted to practice his English, so offered to walk along with me and explain what I was seeing. He pointed out the modern marble and glazed ceramic statues, and identified each and recounted the story behind them.

Men crowd around one of the board games going on along the river walk in Da Nang, Vietnam

I was the beneficiary of an even more generous offer by a local the next morning. Learning of my plans to purchase a tour to My Son ruins, Van offered to take me there (and my planned destination for that day, Hoi An) for free. She said shed always wanted to visit My Son, and if I paid her entrance fee, she'd shuttle me around. Plus, her friend -- an American Vietnam War vet who'd married a local and lived in Hoi An -- could join us when we got to that town. One thing holding me back was the prospect of buzzing through Vietnam's chaotic traffic on the back of a motorbike. Traffic lights are few and far between, and routinely ignored where they do exist. Imagine every intersection in town is a four-way stop -- without the stop signs, and everybody thinking it is their turn -- and you have some picture what traffic is like in Vietnam. It works, though, because drivers defer to interlopers once they get a nose in, unlike in the U.S. where there'd be more T-bones than in a Brazilian steak house if anyone tried that.

Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam

So, should I? I decided that part of international travel is experiencing another culture. And the scooter is definitely part of Vietnam's culture. Countless other travelers have hopped on the back of a motorbike and survived the experience. I figured I liked the ring of "worldwidemike" better than worldwidewimp, so decided to take Van up on her offer. She assured me she was a good driver, not the type to barrel along recklessly. There were definitely dome butterflies when we took off into Da Nang's whirligig of traffic, especially when we made left turns in the face of an onrushing phalanx of cars, trucks and scooters. Van proved true to her word, driving as cautiously as I could have hoped for during our day of her taxiing me around.

More Medieval Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam

My butt was pretty sore, though, an hour and a half later, when we finally pulled up at the visitors center in My Son. I should have popped a couple of the Ibuprofen I'd brought along on the trip beforehand. My 51-year-old body and my previous herniated disk meant anything after the first half hour on back of the bike was distinctly uncomfortable. It wasn't sharply painful, just a nagging wish to be able to stretch my legs from their position. So, it felt good to wander the museum at the visitors center, and then walk down the path of paving stones to the ancient ruins.

Cham statues carved into the face of ruined temples at My Son, Vietnam

Although not as sprawling or as intact as Angkor Wat, the temple complex at My Son was much bigger than I'd expected. You walk from the various groupings of ruined temples as opposed to driving between them in Cambodia. Some of the temples are merely vertical piles of the reddish bricks the Cham used to construct their temples between the 4th and 10th century A.D. Others are semi-ruined shells with sandstone carvings of Hindu gods, demons, and animals from their mythology lined up on the outside. Still others are fairly intact, with interiors you can enter and gaze upward at their corbeled vaulted ceilings. Lines of apsaras, those lithe priestess dancers, cavorted in sandstone and brick in rows along the exteriors. Pacing from temple to temple was often shaded from the bright sun by the encroaching forest, but it was still muggy and hot. Sweat sprung out from every pore on my skin, it seemed, but the humidity defeated my body' attempt to cool itself. An occasional breeze was a welcome respite -- more welcome than the swigs of my by now lukewarm water.

Crumbling Medieval brick temple at My Son, Vietnam

I hate keep comparing My Son to Angkor, but they are similar. This site is also a UNESCO World Heritage one, but does not have as much of that strangling, vine and tree-covered feel of a lost city being reclaimed by he jungle. The temples are more in forest clearings, and sunlight strikes reddish fire from the bricks. The richly-carved temple exteriors are highlighted in bold relief by the sun's rays. My favorite exterior carving was the row of growling, befanged dogs guarding Temple Complex G. A couple of the complexes are more ruined than others, though. The cause of their destruction is mostly bombs that were dropped by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. One of the several tour groups paused nearby at one of these sites, and I listened in on the guide's English commentary. It struck me as a distinctly one-sided view of the events. Van wondered why anyone would purposely destroy a historic sight like My Son. I cautioned her that there are two sides to every conflict, that it takes two to make a fight. Does the fault lie with the combatant who dropped the bombs? Or does the side who made the conscious decision to shelter amidst a historical treasure share the blame? I drew a parallel to the Iraq War, where America had the initial policy to not target mosques. The insurgents seized upon that to store weapons and hide there. Whose fault is it when subsequent air strikes are launched against those mosques? She said my point made sense.

My favorite carvings at My Son, Vietnam

We concluded our visit by watching a local group perform a few traditional Cham dances. It was interesting to see the asparas I'd seen in the museum and at the site come to life in the form of slender costumed dancers. Their movements exactly mimicked the poses of the carvings I'd seen. Van was amused more by the male dancers who tried to match the young girls' grace. I thought they did well, except when they tried to conclude the performance by hoisting one of the girls high in the air. Their struggles proved they needed either needed a little more practice or some additional protein in their diet!

Like temple carvings come to life, locals perform traditional Cham dances

My backside wasn't looking forward to getting back on the motorbike. So, I actually welcomed the brief rainstorm that forced us to take shelter in a cafe for about 15 minutes. Van had made the trip to Hoi An on her scooter many times, but never from My Son. She made a wrong turn or two and added a bit of time to the trip. It was no biggie, though, as I was getting used to riding on the back of her bike. Or numb. One or the other! We arrived at Hoi An as the sun was coming out in the early afternoon. This is another -- you guessed it -- UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of the ancient ports of Vietnam, and the Old Town is well preserved with intact homes of 17th century merchants, temples, and charming covered bridges. I mentioned to Van that we may run into the Australians from my Ha Long Bay cruise, as they were staying here. Sure enough, within 5 minutes of entering the Old Quarter, I spotted them having lunch in a cafe. We connected and shared stories a bit. Then it was on to our own exploration of Hoi An.

The river is at the heart of the ancient port town of Hoi An

There were plenty of tourists -- including Western families with young children -- exploring the streets, as well. It was relaxing to stroll the streets, shop a bit, check out the historic homes, marvel at an ornate temple, and stop for a cold drink when it grew too hot. Van's American friend, Richard, wouldn't be able to join us until dinner. So, we killed time while I took pictures of the houses, riverfront, and colorful temples. Once I met him, Richard proved to be an amazingly informative insight to Vietnamese culture. He teaches English at a handful of local schools and maintains a friendly relationship with his former students, which include Van. Not only has he married a Vietnamese lady, he has built a home for his in-laws, and fully immersed himself in the culture. We talked on and on, and it became obvious to me why he is so well loved by his students. He is a caring leader, who consciously sets out to improve the lives of those around him.

Flower-lined streets are a feature of the charming Old Town of Hoi An

Our night ride back the short distance to Da Nang was uneventful. Vietnamese love to decorate their bridges, Las Vegas style, with neon lights. It made for a colorful kaleidoscope of a ride back to my hotel. Van and I joked about the looks the other locals on scooters gave us. She said they probably thought I was her uncle teaching her how to drive a motorbike. I wondered if they were thinking I was some old, Western dude fishing for a young, Vietnamese bride, instead. The little kids waved when they saw my Western face, while the young men honked their horns and grinned. I thanked Van as I creakily dismounted for motorbike, and handed back her extra helmet. I was tired and sore. It had been a full day, though, and it was glad I accepted her offer and took the risk of a day of sightseeing in Vietnam on scooterback.

Sun sets on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An

Posted by world_wide_mike 09:47 Archived in Vietnam Tagged my son river walk bridge vietnam dragon scooter hoi an cham da nang Comments (0)

A True Lotus Does not Wilt in the Heat

A full day of sightseeing in sunny, humid Kaohsiung

sunny 90 °F

Kaohsiung, Taiwan's "second city"

I had decided to base myself for a few days in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city, for a number of reasons. There are a handful of nice historical spots in the area that I could visit as day trips. It is a transport hub, and hotel prices are roughly half of what they are in the capital, Taipei -- where I planned to wrap up my trip. I would find using Kaohsiung's metro, trains, and high speed rail a snap. I've always liked these forms of travel because they are clearly labelled and it is easier to gauge where you are and when to disembark.

Lotus Lake and its temples on the shore and surface of the waters

My morning destination illustrated how important that last bit truly is to finding your destination. I was headed for Lotus Lake, on the northern edge of the city. It is a small lake ringed by a number of interesting temples. Some are even built out over the surface of the lake. The metro would deposit me less than a half mile from its shores, by looking at my guidebook's map. However, the lady at the visitor information desk was insistent I needed to take a bus to get from the metro to the lake. I was incredulous, just as she was by my suggestion of walking. Yes, it was another blazing hot, humid day. But seriously? I had half a mind to ignore her suggestion, but dutifully tromped out and found the correctly numbered bus. The problems with buses, in my experience, is you can't always tell when you are supposed to get off. If you don't know the area or recognize your stop, you're likely to drive on past it. Or -- as would be my case -- board the bus on the wrong side of the street and head the wrong direction!

I knew fairly quickly it was taking me back into the city -- not towards where I was supposed to go. I got off, and began to retrace my steps. Asking directions didn't seem to be helping, so eventually I said "forget this!" And waved down a cab. It cost me 100 New Taiwan dollars (a little more than $3) to be taken in air-conditioned comfort to the lakeshore. And yes, had I known the way, it would have been a 15 minute walk!

the facade of the Ciji Temple at Lotus Lake

I began my exploration at the Ciji Temple, at the southern end of the lake. The exterior is richly carved in brightly-painted scenes of dragons, horsemen, and robed men -- the colors shining in the morning sunlight. Four carved gray columns are intertwined with dragons and support a facade telling stories from Buddhist mythology. The roof is a riot of carved dragons and other animals. The sheer amount of decoration continues as you enter, overwhelming your senses in the dusky stillness of the interior.

Bad luck! You are supposed to enter through the dragon's mouth -- not the tiger's!

Outside, the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas seemed simpler and almost cartoon-like in their decoration, by comparison. Two seven-story towers rise up from the lake and are reached by a zig-zag walkway above the surface. The entrance to each tower is in the form of a comical, 40-foot long dragon or tiger, one for each pagoda. You actually walk through the creature's gaping jaws into a passageway of colorful relief figures to reach the pagodas. It is supposed to be lucky to enter through the dragon's mouth and exit from the tiger's. A spiral staircase whirls its way up the center of each pagoda to a nice, breezy panorama of the lake. Below, you can see the water around the pagodas choked with lotus blossoms. Looking across to the opposite pagoda, your eyes are dazzled by the bright oranges and yellows that decorate the two pagodas. Each sports a number of fierce statues of its namesake tigers or dragons.

The zig-zag pier leading out to the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas

Continuing north along a shady brick pathway along the lakeshore, you come next to the Spring and Autumn Pavilions. Both were encased in scaffolding during my visit. It was possible to skirt around the construction, though, and make my way out onto a pier extending almost a hundred yards out onto the lake surface. At the end was the temple to Guandi, the god of war. Yellow paper lanterns lined the bridge every few feet, swaying in the gentle breeze. Although it was the least decorated of the Lotus Lake temples, it's position in the center of the lake made it a great vantage point. Climbing up to the second floor, you can look around and see the other temples spaced out along the shore. Behind them, stores offered drinks, and across the lake, an office building or two edged towards the shore. Further back, green hillsides rose to shelter the lake from the rest of encroaching Kaohsiung.

The pier leading to the temple to the God of War

Returning to the shore, you see rising up the largest and most impressive of the lake temples: the Temple of Enlightenment. This three-story temple gleams with gold, red, and yellow. Like the Ciji Temple, every inch of the walls, pillars, and ceiling seems to be encrusted with a carving, statue, or painting. Various aspects of the Buddha and other divinities gaze down at the worshippers who bow, pray, and light joss sticks (incense), as part of their devotions. I paced slowly around the temple, trying to be discreet as I took it all in, and snapped photos. On the second floor a fountain sported a half dozen dragons playfully squirting water towards each other. Although the lighting should have been dim, it was reflected and redoubled from every gold surface.

The three-story Temple of Enlightenment[/b

[b]Worshippers pray at the Temple of Enlightenment at Lotus Lake

The atmosphere was of stumbling upon a dragon's hoard of gold in a smoky cavern, with the light from your torch being tossed back at you from a thousand surfaces. On the steps out front, two fierce temple dogs gripped massive stone spheres. The demonic look in their eye recalled the demon dogs from the movie, Ghostbusters. I wouldn't want these curs to come to life, though, and want to play a game of tug of war with a random body part!

"If there's something weird, in your neighborhood...who ya gonna call...?" - Ghostbusters-like temple dog

Next came one of my favorites of the day: a more than 70 foot tall statue of Xuantian Shang-di at the end of a 50-yard, statue-lined pier. Xuantian is the Emperor of the Dark Heaven and mythological guardian of the north. He sits enthroned, sword in one hand, and a massive foot resting upon a turtle and dragon. Very colorful, with a stern expression, he looks out over Lotus Lake as if it his own private realm. The guardian's army was what I enjoyed most, though. Every ten feet or so, on both sides of the pier, is a different stone statue of some mythological warrior or demon. They are all mounted, some on horses, others dragons, deer, and even a swan. Some brandish weapons, still others hold squirming men or babes that they appear ready to either devour or rip limb from limb. They'd make an amazing chess set, or line of miniature warriors (David McBride, I thought of Splintered Light Miniatures when I saw them...if anybody could do this army of fierce guardians up right, it'd be you!).

It's good to be the Emperor of the Dark Heaven...

One of dozens of statues spaced along the pier and guarding the Emperor Xuantian Shang-di

The final temple was one to Confucius. I was curious to see what it was like, as I teach my students a bit about Confucius. One of the things we discuss is whether Confucianism is a religion or a philosophy. So, to see a temple built in his honor would give me more information to make my own judgement on the matter. Whereas the Buddhist and Taoist temples I'd seen earlier today had seemed crammed and almost claustrophobic, this one was spacious and open. After passing through a towering, three-portal white stone and tile gate, I entered a courtyard through a set of wooden double doors. I was greeted by two attendants who eagerly had me sign their guest book. They handed me an English pamphlet about the temple. The courtyard had a roofed gallery extending all around it. Most of the decoration was stylized geometric patterns, with the only figures being outlines of dragons. Compared to the others I'd seen, the Confucian temple was sparse and elegant. And consistent with Confucius' role as a teacher, the temple had placards in both Chinese and English explaining the instruments and equipment. It was as much a museum as a temple. Most of my 7th graders will tell you they view Confucianism as a philosophy -- with its emphasis of establishing a harmonious society --rather than a religion. However, after reading about how sacrifices and dances are made in his honor and that of his chief disciples, now I'm not so sure.

The Confucius Temple at Lotus Lake

One thing I was sure of, through, was after several hours in the sun and humidity, I needed a break. I headed back to my hotel, chuckling at the ridiculously short cab ride to the metro station. If only I had known which direction to walk! Once back in my hotel room, I relaxed in the air conditioning, sucking down a cold iced tea. Ahhhhhh! I considered showering before heading out again, but figured that within five minutes I'd be drenched in sweat again. Instead, I planned my afternoon excursion, referencing between my guidebook and the internet.

The Dome of Light artwork in the Kaohsiung metro

My first stop was a brief hop off of the metro to look at the Dome of Light. This colorful glass artwork decorates the Formosa Boulevard metro station. I continued on to my stop, the Sanduo Shopping District. No, I wasn't going shopping in the mall located above the stop. Instead I was headed to the nearby, 85-story Tuntex Sky Tower. The building is the 13th tallest in Asia, and the second in Taiwan. There is an observation deck on the 75th floor, and I was headed up for a Birdseye view of Kaohsiung. I was mildly disappointed that it was all enclosed and that you couldn't go outside, but the windows were tall and faced out in all directions. After about 15 minutes of soaking up the view, I headed back down and returned to the metro.

The view from the 85-story Tuntex Tower

My next stop was the Love River, which winds through the city from its harbor mouth. There is a bike path and parks along it. There is even a fleet of solar-powered boats that run short cruises up and down the river. I took some photos and decided to board one of the "Love Boats," even though I knew the commentary would be in all Chinese. A tour group shared the boat with me, and politely laughed at the guide's jokes. They eyed me nervously when I got up to take a few photos, so doubtless I'd been warned in Chinese to stay seated. One of the men in the tour group got up to take some video, and his wife hissed at him to return to his seat. Another example of Western corruption....sigh.

Solar-powered "Love Boats" cruise the river in Kaohsiung

The river has a number of cafés set up along its length, selling food and drink to passers by. I decided that the occasion called for a beer, as the sun was going down and I could think of no better way to watch it than to sit by the riverside and drink it in, so to speak. The food looked tempting, too, but I had spotted a better place for dinner on my way down to the river. Another Western-looking man was tucking into some food, though, at the next table. As I ordered a second San Miguel (Philippine beer), he went for the ice cream, we fell into conversation, and it turns out he is an airline pilot on a layover. We talked for an hour as the sun set and darkness fell. Turns out he is Colombian and flies for a Japanese carrier. It was good to swap airline stories for awhile. We had a lot in common, and it is always good to have a nice conversation with another Westerner when traveling alone.

Ahhhh, that is how you end at terrific day of sightseeing!

On my way back to dinner, I stopped to take a few nighttime photos of the riverbank and the buildings all lit up colorfully. I always carry a min-tripod in my camera bag for these types of photos. The photos turned out nicely. This, along with a good dinner, put me in a satisfied mood for the day. It had been a long, hot day of sightseeing, but truly a great one. I know my sightseeing schedule would seem like too much work for a vacation to some, but it is simply the price you pay to see what you want. If you want a mountaintop view, you have to climb up it, right? The same goes for a day of sightseeing in the summer's heat in Taiwan. You have to pay the price in sweat to reap the reward of the amazing sights I saw in Kaohsiung that day.

Kaohsiung's Love River lit up at night

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:55 Archived in Taiwan Tagged tower lake river pagodas light love dragon tiger dome taiwan lotus tuntex Comments (0)

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