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Hanoi's Test

A lesson in traveling to big cities

sunny 88 °F

Hanoi, lit up at night, around Hoan Kiem Lake

I'm not the type of traveler who lives for the vibe of a big city. The crowds, the hustle, and the urban landscape is not a draw for me. Give me a smaller historic town, a scenic area, or something more manageable, and I'm happy. Part of the reason I'm traveling north to south In Vietnam is to put off the teeming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City till the end. Of course, Hanoi is no slouch, either. A city of 6.5 million, it has its crowds and bustle, too. I was staying in the Old Quarter, too, which is probably the most chaotic area in the city.

So, my first night in Hanoi I was determined to walk around and get a feel for its rhythm. The first thing I discovered is it is Taiwan's twin on using the sidewalks for everything except walking. Mom and Pop restaurants set up tables and chairs, racks of merchandise are pulled out onto the sidewalk, and of course, scooters park there. I took it easy on myself and simply walked one direction on my street until I found a cafe that looked nice. After a drink, I walked back. It was pretty crazy, with people, bicycles, cars, and scooters all in motion. I'd read that to cross the streets you simply walk out into the street at a steady pace. The traffic will flow around you. I cheated a bit on that and waited until one direction was clear, and then made my move. It worked, and I felt fairly confident crossing the little side streets after my first evening of walking.

Hanoi's outdoor vegetable markets

My second day in Hanoi was after my Ha Long Bay cruise had dropped me off around 430 pm. I wanted to squeeze in some sights in the later afternoon and evening, and maybe in the morning before my 1 pm flight. Back home, I'd made a list of things I wanted to see, but you know what they say about how plans survive contact with the enemy! The only things still open after 5 pm on my list were the Don Xuan covered market and Hoan Kiem Lake. I would be doing more than just walking back and forth on my hotel's street today, so I studied the map. I took a wrong turn almost immediately but realized it and adjusted on the fly. I was able to find the market with no problem. My guidebook said it stayed open till 6 pm, but at 530, most of the stalls were closing up.

The Hoan Kiem Lake temple at night

The challenge would be to navigate from the market (which was maybe 5 minutes from my hotel) to the lake. The lake was a good 20 minutes away, through twisting turning streets that sprayed forth a never-ending fountain of scooters. So, how did I do? Remember, I consider myself to have a relatively good sense of direction. To use my 7th graders' terminology, it was an epic fail. Don Xuan street was supposed to be a straight shot to the lake, but every block it did a slight jog. By always veering left on those jogs, I ended up going east instead of south. When I ran into an elevated roadway that was obviously impassable on foot, I gave up. That's when the Hanoi Humbling began. The Old City's streets are not on a squared grid pattern. They are a geometry teacher's dream, with more angles and diagonals than you would think possible in 360 degrees. I proceeded to spiral in towards my hotel, going first north, then west, east, south, west again, until I'd probably drawn a Spirograph of rings around it. I always felt I was one last turn away from my street. Like the mirage of the water patch on a summer freeway, it kept receding into the distance. Of course, since I am typing this, I did eventually find my way back. I am not still wandering out there in the Old Quarter today, like a modern day Captain Ahab hunting the elusive white hotel.

The most amazing thing to me, though, was after refreshing myself with a cold drink in my hotel room, I was ready to regroup and try again. I picked out a new route and was determined not to be defeated by Vietnam's streets. Yes, I could have hopped in a cab and said, "Hoan Kiem Lake, Jeeves..." The point was to get my bearings, to hope for serendipity, to find not just my way around, but the lay of the land. And this time, I was victorious. Along the way, I stopped and purchased a couple souvenirs for my friends Allen and Joel, but within 25 minutes, I was walking along the shores of the lake. It was dark by that time, but that was a bonus as it gave me a chance to get some shots of the city lit up at night. There is an island in the center of the lake with a temple, and it was floodlit a rich golden color. I set up my mini tripod as curious Vietnamese watched me. Joggers, walkers, and strollers all circled the path running around the lake. I looked at the restaurants, cafés, markets and such in the area and realized this was the area I should have stayed in. It is a perfect mix of amenities and sights. I double-checked my map and plotted a new route back to the hotel. My favorite moment came when a group of French tourists were hovering nervously on the street corner, unsure when to cross -- like wildebeests wary of crocodiles lurking in the river. I sailed past them, and could hear their voices murmuring as the traffic flowed around me while I crossed to the other side. It was hard not feeling smug, but I admit I'd did. A little. And I would pay for that tomorrow morning. My minor league victory would soon meet a major league challenge In Hanoi.

The Don Xuan covered market

My hotel said I should head to the airport at 11 am, so that gave me a few hours to see Hanoi's sights the next morning. Most opened at 8 am, but the Temple of Literature (what middle schoolteacher could resist?) opened at 730 am. I decided to do taxis for the most part to save time. At a few dollars a pop, there's not a lot of reason NOT to use them in Hanoi. The air conditioning and no chance of getting lost is an added bonus. The temple complex takes up a huge city block, with a brick wall around it and a series of courtyards going from the front progressively further back. It is dedicated to the great teacher....Confucius -- not me -- in case you're confused. It was peaceful and used wide pools and gardens to add to its air of tranquility. Not only Confucius was honored, but a number of acclaimed scholars and even three kings who'd supported Confucianism and embodied his ideals of a ruler taking care of his subjects like a loving father had monuments or shrines in their honor.

The Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Military History Museum looked a short walk away on the map, so I got my bearings upon exiting the temple, and headed that way. While walking alongside the walls of the temple complex, Vietnam sunk to a new low, in my book. Seeing the traffic jam ahead of them on the street, a steady stream of scooters drove up on the sidewalk to crowd towards the intersection..I was sorely tempted to clothesline a few, but figured a tangle with the police could cause me to miss my flight. But seriously! Where do you draw the line if you're going to take away the sidewalk and make it simply another lane? It is arrogant and rude, considering your own personal schedule more important than the safety of others. It is too easy to fall back on being "tolerant" of other cultures, and say, "Well, that is just the way they do things..." No. Were scooters part of Vietnamese culture in the Middle Ages? During Chinese rule? Heck, during French rule in the early 20th century? No. The Vietnamese need to simply say "enough is enough" -- like they are currently doing with drunk driving -- and stop it.

Next to the Military History museum is a tower built to honor the country' s defenders

Okay, I warned you that I would have a "Major League" test crossing the street. It happened when I got to that jammed packed intersection they were driving on the sidewalks to get to quicker. It was a big intersection...wide -- about six lanes, back in the States where there ARE lanes. But that's when I saw it: my first crossing signal in Vietnam! A little red lit guy telling me to wait. I thought, "Maybe this won't be as hard as I thought..." The little guy turned green and it was as if Poseidon had open the gates and released the Kraken of all traffic. A veritable torrent of scooters, cars and buses poured across my little white striped crosswalk. The little green guy seemed to be shrugging his shoulders at me, saying, "Sorry, dude..." There was no waiting for a gap -- none was in sight. I thought of those French tourists watching me cross last night. I could almost hear them snickering, "Where's your silly American bravado, now? I taunt you a second time!"

So, I took a breath. Then I stepped into the intersection. I moved steadily across the street, hesitating only once to avoid walking into a motorbike. I would estimate I crossed a dozen streams of intertwining traffic before I stepped up onto the sidewalk on the other side. What a rush! It worked...reading those guidebooks and watching travel channel shows had truly prepped me for a test I would have failed otherwise. Damn! I wished I'd gotten that on video! I could hear my fellow teachers at Orange Middle School cheering, "WorldWIDE!" Ha, ha! Seriously, that is half of the addiction of travel. You set challenges for yourself, strange new cultures, exotic lands where you don't speak the language, grueling hikes to see places of wonder...all of that is a test for yourself. Can you rise to the challenge? The confidences that overseas travel gives you is one of the benefits few people talk about. It is there, though, and I felt it as raw adrenalin-fueled triumph surged through my veins as I stepped up onto that curb.

The Military History Museum in Hanoi

I had braved the Hanoi traffic for its Military History Museum. It turned out to be a confusing, sprawling complex of buildings. As expected, it focused on Vietnam's struggle for independence from the Chinese, Mongols, French, Japanese, and it's war against the "puppet regime" supported by the United States. You could easily spend a full day here, if you're the type to read every caption to every exhibit (which were in Vietnamese, French, and English). I'm not, though that may surprise some. The best part was the collection of military equipment outside on the grounds of the museum. These included a Soviet jet fighter, armored vehicles, artillery, missile batteries -- you name it! I took more photos than I would for the benefit of my friends, who are at times even bigger military history buffs than I am.

Soviet jet fighter at the Military Museum

My last stop in Hanoi was the prison where U.S. POWs were kept during the Vietnam War. I had not realized it was also the place the French kept Vietnamese rebels ("patriots" is what the museum called them, fairly enough). There was definitely some propaganda going on. The Vietnamese prisoners were depicted in shackles, being tortured and starved, and generally mistreated. I believe that happened, of course. That is the French colonial track record. Read up on what they did during the Algierian revolution. It became propaganda when the U.S. prisoners (which include Sen. John McCain) are portrayed decorating Christmas trees, playing volleyball, and generally enjoying a country club atmosphere. We all know that wasn't the rule. We learn no lessons when we distort the truth.

It is a somber experience touring the cells in the "Hanoi Hilton" where U.S. prisoners were kept

A quick cab ride back to the hotel, another shower, and it was off to Da Nang. Will Hanoi end up being my favorite part of the trip? Of course not. I think I will never forget that feeling, though when I waded into that intersection full of traffic. Equally, I will always remember the exhilaration when I stepped up onto the curb on the other side. The big city had tested me, and I had embraced its challenge.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:05 Archived in Vietnam Tagged military temple history museum hanoi hilton literature pows Comments (0)

A Curtain of Rain to Close Out Taiwan

Finishing up in the capital of Taipei

rain 85 °F

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

"You can't always get what you want..."

Travel is a road, and all roads have bumps

sunny 90 °F

Mountain scenery, Armenia

Much as we would love everything to go perfect and exactly as planned, that's simply not life. My time in Yerevan is an excellent example of that. As you know if you read my earlier entries, the museums are all closed for the 4-day weekend. My hostel sucked, though I must admit, travelers much younger than me raved about it. I hated it so much, though, that I stayed up late and found a hotel to stay at for Friday and Saturday. So much for the bumps, now let's hear about the good places that the road of travel takes us.

I met Sigrid this morning outside of my ex-hostel. I explained that I'd checked out, and she letme stow my backpack at her apartment while we went sightseeing. It was great having a local to help get around the city. Sigrid is a U.S. and Italian citizen working as a journalist for the summer in Yerevan. She speaks good Russian, which in Georgia and Armenia, is the best "other" language to speak. We never got ripped off by the taxis we took today with Sigrid along! Anyway, we'd planned on seeing the Armenian Genocide Museum together, along with the "Mother Armenia" statue that overlooks the city from a hill not far away from where I'd been staying. I was worried the museum would be closed, but she'd checked the website which said it would be open.

Eternal flame at Genocide Museum in Yerevan, Armenia

We taxied from her place to Victory Park, where the statue is located. It is also the scene of a half-derelict amusement park. Sigrid was reminded of "I Am Legend," while I channelled Mad Max. We found the statue (harder than you think, because the park is forested) and snapped some photos. We were both drawn to the panorama of the city spread out beneath us. As a bonus, Mt. Ararat was "out." those who have been to Seattle or similar places will understand how a looming snow-capped mountain can managed to be cloaked by cloud, smog or heat haze for a good part of the year. Then you wake up on a clear morning and say, "Wow!" After some photos, we circled Mother Armenia, and I took pictures of the Soviet tanks for my military history friends. I joked that my buddies could rattle off which tank it was, but the best I could do was it began with a "T."

From there we descended into town via the Cascade, which I'd visited yesterday. Still no water, still baking hot. I was reminded of how I once visited Monte Verde Cloud Forest and managed a sunny day! After a stroll through town, we caught a cab to the Genocide Museum, which is also outside of downtown Yerevan. Guesssss what? It. Was. Closed. Sigrid felt awful about it, but I suggested we check out the monuments outside the museum while we were here. For those who don't know what the Armenian Genocide was, here's a quick summary. Following WW I, Armenia became independent, again. They'd been ruled by the Turkish Empire for centuries. With Turkey one of WW I's losers, they tried to reclaim their ancient and medieval kingdom. Turkey and Russia decided that it wasn't in THEIR best interests, and essentially split it up. The Armenians fought for their freedom, which Turkey countered with a brutal genocide on Armenians living in their lands. Best estimates by historians are that one to one and a half million Armenians were slaughtered by the Turkish authorities. It is a crime Turkey still refuses to acknowledge, today - much to their shame.

We visited the eternal flame burning in honor of the dead, along with the trees planted by courageous world leaders who spurn Turkey's heavy handedness to deny genocide. Our own President Obama still tiptoes around the issue and uses words like "massacre" and "atrocity" but lacks the guts to say "genocide." This museum tells the facts of the event, and I was really disappointed to not get a chance to see it.

Sigrid and I had abut of an adventure getting back to the city (we hadn't paid our taxi to wait on us), but made it back. We split up - me to check in to my new hotel and her to work on visas for her upcoming adventure in "the Stans" (Uzbekistan, Kazakistan, etc.). I thought it was interesting that her destination - which she leaves Yerevan for at the end of July - was one of my potential choices for this trip.

My new hotel, which appears to be a venture by the American University of Armenia, was perfect. I felt my stress melt away as I unpacked in the small, but fully "Western style" hotel. I asked the receptionist if the hotel arranged trips to nearby sites with taxi drivers, and she said yes. She negotiated a great rate for an excursion to Garni and Geghard - two prime sites on my list of things to see in Armenia.

Greek-era Garni Temple, Armenia

So, for $20 the hotel had set me up transportation to the two sites, which are a serious distance outside of town. Garni is a 1st century BC temple from the time when Armenia was a buffer state between Ancient Rome and Persia. Both sides wanted Armenia on their side, but wanted Armenia weak and willing to do their will. Garni's temple is a small, Greek style temple, but set on a drop-dead gorgeous hillside. I circled the temple like a shark, snapping pictures. They had some really good "Gladiator" style theme music playing on speakers. Like all ancient sites, it was right up my alley. I had a great time experiencing it - even though there isn't uh to explore. The temple is in great shape and been fairly extensively reconstructed. So, I enjoyed it.

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Next up was Geghard Monastery, set in an even more drop-dead stunning wooded canyon. Some do it is carved directly out of the rocklike Varrzia in Georgia. Other parts are free standing churches, like Haghpat and Sanahin. It was a popular place, and fairly packed with tourists - most of them Armenians. I had a great time, exploring the different buildings and caves, shaking my head and saying "wow!" time after time. The intricate carving on the walls, pillars, and altars was amazing. By the way, my taxi driver never made any attempt to hurry me along, instead kicking back and relaxing while I explored. so, I took my time, took photos, and generally absorbed the incredibly cool medieval vibe of the place.

So, my day showed that there are always ups and downs when you travel. Meeting and talking travel with a kindred spirit like Sigrid would have been the highlight of any day. Pairing that with two awesome ancient and medieval sights made a day that started out bumpy end spectacular. And of course - having a nice hotel room to go back to doesn't hurt, either!

Carved stone katchkars at Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:43 Archived in Armenia Tagged temple monastery garni geghard armenian_genocide Comments (1)

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