You can take a Nile cruise between Luxor and Aswan. Andreas calls this trip Egypt’s E ticket ride (I try to remind him that the number of people who actually remember E tickets is getting pretty small); we always recommend it to anyone who’s coming to Egypt for a week or more. While chugging sedately from one ancient temple to the next (I’m saving the temple pictures for another post), you can enjoy the river views from a lounge chair on the roof deck. In this rural region you see how Egypt’s fertile land is just a narrow strip on both sides of the Nile, with desert beyond extending past the horizon.
Or you could book a cruise on a dahabiya. This is for when you are channeling your inner Amelia Peabody. If I take the Luxor-Aswan trip again, it will be on one of these luxurious old-fashioned double sailed barges. The pictures are from one of the dahabiya companies, Nour el Nil. Looks nice, eh?
A couple of our colleagues have actually lived right on the Nile in Cairo, on a houseboat. The boats are permanently moored but you get the feel of the waves when the water taxis pass by. The view will make you wonder why you’d live anywhere else.
I’ve written before about how one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon in Cairo is on a felucca. There are several places along the Nile in Cairo where you can hire a man to take you and your friends out for an hour or two on one of these sailboats.
If the felucca is too tame, you can get a group together and hire a party boat. These feature lots of colored lights and loud dance music; whenever we go out on a felucca, there are always a few of these on the river too.
If your party is really big, you can rent a really big party boat. The international school system we work for held a conference in Cairo for all its teachers, and one night all several hundred of us went out for a cruise on this big ol’ tourist boat. There was a buffet banquet and some very touristy entertainment.
Or, if you want to do something really classy, you can spend an evening on the “Christina yacht.” The Christina’s Greek captain (looking the part with his cap and pipe) will take you and about 20 of your besties up the Nile and back to the soundtrack of your own playlist. Attentive servers make sure everyone’s glasses stay filled. After the sun sets, a tasty buffet dinner is served. Our friend Hannah’s family is here visiting from New Zealand, so Hannah arranged Thursday night’s dinner cruise on the Christina in their honor. Hurray for Hannah, Liz, and Kelvin; we all had such a great time!
Once again I return to the blog after a long absence. I made a January resolution to get back to it, but here it is already the end of March. Well. Let’s pick up right where we are, and if I feel inspired, maybe later I can fill in some of the big blank of the last two years. I’ve been busy and there is lots to tell.
Last weekend I went on an overnight trip with some colleagues. We wanted to see a collection of ancient sites located along the Nile about halfway between Cairo and Luxor. The stops on our itinerary – Beni Hassan, Hermopolis (Tuna al-Gebel), and Tell El-Amarna – were high on my list of want-to-visits, not only because of the wonderful Amarna art and artifacts I’d seen in the National Museum but also because these places figure prominently in the most excellent Amelia Peabody mystery series by Elizabeth Peters.
We left after work on Thursday in a van that took us to the modern city of El Minyah, about a four hour drive to the south. One of the Egyptian teachers at our school, Mohamed, organized the trip and acted as our guide.
The van was full, but on the outskirts of Cairo we had to stop and rearrange our luggage to make room for an additional rider: the tourist police guard. In addition to the armed guard in the van, we were also compelled to follow a police escort the whole time we were in the Minya area.
This is a thing that happens in Egypt when tourists travel in large groups. There are a few places, like the Sinai, where foreigners always have to move in a convoy, but for the most part if two or three of us hire a car and driver we can travel wherever we want without guards. Many of us who live here like to travel independently and feel over-protected when we are told we need guards in bigger groups, maybe even getting a bit annoyed by the nannying (hm, do I sound annoyed?). The Egyptian government doesn’t like to take chances; after all, the country’s number one industry depends on the safety of tourists. Seems to me nothing draws attention like a bunch of people surrounded by people carrying automatic weapons, but whatever.
In El Minyah, police at the hotel directed the driver down an alley to a side entrance – the alley blocked off on both ends with armed sentries for our benefit – where we quickly checked in. Then back into the van and off to a restaurant for a very nice grilled dinner.
The next morning after a hearty breakfast in our rooms we loaded up the van ready for a day’s sightseeing.
First stop, the tomb of Akhenaten, the heretic king. This fellow only ruled for 17 years (he died around 1336 BC), but he is famous for introducing a new monotheistic religion and for establishing a new capital city which he named Akhetaten. Long after the pharaoh’s death, when the city was abandoned, the place became known as Amarna.
The style of the paintings and sculptures from the Amarna period is distinctive and beautiful. These examples are in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin (images from Wikipedia). On the left that’s a carving of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, with a couple of the kids. On the right is a painting of birds and lotus flowers.
Akhenaten is also famous as the husband of Nefertiti and father of the future King Tut.
Akhenaten’s tomb isn’t spectacular – it probably was once, but it’s been badly damaged by floods and there is little left of the original colorful decoration. Unfortunately I can’t show you because the guards wouldn’t let me take photos. I have never really understood the point of this rule. I get that flash damages the colors but why no available light photos? In other places I have heard guides say it’s because they can’t stop tourists from using their flash, so they don’t allow any pictures at all. It just takes a few to spoil it for everyone I guess.
Our next stop was the series of tombs overlooking Amarna, which are from the time when Akhenaten was pharaoh. For the Amelia Peabody fans out there (those people of excellent taste), this is where Amelia caught up with her future husband in Crocodile on the Sandbank. The Emerson brothers camped out in one of the cliffside tombs while overseeing the excavation of the city below. I can easily picture Amelia scrambling down the rocky hillside in pursuit of the mysterious perambulating mummy. These tombs were beautifully decorated but again no photos.
Our next stop represents a big jump forward in time. Hermopolis was an older city that gained a lot of power during the New Kingdom era. We visited the ancient catacombs which go on for miles underground. These once housed thousands of ibis and baboon mummies (very cool, but again no photos). Then we went into a couple of Greco-Roman/Egyptian tombs from the Ptolemaic dynasty (think Cleopatra and family). One of these was the tomb of Petosiris, where five generations of writers are buried. Here I was able to take a few photos in exchange for a little baksheesh (tip) to the guard. We won’t call it a bribe because that doesn’t sound nice.
Our last stop was Beni Hasan, a cliff above the Nile where there are many tombs from the Middle Kingdom (21st-17th C BC).
We went into three tombs here. Again I couldn’t take pictures inside, but I am going to post a couple of images of them from the internet because the decoration was so impressive. The paintings featured scenes from everyday life; apparently the deceased in one of the tombs was a big sports fan because there were many detailed pictures of wrestling and other kinds of games and contests. Also there were pictures of visitors from foreign lands with their costumes shown in detail.
After another tasty grilled chicken dinner, we returned tired and happy to Cairo.
The travel guides describe Hoi An as a laid-back town, a well preserved example of an ancient trading city. What they don’t mention is that those 600 year old shops are now filled with key rings, joke T-shirts, brand name knock-off backpacks, and mass-produced “traditional art”. It’s shoulder-to-shoulder tourists at this UNESCO World Heritage site, especially after dark when the lanterns turn on and two-for-one happy hour kicks off.
Lanterns have been a special feature of Hoi An streets since the 1500s. But at some recent point, city fathers saw fit to heavily promote the monthly Full Moon Lantern Festival as a tourist attraction. It’s traditionally a time of meditation and connection with ancestors. Now lanterns light the crowded streets not only at the full moon but every night, like summer in Disneyland. Visitors cruise the river in lantern-festooned boats and set paper lanterns containing lit candles to float downstream “for love and good luck.”
A friend told me that when she was in Hoi An about ten years ago, the islet where a carnivalesque night market is now was at that time dark and uninhabited. The rows of venerable-looking shops and restaurants on the island are actually brand new.
Right now this rolled ice cream is a popular item in the night markets.
Hoi An is not without charm. The colored lanterns are pretty. The historic buildings are, too, and in the daytime there are museums and temples to visit. In the morning you can see residents going about their daily work on the river and in the market.
We watched a group of Vietnamese people enjoying a traditional song-game called bai choi.
On every street there are custom tailor shops where you can get a dress or suit made from a picture in just a day or two. I would have ordered something if we’d stayed a little longer.
The food, like everywhere in Vietnam, is fresh and cheap. The overpriced tourist restaurants are not hard to spot. We dined at the central market.
24 hours in Hoi An was enough for us. I recognize the hypocrisy in complaining about excess foreigners when I am one myself, but it seems to me that Hoi An’s little ancient district is a destination that has fallen victim to its own success. I’m not sorry we came here but I wish I could have visited ten years ago.
Our next destination was Hoi An, billed as an old trading port city with a well-preserved historic district. There is a bus from Hue but I read that if we took it we would miss the best of the scenery because the bus takes a tunnel road instead of the mountain pass. Hiring a private car and driver turned out to be a good choice, and not very expensive for the two of us. But because we left so late in the day we only saw Lang Co Beach and Marble Mountain from the road.
We did stop at a fishing village for photos and a nice plate of oysters.
It was a sunny day if a bit hazy. This is the view from the highest point, Hai Van Pass.
At the pass there were a couple of old gates and some bunkers left over from the Vietnam War. A young couple was taking wedding photos. Interesting choice.
We checked into our Airbnb in Hoi An just after dark.
We nearly missed our train over these crispy pancakes. If we had, it would almost have been worth it. They are a Hanoi specialty and they are very very tasty.
But as it turned out, we ate our pancake dinner and also got to the station in time to catch the overnight express to Hue. I’d booked berths in a 4-bed compartment which we shared with a young couple and their toddler daughter heading home to a village outside of Hue.
At 8 am we arrived at Hue well rested and ready to see the sights. We first sought out the helpful Mr. Pho who runs a convenience store and cafe across the road from the station. He gave us a map and told us how to get to the Imperial City. We bought breakfast there, too: a scrambled egg banh mi for me, and pho (a house specialty) for Andreas. Also some teeny tiny cups of tea.
Leaving our luggage in the care of Mr. Pho, we walked in the shade along the Perfume River. We passed through a large park full of interesting stuff.
The main thing we wanted to see in Hue was the Imperial City. Hue was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen dynasty, 1802-1945. The walled city where the emperors lived is a UNESCO world heritage site now.
Sadly the Imperial City was very badly damaged in 20th century wars, first in a 1947 battle between the French (who ruled Vietnam at that time) and local Vietnamese independence fighters, and then later by Americans. Before the Battle of Hue in 1968 there were 160 buildings in the site, afterwards only ten were left standing. In recent years the Vietnamese government has done a remarkable job of preserving and restoring the remaining buildings, and carefully reconstructing some of those that were destroyed. The efforts are ongoing – we saw one large structure near completion, and in an empty field we viewed plans for reconstruction of the main palace hall.
The site is very large. We spent several hours wandering through the gardens, temples, gates, library, theatre, clinic, treasury and residences, marveling at the beautiful details inside and out. I am just going to make one giant slide show here.
Any “10 top things to do in Vietnam” list will tell you that a Ha Long cruise is essential. Towering rainforest-topped islands rising out of the misty bay make for an atmospheric and highly Instagrammable situation. Not that I Instagram – I don’t – but all those other people who do are making this a very popular choice.
I spent some time looking at websites for cruise ships but the options were a little overwhelming. Fortunately my friend Amy, who moved this year to Vietnam with her family, came to the rescue with a recommendation for the mid-priced Alisa cruise company.
It turned out to be a good choice. There were perhaps 20 guests on the trip, mostly couples. The boat was well-appointed, the staff was friendly and enthusiastic, and the food was great. Everything is included so there’s nothing to pay for other than drinks and a tip at the end.
There was plenty to do. And eat.
After lunch on the boat, our first group activity was a choice of kayaking or visiting a pearl farm. Andreas picked kayaking but sorry no kayak photos because Andreas doesn’t do cameras. Having forgotten to transfer my swimsuit to my overnight bag, I picked the pearl farm.
The tour was interesting if something of a tourist trap. But I began to regret my choice when I learned that the the site had for many generations been a floating fishing village. The government recently relocated the people to make room for the more profitable pearl farm. I was not at all convinced by the guide’s story about how happy the fishing families were to move closer to schools and shops.
Our next stop was Sung Sot cave, also called Surprise Cave. It’s on an island and the entrance is a couple of hundred steps up on the side of the mountain.
It’s bigger on the inside.
Back on the boat, we had some free time before dinner to enjoy the view from our little private porch. We watched one of the staff go out on the dinghy to buy fish for our dinner from one of the colorful fishing boats.
Everybody met on deck for a cooking lesson (spring rolls) and happy hour. We can check Singapore sling and Ha Long Special off our life lists now. There was squid fishing from the back of the boat after dinner but we were both too tired.
The next morning there was tai chi. Sorry I didn’t get any pictures of Andreas getting his yin and yang sorted but I opted to sleep the extra half hour instead.
Our last stop was Ti-Top Island. We climbed the seven zillion stairs to the peak. There is a viewing pagoda at the the tippy top which is somewhat surprisingly not the inspiration for the island’s name. Andreas wanted to go for a swim at the little beach but it started to rain hard so we had to sprint back to the launch. Then it was homeward bound, back to Hanoi.
We haven’t traveled much in Asia. The omission is intentional; it’s long been our plan to move to southeast Asia and explore from there. But we just signed on for our eighth year in Africa, so maybe it’s time to start visiting some of those other continents before we have to retire.
Due to the way the Islamic holidays fall this year, our school calendar includes (probably for the only time ever) not one but TWO week-long spring breaks, one at the beginning of March and one at the end of April. We decided to spend the first of the holidays in Vietnam.
With only nine days to see the country there wasn’t going to be a lot of room for spontaneity so I booked all our hotels and transportation and many of our activities in advance. We usually try to do things more organically, but I’ll admit I had fun planning the details of our speedy tour through Vietnam.
The itinerary started with two nights up north in Hanoi, followed by a one-night cruise on Ha Long Bay. Then we would return for a few more hours in Hanoi before catching the overnight train to Hue. From there we’d take a private car on a scenic route over the mountains to Hoi An. The next night we’d get a transfer to Da Nang airport and fly down to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The next day we’d take a full day tour of the Mekong Delta, then on our last day see the sights of HCMC before catching a late plane toward home.
It took three flights to get to Hanoi and by the time we landed it was very late. We hired a taxi to take us to the Old Quarter, where I’d reserved a room in a small hotel. Unfortunately, the hotel was so small it didn’t have a night clerk, at least not one that was awake. There was no response to the buzzer and the front door was bolted and barred. I didn’t have a working phone because it had been too late to get a sim card at the airport. Luckily the hotel next door was able to summon the sleepy night manager for us. Once we were inside, it turned out to be a lovely place. The manager upgraded our room to one with a balcony from which we got our first look at Hanoi the next morning.
We spent the next day wandering the streets of our neighborhood. So much to see, hear, taste. We fell in love with Vietnam that very first morning.
We walked all the way around the lake in the Old Quarter. It’s an oasis of tranquility surrounded by colorful gardens, with a bridge to a little island with a temple on it.
In the afternoon we went to a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry originated in the 11th century in the villages of northern Vietnam, where shows were staged in flooded rice paddies. This Hanoi troupe puts on five one-hour performances every day at their own indoor theatre. The puppets perform on the surface of a waist-deep pool; the puppeteers operate them from backstage using long bamboo poles and wires hidden under the water. Opera singers narrate the stories (folktales and vignettes of village life) and a traditional orchestra adds music and sound effects. There were mainly tourists in the audience although I did spot a few Vietnamese families and seniors. We were quite charmed by the experience.
We met up with a former colleague in another part of the city, by a different lake, for drinks and dinner. It was the first of what would be many bowls of pho over the coming week.
Later we visited the night market. I didn’t buy a cat face phone cover but I did get an inflatable new year pig on wheels. We tasted some traditional sweets that were sour, sweet, and salty at the same time. Andreas bought some of those but I think it is an acquired taste.
When we returned to Hanoi after our bay cruise (the subject of my next post) we visited the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first public university. It was founded in 1070 and classes were last held there in 1779. You see the halls, dormitories, temples, classrooms, and courtyards all beautifully restored, and there is a museum where academic robes, scrolls, pen and ink sets, books, and other items from university life are on display. What I liked best were the turtle stelae where the names of all doctoral graduates are inscribed. Each year got a different turtle.
There are lots of great things about living in Cairo, and one of them is that we have easy access to many other great places. Cheap non-stop flights are available to (for example) Turkey and Greece and France. We carefully examined the bargain airline offerings before finally deciding to spend our four-day Easter holiday in Verona, Italy.
Before last weekend, I honestly didn’t know anything about Verona except as the setting for Romeo and Juliet and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Shakespeare probably never visited Italy (though it is possible) so maybe he isn’t a reliable source anyway. Some friends told us they’d had a great time there, though, and it’s fun to explore new territory without researching too much in advance. We knew for sure the food would be wonderful, because it always is in Italy.
Except on the airplane. Note to self: next time bring your own meal when flying cheapo Meridiana Air.
We landed in Milan and took the train the next morning to Verona. It was a beautiful day to walk from the station to our Airbnb, a cute second-floor studio apartment in the old medieval part of the city.
A family enjoys gelato on our street corner
Verona is small, and we spent the weekend wandering around the old cobblestone piazzas, streets, bridges, and alleys, many of which are pedestrianized.
We followed a paper tourist map that our host gave us, stopping in at the medieval and Renaissance churches,
museums (I have a special fondness for creepy old religious art),
and Romeo and Juliet landmarks.
We skipped the tall Lamberti tower because the queue was huge on this holiday weekend, but we had lovely panoramic views from the top of the castle and also from the Roman amphitheatre across the river.
And, as predicted, the food was wonderful (and yes, we brought our own food on the flight home).
In the Khan el-Khalili, the big old market in the center of old Cairo, you can find just about anything you want. A visit to the Khan is on every tourist itinerary so of course there is no shortage of belly-dancing costumes, stuffed toy camels, and plastic pyramids. But the winding side-streets are also home to hundreds of little shops where Egyptians go to buy everyday goods at low prices, and where everyone can enjoy street food and a lively atmosphere in the evenings.
The Khan is also the place to find many of the local products and artisan items that Egypt is known for. Some parts of the khan are still divided into districts selling specific things, such as gold jewelry, copper goods, and spices.
One of my favorite areas of the Khan is tent-makers’ alley. The vendors here in this old covered souk specialize in made-to-order Bedouin-style canvas tents like the one we stayed in when we visited the White Desert.
Most of the tentmakers also sell other textile items like decorative cushion covers and tablecloths made from bright geometric Ramadan fabric.
But my favorite thing in tentmakers alley are the appliqué wall hangings and bedspreads, an art form called khayamiya.
Knowing how much I admired them, my sweet husband’s Christmas gift to me this year was the promise of an appliqué wall hanging (a practical choice, too, since we were traveling at Christmas and you don’t have to wrap and pack promises). This past weekend we finally found time to go downtown and pick out my present.
We looked in ALL the shops along the alley. I knew I wanted a colorful wall hanging with birds on it, but the workmanship varies and I wanted one with small, even stitching.
Once we settled on a shop, the vendor sent out for tea (part of the process when they’ve got a serious customer),
and when I told him I wanted one with birds, he started pulling out one piece after another from cupboards and drawers. It was a bit overwhelming, but eventually I narrowed my choices down to five, then two, then finally one.
But in the process Andreas found one he just had to have. So in the end we went home with two wall hangings.
There are small workshops in the back streets here where they make beautiful perforated metal lamps. Maybe next Christmas….