Hải Vân Pass

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.

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Huế

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.


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Ha Long

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.

Our boat is the one on the left. The other one is for the 2-night cruise.

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.

View from the cave

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.


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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.

I guess Hoi An is too small to be on this map; it’s just a little south of Da Nang. https://www.infoplease.com/atlas/asia/vietnam-map

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.

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When the apricots bloom

There’s a saying in Egypt -“bukra fil mish-mish”

بكرة في المشمش

Literally it means “when the apricots bloom,” but people say it to mean “never.” Sort of like “when pigs fly.”  That’s because in Egypt apricots (mish-mish) have a very short season.

Guess what? It’s that time…


When the apricots bloom, you have to act quickly. Good thing I keep my tart pan handy.

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In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…

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.

Seriously?

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.

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We followed a paper tourist map that our host gave us, stopping in at the medieval and Renaissance churches,

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museums (I have a special fondness for creepy old religious art),

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Roman ruins,

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and Romeo and Juliet landmarks.

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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.

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And, as predicted, the food was wonderful (and yes, we brought our own food on the flight home).

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Tent-makers’ alley

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.

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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.

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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….

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Kathakali

Kerala is home to a unique theatre form called kathakali. By chance, Andreas was studying kathakali just a few weeks ago as part of an IB theatre teaching training course, so he was very excited at the prospect of seeing a live performance.

Kathakali developed in southern India out of older Hindu temple dramas, and has remained essentially the same since the 17th century. A performance features elaborately made up and costumed actors who use a specialized language of hand gestures, facial movements, and dance to tell a traditional story or epic. The actors are supported by a singer and musicians.

The training for this art is rigorous and lengthy: four years to be a makeup artist, and six minimum for a singer or dancer/actor. The performances themselves are also lengthy, lasting from evening until dawn. A temple in Kochi hosted one of these while we were in India, but unfortunately we missed it because we were away in Aleppey. But happily for us there was a kathakali school right around the corner from our homestay in Kochi, and this school offered a nightly show for tourists. We went twice.

If you go early you can watch the performers putting on their makeup.

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A man decorated the space with flowers, candles, and sand paintings.

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Because this was a demonstration for tourists, the actors showed some of some of the basic movements while a narrator explained what they meant. Kathakali actors spend thousands of hours learning to control eye and facial muscles.

Then they performed a scene or short story from one of the plays. On the nights we went we saw two different parts of the epic Mahabharata.

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One of our heroes kills the bad guy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Backwaters

If you mention Kerala to anyone who’s been there, chances are the first thing they will say is “houseboats.”

For many generations people in Kerala used wooden boats called kettuvallam to transport goods to larger port towns like Cochin. These days rice and spices travel much faster by truck and train, and the kettuvallam boats have been to converted into holiday excursion boats. In the backwater areas of coastal Kerala, particularly around the towns of Alleppey and Kumarakom, you can book a private boat with crew to take you on a leisurely one- or  two-night cruise along sleepy canals and lagoons.

The boats have between one and three bedrooms, bathrooms, and a deck area at the front. Some have both an open and a closed lounge/dining area, and some have an upstairs room or sundeck as well. There is a kitchen at the back of the boat where the cook will fix you some yummy Kerala food.

A typical houseboat, from the kitchen end

To book a boat you need go down to the docks at 9 am. That’s when the boats return, and you will have the pick of the fleet.  You ask to go aboard and look around. Some are quite basic, others well-appointed. We were advised to turn on the shower, lie down on the bed, and bargain for the best price. We looked at three or four before choosing a boat for our one-night excursion.

Going to look at some boats.

After you strike a deal with the owner, you go away for a couple of hours and come back at 11 to get settled in before noontime departure.

Andreas enjoys his welcome drink before we go.

Our cheerful captain

Some boats have TVs, but who needs TV when you can read a book and watch the people on the river.

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The cabin boy/cook (on our boat it was the same young man, assisted by the captain when we weren’t moving; on some boats it’s two different people) prepared and served us lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner on the first day.

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The boats have to moor before the sun goes down. We connected to a power source overnight (which provided us with welcome AC). We parked near our captain’s house – he said hi to his mom while Andreas and I went for a walk in the rice fields to watch the sunset.

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The next morning we watched the river people at their morning activities as we ate our breakfast and slowly motored our way back to town.

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When we docked in Alleppey, a young couple came aboard to inspect the boat. We advised them to take it, they wouldn’t regret it.

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High tea

I wanted to visit a tea plantation while we were in India. Darjeeling and Assam are famous for their teas, but those places are both in the far northeast, too distant for this trip. Within India, though, the south is also known for its tea. There are tea plantations all around the hill station of Munnar in eastern Kerala, as well as in the next state over, Tamil Nadu.

India is huge. The area we covered this holiday is marked by the little purple triangle in the southwest.

After some poking around on TripAdvisor, I decided that we should visit Kolukkumalai, the world’s highest elevation organic tea plantation. It’s a remote estate just over the border in Tamil Nadu where they still practice the old-fashioned “orthodox” method of tea production.  I booked and paid for (or so I thought) an overnight reservation at the plantation’s mountain hut, a converted workers’ cabin located at about 7,000 feet –  the same elevation as Addis Ababa.

There was lots to look at on the long bus ride from Kochi to Munnar hill station.

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Once we got to Munnar we had some trouble connecting with the tea estate people. Things would have run much more smoothly if I had decided a few days earlier to book the visit, but our entire Kerala trip was planned on the fly and this was a last-minute call. Because I’d made the reservation on the weekend, the payment was delayed, and it’s a rather long and boring story so I won’t get into it all the details, but the really great part is that the wonderful Kolukkumalai people jumped into action and made it work. As it happens there was another last-minute traveler in the tourist office at the same time, also trying to book a night at the tea estate, so once it was finally all sorted the three of us were able to share a jeep for the long uphill journey.

We stopped in the little town of Suryanelly for supplies.

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Next we stopped for a tea break (of course) at a nearby tea estate.

Then began the arduous part of the journey. The road up to Kolukkumalai now holds the title of The Bumpiest Road I Have Ever Been On in My Life. It surpasses even the road to the Yemrehanna Kristos cave church in Ethiopia, the previous holder of this dubious distinction.

Tea!

We spent two relaxing nights in our “mountain hut”, which turned out to be nicely equipped with all the comforts of home.  The cabin has three rooms, but during our stay we and the young woman we rode up the hill with were the only guests.

The view from our porch. The green-roofed building is the tea factory.

On both mornings we rose early to walk up the hill behind to watch the sunrise. The first morning it was too foggy to see anything.

But the second morning we enjoyed a lovely sunrise above the layer of mist blanketing the mountains.

Later after breakfast we took a walking tour of the estate to see the workers tending the plants and harvesting the leaves.

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Most of the workers who pick the leaves are women (it is said that men don’t have the patience to do it right) while the tea factory workers are mainly men. The workers live on site in housing provided by the estate. They have a child care center, a small temple, and a tea house in the compound, but they have to travel down the mountain for shopping and for any medical services beyond basic first aid. School age children live down in the town during the week.

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We also toured the factory, where they showed us the seven steps of orthodox tea production: withering, rolling, sieving, fermenting, drying, fiber extraction, and grading. Most of these steps employ machines that were brought in for the opening of the factory over a hundred years ago.

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In addition to hot and tasty Tamil meals three times a day, our guide served us tea at breakfast, at mid-morning, after lunch, at tea-time, and after dinner. Any time is tea time, it would seem.

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In fact, we spent much of our time wrapped in warm blankets, sipping tea and enjoying the view from our little front porch.

Here are some more pictures of this beautiful green place.

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