Return to Ikaria

When I started to outline some posts about the week we just spent on Ikaria, I was astonished to discover that I have written only once about the island in the eight years I’ve kept this blog. Since moving overseas I have visited the island with Andreas four times that I can think of, and Andreas has traveled there at least five more times on his own. Looking back on it, I think I avoided posting about Ikaria because I didn’t want to repeat myself, not realizing that I’d never actually written about it.

I had another blog before this one, back in 2009-2010. It was called Foodlandia, and it was mostly about food but with lots of digressions. I didn’t visit Ikaria even once myself during that period (Greece is a long way from Oregon, and we didn’t travel much in those days) but still I wrote six posts about the island that year. If you care to check them out – some of those Foodlandia posts come with recipes! – you can use the search box in the old blog to find Ikaria.

This week I will probably overcompensate for the lack of Ikarian posts on lornaofarabia. Ikaria occupies a lot of real estate in the hearts and minds of my family members, and in recent years it has taken up a lot of time as well, as some of them try to legally claim their Greek citizenship and reestablish a foothold on the island. At a future date I’ll add a few family history posts to give the Ikarian connection some historical context.

It’s a beautiful island and we don’t require a special reason to visit, but our trip this week had three pressing objectives. The first was that we were meeting our daughter Alekka there; she appeared to be in the final stages of establishing Greek citizenship, and it would be helpful to have her dad present as a witness during her interview (this story will need its own post, later… it is quite the saga).

The second reason we needed to go there now is that after several years of dire warnings, Greece is finally cracking down on property tax collection. There have been property tax laws in the books for a long time, but in practice – at least in the boondocks, like the island of Ikaria – a lot of people didn’t actually pay them. A big obstacle for the government has been that many people’s land is not registered with the state. Instead of deeds, for hundreds of years villagers have relied on the long memories of elders for details like “from the third olive tree past the well to the corner of the old Papadopoulis farm” to track ownership. Sometimes property lines are marked with “synera” (a word I can’t find anywhere in any online dictionaries, but is commonly used on the island), thin sheets of rock planted deep in the soil.

Those deeds that are registered are filed in binders and folders in local offices, not digitally or in a central location for Greece. Because of the way inheritances and dowries are handled, many individuals own tiny plots of land in several villages, and other parcels of land belong to groups of siblings or cousins. Also, many properties are held by the descendants of people who left Greece decades ago for different continents whose right to it exists only by collective agreement of elderly neighbors.

At any rate, in the interest of alleviating the current debt crisis, the government is changing these these time-honored procedures. Everyone needs to get their land registered with the government using GPS coordinates and then pay the tax. Special offices have been set up in the main towns where people have to bring all their papers – wills, sworn statements, bills of sale, etc. – or (in some cases) live witnesses to testify to what is theirs. Surveyors are doing a booming business.

It all has to be recorded by the end of September or you forfeit your property to the government who will put it up for sale. It’s a bit of a mess, with old ladies showing up at the office carrying stacks of folders to prove rights to not only their houses but their garden plots, water sources, olive trees, and grazing land. For many relatives on his father’s side, Andreas lives the closest geographically to Greece, and he has been charged with arranging the survey and registration of properties belonging to his immediate family as well as those of several cousins.

In Evdilos – surveyor’s office ground floor right, and lawyer’s office ground floor left – where Andreas spent a lot of time this week.

The third reason for this trip, related to reason #2, is that for three years we have been working toward building a house on the island and Andreas needed to complete the registration of that property. He also needed to light a fire under our contractor. Things move slowly on Ikaria, which is one of the things that is so charming about it (and probably one of the reasons Ikarians live so long), but it can be frustrating. It always works better when you are there in person, and we aren’t there enough.

Our little bit of paradise needs work.

In the end, we didn’t completely meet any one of the three goals. But that gives us a good reason to go back soon.

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The Nile in style

There are so many ways to enjoy the Nile.

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!

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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.

Three of the Peabody books are connected with Amarna: Crocodile on the Sandbank (the first in the series); The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog; and The Painted Queen, which was completed by the mystery author Joan Hess after Peters’ death.

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.

El Minya isn’t marked on here but you can see the three sites. Image credit: Jonathan Brun

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.

Didn’t we just have dinner?

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 personal tourist police waiting for us outside the tomb. There were also a couple of snipers up on the hill to the right.

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.

That’s our van down there.
The yellow door is a modern metal gate added to protect a tomb.

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.

Wrestlers. Image from Wikipedia
Semite visitors. Image from

After another tasty grilled chicken dinner, we returned tired and happy to Cairo.

The Nile from Beni Hasan
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Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City, still sometimes called by its old name of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City is a lot of syllables). HCMC is modern, stylish, urban, and also full of history.

Andreas had a list of costume pieces he needed for the school musical he is directing. When we returned to HCMC after our Mekong delta tour we went out in search of the night market. The city lights up at night and is teeming with people until very late. I was too busy making sure Andreas didn’t pay too much for his fedoras to take any photos of the market though.

The next day we got an early start in an attempt to pack the rest of our Saigon sightseeing into one day. Vietnam takes food seriously and our hotel offered a wide breakfast selection. Andreas was happy to have another opportunity to start the day with a bowl of pho.

HCMC is a very walkable city, and the sunny weather was perfect for getting around on foot.

Our first stop was a building that was home and office to the president of South Vietnam from 1962 to 1975. The war ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks broke through the palace gates. The two countries became one, and the Presidential Palace became Independence (also called Unification) Palace. The palace is a museum now, set up as it was during the war. The self guided walking tour takes you through all the private and public areas including the basement bunker. I thought this would be a short visit but it turned out to be quite interesting and Andreas and I were the last visitors shooed out when the museum closed for lunch at 11.

Just a few blocks away from Independence Palace is the War Remnants Museum. This museum opened just after the war as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, which was amended to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression in 1990. The current name was assigned in 1995 after relations with the US were normalized. This history was clearly written by the victors. Reading TripAdvisor reviews of the museum it seems that a lot of Americans are offended by that, but I was glad for the chance to see the war through the eyes of the other side. An exhibit about international photojournalists who covered the war was well done, as was the section about the international anti-war movement. With whole rooms devoted to American atrocities and agent orange, it’s pretty horrific, but why should a war museum be otherwise.

We had made plans to meet my friend Amy and her husband in another part of the city for dinner. It had been a sobering museum visit and we needed a good walk afterwards.

Parents on motorbikes picking up their kids outside a school around 5 pm

We stopped by the Jade Emperor pagoda along the way

We met our friends for dinner at Cậu Ba Quán, a popular Vietnamese-Cajun fusion restaurant that was featured (I am told) on the Netflix show Somebody Feed Phil. I am sure Phil didn’t leave this place hungry… our “happy salad” and a huge platter of prawns left us very satisfied (but not so stuffed we couldn’t go out for beers afterwards…)

At midnight we were winging our way back to Cairo via Dubai. To everyone who told us a week wouldn’t be enough time to see this beautiful country, you were right. But that just means we’ll have to come back. When we do, Sapa will certainly be on the itinerary.

Sapa (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, we brought a tasty little bit of Vietnam back with us.

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Mekong Delta

We spent most of our week in Vietnam in urban areas – Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, and HCMC – so I was pleased to fit in a day in the Mekong delta countryside. Andreas and I don’t take a lot of guided tours, but sometimes it’s the best way to see a place if we have only a very short time. My friend Amy recommended Water Buffalo Tours, who offer private tours in and around Ho Chi Minh City. It turned out to be a very fun day.

We started with a Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a syncretic religion that combines elements of Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Islam, and Confucianism. It was founded in 1926 and is now the third most popular religion in Vietnam. Interesting fact: Victor Hugo is one of the saints.

Next we visited a market. I love markets, and this one did not disappoint.

We stopped for a quick refreshment in a cà phê house (betcha didn’t know I can speak Vietnamese! I can say beer, too… bia).

cà phê sua dá: iced coffee with condensed milk

We left the town and drove to a bike rental shop/refreshment stand in the countryside. From there we set off on two wheels along quiet roads and paths.

We stopped at the house of the tour company owner’s uncle. Here we got a glimpse of rural life in the delta. The uncle and his wife raise goats, ducks, and vegetables in the yard of their two-room house; they also own a part in one of the large rice paddies across the road.

As we continued our ride we saw tall windowless buildings surrounded by high fencing, with large speakers on the roof playing bird calls. These are swiftlet nesting houses, for the collection of the valuable nests used in making Chinese birds’ nest soup.

We didn’t fall in while crossing a monkey bridge.

It would have been fun to cycle around all day, but it was early afternoon and getting hot. We enjoyed some fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice back at the bike shop.

We took the van to a restaurant next to the river, stopping on the way at a fish market to pick up some fresh shrimp for our lunch. I guess when this outfit promises a private tour they really mean it, because we were the only customers at the restaurant. From the well-stocked bar I’d guess they do most of their business in the evening.

The restaurant cooked our shrimp and about eight more dishes to go with it. Everything was absolutely delicious.

Our last stop was the water itself. The Mekong River splits into many distributaries in the delta, and we rode in a motorized wooden boat across one of these. We saw all types and sizes of vessels on the river – water buses and taxis, barges, fishing boats. Many boats had eyes painted on the bow, which our guide told us are there to ward off water monsters.

The boat dropped us off across the river where we transferred to a sampan. A tourist thing for sure, but at the end of this busy day we enjoyed the quiet ride along narrow waterways through water coconut groves.

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Hội An

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.

The newest of Hoi An’s three night markets

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.

The audience is watching for numbers on their paddles that match the ones the singers are holding up

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.

My Hoi An souvenir. All my clothes were at the laundry.
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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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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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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.

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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