This Man in Havana

 

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In my early youth, Cuba was never far from one’s mind. The revolution with Castro Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the Bay of Pigs, The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Blockade, the decadence and depravity of pre-revolutionary Cuba and Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana made Cuba romantic, scary, and fascinating all at the same time. When the time came to go there a sense that I might be disappointed after all that lurked in the back of my mind but I wasn’t.

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Havana is very much open for the business of visitors, and it is a great city to walk in. People are polite helpful hungry to do business well, and its very safe since the authorities are well aware of the consequences of crime on tourism. There are of course the usual hustlers hanging around but they usually take no for an answer. Development means that new and old sit side by side in the Havana of today.

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Havana is famous for its old 1950s American cars which have been lovingly cherished and preserved through the blockade and continue to serve the residents as well as being a draw for visitors as taxis. These taxis can vary in quality and price so ask around and the best way is to get a recommendation from a local or the place you are staying. It is not only antique cars but you can also find antique Jukeboxes in bars pumping out Cuban music both traditional and modern.

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It can be wearing to have a dish shoved into your face for a donation when you have had to listen to Guantanamera for the 29th time that day, but look around the live music which is everywhere and there is some great music.

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The cult of Earnest Hemingway is prominent and there is a lot to look at. For me a visit to the Ambos Mundos where he stayed was fun, and if the rooftop bar now caters for mass tourism and the odd papa Hemingway look-alike the mojitos are great and will keep you mellow on a hot Havana afternoon.

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There is a lot of great architecture much of it being renovated and it is refreshing that these buildings and churches are not just for viewing they are used too. Sit in a café or bar at the end of the day and absorb the atmosphere and be part of the tradition of talking and absorbing the good things in life at which the Cubans are so adept.

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Problems? Few, just ATMs which are few and far between and sometimes empty so bring cash or use banks, and wifi. If like me you were born before technology and progressed from “great idea but it will never work” to being a complete addict of gadgets and gizmos which all seem to need Wi-Fi you might freak, but stay somewhere that has it or join the interesting groups hanging outside hotels and places using their Wi-Fi hot spots, its actually quite fun and a relief to the addiction.

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Someone wrote that as far as cities go Havana is a festering treasure chest, a primary colour. That is right.

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Rural Vietnam

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Rural Vietnam offers stark contrasts to the energy, vigour excitement and craziness of Saigon or Hanoi. These communities bring you tradition, contrasts, and even a sense of isolation from the outside world.

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I was invited to spend the Vietnamese New Year with a family who lived in a very small town some 3 hours south east of Hanoi in Ninh Binh province on the main road south. The town’s small size is easy enough to digest, until you realise that people are following you as you walk down the street, because they have rarely if ever seen anyone like you in real life. That is a surprise. Coming across a small village one day I found a locked church, which interested me. Someone was able let me in. I wandered around the church and after a few minutes I realised I was not alone in the supposedly empty church; about 20 people had gathered by the door of the church and were simply staring at me, albeit in a very friendly way.

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That part of Vietnam is littered with relics of French colonial influence none more obvious that the strong presence of Catholicism. What was really interesting to me was seeing churches constructed in Neo Gothic style, which have been constructed within the last 10 years by the congregation. Catholicism is as influential here as Buddhism.

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The contradictions and conflicts between agriculture and industry are seen in peaceful rural scenes set against a backdrop of mountains which have had their whole sides simply ripped out by barely regulated mining.

 

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A new year family gathering involved sitting for a long time on the floor eating good food and consuming large amounts of local rice wine that progressively numbs you in an atmosphere of great harmony as we all struggle to be understood with a mixture of Vietnamese, French English and sign language. People are welcoming friendly and inquisitive. Whilst Vietnamese are proud of their history as victors against foreign influence, resentment and recrimination are very rare. And yes men in one place women in another.

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Communism, Buddhism and Catholicism sit side by side in apparent harmony ,the focus of modern life being material wellbeing, which is the common aim, and they work hard, although millions are still dependent on agriculture.. The families are large and and the bonds tight and are the root from which rural life grows. In amongst rice paddies are the graves of family members giving insight into the long connections of families and towns. The young head for the cities to earn a living if they can but always come back on the frequent busses that thunder down the road as the new world passes by the old.

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Independence Palace Saigon – The Prism of History

 

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What is commonly called The Independence Palace, or Reunification Palace was built in the centre of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1962. This followed an air raid by two renegade pilots of the then Vietnam Air Force on behalf of the Viet Cong, seeking to assassinate the then President Diem, which destroyed a wing of the then Norodam Palace. The President, who escaped the air raid, instructed that a new Palace to be built on the site, to the design of a Vietnamese architect who won one of the world’s foremost architectural prizes for his design.

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President Diem never saw the finished work since he and his family were assassinated, but it became the seat of power of the subsequent Presidents of South Vietnam, or the Republic of Vietnam as it was known. That era ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese forces took the Palace, a scene reflected in a famous photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the Palace gates.

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For me this is not an inspiring building despite its Architectural awards, but looking at it, and inside it, lets us look at history through a prism and reflect on some of what it means historically. The Palace has subsequently been used for State occasions but it is essentially a destination for tourists exploring Vietnam. The balcony from which Presidents looked down on crowds, is not a convenient vantage point for people to take photos down a wide boulevard lined by a park, the play ground of the French Colonials of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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What strikes you first and foremost about the interior is how grandiose an pompous it is. Throne rooms, extravagant 800 seater meetings rooms ,where the great and the good of that tiny, no longer existing Republic and their visitors assembled to chart the course of the country and to play its important part in the Geopoliticis of the era of the “domino effect”. Today it all seems pointless and irrelevant, with the then famous people who occupied those rooms gone and largely forgotten. But then how many countries do we see in the world with poor people who have been ruled by people where display has far outweighed substance in importance.

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In the basement is a bunker to be used by the President in time of war or emergency. It has offices bedrooms and the then latest communication technology still in place. Despite the fact that it is only 41 years since that country’s demise, the equipment looks stone age. You realise that in the era in which we exist, history is defined not just by time, but also by technological progress, things and people become objects of history much earlier than they used to. History is foreshortened.

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And individuals see this building according to their lives at the time. A woman I met in Saigon who had been in her 30s when the tank crashed through the gates, told me that I should not take too much notice of the incident with the tank, “to be honest” she said, “don’t take too much notice of this drama about tanks smashing gates. In fact we just opened the gates and let them in”. Such is the joy of the prism effect on history.

 

Hue and The Perfume River – Vietnam

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The ancient city of Hue was the capital city if Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 when Vietnam was divided and acquired 2 Capital Saigon in the South and Hanoi in the North. The city’s biggest feature is the enormous 19th century Citadel that also houses what was the Imperial City the home of the then Emperors.

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The City is crossed by the Perfume River. Upstream of the city were many orchards and flowers that fell from those orchards used to fill the river and float through it giving off a scent hence the name. Many of those orchards are gone but annual flowers still float down.img_0345

img_3348The river is very much alive, Transport, fishing and now tourism fill it. One of the most common sights on the river is boats carrying the rich sediment from the river bottom back to the city. The boats are rudimentary and the operators get paid per loan for the sediment which is used in building. To see those boats filled with the water line so close to the level of the river you wonder why they don’t sink but somehow from generations of experience they thrive.

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Along the river are pagodas and also the tombs of former emperors. These burial sites and tombs were identified and designed in the lifetime of an emperor and they are more like small palaces than a burial site, set in carefully selected beautiful sites out of the city along the river. Although there are temples and memorials in these sites, actually the emperors are buried somewhere in the large enclosure but with no one knowing exactly where. Fear of exhumation was such that the Emperor himself was buried secretly in an unmarked grave somewhere on the sit, which was usually tended by former wives of which they could have hundreds.

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The City itself is dominated by the Citadel an enormous construction surrounded by some 10kms of walls. The Citadel suffered huge damage in the Vietnam War in the Tet offensive such that many of the buildings have been destroyed. Some have been restored and it is a wonderful place to visit, although you need time to do that. Many people bypass Hue and their way North and South but for me it was one of my favourite cities in Vietnam and a must visit.

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The Marble Mountains – Vietnam

 

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The Marble Mountains are 5 marble and limestone hills that are just south of Da Nang on the east coast of Vietnam. The area is famous for marble creations although the marble no longer comes from these hills but is brought from other parts of Vietnam. Each of the hills has a name relating to an element, metal, water, wood, fire and earth. The hills are on an essentially flat coastal plain and rise out of the plain in an almost random way. img_0159

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These marble factories produce amazing carvings, all entirely carved and polished by hand. You can buy designs there or they make designs to order. The craftsmanship is amazing although there is a major discrepancy between what a carving costs and what someone gets paid to make one. You can wander round the marble factories and watch the carvings being made all the way from a block of marvel to a beautiful modern or traditional carving.

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Buddhist sanctuaries and grottos are inside the mountains, having been constructed to fit the contours, and these themselves have some extraordinary and intricate work. There is a lift up part of the mountain that is accessible to visitors, followed by some 150 steps up to the summit. The amazing views from the mountains look out over the beautiful beaches of this part of the country and west across the plain to the mountains in the distance. These hills have been a look out point for centuries.

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It is said that in the Vietnam war the Vietcong had a hospital in these hills close to an air force base hiding its existence effectively in plain sight. There are tickets to buy but reasonable priced. The local currency, the Dong, has a lot of zeros in it which is quite hard to get used to, so you have to remember that when you are told that something costs say 250, you need to add three zeros to that figure!

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This area of coast is now subject to huge development for the tourist industry with big and numerous resorts being built down the coast from Da Nang to cater for the tourist trade predominantly from China, Korea and Japan. In a way it is a sad sight because the natural beauty of the coast here is stunning. But ask a Vietnamese person about it and they are happy that it will bring income and prosperity to the area, the classic conundrum of development.

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Hoi An – Vietnam

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Hoi An, the name means “Peaceful meeting place” sits on the east coast of Vietnam in the centre of the country. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site being a beautifully preserved trading town showing a whole variety of cultures, and it has been a trading town since the 15th century. img_0090

 

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The town stretches along the river and is a beautiful evocation of past eras and has become a very popular tourist destination, allowing people to enjoy the beauty of the town, but at the same time explore the surrounding areas by bike motor bike or even by boat. The town sits on the estuary of the Thu Bon river so there are access to beaches also.

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img_0120At night the town is lit with lanterns and the many restaurants and bars come alive. There is a huge variety of food from traditional Vietnamese street food to western food if you want it. For myself the street food in Vietnam is amazing, filled with flavour despite its seeming simplicity. You realise that many places are family run which use recipes that they protect to create their popularity which they guard assiduously. img_0113

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The river is alive a real river giving a livelihood from fishing and from transport. In my wanderings I found on the bank of the estuary a place where small boats were built. The builder collecting planks of wood from wherever he could find them and turning them into beautiful small boats used for fishing or carrying people.

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Vietnam likes tickets, so there are often places where you might expect to go freely but for which you have to buy a ticket, but they are not expensive and that is just part of the culture of the place. Hoi An is famous for clothes making so if you want some clothes made in silk or cotton they will get it done while you are there from the fabrics you like at a great price.

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Hoi An is a beautiful place to go and a fun place too with a lot to see and to do and it’s a must see in Vietnam. The weather can be very hot and humid, so its an advantage to research that before you go.

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Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City – The Jade Emperor Pagoda.

 

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Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City? My experience is that people who live there call it Saigon and those who don’t Ho Chi Minh. Myself I will call it Saigon because that name is more redolent of its history. One tip, how to cross the road in Saigon as you watch the endless wave of scooters and motor bikes the like of which I have never seen before, bearing down on you. At first you are stuck at the side of the road wondering how you will ever cross, but watch the Vietnamese and then you realise that the secret is just to step off the pavement into the massive flow of bikes. Then walk steadily, don’t stop and don’t change your pace and you will arrive at the other side as the bikes go round you. Its intimidating but amazing how it actually works.

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In central Saigon is the Jade Emperor Pagoda, or Phuoc Hai Temple. This active Temple was built by the Chinese, being finished in 1909. It is also known as the Lucky Sea Temple. The Jade Emperor is a Supreme Taoist deity and the person who, according to legend, decides who goes to heaven and who to hell, so a significant figure!

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The Temple also houses a turtle sanctuary, the turtle being a symbol of longevity and a symbol of good fortune and good luck. The temple is very active so as you look at it people for whom it is part of life worship there. One of the things that is striking in Vietnam is the generosity of the offerings of food that are presented at temples.

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In the courtyard outside the temple is an incinerator in which people burn paper, often fake money on the basis that the smoke will reach to the ancestors and the deceased in heaven, the ancestors playing an important part of the spiritual life.

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Some of the small sculptures that adorn the fringes of the building, round the roof, are beautiful depictions of religious scenes and life, done in a lifelike way and with amazing intricacy and a sense of reality. The Jade Emperor himself wears a large moustache typical of Cantonese culture, and reside in the room known as the Room of the 10 Hells.

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img_7871The air in the Temple is rich with the smell of incense, the smoke of candles with its soft light illuminating the various statues which signify everything that the Temple celebrates, and it is alive with not just visitors but ordinary people doing their devotions. A beautiful place.

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