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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Vietnam- The CuChi Tunnels

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The Cu Chi tunnel system is about 75 kms south west of Ho Chi Minh City, 1 – 2 hours driving, depending on the notorious Saigon traffic. There are 2 main access points, at Ben Duoc and Ben Binh. Ben Duoc is the better known in that it has been adapted to suit tourism with slightly widened tunnels and other attractions, while Ben Binh is where most Vietnamese go and is probably more authentic. I visited Ben Binh on a very wet day, when the experience of being in the jungle was very real. There are some 200 kms of tunnels at varying levels covering a huge area. The area is pock marked with bomb craters since the area became the most bombed in the whole Vietnam war, with bombs napalm and agent orange being used.

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The thought that has gone into disguising the tunnels their entrances and exits and facilities is extraordinary. You approach the tunnels down a path and despite being invited to search for an entrance in a small indicated area its is almost impossible to find. Enter the tunnels hatch, drop down and pull the hatch behind you into the ground and it is immediately invisible. Ventilation shafts come to the surface in cracks in rocks, lookout openings are also like that and almost completely invisible.

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Underground are passages, rooms, where the smoke from cooking was disbursed above ground far from the kitchen itself to protect the area. It is extraordinary to be inside and feel that people lived there for years surfacing fighting returning throughout the war. Some 420 square kms of land was hammered by bombing in an effort to dislodge the fighters in the tunnels, but without success leaving the area a wasteland although now the vegetation has largely been restored. The tunnels were so well hidden that at one stage an American base was established on top of them.

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The site at Ben Binh includes a magnificent Pagoda and memorial to those who fought and died in the war and particularly in the tunnels. Some 50000 names are inscribed on the walls of the memorial and one thing that strikes you very hard is how young many of the men and women who died there were. The building includes a large statue of Ho Chi Minh and is an important memorial in Vietnam.

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Many of us read about the war every day, and were aware of the tunnels, but seeing them and experiencing them adds a dimension to understanding the war and its outcome. It is a very moving memorial all the more so because it is set in the countryside and not in a city, and simply to experience the tunnels for a sort time gives an idea about how hard life must have been for its occupants, living there, fighting there and being bombed incessantly.Vietnam

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Vietnam – Cao Dai

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About 90kms northwest of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, , whichever you wish to call it, heading for the Cambodian border, lies Tay Ninh, the site of the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion. The religion, said to be the fastest growing religion in Vietnam with now an estimated 6m followers, was only founded in 1929.

 

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Cao Dai is the name of God the Father, the other deity being the Holy Mother, the Yang and Yin respectively of the religion; the Cao Daiists believing in the Yin and Yang, the harmonious balance in life. The full name of God, Cao Dai being a shortened version, reflects the fact that this religion is a combination of the three main religions of the area, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The symbols of the religion combine symbols from all of those creeds.

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Omnipresent is a symbolic eye, the left eye of God, symbolising that God sees everything, and it is the left eye as it sits above the heart and soul from where comes learning and wisdom. The religion teaches that historically God spoke to mankind through many prophets, but that now God speaks direct to mankind.

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The Holy See covers several hundred hectares of land, its main focus being the Temple where the faithful gather daily for reflection and prayer. The floor of the temple inside consists of a number of platforms which rise as you progress to wards the front, and as your learning and understanding of the creed increases, so you move forward to a higher level.

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The building is beautiful, but almost quirky in its colours, its realism, and above all its colours, which are like confectionary and might be seen decorating a cake. The images are detailed, realistic and prominent everywhere. Adherents follow a path of learning and meditation which gradually leads them through the levels of the religion to the highest levels.

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It is a bit of a hike out of Ho Chi Minh city but a good day is to combine the visit with one to the Cu Chi tunnels a short distance away and that makes for a great day out. The site is extraordinary, in that it is known as the Holy See, as the Vatican, and the symbolism is unique, but Cai Dai is the fastest growing religion so has obviously something to offer, and the site buildings and people there certainly do. There are also some holy monkeys contemplating the meaning of their lives!

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Travel – Vietnam

 

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Vietnam has a long history of insisting on its own identity and culture, dating back to the 10th century when they ceased to be part of the Chinese empire and became an independent state. Since then modern wars against the French there from the 19th century to 1954 and subsequently the US resulting in reunification in 1975 have cemented that sense of independence and pride you find in Vietnam.

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Vietnam’s geography is distinct and varied from the Mekong Delta south of Ho Chi Minh City through the central highlands to the old north and its national parks and mountains. The best way to see Vietnam I think is to start at one end and work up or down according to your choice. Many people but motorbikes in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh and sell them in the other city when they arrive.

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The people of Vietnam are approachable, friendly curious and direct. They have an instinct for trading and business and the whole country gives a strong impression of going somewhere fast, accompanied by massive investment into tourism and business. The tourism industry is growing at a huge rate with ever increasing numbers from Asia so Vietnam is changing fast and it might be good to go soon while the traditions are still very visible.

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Its an amazing place to visit but a place where you need to take your time. There is so much to see, so much variety and so many contrasts that you need to absorb them slowly or you will miss a lot. I am going to write various pieces on various aspects so hope readers enjoy those as much as that country is enjoyable.

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Bon Voyage, Take Your Time

 

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This little gem of a greeting was sent to me today by a good friend on the eve of my departure for another journey. Those I know who don’t share my obsession with “going on a journey” as I call travelling, have got used to these regular disappearances. They have seen the familiar signs of introspection as I decide where to go and what to do. They have seen the minimal research I do in order to create as much of an adventure as possible when I arrive, and they know that the space they have made for me in their lives, will be empty for a while until I return refreshed and reinvigorated by my experience,, at which time they wont ask me how it was but where I will go next. I will disappear from their lives for a while and they from mine and normality will resume when I have had my journeying fix.

For me the nervous anticipation of pastures new, the preparation, the familiar routines of preparing to go, the nervousness that will turn to exileration as the wheels leave the runway tomorrow, and that wonderful sense of the unknown starts to fill me. What will I see, who will I meet, what challenges lie in store because of my vague itinerary, what special moments, what will go wrong as something surely will, it’s the anticipation of the journey. You start to cut away the routines and events that bind you to daily life, try to make sure that nothing will happen when you are away and turn your face to the unknown. You start to feel a different person, the flavour of life is richer because you will undoubtedly learn many things new and you wont be the same when you return.

I am excited and yes, I will take my time!

A Picture Paints 1000 words

Images that are just a stolen moment in time and place, build stories if we step back from them. The image becomes more than a reflection of that moment, it develops a life of its own as we imagine a story around it. It is no longer just what we saw, it creates its own little world

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And a warm welcome to our home from all of us.Who are these people??

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The gate to a house in Chiang Mai. Who on earth lived here?

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The day of theTriffids

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Still smiling after 1000 years.

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Religion and commerce collide. We all get thirsty sometimes

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A magical mystery tour

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Stripped down lorry chassis carrying a throne.Rural Cambodia

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The claw of a very large chicken.

Each a potent story line and flight of imagination.