Returning to Hanoi

While I spent several days in Hanoi I did very little that makes for interesting conversation. A large amount of time was spent visiting various markets in search of fabric. Tragically this was a wasted effort as I only found one fabric that I liked, a gorgeous red velvet, only to find out there wasn’t enough left in the bolt. There were admittedly a considerable number of fabrics I fell in love with, but I went into my shopping spree with strict rules in place that I would only buy fabric for patterns I owned or specific clothing items that don’t need proper patterns. Sadly I couldn’t think of any uses for the glorious two tone brocade silk or the lovely chiffon in its wide range of colours (actual fabric types may be misnamed).

Fabric stalls at Dong Xuan Market.

A lovely thing about the indoors markets is they are a lot less touristy and are almost inflicted with the opposite issue to all other South East Asian markets in that one has to exert effort to get the attention of the stall holders in most cases. Elsewise they seem more interested in sleeping on their hoards of fabric like eclectic dragons or eating whatever meal that time of day indicates. This made all my fabric hunting a lot more pleasant as I was not being continuously ordered to look at someone’s stall or feeling pressured to buy something. The most unprompted conversation with shopkeepers I experienced was having the cotton pointed out to me. Always the cotton. Never any other type of fabric. Just cotton. Most odd.

One Pillar Pagoda.

In terms of tourist spots, I visited only four (five if you count the lake and seven if the fabric markets are included). Three were on purpose and the fourth was a happy accident we stumbled upon. I spent my first full day chatting with a girl from my hostel as we strolled around Hanoi. We did a very quick walk by of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It was the wrong time to go inside (not that either of us were particularly inclined to do so) and walking across the completely exposed square with the sun pounding down on us was almost unbearable so we had a five second photo shoot in front of the Mausoleum before scurrying off to the fractionally more shady One Pillar Pagoda. This pagoda is exactly what it says on the tin; a pagoda balanced on one pillar in a pond. This would have been another five second photo stop but we were delayed by a group of children asking to practice their English on us.

The railway road. I do wonder how they warn people a train is coming.

As were walking back to the hostel, looking for a suitably hipster cafe to get our condensed milk with coffee fix, we stumbled across the railway road. Tall houses crowd along both sides of the tracks. Frowning down at them as if to say how dare you intrude on our street? As there wasn’t a train coming we walked a little way up the tracks and took the compulsory photos before returning to our hunt for a cafe. We found one not much later and passed the rest of the afternoon chatting about life of the road and various escapades.

A typical Hanoi Old Quarter road.

The next day was spent fabric shopping and doing yet more aimless wandering around Hanoi since the city is so well suited to it. I also spent a reasonably large time fuelling my bánh mì obsession. These mini baguettes normally filled with salad and marinated pork may just about be the best sandwich category I have ever tasted. If I liked Subway (I don’t), I imagine their subs would now turn to ash in my mouth after the delight of Vietnamese bánh mì (they already do). I’ve met many a tourist who admits to having indulged in the bánh mì diet on at least one occasion: breakfast consists of whatever the hostel offers for free (normally very good in Vietnam); lunch is bánh mì; an early dinner of bánh mì; and a final snack of bánh mì to fill up the corners before bed or partying. Since the average price in around 20,000đ (60p) it is a very affordable diet. Sadly there have to be any studies into the positive effects of the diet however, as someone who has tried it I can attest to an improved mood with every bite and sense of community with other backpackers who have had their eyes opened to this unique Vietnamese backpacker’s diet.

Ao Dai on display in the Women’s Museum. I really loved this style of dress.

My last day was spent with another cold (bánh mì do not appear to improve the immune system) but I did manage to visit the Women’s museum about the role and lives of women in Vietnam, with the same young lady from my hostel. The first floor discusses marriage ceremonies, child rearing and women’s involvement in religion. The next floor was more interesting to me and discussed different women and their involvement in the Vietnam war. Some of the stories about their actions were amazing. The final floor was all about the different fashions of the various regions and ethnic minorities of Vietnam. The audio guide was good however it the tracks were rather long and we skipped quite a few on the first floor out of boredom. We did listen to all of the second floor but very little seating while standing in front of small exhibits, we were ready to leave by the end of it and only did a cursory sweep of the final floor.

We walked past the Opera House, I have to say it was much more pleasant seeing it this time without all the rain.

This concluded my time in Vietnam and what an experience it was! There are a good few meals I will be trying to cook when I get home and a lot of fond memories to look back on. I would love to return one day but with so many places to see who knows if I will ever set foot in this unique country again? All I can say is that while I have no doubt it will have changed in that fluid way of all developing countries, it still have lots of surprises and places to discover.

Museums and Temples in Taipei

After a lateish breakfast I set off northwards towards the Confucius temple. This was really well laid out (plenty of English) and explained the basic concepts of Confucius’ teachings as well as having amazingly intricate detailing within the architecture. The temples here seem so lavish after the relative simplicity and refined grace of the Japanese shrines. The differing architectural styles have put a new wind into my sails, otherwise I think I might be fully templed out by this point in my holiday.

Emerging from the temple, I found myself caught in a large procession, all wearing matching yellow and purple hats and following a dragon towards Baoan Temple. I have absolutely no clue what the event was and couldn’t find it anywhere online when I returned to the hostel, but it was fun to watch, even with the increasingly heavy rain.

I wanted to visit Taipei Fine Arts Museum but on arriving found that it is currently closed for renovation. Unwilling to have walked through the rain for nothing, I visited the Story House next to the museum.

Built in 1913 by a tea merchant, this quaint little Tudor-style house seems extremely out of place halfway around the world from England. Inside there was an array of different Chinese woodworking plains, which as a crafting and handiwork enthusiast I couldn’t help but admire. There were a couple of lovely art pieces made from the wood shavings and I really enjoyed looking around.

With the rain only worsening, I headed to the National Palace Museum via Cixian Temple. I ended up spending the entire afternoon here, my imagination captivate by lustrous paintings and intricate carvings. My favourite exhibit was one of the temporary ones named Story of a Brand Name and was succcinctly summed up as “The Collection and Packaging Aesthetics of the Qing Emperor Qianlong”. This brevity does not do justice to the exquisite attention to detail that Qianlong afforded his collection. In the creation of unique cases and boxes for each item, new pieces of artwork were born. Small display boxes were carefully constructed to house jade marvels, each shelf specifically shaped for each piece. All in all, a trove of beauty and the part of me that strives to create order in all things was most pleased.

A close second in terms of favourites was some of the intricately carved jade and gemstone artefacts. There were also a number of ivory pieces that were stunningly carved, including fourteen balls all contained within one another and carved from a single elephant tusk. While these displays of ivory were undeniably amazing, the killing of elephant and rhinos is much less so and I was most pleased to see the following sign:

A visit to the Shilin Night Market concluded the day and left me pleasantly full with delicious street food.

Buddhas and the Market

Today dawned bright and late. After yesterday’s hike, I decided to have a more relaxed day, with considerably less walking. So after a leisurely breakfast I naturally headed to the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple north of Kowloon. While the train ride was relaxing, the 431 steps up to the temple were slightly less so. Fortunately, the marvellous golden Buddha statues that lined the path cheered me on with the promise of beautiful views and level ground when I reached the top.

Despite my visit coinciding with a group of school children who were all trying to complete some kind of questionnaire or scavenger hunt, the temple itself was undoubtedly impressive. The name of the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple is something of a misnomer as there are in fact almost 13000 Buddha statues in the main hall alone. Sadly the nine level pagoda was under maintenance and I was unable to climb to the top. Nonetheless the views were still spectacular, offering a stunning contrast between the urban and natural landscapes of Hong Kong.

After descending, I made my way back to Hong Kong Island and headed over to Stanley. This was a little nerve wracking as I had forgoton to make a note of where to disembark and of the bus number I needed to catch. There was a part of me worried that I was going to end up in some tiny village with no idea how to get back. Thankfully my memory didn’t fail me and I made it safely to Stanley.

Stanley is possibly the earliest settlement on Hong Kong as records of the initial Chinese fishing village date back to the Ming Dynasty (1573-1620). My reason for going to this scenic little town was the market. There is just something about narrow roads lined with trinkets that draws me in. I often find myself humming the one or two lines of Portobello Road from Bedknobs and Broomsticks that I can remember as I wind my way through piles of keychains, electronics and authentic looking knick knacks.

Stanley market was no different and is perhaps my favourite market so far as it truly had a mix of everything except food and I was hard pushed not to buy more souvenirs than I could carry. After thoroughly exploring it, I meandered along the waterfront, enjoying a little of the tranquillity that always comes from being near the sea. A full stomach later and I once again boarded bus and then train back to the hostel in time for an early and relaxed night before a planned hike tomorrow.