“…A smile is the only crooked line that sets a lot of things straight…”
Sapa, Vietnam, February, 2012
I just got back from Sapa in the north of Vietnam, where I was hoping to take pictures of the beautiful endless rice fields and terraces. I say ‘Hoping’ because from the minute I arrived there till the minute I left, it was quite rainy and foggy. Least to say, I was quite disappointed. In fact, very disappointed that I got back to Hanoi at the same day, getting on the first night train back.
However, in between my back and forth train rides I still got a chance to eat the best Pho soup (in an outdoor market among the locals) and walk with two other photographers down the hill towards Cat Cat Village, which is a home to the Black Hmong people.
The only way to discover Cat Cat village and its people is by taking the steep stairs down the rice terraces to see the waterfalls. On my way downward I passed through this little girl who was running up the hills. I managed to pull out my camera very quick and take a picture of her before she ran away. When she saw my camera she made this silly smile. No doubt it was such a nice smile that it brightened up my so far depressive day.
It is not that difficult to find laundry in Vietnam. It is everywhere! In fact, I’m not sure if there are dryers in Vietnam (in other words, I’m quite sure there are not). The Vietnamese hang their clothes out to dry in every window or balcony of their home, and sometimes, they just open a window to let the wind dry the clothes in doors. In Hanoi, for example, the Vietnamese hang their flags outside the windows and sometimes the National flag seems like part of the laundry itself. In all places though, laundry (and a lot of laundry) could be seen in all parts of the day and sometimes I just had to walk inside an alley into a small court in between the houses to find the clotheslines. In most cases, the Vietnamese women who were either hanging the laundry or cooking/selling food outdoors, didn’t really understand why I take pictures of some clothes on a wire.
‘Madam, Motor’… ‘Madam, Motor…’ This is how most of the Vietnamese motor-bikers in Hanoi used to approach me, trying to convince me to get on their bike for a ride for a certain amount of money. For those who didn’t experience Vietnam yet, please be advised that crossing the streets is a challenge.
The country in general and Hanoi in particular, is humming and buzzing with traffic. A steady stream of motorbikes, rickshaws and cars driving around in both directions. Not once, did I join a group of people or someone else just to cross the street, and I won’t lie if I say that sometimes I just hold my breath, praying silently I will make it safe to the other side of the street. I arrived to Hanoi at the end of January, few days after Tet Holiday and the streets of the city were even more buzzing and humming, especially during night time, when families went out for dinner, ice cream treat and some loud Karaoke.
I arrived to Hanoi planning on staying for only two days but ended up staying for longer.
One of the reasons was the place I’ve stayed. I booked a room in Hanoi Hibiscus Hotel, a family hotel, few meters away from the Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in the Old Quarter and it instantly became my ‘home away from home’ place to stay. The central location of the hotel and the friendly professional staff, made my stay much easier than in Ho Chi Min City, where I landed, which has inspired some culture shock. The area around the Cathedral was packed with young crowds, all sitting in the local cafes on plastic stools, drinking tea with lots of lemon and cracking sun-flower seeds, leaving a trail of shells on the ground. Fashionable young girls driving on their motor bikes, was a common thing to see.
The variety of places to see and visit, the comfortable weather at that time of year, the great street food and the sense of tourism, made the North of Vietnam more welcoming and easier to travel.
I’ve booked an initial tour to get to know some parts of the city with Hanoi City Tours, a free tour by a local young student, who wants to improve his/hers English skills and at the same time introduce and promote their city.
I chose to have my guided tour in the Old Quarter or what called the ’36 Streets’, a labyrinth of old streets, evolved in the 13th century when artisan guilds were concentrated along each of the original 36 lanes, and clustered by speciality; Silver street (where you can find silver jewelry as well as gravestones), Silk Street, Mats Street, Paper Street, etc. Each of the 36 craft guilds once had its own communal house, however, like most of the quarter’s pagoda and temples, they were shut down during the communist takeover and transformed into schools or public housing.
In the outskirts of the Old Quarter, there is the Temple of Literature (located to the south of the Fine Arts Museum at Pho Quoc Tu Giam street). When it was first built, it was the school of the Elite of the Nation and Vietnam’s first University. After passing exams at the local levels, scholars who wanted to become seniors came here to study for rigorous examinations. It got its name ‘Temple of Literature’ at the beginning of the 19th century, and now serves as a place where people and mostly students come and write a prayer and a wish and ask for success in their studies. If you want to be like the locals, have your wish or prayer written by one of the calligraphers outside the temple. I visited the temple one afternoon, during the last days of Tet Holiday. It was packed with young students who came by, all excited and anxious when there was a special ceremony, all praying for a good luck in the up coming year. The Temple is a homage to Confucius, peaceful and spiritual, arranged in a series of a linked courtyards. I was walking past tone-stealed shaped like turtles, overlooking the students praying with a great intention. (Felt so relieved I don’t need to pray for my next school year)
One of the most beautiful pagodas that exists in Hanoi is the Tran Quoc Pagoda, which is located beside the Red River and perhaps is the oldest one in Hanoi, dated from the year of 1639. I was there one afternoon watching the crowd lighting perfumed incense and giving fruits and fake money to their Gods, just at the last days of Tet Holiday.
While you are in the area, you can walk along the river towards the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace near by. Make sure to check the opening hours in advance and the strict rules of the mausoleum. By the time I got there by noon, it was already closed. Some of my friends told me I didn’t miss a thing though….
Even though I didn’t plan it, I paid a visit to Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the infamous Hanoi Hilton. The prison was used by the French people who imprisoned, tortured and guillotined Vietnamese revolutionaries, and later on was used by the Vietnamese who prisoned American pilots, including the Republican senator John McCain. One can easily notice the hinted propaganda by the way the Vietnamese represent themselves as considerate to the American needs. As scary as it is, I really recommend to visit this site.
From Hanoi, it is very easy to book a day-or two day trips to Halong Bay or book a midnight train to Sapa in the North. April is a great time to visit Vietnam. The weather is comfortable, the trees are blooming and the food is always great.
I love to be surprised when I travel. This is why I hardly plan my trips but leave room for serendipity.
I heard aboutCao Dai Temple from the hotel’s concierge I was staying in Ho Chi Minh. I had only two days to spend in Ho Chi Min but wanted to do something different. The concierge has offered me a few alternatives, and I have chosen the one that seemed to be unique, and the one I knew I couldn’t do it by myself. I googled about it the night before the bus ride to Cao Dai and the visuals and images of the Temple’s interior grabbed my attention and raised my curiosity. I already started to plan in my head what I wanted to shoot.
Cao Dai Temple is located outside a small city of Tay Ninh, 60 miles away from Ho Chi Minh. Even though it is not a central location in a big city, this temple has been the center of Cao Dai, which has five millions followers. Even though Cao Daiism is not the country’s dominant religion, it is the largest homegrown one. The temple attracts thousands of believers and pilgrims and tourists who come to experience this beautiful interiors. The Temple in Tay Ninh is considered the largest one, where the religion was founded in the year of 1926 and where the authority of the Cao Dai is located.
‘Cao Dai‘ means the highest spiritual place where GOD exists. And when I got there, I understood why. It is one thing to see it in pictures, and another thing to see it in your own eyes. I loved the bright lively colors of the Temple’s exterior and was quite curious to get inside, not before leaving my shoes outside the Temple. (out of respect for the holly place). Both exterior and interior of the Cao Dai Temple are extravagantly decorated by incorporating symbols, abstract designs and images of saints. The high ceiling is painted sky-blue with fluffy clouds and the floor tiles have busy patterns. The dragon-encrusted columns that run the length of the nave number 28, representing the 28 manifestations of the Buddha. Seven-headed cobras represent the seven human emotions. But the most important symbol is the Divine Eye, which is representing God.
There are four daily services inside the Temple, each service lasts for approx 30 minutes. mostly chanting. I think the main service when tourists come or when guided tours visit is at noon time. During the service you need to keep quiet. We, the observers, were standing on the second floor, looking at the service from above. I was able to take pictures of the priests and pilgrims while they got ready to enter the main hall, bowing before commencing the service. Only priests and pilgrims are allowed in the Temple’s service. While the Cao Dai’s priests were wearing robes in the three principals colors of Cao Dai: Yellow for Buddhism, Blue for Taoism and Red for Christianity, the pilgrims were wearing White. I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of the prayers were elderly people,. It might be a sign of the decline of the religion or simply a natural byproduct of people raising families and working. It also seemed to be an egalitarian faith, because there were just as many of the priests and student priests older women.
At the end of the service, when I was heading out toward the tour bus, I was quite surprised to hear Hebrew. I always turn my head around when I hear Hebrew. It is a habit I got since I was living in New York. I guess Israelis are everywhere.
If you are planning a trip to Vietnam and heading to Ho Chi Minh city, don’t miss on Cao Dai. It is so worth it.