Is it Saigon or Ho-Chi-Minh??

We arrived at the last stop on our vacation. It’s the longest time that we have been away from our family and we miss them all.
The capital of Vietnam has had name changes that reflect the ruling “party” and just like in olden days when a new king came to power the old temple gods were destroyed, so too in modern day Vietnam.. the names of cities change with a change in ruling power. The capital of the South was called Saigon but when the North won the war and the name changed in 1975 to Ho chi Minh to honor the North’s communist leader. (see)
The sheer number of motorcyclists is mindboggling.  They even take to riding (or is it swarming) on the sidewalks during rush hour. It’s like an army attacking the road. You’d think that you’d get used to seeing this mode of transportation but it is endless…

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We walked around central city and took the elevator 49 floors to the top of The Bitex center to get a 360 degree view of the city.

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The architecture is a mix of French colonial with magnificent building mixed with more typical small building.

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We visited the Post Office building which is a working post office, then off to the Notre-Dame Cathedral and to the Presidential palace or as it was renamed The Reunification Palace. Lots of important meetings took place here and there is huge bunker in the basement. It’s an impressive building built in the 1960 architecture style surrounded by palm trees with a helicopter pad on the roof. It is associated with the 1975 fall of Saigon to the North , yet it is as though time stood still.

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The war remnants museum is a reminder of the Vietnam War. There is an exhibit that details the US involvement and an exhibit of war photos among them the famous naked girl running from a napalm bomb. I have been reading the book ” The Girl in the Picture” which gives a detailed description of those days. There are also photos of the victims of Agent Orange the chemical weapon that was used.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Remnants_Museum

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Vietnamese use herbs to cure almost anything.  We visited the Fito museum which is an old house in the Chinatown neighborhood and learned that the bones of different animals can produce different medicines. Dried herbs are used with water to remedy other stuff. Cinnamon for example mixed with water can cure diarrhea.

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To finish our tour we visited two temples. One is a religion called Caodi which is a monotheistic religion established in 1926.

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Our adventure is almost over. We started in Hong Kong which is reminiscent of New York with the tall buildings and a modern skyline.  Then we flew south to Cambodia to embrace the ancient temples of Ankgor Watt . We then continued to Vietnam; starting in the North and going down south as-if following the communist Viet-Cong on their way to conquer the south. It is a different world. We tasted different foods with different spices. We learned about the religion.  We talked to people who grew up after the war yet carry in their DNA the effects of the war.

Vietnam is a communist-run country with strong capitalistic influences. The government is corrupt but there is no alternative…  yet. There is beauty in that world and I am glad we chose to go there.

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The Power of Water

Halong Bay is three hours from Hanoi. Once we get out of the city see rice fields and Buffalo grazing. We stop at a rest stop which really is a shopping trap for tourists.  You need to spend half an hour there in the hope that you’ll buy an embroidered picture or a semi precious gem. One can define it as “Capitalism” at it’s best..
Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, and legend claims the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon from the mountains. As the dragon charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible.

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We boarded a “junk” sailing boat for the overnight exploration.
There is a mystical atmosphere as you look at the islands that pop out from the water at different perspectives. For a close look at the limestone rocks we take a kayak. It was a lesson in coordinating strokes as no one wanted to fall into the bay. We saw a floating fishing village although some boats were stuck on shore..

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The next morning we went back to Hanoi and flew south to Da-Nang. Da-Nang is the third biggest city. We did not stay there but arrived at the most amazing resort – The Nam Hai. There are three infinity pools ending at the beach… breath-taking.

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These are the best beaches in Vietnam by the China sea. Hoi-An is a historical village 15 minutes away which is another shopping mecca.  You can get a suit or shoes made in 24 hours . We took a tour of some old houses. It seems that the architecture of the house did not change there is a long room which is divided between living/bedroom and kitchen in the back.

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Half an hour bike ride took us through palm tree field, rice fields and into a farming village. The farmers grow rice for their own consumption, raise chickens, pigs , banana trees, papaya trees, lemon grass, basically anything they eat they grow.

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We were treated to a home-cooked meal of spring rice rolls and learned how to make rice by separating the husk till the white kernel emerges.
We then continued biking to a vegetable garden village where they grow vegetables to sell at the local market.

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we could see how the Viet-Cong were able to hide in between the palms or rice fields and come out at night.
Most days we woke up to a gray sea but on our last day the sun came out so we indulged in a day of rest, it is a vacation after all.

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The Kingdom of Wonder

Cambodia is a country located in the southern portion of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia.
Officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia and once known as the Khmer Empire. We flew to Siem Reap which mean Defeat of Siam. Images of Yul Brenner in The King and I came to my mind, even though Siam is in Thailand but as we learned, this country has a long history of changing rulers and the neighboring countries. Vietnam and Thailand, took constant bites of this land.
More about it you can find it here.

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The main attraction are the temples and the main one is called Angkor Wat.

The temples were build in the 7 -10 century A.D. They were build for one religion, Hinduism but then a new ruler came who believed in Buddhism, thus he destroyed the  images of the exciting religion and new ones were carved. Nature also took it’s toll but an extensive restoration work was done on most of them so we had  a full “plate” on our hands.  We started with Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple then on to Preah Khan then Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat. Each one was unique. The biggest is Angkor Wat. The temples have the same basic architecture. They were  build with 4 corner prayer/meditation rooms, courtyard in the middle and three towers each symbolize a different god. It seems that the numbers 3 and 4 are important, which sums to 7. Nothing is random and you can find meaning in everything.  I find that I tend to compare it to Judaism. There is so much in common even though these believes developed in different parts of the world.

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I marveled at each one but I got restless in Angkor Wat. I found out later that its the only one that served as a burial place for the kings. This reminded me of the Taj-Mahal which is another wonder but also is a mausoleum and let’s not forget the Pyramids… what is it with the obsession with death?

The Next morning I woke up at 4am, took  a Tuk-tuk which is a motorcycle attached to a carriage, to the town of Phnom Krom. Took a steep hike and arrived at a pagoda on the top of a mountain. It’s a monastery and the monks were getting up for their morning chanting. After the chanting I joined a purification ceremony which included chanting, prayers, meditation and final blessing with holy water by the abbot. I was also given a red string on my right hand. I joined an Indian family who cam for the blessing, for breakfast and watched the sunrise.

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We heard there was a place called a Thousand Lingas.  Yes…  it’s a phallic symbol but again it symbolize beginnings. We drove an hour and half out of the city. The landscape consists mainly of rice fields. The farmers live in huts on stilts, they don’t have any electricity or running water.
We learned from our guide that it is the government’s interest to keep the people poor and uneducated.
We climbed for an hour and arrived at the famous Thousand Lingas river. Back to Siem Reap we stopped at the ” pink temple” Banteay Prei which is big but has no ornamentation.

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The next stop was the Landmine museum. This was a reminder that Cambodia was under the Khmer Rouge dictatorship regime that killed over 2 million Cambodians.

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There are few staple Cambodian foods. I took a cooking class which started with a trip to the market to get the fish or rather make sure it’s the fish I can eat … then to the kitchen to make banana flower salad with smoked fish, coconut soup with tofu and fish amok.
We leave Cambodia to go North to Hanoi. We leave a country with a rich history that is filled with wars and pain and hope for a brighter future.

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Good Evening Viet-Nam

We landed at the new Hanoi airport (it opened yesterday). We drove to the hotel on the new highway and the new bridge which took 20 years to build with help from Japan. There are motorcycles everywhere, like a swarm of bees. We find out that motorcycles are the favorite mode of transportation, as cars are expensive and the price of gas is controlled by the government.
The contrast between the temples and rice fields of Cambodia to the busy streets of Hanoi makes me feel as though I am in a different planet, a different civilization. It’s not only the new airport but the amount of people and being in a city where you are immediately immersed in the busy life.

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The Metropole Hotel, where we stay is an old magnificent hotel.  We are staying in the original wing and our room was used as the first Israeli embassy in Hanoi in the years 1994-1995. There is a plaque outside our room (111) dedicated by President Shimon Peres. What an interesting coincidence! During the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it the “American War”) Hanoi was bombed.  There is a bunker in the hotel where the guests took shelter. It’s three narrow rooms with low ceilings and feels like a prison. Joan Baez who came to visit the American soldiers in prison composed the song “where are you my son?” during the Christmas bombing of 1972.
Here is a link to the full story.

We had one full day to explore the city. Early morning we headed to see the Ho Chi Minh memorial, well it is a mausoleum.  You walk in line, soldiers in white uniform watch you and make sure that your behavior is respectful of the dead president. I entered the room where Ho Chi Minh is lying on a bed, the body is embalmed but he looks alive. I did not expect to see a body. You cannot stop or talk, but just keep walking. We walked to see the house where he lived in the last three years of his life. He was “married ‘ to politics and lived a spartan life. He brought communism to his country. He believed that order will save the Viet-Nam nation. (Viet is the name of the people who live in the country which is Nam which means South as in South of China)
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We then went to see the one pillar pagoda which was build by a king who prayed for son everyday till his wish came true. We continued to the Temple of Literature and were introduced to Confucius who supported education, respect for one’s elders and much more. It is the university of the past. There are 82 doctorate stelae standing on top of turtles and engraved with the names of the royal court doctors who passed the royal exams from 15th to 18th century.

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We took a ride on a motorcycle, it was scary to sit behind the driver while he maneuvered in between the throng of motorcycles and cars. We arrived at the “Hanoi HIlton”. It’s not the hotel but the oldest prison in Hanoi where the French and then the Japanese kept their prisoners shackled at night and the American prisoners were kept during the war.

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We walked around the lake, saw a water puppet show and ended the day with a fabulous Vietnamese/French diner.
Hanoi is the second biggest city in Viet-Nam and was the capital of the North.

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New beginnings – 2015

Martin Buber said :
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

I believe that traveling opens our mind and Intrigues or awaken our senses. Life is a journey so in a way we start traveling the minute we are born.

I started the year 2015 with a trip to Hong Kong . We were invited to a chinese wedding on January 1st. I like numbers so somehow I saw the hidden reason to the trip. We are celebrating 33 years of marriage (3+3=6),2015 sums to 8 and 8-6=2 which where we started our family which grew to 8+6=14, 1+4=5..Ok , I am not getting crazy just having fun.

The sun welcomed us in Hong Kong , with no fog in the morning we ventured to Lantau Island to see the Big Buddha.
We got to the Ngong Ping 360 cable car at the hotel which allowed us to skip the line. Getting off the cable car it feels like you stepped into Disney Land, which is only a subway stop before we reached the island.

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There was even a kids talent show but the Giant Budhah is impressive and eating vegeterian lunch at the monastery was a treat, they dont cook meat or fish because they don’t believe in killing living things.

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The sun continues to smile upon us so we took the car to the Victoria Peak ( the peak). As it was clear we took the peak circle walk and got a 360 view of the Harbour, China Sea and Hong Kong city. The building looked like a lego set but very close together.

We took the tram down , the grade is so steep that the buildings outside seem to lean at 45 degree angel.

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I wanted to check the contemporary art galleries and to my delight some familiar names, Gagosian, White cube, Lehman Maupin opened branches in HK, Central Island. Well two were closed Haanart , a chinese gallery opened a show for a HK artist .

To celebrate New Year we chose to eat at Mamason, a mix of chines, thai food with a set menu and moscow mule and champagne. After we walked to see the fireworks. I have never seen the streets so crowded. Police was everywhere, the streets were blocked for car.Everyone was celebrating and going from bar to bar.

The next day I read that 35 people died in a stamped in Shanghai.

The wedding took place in a party hall , it seems that pictures are very important. The bride and Groom and three albums done before the wedding with different dresses and in different locations.
The ceremony was basically signing a document witnessed by a notary.
After the relatives were lined up for photo op and bringing red envelop which has money in it and gold jewlery to the couple who in return were serving tea to the relatives for the gifts.
The meal had 13 courses served family style. No dancing just pictures and food. We learned that the bride and groom were up since 5am with other rituals.

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The next morning we boarded a flight to Cambodia.