From August 14 through 27 I took advantage from traveling to Vietnam to visit the family to do some sightseeing in Vietnam and Bangkok with my wife and our four children. I have been may time to Vietnam and to Thailand but never done much sightseeing.
One location just outside Ho Chi Minh City that I have been longing to visit since some time was Tay Ninh, the Holy See of the Cao Dao religion. It’s a recent religion that was created early in the 20th century only by a Vietnamese civil servant, Ngo Van Chieu. It’s a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity and with elements of Western culture. The architectural elements of the temples are a combination of Catholic Church, with very baroque and rococo type elements interweaved with elements of Buddhist temples. For a clear and concise description of the Cao Dai religion Wikipedia seems a good place to go.
The Cao Dai pray four times a day with 6 hour intervals. The ceremony tourists usually observe from the gallery is at noon every day. Men and women, all dressed in white, are separated in the congregation and upfront the hierarchy of the church is seated with the Pope, in white, upfront. He faces a large earth like structure with a big eye painted on it. The divine eye is the official symbol of the religion and it is omnipresent.
The entire religion infrastructure is set up in a cordoned off compound which is rather quiet and peaceful away from the never ending bustling noise of daily Vietnamese life. The complex houses in addition to the main temple, other temples as well as administrative offices, a hospital of traditional herbal medicine, etc.
Nearby as part of the complex is a park with plenty of small monkeys who are happy to get fed fruits by the many visitors. It’s great entertainment for children and adults alike to be exposed to the antics of the mostly male monkeys who vie for the fruits.
Hanoi – Old Quarter
The capital of Vietnam has a very different feel and look than the economic and financial centre Ho Chi Minh City. There seems to be a bit less traffic and congestion and a slightly slower pace to life. The city also has more character than HCMC as more of the older parts are better preserved.
When you have little time in Hanoi, as was the case for me, it’s difficult to see all sights. Hence a walking tour of the Old Quarter near the Hoan Kiem Lake is a good way to take in the flavor of the city with its various trades and remnants of the old architecture tucked away here and there. This tour is an excellent suggestion from the Lonely Planet Vietnam Guidebook.
Hoan Kiem Lake with its Ngoc Son Temple and Tortoise Tower provides a peaceful setting with plenty of willow trees bordering the lake and providing shade to walkers. The temple in the lake is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century, La To the patron saint of physicians and the scholar Van Xuong. The General definitely merits the recognition as he must be one off only a handful that defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century.
The Old Quarter is a network of streets filled with all trades. Every street seems to have its own peculiar specialty. All streets are teeming with activity. While the ground level storefronts all resemble each other it’s the floors above the still carry the heritage of the old architecture. Sadly it’s not all kept in good condition.
The Hotel Metropole on the other hand is keep in pristine condition and with the vintage 1950′s Citroen cars parked in front one would be forgiven for thinking that time stood still since the French colonial period. The hotel has kept its original charm and is a real landmark to be seen. The Friday or Juma Mosque in the center of the town exudes peace and silence. It is large supported by 213 beautifully pillars, each about 3.15m apart. The oldest pillars date to the 10th century.
Hanoi Water Puppet Theater
The Hanoi Water Puppets show is an experience not to be missed. It’s a 1000 year old tradition with water as the stage for the puppet show.
It is supposed to have originated with rice farmers. The puppets are wooden and the scenes depicted are funny, hilarious at times, reflecting the rice farmers’ daily lives and their believes and fears.
The various acts are accompanied by traditional music and song. Fire breathing dragons, birds that fall in love and get little chicks, men going fishing and boat team races. It’s all in there and more.
If you had only one day in Vietnam, this UNESCO World Heritage site should be the top priority.
Based on the recommendation from Lonely Planet Vietnam Guidebook we booked a 3 day – 2 night cruise for the family on a beautiful junk style boat with the Halong Cruise company. This boat is equipped with beautiful cabins a few of which are beautiful fully air-conditioned suites. It’s a great way of discovering the bay. The staff is experienced and friendly. There are plenty of facilities on board. Beautiful dining area, a cozy bar and fantastic outdoor decks to enjoy the views of the bay or get a suntan.
The views of Halong Bay are indeed best enjoyed from the top deck of the slowly moving junk. The water was so still one could hardly notice being on a boat and moving. Great place to sit down, enjoy a drink and take in the vistas.
On a number of occasions, small bamboo boats would show up alongside the junk. The ladies and their children were very persistent in trying to sell souvenirs, mostly from shells. This being a way to supplement the meager family income from fishing in the bay.
The bay is specked with floating fishing villages where the fishermen and their families live in relative comfort in houseboats which are tied to the rocks by cable. They have electricity and TV. There’s even a primary school. For the rest though it’s a traditional fisherman’s life.
One of the fun activities was to go out kayaking. It’s the easiest way to access some of the enclosed lagoons which are only reachable via tunnels which heave been eroded out of the limestone rock by the sea. A great way to enjoy the emerald green waters. Yet the bay also offers plenty of opportunity to swim in the clear and calm waters.
A truly impressive site is the Cave of Wooden Stakes (Hang Dau Go) or Grottes des Merveilles in French (Cave of Marvels). One has to climb 90 steps, 25 m up the rock face to be able to enter this magnificent large cave. There are three chambers and the Vietnamese name of the cave is derived after the third chamber which reportedly held the bamboo sticks that were used by General Tran Hung Dao when he defeated the Mongols by planting the sharp bamboo sticks in the riverbed of the Bach Dang River hence impaling the invading Mongol force of Kublai Khan.
Bangkok – Grand Palace, Wat Arun and Erawan
On the way back from Vietnam to Kazakhstan we had a brief stop over in Bangkok. Just enough time to catch up with some sites I had not seen previously.
Bangkok’s Grand Palace contains the holiest of sites of Thailand as it houses the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred. In addition it is the ceremonial centre of the Thai Royal Household. Above all the density of religious and architectural art combined with all the colors, the gold, the statues and buildings it forms a never ending stimulus for the eye and an opportunity to take 100′s of pictures at every corner and every turn.
The Emerald Buddha is the most sacred of statues in Thailand. It’s a 60 cm tall jade statue reputedly hewn by the Gods in Putna, India, in 234 BC. It was brought back by King Rama I when he captured Vientiane in 1779. It has three golden costumes, one for each season, which can only be changed by the King.
This temple sits across from the Grand Palace on the opposite side of the Chao Phraya River. It looks impressive from the opposite side of the river. It initially housed the Emerald Buddha after it was recaptured and before it was moved to Wat Phra Kaeo. The central prang is 81m tall and helps it to stand out from afar. It is supposed to represent Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Khmer cosmology.
The ever popular Erawan shrine is dedicated to Brahma, the ancient Hindu creation God and to his elephant Erawan. It was established in the 1950′s to ward of a spell of mishaps during the construction of the original Erawan hotel. It sits on an extremely busy intersection of Ploenchit and Rajdamri road. It’s always busy with worshippers and regular dances are offered which are performed by Lakhon Chatri dancers.
Last Updated: 29-08-2010
Copyright © 2012 Hans Dewaele – All rights reserved