Tag Archives: City

Travel Guide: Tokyo

People love Tokyo. Rave about it. Spend days there and then return for another visit.

I have to admit, I don’t quite get it. I liked being in Tokyo because it’s just sort of cool to be in a city of 9.2 million people with the greater population totaling around 13 million. Unlike many other major cities, Tokyo is clean and it functions and people are so polite and helpful. It also, oddly, doesn’t feel crowded at all, perhaps because it sprawls. As a friend pointed out when I shared my lack of enthusiasm of Tokyo, the city is fascinating because there’s no other place like it.

Tokyo was the last stop on my Japan trip with my parents when they came to visit Singapore. We were based in Kyoto and Hiroshima before spending the last two days of our trip in Tokyo. We took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Hiroshima and passed the enormous Mt. Fuji on the way. I was too enthralled with staring out the window to take out my camera; it rose up out of nowhere and then the landscape flattened out again. I’m using to seeing mountain ranges, not singular mountains. Really quite cool.

Once we arrived at Tokyo station, we had to navigate the metro to the hotel. I don’t know whether it’s better to say that I went the wrong way or that I lost Mum and Dad, but everyone arrived in the end. Tokyo’s metro is confusing because it’s comprised of multiple train systems that seem to overlap but tourist passes only work on some of them. Multiple train lines are located in the same stations so you really do need to know where you’re going and how to get there. If you’re not looking at the correct map, it’s really easy to get on the wrong train going in the correct direction. If this happens, your ticket won’t scan on the way out and you have to pay the ticket agent in cash. Not a big deal but best to avoid since you’ve paid for a pass anyway.

After reuniting, our first stop was the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. I was definitely more interested in the walk through the trees than the shrine itself. It was nice to see grass and feel wide open space after a long train ride and an abrupt reintroduction to urban life.

From there we made our way to Harajuku to walk down Takeshita Street where there’s something for everyone as long as you’re open to it.

Takeshita Street felt like a place of relatively few rules or boundaries where kids could act like adults and adults could remember being kids. It was a fantastic place to look around and laugh at the juxtaposition of Tokyo business suits and teenagers wearing the height of Japanese fashion trends.

After some browsing in shops along the way, our last stop for the evening was Shibuya Crossing. Like everyone else, we crossed the street and then looked out the windows of the train station across the road.

In contrast to the lights and glamor of Shinjuku where we were staying we spent much of the next day in Asakusa, a neighborhood typical of traditional Tokyo.

We enjoyed looking at all the little shops and stalls but were not fond of the crowds leading to the temple. Senso-ji is a popular tourist attraction and was extremely busy on this Saturday morning. I was more than happy looking at the intricacies of the gates and leaving the temple itself to devotees.

The weather in Tokyo was the best we’d had so we took the opportunity to walk across the river on our way to the Tokyo Skytree. Much like travelling around Europe, it wasn’t hard to find. We headed for the tallest building and followed the signs as we got closer.

There are two options if you’re interested in the observation deck of the Skytree, which is the world’s tallest tower. You can take the lift up 350 meters and stop there or go all the way up to 450 meters. There’s a third option that is an open air guided tour complete with hard hats, but Mum vetoed that. The view from 450 meters was astounding enough.

It’s dizzying being up there, too! It’s really, really high!

We wandered around some more for the rest of the afternoon and then found Popeye, the bar that sells the greatest variety of beer in Tokyo and also brews its own. Their happy hour deal included a free appetiser with every beer ordered. Dinner, anyone?

To close the day, we looked down on Tokyo at night. The observatory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is free, open late, and 200 meters up. Pretty cool view from up there, too.

And then it was back to vibrant, bright Shinjuku for bed. I’d wanted to visit that neighborhood since I read my first Haruki Murakami novel and there we were. I don’t know if I’ll make much of an effort to come back to Tokyo, but I’d love to visit Japan again. There’s so much more see and experience. But then, that’s true of every place. Mum and Dad, thanks for joining me on this adventure! I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Travel Guide: Hanoi x2

Two and some years ago, I explored Hanoi with my dad when he came to visit. We spent a few days there before going to Hoi An to relax from the hustle and bustle that characterizes Vietnam’s capital city. This time around, I was travelling with my sister and we spent a total of three nights in Hanoi, bookending a trip north to Sapa (as a respite from Hanoi’s hustle and bustle). I really enjoyed being back in the city and showing my sister some places that I remembered. The weather was completely different this time around and far more enjoyable now, during Hanoi’s winter, than it was in the summer. We were able to do so much more walking because the air was (relatively) fresh and cool.

We arrived in Hanoi on Christmas Eve and found the city even busier than usual. Crossing the street is an activity of its own in Vietnam and the closed streets, parading Christmas celebrants complete with costumes (my sister likened it to Halloween), and jazzy Christmas concert (we actually heard a rendition of “happy birthday, Jesus”) made it more challenging than usual.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral

One of the things I really love about Hanoi is that the Old Quarter and French Quarter, though adjacent to each other and both quite small, feel like completely different cities. We spent time every day in the Old Quarter, which I think is the more fascinating:

 

Needing quiet, however, I wandered the French Quarter by myself the morning of our last day in Hanoi:

 

There’s an excellent café culture of Hanoi and coffee was a highlight of every day. Vietnamese coffee is served in tiny cups and I rather enjoyed visiting two cafés in quick succession.

Though we spent most of our time just wandering, my sister had told me that she really wanted to visit temples on her trip to Asia and Hanoi did not disappoint. There are Buddhist temples everywhere and it’s perfectly acceptable to stop in. We entered several instead of just passing by, especially at the beginning of our trip when it was all new:

 

Hanoi also has some very famous temples that I was more than happy to visit again. The first of these was Ngoc Son Temple, located on Hoan Kiem Lake, the center of Hanoi:

 

To get there, you need to cross Huc Bridge, which is cool because it’s red. I did take a photo during the day but this one was better:

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Turtle Tower is another Hanoi landmark, also located on Hoan Kiem Lake, but is inaccessible:

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My favorite temple in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius 1,000 years ago. I love it because in addition to being really beautiful, it is dedicated to learning (my favorite thing!). It contains massive carved turtles listing the names of students who passed state exams. Unfortunately, I was dissatisfied with all of my turtle pictures, but the Temple of Literature is still really pretty:

 

We also visited the Hanoi Citadel, which was new to me. The citadel is really more of a palace; it was the residence of Vietnamese royalty until the nineteenth century. It was lovely to walk through the grounds and see several small museum exhibits of artifacts found during various excavations. There was also an exhibit on the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call America’s War, as I learned when I visited Ho Chi Minh City) that was interesting because it portrays a different war than the one I studied in school.

 

Although I don’t have any pictures to prove it, we also went to a water puppet show, which was the other new activity for me! Water puppetry originated in the wet rice fields in Vietnam and now is performed on stage by puppeteers hidden behind a screen. They control the puppets on very long poles while standing waist-deep in water. The shows depict scenes of traditional Vietnamese life and are accompanied by singers and an orchestra playing traditional instruments. We didn’t understand the words but we understood the ideas and enjoyed it very much.

Again, no pictures to prove it, but we ate very well. There was far more vegetarian street food available in Hanoi this time than I remember from last time (or maybe I’ve gotten better at looking) and all of it was delicious! The only disappointment was not being able to find vegetarian pho, which seems to be everywhere but Vietnam.

From Hanoi, we took a sleeper train northwest to Sapa, which is up in the mountains and very close to the border with China. More on that soon!

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Travel Guide: Hanoi

This is the second post in a series of three about my travels with my dad over October break. You can read about the introduction to that trip here, the first post about our time in Bangkok here, and the final post about our trip to Hoi An here.

This was my second time in Vietnam. Last spring I went to Ho Chi Minh City for the weekend, which was my first experience traveling alone. It was especially fun returning to Vietnam (though don’t get me wrong, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are as different as the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War) with someone who had never been there before. Dad particularly got a kick out of the traffic.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To get you oriented, here is a gallery of photos from around Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which is where we were staying. Do note my fascination with the vendors who carry their wares on their shoulders. For every one of those, there are probably 3-5 who push little carts containing hot food that they cook right in front of you. I took these pictures over the course of the four days we were in Hanoi:

On the afternoon of our arrival, we started walking the perimeter of Hoan Kiem Lake, a walk that we never completely finished. We continued the walk on the last night that we were there. It seemed like everyone in Hanoi was around the lake that night, which was really pretty because the lake and surrounding buildings were all lit up! People were parking their motorcycles in designated areas, doing karaoke in public, meeting friends, walking dogs, and enjoying ice cream. It reminded me a lot of growing up near the Erie Canal, actually.

Hoan Kiem Lake by day
Hoan Kiem Lake by day

Thap Rua, or Turtle Tower, which is no longer accessible to the public
Thap Rua, or Turtle Tower, which is no longer accessible to the public

Path around Hoan Kiem Lake by night, with a view of the edge of the Old Quarter
Path around Hoan Kiem Lake by night, with a view of the edge of the Old Quarter

After wandering through the Old Quarter to get a feel for where we were, and to learn how to cross the streets (hint: look both ways and then just start walking), we made our way to St. Joseph’s Cathedral. The cathedral was built during the era of French rule in Vietnam and remains open for services. We also ran into one of my students here!

Cathedral
French architecture, no matter where in the world, is French architecture

Wall behind the cathedral
Wall behind the cathedral

St. Joseph's Cathedral

In stark contrast to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, our next stop was Chua Ba Da, the Stone Lady Pagoda, which is now the headquarters of the Municipal Buddhist Association.

Chua Ba Da

Dad was pretty done with pagodas by this point, but I managed to squeeze in Den Ngoc Son, the Temple of the Jade Mound, the next day. It sits in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake and we had to cross the red lacquered Huc Bridge to get there.

For much of the day, we canvassed the French Quarter, which reminded me much more of Ho Chi Minh City. There were the wide boulevards with trees, plazas, and grand colonial buildings like the Opera House.

Opera House

The French Quarter also contained quite a few posh stores that would not be out of place in Paris, but were rather incongruous in the middle of Hanoi. I loved the street food stands and restaurants that set up right underneath the awnings of designers like Longchamp.

Longchamp, meet Hanoi
Longchamp, meet Hanoi

Over the course of the day, we visited the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution to learn about Vietnam’s revolutionary history, starting from the uprisings against French rule in the late nineteenth century. The museum contained fairly comprehensive coverage of the Vietnam War (or America’s War, as it’s known there) but with a distinctly different propaganda slant than what I’m used to seeing. As a social studies teacher, I’m familiar with the Vietnamese side to the war, and actually teach about the war using a translated excerpt from a Vietnamese textbook. My Ho Chi Minh City trip last spring further helped me understand the Vietnamese perspective, which I was glad to revisit.

We also really enjoyed the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which I highly recommend. Not only is it interesting to find an entire museum dedicated to women, but it was fascinating to learn about the very influential role women played in Vietnam’s revolutionary and independence struggles. There was quite a large exhibit on female guerrillas post-World War II. I didn’t know anything about that, so it was a great learning opportunity! Vietnamese women were imprisoned, tortured, executed, and awarded the nation’s top honors for their role fighting the French and the Americans. There’s even a special award for being one of the Heroic Mothers of Vietnam. Who knew? The Vietnamese Women’s Museum also contained exhibits on clothing of specific ethnic groups, traditional marriage, childbearing customs, and religious practices, but the exhibits about female fighters were the most compelling for me.

Following lunch at a vegetarian restaurant at the end of an alleyway, we headed to Hoa Lo Prison, or the Hanoi Hilton.

The prison was built by the French in 1896 for Vietnamese rebels, but became famous in the US after the war because pf the American POWs, including Senator John McCain, who were held there. POWs tell stories of torture; the museum exhibits discuss ways the French tortured the Vietnamese, and then contain photos of American POWs playing basketball and decorating Christmas trees. Rather heavy dose of propaganda, I believe.

Something I enjoyed while simply walking around Hanoi was reading signs. Sometimes the names are adorably blunt, sometime they’re translated into fractured English, and sometimes they’re translated in ways that are just plain confusing. Rebecca’s Collection of Amusing English Signs in Hanoi is as follows:

The next day we hired a guide and driver to take us a little ways outside the city. Our first stop was Tran Quoc Pagoda, located in the middle of Hanoi’s West Lake. It’s home to a cutting of a bodhi tree from India, supposedly the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama achieved nirvana and became Buddha, and was a gift from an Indian leader to a Vietnamese leader.

Nearby is Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, which we could only see from the outside because it was closed for maintenance, which is an annual occurrence.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

We were able to walk around the modest home that Ho built for himself across the road from the ostentatious Presidential Palace built by the French. It’s an interesting commentary on colonialism that Ho chose to live in the simple house and use the Palace as a government office.

French Presidential Palace . . .
French Presidential Palace . . .

. . . Ho's Humble House
. . . Ho’s Humble House

After a quick stop at the One Pillar Pagoda, designed to look like a lotus when seen from the sky (though I obviously couldn’t get a picture from that angle), we made our way to a workshop where we learned how traditional lacquerware is made. There is a processing of painting, rubbing off, painting, rubbing off, etc. layers and layers to form a base, and then a similar process at the end to even out and seal the lacquer. What I most enjoyed was learning about the decorations.

Naturally, we had to buy some art! Then it was time for the Museum of Ethnology, where we learned about Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups. There were examples of tools, clothing, and jewellery, as well detailed descriptions (and videos!) of marriages, funerals, and religious rights and rituals. Behind the museum were traditional houses belonging to specific ethnic groups that had been moved to the museum site for the purpose of preservation and education. Excellent information about the houses themselves and the groups that live in them accompanied each.

Finally, we visited the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university. It was built in 1070 and is no longer used today, except as a historical site. University students also visit to take pictures upon graduation.

University students eating lunch while waiting for their turn with the photographer. The traditional outfits are rented for the occasion; I asked.
University students eating lunch while waiting for their turn with the photographer. The traditional outfits are rented for the occasion; I asked.

What I liked about the Temple of Literature is that it was originally a center for Confucian learning, so it contains a shrine to Confucius. Each of the four gates symbolized students’ passing of the four examinations necessary for graduation. As always with pagodas, each animal and motif is symbolic, in this case often for good luck and prosperity.

Our four days and three nights in Hanoi were wonderful. The food is spectacular, the sites are beautiful, and the city itself has so many nooks and crannies to explore. Now that I’ve been to the north and south of Vietnam, though not in a truly comprehensive way, I feel as if I have a real understanding of Vietnam’s diversity. As in many places, the north and south are hardly recognizable as part of the same country. The amount that I learn each time I travel is what keeps me coming back for more.

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