Tag Archives: City

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!

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.

Flag of Vietnam

Travel Guide: Bangkok x2

This is the first in a series of three posts chronicling my October break trip with my dad. You can read my introduction to that trip here and you can read about my first trip to Bangkok here. The destinations that followed, Hanoi and Hoi An, can be found here and here.

Thailand's idea of how to wire a city. I couldn't stop taking pictures of these the first time I was there!
Thailand’s idea of how to wire a city. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of these the first time I was there!

We landed in Bangkok late Friday night and were up at and it early the next morning. Our first stop was Wat Pho, which is a beautiful temple complex. Dad struggled a bit with the heat, but he persevered admirably. My guidebook (Lonely Planet’s Discover Thailand) had a really good walking tour, so we simply followed that. I liked Wat Pho a lot because each temple was different. There were shaded areas throughout the complex, which also made it very pleasant to walk around.

We took as mall water taxi to get to Wat Arun, which is an experience I think everyone should have
We took a small water taxi to get to Wat Arun, which is an experience I think everyone should have.

And then we arrived at Wat Pho:

After a delicious lunch of pad thai, green curry, and Thai iced tea, my Thai favorites, we crossed the street to visit the Grand Palace. Mitch and I were in Bangkok a year ago, as I mentioned, but it was fun to go back and see it all through my dad’s eyes this time. Now that I’m used to certain aspects of life in Asia, and certainly now that I’m used to traveling in Asia, I’ve somewhat lost track of what used to make me uncomfortable or strike me as new or different. I revisited all of that during my weekend in Bangkok with my father.

I did warn Dad that he’d have to don a pair of elephant pants over his shorts to be allowed access to the Grand Palace. He was skeptical, but elephants pants suited him. The Grand Palace itself is only used today for ceremonial functions, but visitors are are restricted to viewing from the outside. The temples on the palace grounds, however, are what make the site spectacular:

No palace is complete without a guard:

Why are silly hats a guard requirement?
Why are silly hats a guard requirement?

The next day we visited the Jim Thompson House, which was a new spot for me. Jim Thompson made his home in Bangkok after years of working in Thailand for the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner to the CIA. He is responsible for turning Thailand’s silk production into an international industry and his house, which includes a rather impressive collection of Asian art, is now a museum. Photos are only allowed outside of the house:

Jim Thompson House
Jim Thompson House

While I appreciated the guided tour and learning about Thompson’s art collection, which was unlike most art that I’ve seen because I’ve mostly seen art around Europe, I also really enjoyed the views from the house’s windows. They provide an insight into real life in Bangkok. I do expect the scenery was a bit different when Jim Thompson moved into his house, however.

P1050541 P1050542

Finally, I was glad for the opportunity to revisit Chatuchak Weekend Market. We were actually shopping for souvenirs this time and got a lot better at bargaining each time we did it. Learning from mine and Mitch’s past mistakes, Dad and I went to the market hungry and tried some tasty food. Live and learn, right?

The clock tower at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Not only is it iconic, but it's also a useful orientation tool.
The clock tower at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Not only is it iconic, but it’s also a useful orientation tool.
Exterior of Chatuchak Weekend Market. My interiors photos couldn't possible capture the size and scope of this operation, but the exterior should give you an idea of the resourcefulness of many of the vendors.
Exterior of Chatuchak Weekend Market. My interiors photos couldn’t possible capture the size and scope of this operation, but the exterior should give you an idea of the resourcefulness of many of the vendors.

Since I’d been to Bangkok before, I took the fewest number of photos while we were here. We stayed from late Friday night to early Monday morning, which was more than enough. Bangkok is loud, busy, smelly, chaotic, and a wonderful experience. I’ve now been twice and I’m glad; the first time let me see the city and the second time let me take a closer look because I was no longer surprised by what I saw. A very good friend is spending a couple days in Bangkok next month and I can’t wait to hear his thoughts about it!

Tuk tuk

Click here to read about our second stop, Hanoi.

Travel Guide: Madrid, Cordoba, Sevilla, Barcelona

Warning: This posts is very long and contains lots of photos.

As I’ve mentioned, my sister lives in Madrid and my parents and brother live in Rochester, NY. We met up in Madrid on Christmas Day and traveled around Spain until January 3, at which point we departed for our various homes. Some of us (okay, me) cried more than others. I love my family more than anything else in the world and it was very hard to leave them. Times like that make me wonder what I’m doing trying to make a life for myself halfway (all the way?) around the world. In the back of my mind, I know I want to live back in Rochester. I honestly didn’t think I’d miss home as much as I do.

But, the point of this post is photos! I’ve divided each section by where we went and what we did, but the first bit for each is simply pictures I took as we walked up and down winding, twisting streets. Enjoy! Also, go to Spain.


Our time in Madrid was spent wandering around (with purpose, guided by Rick Steves) and going to museums. We visited the Prado, Museo Municipal (not recommended), and Reina Sofia. It was very cool seeing Durer’s Self Portrait and Vazquez’s Las Meninas in person at the Prado because I taught about those in my Global 9 class. Reina Sofia’s main attraction is Picasso’s Guernica, another painting that I’ve always wanted to see. Wow. Obviously, I don’t have any photos from the museums but I do have loads from walking around Madrid.

Madrid’s cathedral is a stunning building. Until we visited a few other churches later on, it was the most unique church I’d ever seen.


After 3 nights in Madrid, we took the train to Córdoba, which gave us absolutely stunning views of the Spanish countryside. It actually looks the way it’s described in books. That is both rare and almost too good to be true. As Mitch said, “In every Napoleonic era book I’ve read, there’s always a convenient stone wall and a house nearby.” Apparently that’s true. The city of Córdoba fit quite well into that framework.

We were only in Córdoba for one night and made two major stops. The first was to a museum called Casa Sefard, a Jewish history museum. The museum was a bit of a sad story because the Inquisition got rid of Córdoba’s Jews, so all the artifacts were from other parts of the world.

We spent a great deal of time at La Mezquita, which, I am ashamed to admit, I didn’t know existed. For those kindred spirits who are out of the loop, La Mezquita is a cathedral built inside a mosque, which was built on top of a church. Equally interesting, it’s over 1,000 years old!

One of my favorite parts of Córdoba was standing on the bridge connecting the two sides of town and watching the sunset. It was so beautiful and serene. This was our only night in Córdoba, so I’m glad it was particularly lovely.


Sevilla is a very old city and traces its history directly back to the Romans. Much of Europe can claim the same, but it never ceases to amaze this “New World” born-and-raised girl.

Naturally, we had to visit Sevilla’s cathedral. Poor Mitch isn’t a fan of touring religious buildings, but he was a good sport and followed along. Interestingly, the Sevilla Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. (I wonder if any other churches claim the same . . .) I don’t have a good picture of Christopher Columbus’s tomb, but that was very cool. I didn’t know he was buried there! Actually, as I realized throughout our travels, I didn’t know much about Spain at all.

I absolutely loved walking up the ramp inside the bell tower, which used to be the muezzin’s tower from back when this cathedral was a mosque. (Are you sensing a theme in Spanish history?)

We also went to the city’s archives and examined some really neat early exploration maps. Unfortunately, nothing was translated into English so that was a quick stop. Mitch and I also visited the bullfighting museum and learned a lot. I had no idea that bullfighting started as a way of training horses to keep calm amidst battle chaos! Clearly, that is no longer the goal. There’s a chapel inside the bullring where most matadors pray before entering the ring.

Sevilla is known for its deep flamenco tradition, so we went to a wonderful flamenco show. The whole show consisted of a singer, a guitarist, and two dancers. Fantastic. One of the most compelling shows I’ve seen. Flamenco dance reminds me of a combination of Irish dance and tap but that’s not even a good description. There’s so much passion and emotion in the music, in the singing, and in the movement. Really wonderful experience.


After two nights in Sevilla, we flew to Barcelona as our final stop. This was definitely my favorite of the four cities. Barcelona feels smaller than Madrid and the people seemed more welcoming. It was also really fun to see and hear Catalan everywhere we went. There was more than one sign written in Catalan and English rather than Catalan and Spanish, which was quite interesting. On a walking tour that we took, I learned that the Catalan independence flag has a blue star on a white field, like on the Cuban flag. The independence movement adopted that star in 1898 when Cuba gained independence from Spain.

Our first day, we went to the market for lunch. I found an organic vegetarian Mexican stand, so of course I had to try it.

It was in Barcelona that I saw the most stunning church I’ve ever seen. La Sagrada Família Basilica is truly a marvel. One of my students last year asked me about “the church in Spain that they’ve been building for over 100 years” and I didn’t know what it was until I looked it up. Seeing it was nothing like anything I’ve ever visited. I didn’t know that churches could feel almost modern and ethereal and heavenly, but this one did. Mitch put it well: “If Alice in Wonderland had a church, this would be it.” Bri had told us about the importance of light inside the church, and that was truly incredible.

Even though they haven’t appeared in photos thus far, my family did go on this trip. Here’s the proof:

Last but not least, funny signs!

We didn't buy any.
We didn’t buy any.
I don't know if something was lost in translation or if a sign was torn down, but I do know that I am completely confused as to the name and purpose of this store.
I don’t know if something was lost in translation or if a sign was torn down, but I do know that I am completely confused as to the name and purpose of this store.
Ironically, "Brewed Coffee" on the menu was labeled "NOT AVAILABLE"
Ironically, plain ole brewed coffee on the menu was labeled “NOT AVAILABLE”
This was the dessert menu at a restaurant. We were completely lost and the Spanish menu was no help. But I can tell you that Ass Keeper coffee is quite nice.
This was the dessert menu at a restaurant. We were completely lost and the Spanish menu was no help. But I can tell you that Ass Keeper coffee is quite nice.

It was a wonderful trip. I learned a lot, ate a lot, drank lovely wine, and had an excellent time with my family. Happy 2015 to all!