On one of our trips into the heart of Ho Chi Minh City to do some sightseeing, we planned to go to the Reunification (Independence) Palace. However, there were some mixed messages on when the ticket office would be open, and it was closed when we got there. Boo! So we pulled out our tourist map and tried to figure out what to do instead. We were propositioned, several times, by a driver of a cyclo - one of the bicycle taxis seen all over this part of the city. After his third or fourth attempt to talk to us, we finally let him make his pitch. He and his partner would pedal us around the city and take us to two or three famous Buddhist pagodas. We did want to check out some temples, and his price was good - only 250,000 Vietnamese Dong, or about $12. So we jumped on the bikes and off we rode.
A cyclo is a bit like a reverse rickshaw, since the passenger rides in the front instead of being pulled by the bike.
Our drivers were strong and tireless despite the heat, and navigated the tricky street traffic like pros. Exploring the city on a cyclo is an interesting experience. You’re in an open bike, moving along, but not so quickly as to miss all that’s going on around you. And the best part is you don’t have to worry about where you are going or how to navigate the streets and traffic - someone else is worrying about that for you.
Leaving your driver in control, you can take a deep breath, try to ignore the seemingly deadly traffic, and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the Saigon neighborhoods. It was on this trip that I noticed that shops here come in clusters. You don’t get one area with a bunch of different services, you get a bunch of options for the same service in one area. Like this block, which must be where you come to buy a bicycle.
An odd way to do things, in my opinion. Must give lots of negotiating power to the buyer and none to the seller.
And of course, riding around on the cyclo, you get to experience the motorbike masses up close!
With 80% of Vietnamese identifying as Buddhist, there are no shortage of temples in the country. On this little tour, we would visit three, all quite different from one another. Short of lots of incense and taking your shoes off outside, there were not many common elements. Our drivers were just that, drivers, and did not have very good English skills, so they could not act as guides at the temples. Our experience was one of pure observation.
The first temple we visited was Chua Phuoc Hai, or the Jade Emperor Pagoda.
Built over 100 years ago, it is one of the oldest in the city. It is fairly small, with multiple dark rooms. The most obvious features are the multiple ornate wooden carvings. From the doors to wall inlays to statues throughout the temple, intricate carvings filled every corner.
A quick online search after our visit informed me that the imagery we saw in this temple is taken from both Buddhism and Taoism, and deals with the decision of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. This was the most crowded of the temples we visited, with both tourists and worshipers alike. Most of the worshipers would burn incense or candles, pour a bottle of oil into the candle dishes to keep them burning, kneel before the central figure and bow and pray. In the thick haze of incense, with the occasional banging of a large gong-bell, it was an intense environment.
The second temple we visited was Tran Hung Dao Temple. Here is where it really hit home how little I know about Buddhism. Tran Hung Dao was a political and military leader credited with repelling Mongol invaders in the 1200s. How does that tie in to getting a Buddhist temple? Not sure…but here we are with his statue. He does have a head, our driver just didn’t get it in the picture. :)
This temple had less religious imagery and more art for art’s sake: vases, wall hangings, beautiful lanterns, and gorgeous flowers.
There was a monk chanting some prayers.
There were also more offerings here than any of the other places we visited. Fruit, money, meat, eggs, flowers, candles, and of course, incense.
And again, many worshipers on their knees, this time in front of an alter filled with offerings.
Our third stop was the Temple of the Buddha’s Relic, or Xa Loi Pagoda. This is the most spacious temple in the city, and has a large bell tower visible from the street.
In the central room, we found very few worshipers, but since this is the headquarters of Buddism in Southern Vietnam, it’s probably not always this quiet. We also found the largest statue of Buddha we had seen so far.
As usual, there was incense, but the cavernous hall swallowed up the smoke, leaving the air still fairly clear.
After the three pagodas, our drivers brought us back to the riverfront for the end of our trip. And here’s where they got sneaky. Far from the agreed upon 250,000 dong, they pulled out a piece of paper with a written price list…in English no less! No set prices, but instead hourly charges, per person! Arguing ensued, and the demanded 8x price increase was negotiated down to 6 times the agreed price. We had been scammed, and were not pleased. But there was little we could do. In all honesty, with a little reflection time, we would have walked away at the real price, and would have missed a great experience. So, (now) I’m choosing to see the silver lining here, and thank the scheming entrepeneurs for tricking us into this great afternoon.
Another day on our trip, another exploration of a UNESCO World Heritage site! This time, we visited Mỹ Sơn (pronounced Me Son), a group of Hindu temple ruins a little over an hour drive from Hoi An.
The temples were built over a period of many hundreds of years, between the 4th and the 14th century, by the Champa people. The complex was a cultural center for the nearby villages as well as the site of religious ceremonies of Champa kings and burial grounds for some noble families.
The temples and surrounding structures are now in various states of restoration. Work on the ancient ruins began with the French in the 1930s, but setbacks occurred when the site took heavy damage from American bombing raids during the Vietnamese-American War. Tourists currently have access to a few sections of the complex that are in the best shape, and we spent the morning exploring the ruins and learning their history. Our tour guide, Ly, filled us in on a lot of the symbology.
Above, Ly is standing with a headless representation of the Hindu god Shiva, to whom most of the temples were dedicated, along with a few for Vishnu and Brahma. (Apparently the French took many of the statue heads from Mỹ Sơn and they now reside in the Louvre. I wish I had known to look for them when we were there!) The alter upon which Shiva sits is in the shape called a yuni, representing the female form. Shiva is taking on the male role of the linga in the center of the yuni. The two symbols of male and female repeat frequently throughout the complex.
From a structural standpoint, the construction of the temples is quite interesting. All but one of the buildings were made of red brick of mysterious technical origin.
To date, the process used to make these bricks, and the glue-like substance used in place of mortar, remain the subject of debate. However they were made, these bricks weathered the centuries better than those of the restoration process only a few decades ago. Even the carvings, etched directly into the brick, have amazingly retained their shape over time.
A few of the former tower structures were converted into storage areas for artifacts from the site, including more statues and some old tablets engraved with Sanskrit writing!
We wandered through the restored temples in the intense heat and humidity for a couple of hours, pondering the importance of these ruins to a people long past.
The curiosities of Mỹ Sơn were not limited to ancient buildings. Being situated in the middle of the jungle, critters abound. We saw countless butterflies, intimidating funnel spiders, all kinds of birds, and this colorful little lizard, who reminded me of our beloved chameleon Clamps. Hopefully he is doing OK with our friend Dave back home! (Thanks Dave!!)
And what’s a jungle without crazy bugs?! This guy was about the size of US quarter.
Creepy, but colorfully pretty too!
After our time at the ruins, we took part of our journey back to Hoi An on a boat on the Ban River. The fresh air and open breeze felt fantastic after the oppressive heat of the jungle! We ate a lunch of rice, chicken, and veggies while motoring down this wide river, past small fishing huts and fields of rice and other crops. We saw fisherman and farmers harvesting their products and loading them into boats for transport to the market.
We took a brief pit stop in the carpentry village of Kim Bong. We visited one woodworker shop, home of an award winning carver. We wandered around the shop, amazed at the intricate carvings of dragons, Hindu gods, and the required chop sticks and turtle statues present in every souvenir shop. We got to peek behind the shop and watch some of the artists at work, starting to carve the pieces of the next work to go on sale in the showroom.
We returned to Hoi An in mid afternoon and crashed in our cool air conditioned room to recover from the draining heat of the day. Before arriving in Vietnam, I had never heard of Mỹ Sơn. But it was quite an experience, and I’m glad we had the chance to visit the mysterious and beautiful construction of this ancient site.
Just south of Danang, about 20 minutes north of Hoi An, are the Marble Mountains. The group of five rocky peaks jutting out from the otherwise flat landscape are named for the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Marble was once harvested extensively from these hills, but the practice is now banned to preserve these culturally important tourist draws. The district around the mountains, however, is still covered in stone carvers, now etching marble shipped in from other parts of the country. Like most tourists who visit the Marble Mountains, we were first navigated through one of the marble shops so as to bring our tasty tourist dollars to the affiliated shop owner.
While we were impressed by the superb craftmanship, and the sheer volume of marble statues created, the shop workers shadowed us around their display floors in vain. Our baggage restrictions just don’t have wiggle room for marble trinkets!
After our required visit through the souvenir shops, we proceeded to the main attraction - climbing the many stairs of the mountains, predominantly the “Water” mountain, to explore the Buddhist temples, statues, pagodas, and ancient caves. Viewing the Buddha statues in this setting was much more powerful than seeing them in a dense row of other statues in a show room.
Our guide took us up and down flights of stairs, explaining the history and religious and cultural significance of the many caves and temples of the mountain. Some of the temples are more modern, ornate, and well preserved.
These temples also had well manicured courtyards displaying more religious imagery.
The most famous structure on the mountain is the Bao Thap Xa Loi tower, rising seven levels out of the side of the mountain.
Other areas of worship are focused on ancient statues carved into dark caves and grottos.
People have actually lived in many of these caves on and off over the centuries, and our guide pointed out small cubbies that formerly served as bedrooms, kitchens, and meeting places. One of the larger caves in these mountains was used as a hospital by the Viet Cong during the Vietnamese-American war, and was subsequently heavily bombed, the result of which are the “skylights” in a few of the caves here.
These temples and pagodas are not just historical and cultural actifacts, but active sites of worship.
We saw monks tending to the flowers and offerings at some of the cave altars.
There were also monks stationed at the entrances of some of the newer temples, providing information, taking offerings, and making sure proper respect was paid to these holy sites. An older monk at one of these temples caught my attention as he seemed to have a permanent, shy smile. At first when I asked his permission to photograph him, he did not understand me, but gestured that it was OK to take photos of the temple alter. I don’t know if it was just the language barrier or if no one had ever asked to photograph him before, but when he finally understood what I was asking, he was surprised, but bashfully agreed.
After visiting many temples, pagodas, and caves, we continued our climb up countless stairs, roughly hewn from hunks of rock along the mountainside, finally emerging from a narrow channel at the top of one of the peaks. From here we could see down to China Beach along the coast south of Danang as well as the other members of the marble mountains exploding upwards from the surrounding residential areas, rice paddies, and rock carving workshops.
After staying at the peak for a while, soaking in the sights, and getting our photos taken with curious and good natured locals (“Hey look! White people!!”), we made our way back to the base of the mountain.
We had heard about a cave called Hades Cave that was reported to be quite a sight, so we asked our guide about it. She nodded in recognition, but expressed hesitation and said it was an additional entrance fee not included in our up front costs. As these fees are very cheap, less than $1 in this case, we requested a visit. So, she took us to the entrance of the cave and told us where to meet her after. Later she wold admit that this cave had previously given her nightmares and she had no desire to go back.
The cave was indeed dark, both literally and metaphorically, depicting scenes of a decent into Hades, as well as a path upward and into the light of heaven. We started with the descent. The central cavern was dimly lit, with eerie displays of demons.
To make the scene that much more creepy, the high cave ceilings were home to a colony of bats, making a spine chilling squealing ruckus. We carefully avoided the spots on the ground where guano piles marked their presence above in the shadows.
As we decended one staircase after another, and crept down narrow, barely lit stone hallways, the imagery grew more and more dark, though oddly surreal and cartoonish.
I could see why our guide was less than fond of this place.
We made our way through the circular paths that lead back to main chamber, and this time, we took the set of stairs ascending upward, past the entrance level. These stairs were carved into the rock leading up to a high natural skylight. So, as we climbed, this part of the cave grew lighter and lighter, symbolizing the ascent into heaven. The statues and carvings shifted from demons to gods and scenes of redemption and reward.
This staircase ulitmately emerged out the skylight onto a path on the side of the mountain with a small pagoda with another view of the surrounding area. In its entirety, this cave and its various carvings and displays did a remarkable job of simulating the transition between heaven and hell. Much like the other temples, this cave was actively visited by Buddhist worshipers, and offerings had been left in all corners of this crannied cave. I know if I were a practioner of this faith which way I would have wanted my fate to end…
First full day in Siem Reap - time to hit the temples! Angkor Archaeological Park is huge, encompassing around 400 sq kms (~150 sq miles) and hundreds of temples, most dating from between the 9th and 12th centuries, when Angkor was the capital of the vast Khmer Empire. There are both Hindu and Buddhist temples, and many have existed as both at one time or another.
Of the many temples within the park, there is a clear hierarchy of interest and prioritization on any visit to the park is important. We were getting three-day passes, so we had plenty of time. Instead of hiring a tuk-tuk (a small motorbike powered rickshaw) for our first day, we decided to rent bicycles and pedal the few kilometers of flat road from town to the park. With no guide and no tuk-tuk driver, we could move about the park at our own pace, exploring where and when we wanted to. We decided to save the main temple, Angkor Wat, for later in our visit and instead struck out for Angkor Thom - the huge moat-ringed royal city that stood as the last capital of the Angkorian empire. It was hard biking right past the entrance to Angkor Wat, but we stuck to our plan, and were exited when we reached the massive stone South Gate of Angkor Thom.
We climbed around on the old walls, staring up at the giant carved faces which stare off in the four cardinal directions.
Here we had our first encounter with a wild troupe of long-tailed macaque monkeys, many of whom live in the park. Heeding the warnings regarding these frisky monkeys, we kept our distance while watching them, and they, clearly bored by people, basically ignored us.
On our bikes, we made our way to the center of Angkor Thom, to the state-temple of Bayon - one of the few originally Buddhist temples in the park. With it’s many towers with the four stone faces and ringed by exterior walls coverd in base-relief murals, this is one of the most popular areas in the park and is an iconic symbol of Khmer art.
Bayon is in various stages of restoration, and the intricate carvings can be seen both pre- and post-restoration.
Once we got a sense of the massive restoration projects ongoing, it didn’t feel so bad to fork over $40 each for our 3-day passes. This was an unfathomable amount of work. Can you imagine digging through a pile of rubble trying to put this puzzle back together?
And this is one small section of one small mural on one wall of one temple. The scale of Angkor Archaeological Park is hard to wrap your head around. We had spent the first half of the morning exploring Bayon, only to realize that was one small part of Angkor Thom, which was one tiny part of the park!! We had to keep moving. (Seriously, I took hundreds of photos in these three days. Narrowing them down to just a handful for the blog was very challenging!)
After Bayon we explored the rest of the Angkor Thom royal city as the sun climbed higher in the sky, slowly turning the day into a scorcher. We climbed Baphuon, looking back down on the long causeway leading up to it, and the ponds and grounds surrounding this Hindu mountain-temple.
We climbed the crumbling sandstone pyramid, Phimeanakas, the king’s temple.
Here our Red Sox hats caught someone’s attention, and in no time we made new friends with some fellow fans…from Taiwan! (It’s hard to see from this angle, but he’s wearing a Red Sox T-shirt!) We shared a few “Go Sox!” cheers and went on our way.
We explored the 300-meter long, intricately carved, Terrace of the Elephants,
and the endless carvings of nagas, demons, and mythical creatures along the Terrace of the Leper King.
We found our way to a short rock wall shaded by some trees to sit and relax before finding lunch, and we had a surprise visitor. One very friendly female macaque came running over and quickly climbed up onto Doug’s back! What to do? We knew the warnings not to approach, provoke, or feed the monkeys, but this particular scenario was not in the manual! Was it more dangerous to let her sit there or to try to shoo her away? She did not appear agitated, and none of the other monkeys around seemed willing to join her, so we decided to let it play out. My favorite part was when she started trying to groom Doug’s hair, but clearly had never encountered a baseball hat. She kept trying to eat the button on top. :-) After several minutes, when she wasn’t going anywhere, we had to do something. Doug reached into his backpack and got one of the small local bananas we had. She eagerly grabbed it, devoured it, and then ran off back into the trees. While it is technically ill-advised to feel them, we decided this was a win-win!!
After surviving the very aggressive marketing of the small restaurant salesmen and picking a place for a quick lunch, we plunged back into the heat and biked along the road leading out of Angkor Thom through the Victory Gate to the east. Here we explored the smaller Hindu temples of Chau Say Thevoda
Biking around the park had pluses and minuses. On the plus side, we had total freedom to go where we wanted and take our time. Instead of motoring through the areas without temples, we casually biked down these quiet forested lanes, enjoying the peace and tranquility of the park, away from the knots of tourists.
But the negative side was the heat and exhaustion! It was VERY warm, peaking at about 100F (38C) with very high humidity, we were getting pretty exhausted biking the many kilometers we had covered. So we picked one last temple to visit for the afternoon, and the clear winner was Ta Prohm. This sprawling Buddhist monastery is most known for its jungle atmosphere, with many of the invading fig and silk-cotton trees left uncleared. These trees have done massive damage to the original structure, and you can practically see the powerful limbs and roots tearing at the stone.
But the end result is a beautiful interplay between stone temple construction and jungle infiltration.
By late afternoon, our tanks were empty, and we still had to return the 10-15km back to our hotel. So we downed another bottle of water, put our heads down, and pedaled. We arrived at the hotel, crashed into the pool, finished the day with a wonderful meal at the hotel restaurant and fell asleep very early. Good thing we had two more days to continue exploring!