South Korea travel · Travel

Seoul’s impressive museums photo roundup

Here’s a photo roundup from Seoul’s great museums – the National Museum of Korea, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Arts and War Memorial (military museum). This is the last of my Seoul travel posts so that’s it for South Korea for now.

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There was a display of military uniforms and equipment for the 16 nations who contributed troops to help South Korea.
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An opera tenor sings for one person, in this case the child on the seat, while other people watch

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South Korea travel · Travel

Seoul travel- its impressive major museums

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Seoul is one of the best cities I’ve visited, right up there with the likes of Shanghai, Osaka, Hanoi and London. One of the reasons is that it has the most impressive military museum I’ve ever visited, with basically an entire mini army and air force to the side, while its national history museum and contemporary arts museum are also quite good.

The military museum or War Memorial of Korea is a huge, formidable gray building (it used to be the country’s military headquarters).  In front are a few large sculptures commemorating the Korean War and to the side are a fantastic collection of dozens of old warplanes, helicopters, tanks and even a full-scale replica of a navy frigate. These could be an entire attraction itself, never mind going into the museum (but of course, you should).
The museum proper features historic weaponry, a full-scale replica of a 16th-century turtle ship used to destroy invading Japanese navies, and a full section devoted to the Korean War, featuring a memorial to fallen UN soldiers and the flags, military memorabilia and info of each nation that sent troops to help South Korea fight off North Korea and China.
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War museum

The National Museum of Korea history museum is also in a large, gray, imposing building (maybe there’s a trend here) with a nice artificial lake in front. Like the British Museum in London and China’s national history museum in Beijing, this museum is completely free. The building’s entrance is a huge, conical glass section that leads directly to the exhibits which are on several floors surrounding open space in the middle. There were loads of Korean artifacts, paintings, and an Asian collection including Chinese, Japanese and South Asian items. Frankly, the ancient Korean artifacts didn’t impress me too much but what interested me more was Korean history. I learnt from the info on display that until the 7th century AD, there were three Korean kingdoms ( Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla,) that eventually became a unified entity after Silla, allied with China’s ruling Tang dynasty, conquered the other two kingdoms.
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History museum

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) was new, having just opened in January 2014, and was built at a cost of US$230 million. Normally contemporary art is not my thing and I wouldn’t go out specifically to view it, but I made an exception in this case due to all the articles I’d seen about this museum.
The MMCA (Seoul branch, there are other branches elsewhere in the nation) turned out to be worth it. The feature attraction was a giant transparent, hollow house made out of mesh cloth containing a smaller Korean house, a hanok, inside and was called “Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home.” (really). There was also performance art with a soprano singing to a child, who was a visitor, sitting across from him, visual art and regular weird paintings that look like somebody took paint and threw it onto the canvass. I even saw a short film in the downstairs cinema which was big enough for a few hundred people about a Korean woman trying to remember a weird incident in the past involving answering a casting call of some sort.
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The main attraction at the MMCA when I was there

History museum exhibits below
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War memorial/military museum photos below
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MMCA photos below
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China · China travel · Travel

Hong Kong roundup 2015 – famous skylines and Cheung Chau

Hong Kong’s famous skyline is probably its most well-known feature, symbolizing the world’s most densest collection of skyscrapers and HK’s status as a financial and commerce hotspot. Indeed, that skyline, which lies over Victoria Harbor on HK Island, is something I never get tired of looking at and taking photos of from the southern tip of Kowloon, called Tsim Tsa Tsui. But that is just one part of a diverse landscape that includes packed highrises, countryside villages, scenic beaches and hilly country parks with vast greenery.
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I could never tire of this view, especially at sunset and even with multiple ships – tourist boat, container ship, and ferry (left to right).

I didn’t hike on any mountain this time but I did go to Cheung Chau, a small island that is a former fishing village-turned-holiday retreat southwest of HK Island. The island has a busy waterfront with seafood restaurants and several temples and weird rock landscapes. There’s nothing spectacular but a pleasant island vibe and a decent excursion. People still live on the island, and there are holiday homes and school and religious retreat centers as well. It’s one hour from Hong Kong Island by slow ferry and half-hour by fast ferry.
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I also went to the HK History Museum again, the first being back in 2007. It was just as interesting as I remembered, with probably a few changes. HK may not seem to have much history given its current form as a busy commercial city and port stemmed from when the British colonized it in the mid-19th century, but fishing and pirate villages on the coast and rural villages inland had already existed for hundreds of years before. HK also has a diverse Chinese makeup including the Punti, Cantonese from Guangdong Province, and the Hakka (my father’s people), the Hokkien, from Fujian province, and the Tanka boat people, who mostly do not live on boats anymore. This assortment makes for a few distinct traditions such as walled villages and festivals involving noisy lion dances and climbing of bun towers. Nearby is the June 4 museum, which commemorates the terrible tragedy in Beijing (and other cities) in 1989 that saw a mostly student movement crushed by the authorities. Needless to say, such a place does not exist in the mainland.

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June 4 museum, a small but worthy effort to commemorate the tragedy. Located near the history museum, it’s on a floor inside a building (you need the address since there is no sign outside the building) and features photos and information, which unfortunately are all in Chinese for now.
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New Territory sunset

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West Kowloon, the red junk is a faithful reproduction of traditional Chinese ships that sailed in this harbour as recent as the 1970s
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HK has a busy commercial port so there are always container ships to the west of Victoria Harbor.
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Cruise ship docked at Tsim Tsa Tsui’s cruise terminal, with a junk in front

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Mongkok street market in Kowloon
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Indian/Pakistani food, which was quite good
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New Territories
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Enjoy the HK skyline again

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- day 2 photo roundup

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Side view of Notre Dame Cathedral.

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US vehicles and firepower outside the War Remnant Museum.

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The troop strength of the US, South Vietnam and its allies during the war.
I’m surprised to see that Thailand and the Philippines contributed troops. The latter was wise to send a few and to withdraw after 1969. The South Koreans were staunch allies, if not a bit foolish, keeping their numbers up throughout the war.

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Tortured and killed political prisoners in South Vietnamese jails.

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US casualties, bombs dropped,  and costs in the Vietnam War compared to World War I and II.

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The ubiquitous Bell Huey UH-1, seen in every single movie and TV show about the Vietnam War. Even the pretty girl can’t resist getting up close.

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Inside the Saigon Central Post Office. The map on top is of HCMC (Saigon) in the 19th century.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- the second full day- part 2

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Continuing from part 1 of my second day in Ho Chi Minh City, I started out walking to the HCMC museum, formerly the Revolution Museum. Afterwards on the way to the War Remnants Museum, I passed one of the most famous sights from the Vietnam War- the Reunification Palace. The iconic photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through its gates in 1975, when it was the office of South Vietnam’s president, symbolized Saigon’s fall. Being lunchtime, it was closed so I could only look from outside but I wasn’t interested in visiting it. I didn’t find it particularly attractive either, being a rectangular five-storey building with a large round lawn in front of it, though there is a row of palm trees on its roof.
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When I arrived at the military museum, it was closing for lunch, so I had two free hours. This is a characteristic of many museums as well as the Reunification Palace in Vietnam, which close at around 11.30 for lunch, during which all visitors have to leave. I found it kind of amusing – the concept of a public place closing for lunch, though if I was an employee, I’d probably be very glad. I went for lunch at a nearby noodle restaurant where I had a decent bowl of noodles and was charged a small amount for the sanitary napkin, something I’ve experienced in Beijing too.

Then I walked to Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral (in the photo at the top of this page), which was probably just as elegant as its namesake in Paris. From the back it had a rounded shape due to several round compartments, then from along the side it switched to a long form with a main central arched doorway. Its front featured two bell towers with sharp rooftops flanking the much-shorter center. The entire cathedral was red, except the slightly brown corners, giving it a unique look. Needless, it was much more attractive than the cathedral in Hanoi, one of the few things about HCMC I liked more than the capital. There was even a photo shoot going on with a beautiful woman dressed in a white traditional ao-dai surrounded by a few dozen pigeons.

Opposite the street, I noticed a three-story pink colonial building. Entering it, I realized it was a post office, probably the nicest one I’d ever been to. It was like stepping back into time. The Saigon Central Post Office interior was a fully functioning post office but it had been preserved to retain its oldtime feel with wooden panels and counters. The inside was very spacious and elegant with a high arched ceiling. At the end, a portrait of Uncle Ho, looking very dignified with white mustache and goatee, looked over the entire place. At the sides near the front were wooden enclosed ATM booths, with analog clocks showing the time in different parts of the world. There were also souvenir stores where I bought postcards to mail right afterwards.
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I returned to the War Remnants Museum and it was open again. There were a good number of visitors, especially foreigners, unlike every other museum I’d visited in Vietnam including even the military museum in Hanoi. The outside of the museum was like a dreamland for military enthusiasts. There were quite a number of impressive military machines , mainly captured from the Americans including jet fighters, Chinook helicopter, tanks, and artillery such as the “King of the battlefield” – the giant M107 cannon mounted on tracks. There’s even a flamethrower minitank and a mini-bulldozer used for clearing mines, which I saw in a ‘Nam comic, a former Marvel series about the Vietnam War.

At the side was a recreated section of the Con Dao island prisons, built by the French and later used by the South Vietnamese government to imprison suspected Communist sympathizers. It featured dungeons and “tiger cages”- cages with barbed wire that housed Vietnamese prisoners who could only stoop inside. There were chilling photos of prisoners showing their injuries after being tortured and imprisoned – missing teeth, amputated limbs or badly bent arms and legs- and some actual torture equipment.

The museum was a 3-storey rectangular block that somewhat resembled a giant bunker. Unlike Hanoi’s military museum, this museum almost fully focuses on the Vietnam War. The first floor featured easygoing material like propaganda posters and photos of rallies around the world supporting the Vietnamese and slamming the US. A good amount of these rallies were in Communist countries like Cuba and Eastern Europe, but a few were in Western nations as well, which was surprising. I knew there were anti-Vietnam War rallies in the US, but not in other Western nations.

The upstairs featured more sobering sights. There was an impressive photo collection of the war from various journalists of US soldiers, Vietnamese rebels, and civilians, ranging from depicting US soldiers on a regular patrol to torture of captured Vietnamese, fleeing civilians, and killed US soldiers.
One section was about the use of chemical weapons by the US, including horrendous photos of disfigured victims, which still has an effect to this day. One display was a letter written  by a Vietnamese chemical weapon victim to US President Barack Obama urging him to take action to resolve the lingering chemical weapons presence. Meanwhile, captured American heavy weapons were on display, including rifles, machine guns, mortars, bazookas, and even mines.
While again basically all the information and exhibits portrayed the US as responsible for causing all the damage and deaths, it’s not hard when viewing data such as that more bombs were dropped in Vietnam by the US than during World War II or viewing the photos of victims of chemical attacks to feel sympathetic and even admiringly about Vietnam, at least for me. However I have to say there wasn’t any menacing or belligerent tone to the information and displays, but a matter-of-fact and conciliatory one.

The museum definitely lived up to its must-visit reputation. I definitely recommend it if you visit HCMC, whatever your stance about the war.

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The inside of the post office with a portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging on top at the back.
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Back of Notre Dame Cathedral.
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The mighty “King of the Battlefield” – self-propelled M107 175mm gun.
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Two of the “tiger cages” used to hold political prisoners outdoors.

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Captured Viet Cong being hung upside down for questioning.
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Castro and Cuba solidarity for Vietnam.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- the second full day- part 1

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For my second day in HCMC, it was time to experience the city all by myself after having had a good tour with Nam from Saigon Hotpot the previous day. My plan was to go to the Revolution Museum, the military museum (War Remnants), and take in some colonial buildings in the area. I was particularly eager to visit the War Remnants Museum, which was described as one of HCMC’s best sights in many sites and articles online.

I set off from my hotel, passing through the large park right opposite all the hotels and restaurants along Pham Ngu Lao. It featured a large, lotus-filled pond and walkways framed by palms and other tall trees. It was quite pleasant and wouldn’t be the last park I’d walk through in HCMC, a big contrast with Taipei where parks are small, few, and often had more concrete than trees and grass.

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First, I went to the Revolution Museum, which focused on Ho Chi Minh and the revolution against the French which ended with Vietnam’s victory in the 1950s. Housed in a elegant gray colonial mansion, as many Vietnamese museums are, the museum’s name was changed to the City Museum, possibly reflecting a move to tone down the militarism and expand the museum’s scope. It also makes sense to have a museum for the city itself. I also found out recently via a website this was the former residence of the French Governor and the final home of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt strongman who eventually died in a coup.
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The city part of the museum consisted of a few ancient artifacts found in Saigon, which had been formed in 1698, and a range of cultural objects including wedding clothes, instruments and even ancient Vietnamese coins. The revolution part featured photos, letters, weapons, uniforms, and even a pot and pipe that had been used by revolutionaries during the revolution. The displays were quite impressive, full-size human mannequins making speeches on stage or defiantly wielding weapons. One of the main attractions was a bicycle, fitted out with giant bags piled atop it and looking as if it had just been brought in from service on the Ho Chi Minh trail, when the North Vietnamese moved supplies on foot and on bikes through jungle and hills to their allies down south. There was a lot of serious firepower on display too such as rocket propelled grenade launchers, grenades, and machine guns, and even the humble pistol. On the ground floor, there’s a stairway at the side that leads down to an underground shelter that had been built by Ngo Dinh Diem.

There weren’t many people, especially locals at the museum. Nam had told me that not many Vietnamese found this museum interesting, which wasn’t surprising given that the museum was mostly propaganda, promoting the heroism and glory of the Communist party. Around the building were several Vietnam War-era fighter planes, tanks, and artillery pieces, another common feature of Vietnamese museums.

What was annoying though was being hassled by drivers offering city tours on the outside, one of whom took it upon himself to appoint himself as my driver and told me he’d wait for me when I came back out so he could take me on a tour. When I came out about one hour later, the damn guy was actually there though thankfully he left me along when I ignored him. As I walked to the War Remnants museum, I encountered more of these pushy drivers. It was really silly since I was literally minutes away from the place’s sights so there was absolutely no reason I’d want a driver.

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F-5 fighter jet, an American-made airplane, which was flown by a North Vietnamese agent in the South Vietnamese air force to bomb the Reunification Palace (when it was the office of the South’s president). That explains why it is in North Vietnamese colors.
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Vietnamese theater costume, which looks similar to Chinese Beijing Opera costumes.

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Hotel with a rather interesting and nice design.
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Another park in HCMC near the HCMC museum.
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Serious firepower in the HCMC museum.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Hanoi day 2 – the history museum, a prison, and a temple

My first day in Hanoi was with a personal guide, and covered places to the northwest of the Old Quarter including the Imperial Citadel, the Vietnam Military History Museum, the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, and the Tran Quoc pagoda at West Lake. My second day was a solo trek to places south of the Old Quarter- the history museum, the Hoa Lo prison (the so-called Hanoi Hilton) and the Temple of Literature. In between, I had done to Ha Long Bay, stayed overnight, and come back.

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The National Museum of Vietnamese History

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Walking through the OId Quarter in the morning.
My hotel was in the midst of the Old Quarter so getting to the history museum was a pleasant walk through the quarter to Hoan Kiem lake, which at daytime is much more subdued and placid than nighttime, though there was some group exercising going on. I turned left (eastwards) when I reached the end of the lake and walked towards the Opera House, which I’d walked to see the night before. The Opera House is quite fancy, being modeled after the Paris Opera House when it was built in the beginning of the 20th century, though a little smaller than I expected. It’s by a roundabout, and surrounded by swanky stores and hotels, including a Hilton hotel, which is not called the Hanoi Hilton for obvious reasons (it’s actually called the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, haha), and even the Hanoi Stock Exchange.

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Hanoi Opera House.
 

The National Museum of Vietnamese History is near the Opera House, but on another street and maybe about 8 minutes walk away. The museum is in a elegant yellow building that was built by the French but with a blend of French and Vietnamese design.
The museum has two floors and features exhibits and artifacts ranging from prehistoric times to the declaration of independence from the French in 1945. The rooms are kind of old, but relatively well-maintained, and there is English, and French, on all signs.

There were your typical ancient stone tools and weapons, your not so typical human skulls and bones, and some impressive bronze lampstands and ceramics. By not so typical, I mean the display of skulls and not the state or form of the skulls themselves. There were massive bronze drums and massive wooden boat-shaped coffins which stored objects as well as the dead person. There were objects that were similar to Chinese, due to Vietnam’s Chinese influence and occupation up to the 11th century AD, such as stone steles (tablets with words inscribed on them), ceramics, coins, and bronze weapons. And there were paintings of Vietnamese victories over the Chinese, including actual wooden stakes that helped Vietnam win naval battles. These stakes were placed in shallow waters and superior Chinese fleets were lured into these waters where the stakes sank their ships.
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This huge painting commemorates a naval victory over the invading Mongols in 1288.

Old texts were written in Chinese characters, which Vietnamese was written in until the 16th or 17th century when it became romanized and converted to its current form. As the dragon is a holy creature in Vietnamese culture, as it is in Chinese, it features a lot in old architectural and imperial court designs. There were even Vietnamese paintings of scenes from Journey to the West and History of the Three Kingdoms, both Chinese classics. There were Champa stone elephant and garuda (mythical bird that is prevalent in Cambodian culture) statues, remnants of the Champa kingdom which existed for almost 1000 years in Central Vietnam.
There were imperial court objects such as paintings of court life, which really resembled similar scenes in Chinese history, royal swords, and mandarin (officials) robes. The independence struggle against the French had its own room, of course, with Vietnamese flags, weapons (guns, swords, even spears), and a giant painting of Ho Chi Minh giving his declaration of independence speech in front of a large crowd.

I learned of a new culture – the Oc Eo culture, which existed in the Mekong Delta in the south for 10 centuries until the 10th,  and then basically vanished, which confounds me a little. It seems the kingdom just disappeared and all traces of it vanished with the exception of artifacts. There’s a room dedicated to the Oc Eo culture, with beads, bracelets, stone statues of Brahma and Vishnu and steles inscribed with Sanskrit, suggesting Indian Hindu influence. The most interesting exhibits were the wooden Buddhas that were almost 1400 years old, the first ancient wooden statues I’ve ever seen. Interestingly, Oc Eo is believed to be part of the Funan kingdom, which is described in Chinese historical records. At the side of the museum, the lawn is full of statues and steles and even a replica stone pagoda.
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Wooden Oc Eo Buddha statue from around the 6th century AD.

After I left the museum, I went into the Revolution Museum which was across the street, but it was closing for its midday lunch break, so I just took a few photos and walked back out. Many museums in Vietnam close in the middle of the day for lunch which is at least 1.5 hours. It’s kind of funny for me, as closing for lunch seems out of place in Asia, but I guess it’s similar to the siestas in Spain and Latin America. The Revolutionary Museum is also in a French-built building, yellow, and quite elegant.

I stopped for lunch at a small restaurant which was both cheap and nicely decorated. I had a a bottle of Bia Hanoi and beef noodles, then I was off again. I was going to the Temple of Literature, which was to the West and conveniently near the same street, which made it easy to walk – just keep going straight. At one stretch of this street, there were decent colonial two-storey buildings with many bookstores, and English books were on offer, especially Lonely Planets. They were roughly the same price as the cover price, so they were real. I would later encounter booksellers in Cambodia selling Lonely Planets for half price or even less on the street, wrapped up and most likely photocopied fakes.

I decided to go to see St. Joseph’s Cathedral so I walked up some side streets, which were quiet and seemingly deserted with a few stores and cafes, proving that not all of Hanoi is noisy and bustling. It was large, tall and kind of ugly to be honest, as its exterior was heavily smudged black as if it had been burnt – this is actually pollution. Why it’s not scrubbed clean, I don’t know. The design looked nice if not grand, being Gothic and modeled after Notre Dame in Paris. It was my first time seeing a cathedral in Asia. This cathedral is actually the headquarters of Vietnam’s Catholic diocese. There was a gate around it and I initially thought it wasn’t being used.
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St. Joseph’s Cathedral, in all its blackened, Gothic glory.

I walked back down to the main road to continue towards the Temple of Literature. At this point, I checked my map and I realized I was close to the Hoa Lo prison (Hanoi Hilton), where captured American servicemen were jailed during the Vietnam War. The prison building, which is now a museum, has been preserved but it lies behind two large modern apartment towers called Hanoi Towers, making for quite a contrast. The prison’s famous nickname “Hanoi Hilton” actually obscures the fact it was built by the French in the late 19th century and used to hold Vietnamese.
The museum entrance has “Maison Centrale” painted above the doorway, so I was unsure at first whether I’d reached the correct place. As it is, once you get inside then you definitely know it used to be a prison. The main detention rooms have been kept as they were, with human mannequins used to show how Vietnamese prisoners were kept, often shackled in beds in the big rooms or in small dungeons for solitary confinement. Many of them were political prisoners who advocated for independence from France.  Signs told of the poor conditions the Vietnamese were kept in, including the sparseness of their diet, while objects such as bowls and prison clothing were displayed. Out in the back, there’s actually parts of two sewer doors on display, including one which over 100 prisoners escaped through during 1945 to fight against the Japanese (in World War II, the Japanese invaded Vietnam and overthrew the ruling French colonialists, but then the Vietnamese rose up against the Japanese- you got to hand it to the Vietnamese, they’ll fight anyone).  There’s a small room displaying newspaper clippings from around the world of Vietnam solidarity protests during the Vietnam war, including many in the West and even the US.

Then there is the room about American prisoners, and the exhibits include hockey nets and guitars (because it was all fun and games for the Americans who were treated so well), and articles and photos of Americans enjoying themselves, including a Christmas drawing of Santa delivering gifts from a train. Moving onto more sober stuff, the main exhibit is John McCain’s flight suit, because he was actually held here after he was shot down during a bombing raid over Hanoi. I also got to flip through an album containing black-and-white photos and details of American prisoners, all of them looking downwards and somewhat fearful.

The most fascinating exhibit, in a macabre way, is a giant guillotine, which was actually used on Vietnamese prisoners by the French. The guillotine was narrow and high, which made it seem more creepy. There was indeed a bucket at the bottom to collect the heads after the blade sliced through, and pictures at the side showed heads of executed Vietnamese put on display. Outside, there is a memorial to the deceased and white images of prisoners carved into the walls. Overall, the prison was more interesting than I’d thought, as I was ignorant of its history besides being used to hold American servicemen during the Vietnam War. I did think it was cool to see John McCain’s flight suit and a guillotine, despite its evil history.

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An actual guillotine, which I never thought I’d see in Asia.

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John McCain’s old flight suit, even including the parachute that he used.

I continued to walk westwards, passing through streets that were businesslike and not at all touristy, every now and then stopping to check my map. I have to say, “central” Hanoi is an easy city to navigate on foot, since the streets (outside of the Old Quarter) are relatively straight and the streetnames are easy to read, since Vietnamese uses Roman letters, as opposed to Chinese or Korean or Cambodian which have their own script etc.  The Temple of Literature is kind of far from Hoan Kiem Lake, and it might take at least 20 minutes to walk there (I stopped at the “Hanoi Hilton” and the St. Joseph’s Cathedral in between).
After some more walking, I spotted the temple grounds which looked bigger than I expected and was surrounded by a low wall. I didn’t know where the entrance was so I decided to keep on walking, thinking that it might be along the street , instead of turning left. Instead I had to turn left eventually and keep on walking to the end, then turn left again before I reached the entrance. The entrance gate is a whitish-gray stone structure topped by a bell and features pillars inscribed with Chinese.

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Temple of Literature 

Now why would you visit this temple? The Temple of Literature has a long history of almost 10,000 years, having been built in 1070. It was both a temple, honoring Confucius, and an Imperial Academy for scholars and bureaucrats, an ancient university if you will. The temple grounds is quite nice and rectangular, with a large garden and pools in front that leads to several successive courtyards, each which you pass through a gate to get into. The third courtyard features a central pool (Well of Heavenly Clarity) and large steles mounted on turtles on both sides. The steles honor the scholars who graduated from the Imperial Academy here. The architecture is very similar to Chinese, which is not surprising given that the temple was built to honor Confucius at a time when Chinese influence was still very recent. The main building that formed the academy is at the back in a two-storey building, where three Vietnamese kings who played big roles regarding the temple and academy are honored in altars. Some of the temple, such as the final courtyard, have been rebuilt due to decay and war.
Photographs are prohibited inside some of these buildings, so you can only appreciate the statues and rooms with your eyes (not that there’s anything wrong). As I saw in many places in Vietnam, there were several large bonsai trees in pots filled with water, a style that’s probably unique to Vietnam.  There were many local visitors here when I went, so I guess it’s a popular destination for Vietnamese. By the time I was done, I was ready to do the long walk back to my hotel. I had to check out by 6 pm, since I had a train to catch. I was going to Hue that night on the Reunification Express overnight train.

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Hanoi Opera House, from the side.
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Exercising on the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake.
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Champa stone staue of a Garuda (mythical bird) with a Naga (mythical snake) in its mouth. Both “animals” are common in Cambodian temple architecture.

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Vietnamese weapons, texts, drum, and flag used during the independence movement against the French in the 20th century.

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Turtle Tower in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake.

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The final courtyard in the Temple of Literature.
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Hoa Lo prison (“Hanoi Hilton”).

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Jail room inside the Hoa Lo prison.

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The entrance to the Temple of Literature.

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Ministry of Rites, in the Imperial Court at Hue (the capital in the 19th century).
Animal sacrifice seems to be going on in this painting in the national history museum.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Introducing Hanoi

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My most recent article is a travel piece about Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and a rather underrated city in my opinion. Hanoi was my first stop when I went to Vietnam in June. Before my trip, I often read online articles or blog posts that described Hanoi as a rather sleepy and conservative city, especially compared to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south, Vietnam’s economic powerhouse. Hanoi was anything but sleepy, with its crazy traffic, its Hoan Kiem Lake which comes alive at night, its noisy Old Quarter, and its busy weekend night market that takes up an entire street.

I started off my Vietnam/SE Asia trip with the right timing as my flight landed in Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport in the morning before 11, allowing me to get to my hotel by 12 and rest for a bit before setting off on a city tour in the afternoon. I’d arranged a taxi ride from the airport with the hotel, and I saw my driver right away. Flying into Hanoi, I’d seen scenic hills, rivers, and green fields from above, and driving into the city from the airport, I found the many narrow, skinny 3/4/5-storey buildings alongside the road interesting too.

My tour was a free tour with Hanoi Free Tour Guides, whose guides are mainly university students who want to practice their English (or other languages like Chinese) and show off their city. My guide, Trang, was an accounting student whose English was surprisingly good, though later I realized many Vietnamese who work in tourism speak good English. She was very friendly and kind, and she easily took me to where I wanted to go.

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The first place was the Imperial Citadel, which was the site of the royal palace for Vietnam’s emperors for many centuries up till the 19th. The largest structure was the north gate, though we couldn’t go up since it was under renovation. The Citadel, while a UN World Heritage Site, was mostly renovated remnants since much of it had been destroyed by the French when they colonized Vietnam. The French had then used the compound as an administrative and military center, so there were a few colonial buildings which were now used as exhibits and stores. There was even an underground bunker which had been used as the command headquarters during the Vietnam War with large maps still intact on the walls. One particularly interesting sight was the giant bonsai trees in front of the gate, some of which were growing in little pools. This was something I’d notice again later in Vietnam.

From the citadel, you can see the Flag Tower, a brown stone tower with a Vietnam flag on top, in a neighboring compound. That compound is Hanoi’s Military History museum, whose main attraction is a giant pile of aircraft wreckage from American planes shot down during the Vietnam War. There are also American aircraft and helicopters (including the famous UH-1 “Hueys”), as well as a Vietnamese tank and anti-aircraft guns. The museum itself features exhibits on Vietnam’s ancient wars with China, the anti-French struggle and war, and of course, the war with the US.  For a small country, Vietnam has a proud history of constant warfare against larger foes. As my guide told me, Vietnam fought China over a period of 1,000 years, the French for 100, and the Americans for 10 years. The Vietnam War exhibit was in a large room where weapons and objects used were proudly displayed, including a bicycle used to transport goods through the Ho Chi Minh jungle trails during the war. There was a small exhibit on an ancient naval victory over China with three wooden stakes that were used to sink Chinese ships on display, as well as a painting of that battle. The Vietnamese seemed to really commemorate their battles against China, which were often victories (shameful!) and which were quite frequent, as I’d come to find out later. I’d known that China and Vietnam had fought in the past, but not so many times. China’s Song, Yuan (Mongols), Ming, and even Qing Dynasty sent armies into Vietnam. As a result, dioramas and paintings of Vietnamese victories over China were a common feature in museums.

A surprising feature of this museum was that to take pictures, you had to pay an extra fee in addition to the entrance fee. It was very cheap though so no big deal. The “photography” fee was also charged in other places including Ho Chi Minh City’s national museum.

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When we left the Citadel to walk next door to the military museum, my guide pointed out to me a park across the street with a statue of Lenin, the former Soviet leader and one of the most famous Communist figures. It was a reminder that Vietnam was a Communist country, one of only four in the world. I also noticed we were on Dien Bien Phu street, named after the famous Vietnamese victory  when they successfully besieged and overran a large French fort situated in an isolated rural valley during the 1950s war for independence.

The next place was to visit “Uncle Ho”, as the legendary Ho Chi Minh is addressed reverently by many Vietnamese. His preserved body is displayed in his mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square, somewhat like how Mao’s mausoleum is in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. And like Tiananmen, Ba Dinh Square has a 20th century historical significance as being the site where Ho read his declaration of independence from France. Of course, Ba Dinh Square was no Tiananmen physically, being much smaller and with a large grass lawn taking up much of the square. The mausoleum is a squarish grey stone building, guarded by sentries in dress uniform and who, just like the guards at Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen memorial halls, do a fancy routine when they change shifts. The mausoleum has a small bamboo grove at the side, which my guide told me was meant to allow Ho Chi Minh, at least his spirit, to hear the soothing sounds whenever the wind rustled the bamboo. As it was past four, we couldn’t go in to see the Ho Chi Minh residence, a stilt house which Ho lived in as Vietnam’s leader instead of the opulent Presidential Palace, on which grounds the stilt house is built on. We walked to the One Pillar Pagoda, which as its name suggests, is a small temple built on a single pillar perched over a pond. It’s a somewhat interesting sight and a well-known attraction, though I wouldn’t say it’s a definite must-see. Near the pagoda is the Ho Chi Minh museum, completely dedicated to Uncle Ho, which is a large gray building that resembles the shape of a lotus, Vietnam’s national flower. It was closed as well and there were many locals outside the museum enjoying themselves, especially kids and seniors.

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From there, we walked to the West Lake, which is Hanoi’s largest lake. First, we walked along Truc Bach Lake, a smaller lake that is across a road from West Lake. This lake is famous for John McCain, the US senator who ran against Barack Obama in 2008, parachuting into it after he was shot down on a bombing raid during the Vietnam War. He was soon pulled out and captured, though not before being given a sound beating. Now, the lake was quite placid with restaurants and homes alongside the shores.

To get to the West Lake, we had to cross the road and here I realized the visual and auditory spectacle that is Vietnamese city traffic. All along, I’d been in a car or walked along roads on foot, but now I had to cross and I was fully aware of the many motorcycles and motorscooters zooming past on the road, with nary a traffic light in sight. Luckily my guide Trang showed me how to cross – just step into traffic (when it’s safe, of course) and walk steadily forward. Oncoming traffic will adjust and go around you, so don’t stop (unless you’re in the center of the road).  You do need to be careful in choosing the right time, for instance I never stepped onto the road if a car (or bus) was coming. It’s a slightly nervy but also somewhat satisfying feeling to walk into incoming traffic and have motorcycles and motorscooters drive around you as you cross.

Because the West Lake is really big, I had no intention of walking around it, but instead we went to the Tran Quoc Pagoda, located on the lakeshore. The pagoda is a distinctive red and is Vietnam’s oldest pagoda, having been built in the sixth century (which precedes Hanoi which celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2010). It features multiple Buddhas facing different directions on each of its levels. Inside its compound, there’re handsome temple buildings, and some sort of tree grown completely in a pool.

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Afterwards Trang took me back to my hotel and we said our goodbyes. Later that night, I walked from my hotel down to Hoan Kiem Lake and took a stroll around it, which takes about 20 minutes. It’s a very pleasant sight at night, with the Turtle Tower in the middle of the lake, the throngs of people, especially couples, enjoying the views, selling things, or even exercising in a group, and the bright neon lights of the restaurants and cafes at the bustling north shore. “Hoan Kiem” means the return of the sword, which refers to a legend about something that happened in this lake. A Vietnamese emperor was boating on the lake, when a giant turtle suddenly came towards his boat, took his sword, and dived back into the water. As this sword itself was said to be holy and of special origin (somewhat like Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword), the emperor reasoned that the sword was rightfully being returned and named the lake after that event.

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The only negative was I experienced a probable pickpocket attempt. I was walking along a path behind two ladies when I felt a tug on my bag. I thought maybe it got caught in a bush and I pulled back on my bag. I put my hand on my bag’s lower compartment and realized it was partially opened and I turned around and saw a guy behind me, so I hurriedly walked away. I was a little nervous since I’d heard beforehand that pickpocketing was something to watch out for in Vietnam but luckily nothing like this happened again for the rest of my trip.

My first day was quite laidback, other than learning how to cross the street, and it was good to ease into Hanoi and Vietnam. The noisiness and bustle would come later.


Tips to enjoy Hanoi (and Vietnam in general)
:

Vietnam’s currency, the dong, has an exchange rate of about US$1- 21,000 so it can be confusing when buying things and calculating prices into your home currency. Don’t hesitate to use a pocket calculator or your phone.
The traffic can look crazy and there is a distinct lack of traffic lights in many places. But don’t worry, take your time, look carefully, and step onto the road when safe, and cross steadily. Or just cross with other locals. Also, there’s actually a speed limit on traffic within Hanoi so it’s not that fast; I think it’s 40mph or somewhere around that.
Book a free tour with organizations like Hanoi Free Tour Guides. Their guides are university students who will take you to places of your choice while speaking fluent English or other languages. You just pay for transport (either public or taxi) and admission. You can also give a donation if you want, though it’s not mandatory.

China · China travel · Travel

Luoyang photo roundup

These are a few more good photos from Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes and the Luoyang Museum in Luoyang, Henan, one of China’s great ancient capitals.

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The North side as seen from the South side of the Yi river. The giant Fengxian cave is the one on the middle.

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This shows how much these caverns filled up the cliffside. There was a fair amount of climbing involved to see everything.

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There were countless small caverns with multiple statues such as this.

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There’s a main Buddha statue with several figures standing by the side, and many smaller sitting Buddhas around him, with a row of tiny figures on the top.

 

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I swear this Buddha is smiling right at the camera.

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A row of small figures with a row of tiny figures beneath.

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Statues of famous monks lined part of the South bank of the Longmen Grottoes.

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Luoyang has a history stretching back thousands of years ago and its museum exhibits reflect this. These objects are from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), the second dynasty in Chinese history. There were artifacts from the first one too, the Xia Dynasty (2000-1600BC).

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A man taming a horse. A lot of the pottery depicted scenes from life, unlike most pottery which are just normal staid objects.

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This procession was buried in the tomb of a member of royalty or nobility.

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A band of musicians and a dancer, from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

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A bronze ding that’s over 2,000 years old from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

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A fine example of the famous Tang Dynasty tricolor glazed pottery horses. It was quite big and there were several of these on exhibit.

 

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A garbage bin at the Longmen Grottoes. At the museum afterwards, I would see a frog statue that resembled this.

 

China · China travel · Travel

Luoyang’s famous Longmen Grottoes and museum

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The most famous sight in Luoyang is the Longmen Grottoes. The main reason I came to Luoyang, the Longmen (Dragon’s Gate) grottoes were a UN World Heritage site and one of China’s most famous grottoes. Thousands (yes, thousands) of Buddhas were carved into caves on the cliffs on both sides of the Yi River starting from 493 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty, though most of the statues were carved during the Tang Dynasty. Yet I have to admit that it was the history of the grottoes (and Luoyang), and not the actual statues, that first attracted me. I had looked up the history and photos of the Longmen Grottoes and I wasn’t impressed. The grottoes seemed small and the statues unimpressive. Well, I still went ahead to visit it and not for the first time, I turned out to be completely wrong. Far from being small and normal, the Longmen Grottoes were fascinating, numerous (as I said, thousands), and in some cases, magnificent.

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The site lay at the southern end of Longmen Avenue, so it was a straight bus ride from my hostel. When I got off, I passed through a lane lined with souvenir stores (a very common sight in Chinese tourist attractions), then walked out into a large open area to the entrance. On one side, there was a musuem which was almost finished but not open yet. During all this time, I still hadn’t seen any of the stone statues since I assumed they were easily visible from outside. As I entered, I found the place was actually quite pleasant. A central walkway was framed by willow trees lining the side of a placid river and a cliff where the statues were carved on. The river was spanned by a multiarched stone bridge near the entrance and another one further in the distance.

The stone statues were mostly on the cliffside and you had to climb wooden staircases to see most of them since only a few were at ground level. Be prepared for a bit of a physical workout if you want to see most of the statues. The statues were different sizes too; some were human sized, some were tiny, smaller than your hand, and others were giant. Some statues were carved inside small caverns while others, especially the hand-sized ones, were carved directly onto the rock. There were serene Buddhas, smiling Buddhas, and fierce divine figures. At some places, carvings and caverns covered the entire surface. Unfortunately, some were destroyed due to war and the ravages of time.

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On the North side of the Yi River in the Longmen Grottoes.

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The large cavern contains a Buddha but each of the open spaces also contain Buddhas.

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The walls of this mini cave are carved with thousands of tiny figures.

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The sheer amount of statues carved onto the cliff was overwhelming and impressive.

The best part was the Fengxian Cave, a large open cavern where nine giant Buddhas as high as 17 meters loomed, flanked by heavenly kings, temple guards and other divine figures. It was a really impressive sight and by itself, would warrant a visit. It took me a while to get through this entire side of the river, which was the north side. The grottoes were located on both sides of the river but most of the statues were on the north side. The south side has many shrines, temples, steles, the grave of Tang poet Bai Juyi, and a big surprise.
I walked into the 1,500-year-old Xiangshan Temple and right above it, was a much more recent villa. This was where Chiang Kai-chek, the then-leader of China, came to celebrate his birthday in 1936. The villa’s rooms were left in an impeccable state and filled with photos of him and his wife, as well as a Kuomintang flag. I knew Longshan Grottoes was a place where past emperors had come, but I certainly didn’t expect Chiang Kai-chek to have. By this time, I had spent over two hours and I had to rush to leave, so I didn’t visit Bai Juyi’s grave which was beyond the exit on the South side.

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Fengxian Cave, where the 17-meter-high Buddha is surrounded by eight other giant figures and many other statues.

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Xiangshan Temple.

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A room in the Chiang villa where Chiang Kai-shek came to mark his birthday and meet with generals in 1936. That’s the ROC flag and a photo of Sun Yat-sen, the “father of modern China”, Chiang’s mentor and a founder of the ROC.

But Luoyang, being a former great capital, had more than just the Longmen Grottoes. My next destination was the Luoyang History Museum, which was further north. I took a bus up and then got off an intersection that I knew was close to the museum. I’d even asked the bus driver but she wasn’t sure, and another passenger even said it was further north (where the museum used to be). I didn’t mind since I’m pretty sure the driver didn’t see many visitors trying to get to the Luoyang Museum. The road looked kind of shoddy and so I decided to take a taxi. The road to the museum passed through some empty lots and construction sites and was quite far from the intersection, so vindicating my decision to not walk (it looked close enough on the map!).
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The museum wasn’t new (having been opened since 1958), but its building was. It was a massive angular reddish-brown building perched on top a concrete base. The inside was spacious and new, and there were very few visitors. There was a lot of cool exhibitions including Tang Dynasty tri-colored glazed pottery (Tangsancai) horses and camels, artifacts from the Xia Dynasty (21st-16th century BC), fossils, and even a full-scale skeleton Asian mammoth. Lots of history happened in Luoyang, which dates back to the 12th century BC. I was in a rush so I breezed through the galleries on art and paintings. I needed to catch my train back to Xian in the afternoon. I exited the museum, which fronted a large park though only a few people were around. A few children were riding little bikes and a couple was getting their wedding photos done in the distance.

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Stone animal statues from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

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A Tang-dynasty tricolour glazed camel. It looks like it’s in agony.

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An Asian mammoth (Palaeoloxodon naumanni).

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I’ve never seen this color used in Chinese pottery horses before but this blue horse is unique and impressive.

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Pottery lamp from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

I took a taxi back to my hostel, where I had an interesting conversation with the driver. I commented on how the museum was really nice but it was a shame that there weren’t many visitors. He talked to me about Luoyang and its history, comparing it to Zhengzhou (the provincial capital) and saying that Luoyang had more. In fact, that was why Zhengzhou had taken the Shaolin Temple away from Luoyang’s jurisdiction, he said, so that it could claim a historical place as its own. I don’t know if that’s true but I know information about the Shaolin Temple always mentions Zhengzhou as the main starting point, which isn’t that much closer than Luoyang to the temple.
I quickly checked out of my hostel and took another taxi to the high-speed station, where I had another interesting conversation with the driver. This guy also bigged up his city, talking about Luoyang’s history and culture. Unfortunately he used some complex words that were beyond my limited vocabulary so I couldn’t understand a lot of what he said. What I did understand was when he said that Luoyang people had a different reputation from other Henanese. Us Henanese have a negative reputation, he said, but when people hear you’re from Luoyang, their perception changes. It’s unfortunate but true that Henan has a bad reputation for being criminals and swindlers. The province is one of China’s poorest and its people are sometimes derided. It’s sad because this was the cradle of Chinese civilization. Thousands of years ago, this was where Chinese history began and civilization took shape. I hope that more can be done to help this once-proud province.
My trip back to Xian went without incident other than a consistent stomach upset, and a cute kid who sat with her mother next to me, who sang, talked, and even danced continuously. At one point, her mother even apologized to me and there was absolutely no need!

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The train back to Xian rolls into the Luoyang station.