Sunday, June 23, 2013

Vietnam : an unlikely destination

Vietnam!! Saigon!! The names are associated with action heros like Jason Bourne (Delta), the tunnel rat Calvin Dexter (Avenger) and, of course, Stallone, in his ever popular avatar "Rambo". It also casts long and not-so-pleasant shadows of a war, in which, in the words of Martin Luther King, the greatest casualty was the society itself.  In course of my business travels, I had a chance to spend a couple of days at Ho Chi Minh City, the erstwhile Saigon.  

Prior to getting integrated with the communist North Vietnam (the "Vietcongs"), Saigon was a quaint little French colonial town and the capital of South Vietnam (it had a singsong, slightly ridiculous name "Cochinchina"). The traces of this are visible in the old buildings and structures in or around the city centre (Nyugen Hue Boulevard, close to the harbour). I had one free afternoon and could see a few of them.

1) People's Committee Building (Erstwhile Hotel De Ville) : The French architecture is clearly visible in this building which was built in 1909 and which is a major landmark of this area.

The place has some interesting carved statues and figurines in the arches

In the garden right in front of this building, predictably, is a huge statue of Ho Chi Minh ("Uncle Ho"), whose name today's Saigon bears.

 2) Opera house : At a distance of less than 100 metres lies another major example of the  French Colonial architecture. Intricate work all over, this also has a garden in front which has an "open" art gallery showcasing the Vietnam war.

On the same area, I saw an interesting looking fountain with a mother-and-child relief which created a lovely view with the back light of the reclining sun rays.

3) Old Saigon post office : Ho Chi Minh City also has an old post office which has now become a major tourist attraction. Constructed in 1892, this post office is still in operation  with some parts of it functioning as government tourist shops. In the inside wall, there is a map showing the route of first telegraph line which was laid between Vietnam and Cambodia.

This building, which has a huge dome with the modern "glass-and-steel" architecture of France, was designed by Gustave Eiffel (no prizes for guessing which is his most famous architectural structure!).  

The lovely telegraph offices with carved wood and glass doors have now become telephone booths

4) Notre-Dame Cathedral : Bang opposite the post office is the Notre-Dame cathedral. I was rather taken aback when I heard this but a quick check on the internet revealed that there are several Notre Dame Cathedrals around the world. This one is a small but worthy cousin of the more illustrated one in Paris.

5) Bitexco commercial centre : A major landmark but I wasn't particularly impressed by it. Seemed like another of those tall buildings which look nice when lit up in the night

6) Ben Thanh Market : A visit to a city is not complete unless you have been to their local market. Ben Thanh is a walking distance from the Nyugen Hue Boulevard. On the way, one can see several pavement shops selling nice paper curios like these

The market is a great place to pickup clothes, handbags and belts at decent prices. The pavement adjoining the market is also a great place to sample the local cuisine which is cooked in front of you. The seafood is particularly recommended, accompanied by the local Ba-Ba-Ba (3-3-3 in Vietnamese) beer. 

How to reach : Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) airport. For the travel from the airport to the city centre, it is recommended to get the car from the hotel as there is a distinct possibility of getting royally fleeced by the cab driver. 
Where to stay : City Centre - Nyugen Hue Boulevard. You can get every kind of hotels out here with plenty of eateries in and around this place. You can also cover most of the tourist spots on foot. 
Places to visit : Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Ben Thanh Market, Opera House, Ho Chi Minh citry museum, Dong Khoi shopping street. One can also take a ride by boat and visit the Chu Chi tunnels (the intricate tunnels through which the Vietcongs used to attack Saigon). There is also a couple of other boat trips possible including a boat trip to Mekong delta / floating market etc. 
Night life : Vietnam has an active nightlife and clubs and restaurants remain open till late.  Prostitution is rampant and open - so don't get surprised if you are badgered with agents offering "very good girl sir, very low rate" or dubious looking drinks which are supposed to enhance ones sexual prowess many folds (one of these bottles had a scorpion inside!!). There are many incidents of tourists losing a fortune to nymphets with nimble fingers, so it is not recommended to carry too much cash or credit cards with you.
Ho Chi Minh City can be covered in 2 days quite easily and then it is time to move on and cover the other tourist spots. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Fatehpur and Sikri - the abandoned glory

Fatehpur-Sikri has been photographed to death by countless photographers and written about also by equal number of travelers. From this point of view, any further attempts to write about it will be, in the bard's language, "trying to gild the gold". Nevertheless, I still chose to write about it as it is one of my favourite historic places. In fact I prefer this ghost city to its more illustrious cousin city which houses the worlds most famous mausoleum. 

The usual practice of people is to club Fatehpur-Sikri along with Agra Fort & Taj Mahal & It-Mat-Ud-Daulah on the same day. This, in my opinion, only serves the purpose of putting a tick against it's name on the travel itenary and not really achieve anything. It takes about half a day to one day to do justice to this place. Fatehpur-Sikri, in fact, has a nice UP tourism department guest house (where we had our lunch) with a sprawling lawn in front. The place evoked a rather agreeable image of sitting in the lawn with a glass of chilled beer after spending the day at the ruins

Some of the images that were captured by me at Fatehpur Sikri 

1) The entry : We enter into Sikri through an unimpressive gate and then a set of long and interesting looking corridors

2) Hiran Minar : This is supposed to be a monument dedicated to Akbar's favourite elephant (name unknown; some say it was called "Hiran" while the rest insist that it was called "Gajamukta") who died in the famous battle of Haldighati (where Akbar defeated Rana Pratap). The reason for this rather unusual structure is also unknown but those multiple projections coming out of the central column seem to symbolize the arrows stuck on an elephants trunk or leg.

3) Diwan-i-Khas

The "Diwan-i-khas" of Fatehpur Sikri is famous for the central pillar where the emperor ,  supposedly used to sit on a revolving chair and listen to two debating sides. Sadly I didn't really get a good shot of this pillar but the outside structure of Diwan-i-khas is also fascinating

4) Anup Talao and Panch Mahal (in the background)

This has been immortalized by the story of the legendary singer Tansen and how he had lighted fire with his redemption of the Deepak Raga. Legend has it that the song set fire on Tansen and then his talented daughter Saraswati sang the Megh Mallar raag to cause rain and thereby saved Tansen's life. 

The Panch Mahal (or Badgir) was the windy palace of entertainment of the emperor. 

5) Buland Darwaza

A shot of Buland Darwaza taken from the inner courtyard. This was the main entry to Fatehpur which was constructed to celebrate Akbar's victory over Gujrat.  

6) I read somewhere that during Akbar's era, they did not have "doors". This is incorrect or was this a later day addition?

7) The walkway beside the Buland Darwaza

8) A "typical tourist" shot of the Dargah of Salim Chistie - the saint who's is supposed to be responsible for Akbar having his heir - Salim (Jehangir). Unless you are strongly religious or is compelled to be thorough and see every place "completely", you can safely avoid going inside the dargah and thereby save yourself the torture of haggling with local vendors.

A few do's and don't for the first time travellers to Fatehpur-Sikri

a) The car can come till the parking lot near the UPTDC tourist centre. From this point, you need to walk for about 500 metre to come to the bus departure point. Regular buses ply fro here to Fatehpur Sikri (takes about 5 minutes to go). 

b) The walk from the parking lot till the bus departure point passes through a kind of shopping mart where all local curio items are kept. One should spend some time to look at these stuffs but carefully restrain oneself from actually buying anything :)

c) DO NOT hire any guides from the parking lot. There is a full fledged "private guide centre" at the parking lot with published rates. This entire thing is a hoax. These guides have no authorization whatsoever (though they carry an impressive but fake guide pass) and charge about 4 times the actual rate. The ASI (Archeological Survey of India) guides are available at the ticket counter at Fatehpur Sikri. 

 d) Tripods are not allowed inside either of the place.

Dear traveller - it is now your turn to wander into the city of Lal Patthar.