Shwedagon Pagoda Festival 2015

4 03 2015

Shwedagon Pagoda

In honour of the 2015 Shwedagon Pagoda Festival, which this year is being celebrated from the 1st until the 5thof March, we thought we would share a few of our favourite pictures of the shiny, shiny stupa – as well as a bit of its history and the festivities taking place today.

Shwedagon

Located in Yangon (AKA Rangoon), the former capital of Burma, Shwedagon is the most important Buddhist pagoda in Burma and is believed to contain relics of the four Buddhas of the present age: a staff, a water filter, a piece of robe, and eight strands of hair.

Shwedagon at night

According to the pagoda’s official website it was originally just 8.2 metres tall, but improvements by successive monarchs raised it to almost 110 metres. Apparently, tradition dictates that each new Burmese monarch must add his bodyweight in gold to the structure.

Shwedagon

According to historians, the pagoda was probably built between the sixth and tenth centuries AD – however legend (and the Swedagon pagoda website) tells that it is much older, dating back more than 2,600 years. If the latter are correct, this would make it the oldest Buddhist pagoda in the world.

Shwedagon

The stupa’s base is made from brick covered in gold plates. Next are the terraces (only accessible to men), then the bell-shaped level, then the turban, the inverted almsbowl, the inverted and upright lotus petals, the banana bud and finally the umbrella crown. As a sign of sovereignty, the umbrella crown is the final ornament of nearly all Burmese pagodas, and Shwedagon’s is reportedly encrusted with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies.

Shwedagon

Pagoda festivals are found throughout Burma, but Swedagon’s is the largest. These festivals typically commemorate major events in the pagoda’s history, such as its founding and its crowning with an umbrella (more on this later), and are celebrated over several days – attracting pilgrims from across the country.

Shwedagon

Visitors to the pagoda make offerings in the form of water, candles and flowers, also giving food and monetary donations to the monks for the upkeep of the stupa. On arrival, pilgrims remove their shoes and walk a circuit of the pagoda in a clockwise direction, passing by the site’s most important features and stopping to pray at whichever planetary post represents the day of the week on which they were born.

Candles at Shwedagon

In addition to the religious ritual, there is also a fun, carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the area – with traditional drama, music, dancing and plenty of delicious street food sold by vendors.

Under the military government, the Shwedagon Pagoda Festival was banned from 1988, not to be reinstated until 2012. Thus the 2015 celebration is only the fourth such festival in nearly 20 years!

Shwedagon

Remembering his visit to Shwedagon Pagoda in 1889, Rudyard Kipling wrote:

“…Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?”

Offerings at Shwedagon

Shwedagon Pagoda is currently undergoing restoration works, but this has little impact on a visit to the site. It is unclear how long the works will be ongoing.





Bagan: Our guide to Burma’s archaeological wonders

26 02 2015

Bagan

In the first of a series of posts on Southeast Asia’s iconic historical sites, we explain the history and significance of Bagan – one of Southeast Asia’s most incredible archaeological sites.

Located in Burma, most consider Bagan to be comparable with Angkor Wat in terms of scale and significance. Like Angkor, it has been the subject of numerous beautiful and atmospheric photos, and as more and more people flock to Burma each year it has become the centre of the country’s nascent tourist industry.

Bagan temple

FACT FILE:

Where?   In the Mandalay region of Burma (Myanmar), 290 km (190 mi) southwest of Mandalay and 700 km (430 mi) north of Yangon.

What?   Bagan was the capital city of the Pagan Kingdom, the first Burmese kingdom, from 1044 until 1297. Today the area is home to more than 2,500 Buddhist stupas, temples and monasteries – the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist monuments in the world – but at the kingdom’s height there were over 10,000.

When was it built?   Most of Bagan’s monuments were built over a 250-year period between the 11th and 13th centuries, when the Kingdom of Pagan was at its height. Some, however, were built somewhat before or after this stretch.

Who built it?   The rulers of the Pagan Empire & their subjects

How big is it?   The Bagan Archaeological Zone covers an area 13 km by 8 km (8 mi x 5 mi), with Old Bagan at its heart. It incorporates the Bagan plains, New Bagan and the district of Nyaung-U.

Bagan temple

Construction

Most of the Bagan temples fall into one of two categories: stupa-style solid temples, and gu-style hollow temples. The Bagan stupas (or pagodas), took their influence from early Pyu constructions as well as India and Ceylon, and represent Mount Meru in the Buddhist cosmos. They are usually bell-shaped, with one or more rectangular terraces at their base, and contain a relic chamber. The main features of the hollow, gu-style temples, meanwhile, are a vaulted indoor chamber and pointed arches. This technique of vaulting is thought to have been developed in Bagan in the 11th century, only to be forgotten by craftsmen in later eras.

Bagan temple

History

Bagan started life as a small settlement, thought to have been founded in the late-ninth century by the early Burmans, who had migrated to the Irrawaddy Valley from what is now southern China. The name Bagan comes from the old Burmese word Pugan, which is in turn derived from the older Burmese word Pyugam, meaning “Pyu Village” – and in its infancy Bagan was just one of many competing city-states inhabited by the Pyu people in that region.

Over the course of about 200 years, Bagan gradually grew to absorb these neighbouring principalities, and in the mid-11th century King Anwrahta founded the Pagan Kingdom – unifying for the first time the regions that would form the basis of modern Burma. From 1044 until 1287, Bagan was the capital of this kingdom, growing steadily in size and wealth to become a major centre for religion (including both Theravada, Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhism as well as Hindu and animist traditions), scholarship, astrology, medicine and law. At this time, the Pagan Kingdom was equal in sophistication and power with the neighbouring Khmer Empire, and attracted monks and scholars from all over South and Southeast Asia.

Bagan at dusk

In the mid-13th century, a series of Mongol invasions sent the already rather unstable Pagan Empire into decline. The political fragmentation that ensued continued for 250 years – about as long as the empire’s golden age – lasting well into the 16th century. During this time, some religious monuments continued to be built in Bagan, until slowly but surely it halted altogether. Only around 200 monuments were built between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Though it has diminished from a city of up to 200,000 inhabitants to a small town, Bagan has continued to survive as a significant pilgrimage site throughout history until the present day. Many of its monuments fell into disrepair in the centuries following the fall of Pagan, while others were repainted or fitted with new religious statues. Between 1752 and 1885, the Burmese state funded the systematic renovation of many of Bagan’s monuments, in a move that is largely considered to have done more harm than good.

Bagan has also had to deal with numerous earthquakes over the years, some of which have caused extensive and even irreparable damage to temples in the area – notably the Bupaya pagoda, which was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1975. In the 1990s, the Burmese government once again carried out restoration works on many of these monuments, and once again the renovations were considered by the international community to have been irresponsible and damaging to the integrity of the area.

Bagan Baloons

Bagan today

It is due to the botched restorations of the 1990s that Bagan has not (yet) been included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites – despite its undeniable impressiveness and wide-reaching appeal. This is unfortunate, as it means no UNESCO funding for (proper) renovations, or protection to guard against further deterioration.

Bagan is at risk not only from the well-meaning meddling of would-be renovators, but also from further earthquakes and from erosion caused by the Irrawaddy River – which has, in fact, already worn away a significant portion of the surrounding area with the strength of its current.

Despite this, Bagan is still an enchanting and as yet relatively little-visited archaeological marvel, and constitutes the highlight of most trips to Burma. While there are a handful of popular temples and pagodas that receive a steady stream of visitors, there are countless more that remain obscure and undiscovered.

Stupa

Bagan’s most popular temples and pagodas are as follows:

Ananda Temple – Bagan’s holiest temple, built 1091
Shwesandaw Temple – “sunset temple” – probably Bagan’s most popular tourist spot. A great place to watch the sunset (hence the name).
Shwe Zigon Temple – Gourd-shaped golden pagoda, built 1087. This was the model for the famous Swedagon Pagoda.
Thatbyinnyu Temple – Bagan’s tallest pagoda, 66 metres high. Built in the 12th century.
Shwegugyi Temple – One of Bagan’s best-preserved temples, built 1131. Another great (and less crowded) place from which to observe the sunset.
Dhamma Yangyi Temple – Commissioned by King Narathu to atone for assassinating his father, brother and wife. Work on the temple was abandoned after the king himself was assassinated.
Gawdaw Palin Temple – Exhibits a fusion of Burmese and Indian styles, with a beautiful courtyard and interesting bell hangers.
Bupaya Stupa – Golden, gourd-shaped stupa sitting on a temple by the river.

bagan-map

Golden pagoda

Visiting Bagan

A small cluster of habitations close to the river: Old Bagan, Myinkaba and New Bagan host the majority of the accommodation options in the area and have a selection of restaurants of varying quality.

Many of the highlight temples and pagodas are located close to Old Bagan, and the countryside is ideal for some independent exploration on foot or bike. During the peak heat of March/April temperatures regularly head into the high 30s C (approx 100 F), so we recommend avoiding the midday heat and preparing appropriate clothing, sunhats and water.

With so many temples and pagodas to explore it’s easy to get away from the tourist crowds, and for those feeling energetic there’s nothing better than hiring a bike and heading out. Bikes can be hired from most hotels, or from a number of places in Old and New Bagan. Ask your guide for their recommendations, but likewise make sure you prepare for the heat and take plenty of water.

Cycling in Bagan

Our Jim cycling in Bagan

 

Horse & cart
You can rent a horse cart with a driver for around 10000 – 15000 Kyats for a full day. The horse carts are slow, shaky, bumpy, and not exactly the most comfortable mode of transportation, but you’re sheltered from both sun and rain, so that’s a bonus. One good option is to rent a horse cart for 1 day to see the major temples, and then visit the remaining sights on bicycle the next day.

Hot air balloon
Hot air balloon has become a popular way to see Bagan, and is an enchanting (if expensive) way to get a handle on the size and scope of this astounding area. A dawn balloon ride costs about US$320-350 per person, and can be taken from October till April.

Bagan buddhaNow is the time to visit this beautiful country.





Hoi An Full Moon Festival dates: famous celebration to take place twice a month

23 02 2015

Child selling lanterns at the festival

As you’ll certainly know if you’re a regular reader of our blog, we love Hoi An. The ancient, UNESCO-registered port town in central Vietnam boasts a beautiful colonial town centre, glorious beaches, some of the country’s finest cuisine, oodles of relaxing riverside cafes, lovely countryside, the ancient ruins of My Son – and since 1998, the famous and much-loved Full Moon Festival (AKA Hoi An Lantern Festival, or Ancient Town Night).

For the Vietnamese, the night of the full moon is a time to pay your respects to your ancestors by making offerings at family altars and burning lucky (fake) $100 bills to bring in luck and prosperity. Monks hold candlelit ceremonies at temples, and fishermen pay tribute to the goddess of the sea.

Lantern stand

On full moon (the 14th day of every lunar month) for the past 17 years, the streets of Hoi An have switched off their harsh, fluorescent lighting, been closed to traffic and replaced street sellers and mopeds with colourful lanterns, candles and traditional music, taking the old town back to yesteryear. The streets on this night are packed with both Vietnamese and foreign visitors who flock to the town to join in the festivities, playing traditional games, eating delicious vegetarian festival food and buying little cardboard lanterns with candles inside to float on the river – said to bring luck, happiness and love. Another popular activity during the full moon celebrations is to take a ride in a little sampan boat – a great way to get away from the crowds and see the festival from a different perspective.

IMGP0413

In January this year, The People’s Committee in the central province of Quang Nam, where Hoi An is located, announced that the formerly once-monthly festival will now take place every fortnight (on both full moon and new moon) – and have discussed the possibility of upping this to once a week, depending on attendance.

child lantern seller

Hoi An’s Office of Trade and Tourism reported in October last year that the city saw a 263% increase in visitors and hotel bookings around the time of the Full Moon Festival, so the new move to double the celebrations will capitalise on this spectacular success, bringing in more tourist dollars for the community and local businesses.

Good news, you might assume. But is more really more when it comes to these traditional events? Increasing the number of festivals to cater to tourist demand may reduce crowds a little and help distribute tourist business more evenly across the month, but isn’t it a step too far? Doesn’t it rob a little of the magic of the night, commodifying ancient customs for the entertainment of visitors?

For us, the jury’s out on this one. Tell us what you think in the comments below!

Lanterns

The following table contains the Lantern Festival dates for 2015 and 2016. It has not yet been announced when the festival will begin its new, twice-monthly schedule, so the dates in green are as yet unconfirmed. We’ll update you as soon as the extra dates have been officially announced, but until then – watch this space!

Dates for 2015-16 festivals

 

 

 

 





Tết: A survival guide

18 02 2015

Tết, short for Tết Nguyên Đán (Feast of the First Morning of the First Day) is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year – the biggest and most important celebration in the Vietnamese calendar. If you’ve had your eye on the Vietnamese news in recent weeks, you’ll have seen countless articles on this year’s preparations – from the impressive “flower street” to the countless families in villages across the country who make their living from manufacturing food, incense, goats (ofc), flowers and all the other things that are necessary for a successful new year celebration.

Tet balloon seller

Tet flower shopping

Tet flower shopping

When is it?

Tết usually falls on a date in January or February, but this year it lands on Feb the 19th: this Thursday! It is celebrated on the same date as Chinese New Year, and celebrations go on for at least three days – more like a week…and this year it’sup to nine days. Tết is also considered to be the first day of spring, so is also known as Hội Xuân: “Spring Festival”.

Tet flower sellers

Flower sellers

How is it celebrated?

In epic fashion. Vietnamese people start preparing for Tết weeks in advance (much as we start preparing for Christmas as soon as Halloween is out of the door – or in January if you’re my Mum). The actual celebrations are divided into three periods: Tất Niên (penultimate New Year’s Eve – or “New Year’s Eve Eve” as it’s called in my house); Giao Thừa (New Year’s Eve); and Tân Niên (New Year itself).

Tết is a family occasion, so most Vietnamese will gather at their family home, visit relatives, worship at family altars or visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their dues and clean the grave as a mark of respect. There are many other customs practiced during Tết – from the cooking of special foods to cleaning the house, giving lucky money to children and the elderly, playing traditional games, opening a shop or making a pilgrimage – and these traditions tend to vary depending on where you are in Vietnam. Most families will also decorate their houses with flowers, including a cây nêu (artificial New Year Tree) made of a long bamboo pole decorated with various ornaments and good luck charms.

Tết celebrations on the streets of Vietnam’s cities, towns and villages are a noisy affair, with a parade of people trying to make as much noise as possible using firecrackers, drums, bells, gongs, pots, pans – whatever they can find that’s loud – to scare off evil spirits. Participants also wear masks and perform traditional Lion Dancing – another tradition that’s thought to ward off evil. After the parade, families and friends gather to eat the traditional Vietnamese food they have prepared in a celebratory feast.

Tet parcels

Tet parcels

Food

Food is extremely important during Tết, which is perhaps why the Vietnamese phrase “to celebrate Tết” is to “ăn Tết“, or “eat Tết”. Traditional Tết foods include:

  • Bánh chưng and bánh tét: Vietnamese rice cake made from glutinous rice and meat or bean fillings wrapped in a parcel of Dong leaves. The former are long and cylindrical, while the latter are square.
  • Hạt Dưa: roasted watermelon seeds
  • Dưa Hành: pickled onion and cabbage
  • Củ Kiệu: small, pickled leeks
  • Mứt: candied fruits
  • Cầu Dừa Đủ Xoài: In the southern dialect of Vietnamese, the fruits custard-apple (mãng cầu), coconut (dừa), papaya (đu đủ) and mango (xoài) when said in sequence sound like the phrase cầu vừa đủ xài - “We pray for just enough to spend”. For this reason, these are popular offerings at family altars in southern Vietnam.
  • Thịt Kho Nước Dừa: a traditional dish of pork belly and boiled eggs stewed in coconut juice, eaten with pickled bean sprouts, chives and white rice.

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Tết dos and don’ts

Now we get to the “survival” part of Tết – because there are a few social and cultural traps that the unwitting foreigner could easily fall into without the relevant knowledge. Not to mention a whole world of bad luck to be visited upon your head if you fail to heed the right superstitions! For Vietnamese, the first few days of the New Year set the tone for the whole year to come – so it’s important not to put your foot in it.

DO:

  • Give good luck wishes to your friends, family – and in fact anyone you meet on Tết in Vietnam. Some good ones are sức khỏe dồi dào (extremely good health) and tiền vô như nước (money coming like water). “Happy New Year” is chúc mừng năm mới.
  • If you are invited to visit a Vietnamese family, bring lucky money in red envelopes to give to the children. The etiquette surrounding this tradition is tricky even for Vietnamese people, and there is a lot of discussion about how much is the right amount to give in the run-up to Tết. To little could upset the receiver, and too much would be spoil them – both of which mean bad luck. Than Nienh News has written an article on how much to give – I’m staying out of it!
  • Buy a bag of salt. This will ensure that you have a “tasty” year – but if you buy too much, you’re likely to have a year that’s “too salty” (whatever that means). And never bargain with the salt sellers at this time of year!
  • Display lucky fruits (custard-apple, coconut, papaya and mango – as described above)

DON’T:

  • Break glassware. Save your glass-smashing plans for after Tết! Otherwise you’ll have a “broken” year.
  • Swear, or use unlucky words like “die” or “sad”
  • Invite yourself anywhere. An important tradition during Tết is for your first guest of the year to be a successful, charming specimen – to bring good luck. So you obviously don’t count.
  • Wear black and/or white. This is suggestive of funerals.
  • Sweep your house. Although spring cleaning is an important part of Tết preparations, on the day itself and a few days after the New Year, sweeping your house might also sweep out all the luck and success you had accumulated by following all the rules above. They didn’t say anything about hoovers though.

Bear this survivor’s guide in mind during Tết this year and you’re sure to have a fantastic 2015!

Tet shopper

Photos: Kirsty Denison

 





Hanoi vs. Saigon

13 02 2015

If you’re planning on visiting Vietnam, the chances are that the northern capital Hanoi and southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon) will both be right at the top of your list of places to visit.

Separated by a swathe of land over a thousand miles long, these two cities differ on almost every point – from food and culture to size, history, geography and climate. (A point that’s widely acknowledged and discussed – for example in this interesting and slightly nonsensical book by graphic designer Nhat Le)

But if you could only visit one, which should it be?

We’ve debated the similarities and differences of these two cities amongst ourselves and you’ll find our observations below – but we can’t promise that by the end of it you’ll be able to choose!

Geography & climate

Hanoi, located in northern Vietnam, lies on the Red River delta about 90 km (56 mi) from the coast. The city’s climate is classified as “warm, humid subtropical” – which essentially means cool, dry winters and hot, wet summers. Saigon, meanwhile, is located mear the southern tip of the country and has a tropical climate, with wet season and a dry season rather than a defined summer and winter, and hot temperatures all year round.

This marked difference in climate means that the two cities can almost seem to belong to two different countries at times – such as in January, when Hanoi is experiencing average temperatures of around 20C whilst Saigon’s hovers in the early 30s. Generally speaking, Hanoi has its most pleasant weather in the autumn (mid-September to late November), whilst Saigon is best visited during the dry, hot months from December to April.

Map of Vietnam

In terms of geography, Saigon’s focal point is the river running through its heart, while Hanoi is characterised by the lakes that surround it, of which Hoan Kiem Lake, West Lake, Halais Lake, Thien Quang Lake and Bay Mau Lake are the best-known. Hoan Kiem in particular is something of a symbol of the city, with the Turtle Pagoda at its centre and groups of local people relaxing, practising t’ai chi and pursuing other leisure activities.

History & sightseeing

Hanoi and Saigon have had vastly differing histories, and this has shaped their culture, architecture and character beyond measure.

Hanoi's Temple of Literature

Hanoi’s Temple of Literature

As Vietnam’s capital for nearly one thousand years, Hanoi is widely regarded as the country’s cultural centre, with layers upon layers of history visible in its streets, buildings and landmarks – and more significant cultural sites than any other city in Vietnam.

From 1010 until 1802 it served as the country’s political centre until the baton was passed to Hue, Vietnam’s imperial capital between 1802 and 1945. In 1887 it became the capital of French Indochina; in 1940 it was briefly occupied by the Japanese before being liberated in 1945; it briefly served as the seat of the Viet Minh government after Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam, but was then reoccupied by the French in 1946 before finally becoming the capital of an independent North Vietnam in 1954, after nine years of fighting. Finally, in 1976 and after a very chequered history, Hanoi became the capital of reunified Vietnam, and so it remains today.

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi

Each of these successive dynasties and administrations has left its mark on Hanoi, with ancient monuments such as the Temple of Literature, the One Pillar Pagoda and the 900-year-old ruins of the old Hanoi Citadel standing cheek by jowl with French colonial villas and mansions, the Grand Opera House, the Presidential Palace and even more recently with plentiful skyscrapers (including the tallest and second-tallest in Vietnam and the second-tallest in Southeast Asia).

Unsurprisingly, this rich historical heritage has left Hanoi with an excellent collection of museums and monuments to keep the visitor busy. Besides those mentioned above, you can also visit the mausoleum and stilt house of Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam’s charismatic wartime leader. The Old Quarter, meanwhile, preserves its original street layout from pre-colonial times and is a wonderful place to eat and shop – with small artisans and merchants, cafes, restaurants and bars.

Saigon's colonial Notre Dame Basilica

Saigon’s colonial Notre Dame Basilica

In comparison with Hanoi, Saigon hasn’t even been in Vietnam for very long – only since the 17th century in fact. For the beginning of its history, Saigon was known as Prey Nokor: the most important commercial seaport of the Khmer Empire, based in modern-day Cambodia.

Since then, Saigon has gone through almost as many changes in leadership as Hanoi: the Vietnamese seized and annexed it in the 17th century; the French and Spanish conquered it in 1859; it became the capital of the anti-communist independent republic of South Vietnam during the war years from 1955 until 1975, then fell to the Viet Minh and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the communist leader of the north.

Since most of the fighting during the Vietnam War occurred in the south, Saigon is the place to see war-era museums and relics, such as the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, the Revolutionary Museum, the Museum of Southeastern Armed Forces, the War Remnants Museum and the hauntingly evocative Cu Chi Tunnels, used by guerilla fighters.

InsideAsia's Simon visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels

InsideAsia’s Simon visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels

Food

To most, Saigon is the food capital of Vietnam, with the country’s widest variety of both Vietnamese and international cuisine. French bakeries show influence of colonial rule with fresh, cheese-filled baguettes, while regional specialities such as bun bo hue (Hue beef soup), com tam (rice and pork), and Vietnamese omelettes abound.

Comparing the staple foods of Hanoi and Saigon

 

However, the acknowledged king of Vietnamese food is pho – the beloved Vietnamese noodle soup – and its spiritual home is unequivocally Hanoi. Here you’ll find thousands of streetside stalls and small kiosks with plastic chairs and tables on the pavement where you can chow down on this national dish.

Saigon fruit seller

Saigon fruit seller

 

Side trips

Hanoi’s most popular side trip is undoubtedly Halong Bay: famous for its stunning karst (limestone) pinnacles and picturesque junk boats. This is one of Vietnam’s best-known and best-loved sights, and a wonderful place to take a cruise (as we discusses in a previous blog post!). The city is also a great starting point for exploring the Sapa mountain range, home to many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities and some great trekking options; Cuc Phuong National Park, the largest in Vietnam; the beautiful scenery of Tam Coc in Ninh Binh Province; and the Perfume Pagoda, amongst many others.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

From Ho Chi Minh City you are ideally placed to explore the southern area of Vietnam, including the floating markets of the Mekong Delta (another great place to take a boat trip!); the Cu Chi Tunnels (as mentioned above); the mountainside city of Dalat; and even Phnom Penh in Cambodia – only a six-hour bus ride away.

Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta

Shopping

Hanoi’s old quarter, whose streets are still named according to the tradesmen who used to ply their wares here in pre-colonial times, is a fantastic place to explore a wildly diverse array of products and services. By contrast, Ho Chi Minh City really can’t compare – although Ben Thanh Market is worth visiting, and the city has its share of higher-end shops and glitzy shopping malls.

Comparing vendors in Saigon & Hanoi

Traffic

Is mental. On this point – and this point only, perhaps – Saigon and Hanoi are pretty much even.

Comparing traffic in Hanoi & Saigon





All aboard Vietnam’s new five-star train

11 02 2015

Train staff

There once was a time when the 31-hour trip from Hanoi to Saigon by train via the 1,726 km (1,072 mi) Reunification Railway was the preserve of the hardened backpacker: slow, dirty, noisy, uncomfortable and therefore avoided by many a traveller – which is a shame, because some of the scenery that the railway cuts through is truly spectacular.

Now, all this is about to change as Vietnam unveils its first five-star trains – as reported by Thanh Nien News last Saturday. According to the article, the upgrade made to the SE3 and SE4 trains cost a total of VND 83 billion (£2.5 million), yet fares have remained unchanged. Amazing!

Each train has 31 highly trained crew members and takes 31 hours to make a full journey between Vietnam’s two main cities (was that on purpose? We’re not sure).

six-berth sleeper cabin

A soft seat in an air-conditioned car with TVs costs VND 1.2 million (£37); a bed in a six-berth sleeper cabin costs VND 1.5 million (£46); and a bed in a four-berth sleeper costs VND 1.7 million (£52.40).

Halls are well-lit, bathrooms are clean and new, and there is a dining car selling food at the same prices it was before the upgrade: VND 30,000 (92p) for noodles; VND 35,000 (£1.07) for rice dishes, and VND 12,000-25,000 (36-77p) for coffee, beer and cakes.

There is nothing not to love about this fantastic upgrade – we can’t help to hop onboard ourselves!

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Photos: Thanh Nien News

For more info on Vietnamese rail and for timetables and prices, visit Seat 61.

And if you just can’t wait to travel the length of Vietnam by train, check out this fantastic video by Mark Smith, which covers the entire journey in just nine minutes!

 

Of course, InsideVietnam can help sort out your seat/cabin. All aboard!!!





7 weird and wonderful fruits to try in Vietnam

5 02 2015
Tet Fruit

Tet Offering – Photo from kenhsinhvien.net

 

With Tet approaching, Vietnamese families traditionally make a “five fruits” offering or the “Mam Ngu Qua” along with other Tet goods to their ancestoral alters. These well presented bowls of fruit consist of interesting and odd shaped Vietnam-grown delights. It is thought that five fruits could symbolise the five elements – metal, wood, water, fire and soil. Or it could be that the fruit repesents the families hardwork and are an offering of thanks to ancestors. Either way, you will see a lot of fruit over the Tet new year. Here are a few interesting Vietnamese fruits that you may not recognise from your local grocery shop…

Dragonfruit, Lady Finger Bananas, Rose Apples and Watermelon

Dragonfruit, Lady Finger Bananas, Rose Apples and Watermelon

    • Lady finger bananas
      These small bananas have a very thick skin, revealing a sweet flesh inside. They are not often eaten on their own, instead turned into sugary desserts.
    • Dragon fruit
      The bright pink shell of a dragon fruit is a costume for the rather bland flesh inside, similar to an unsweetened melon. The flesh contains thousands of tiny seeds, similar of a kiwi fruit.
    • Rose Apple
      A rose apple is an almost savoury fruit, with a flavour similar to pear. It has a thick yet edible bright red skin and porous flesh. Rose apples are in actual fact a berry, and have a very high liquid content compared to other fruit.

Longan fruit Credit: Thai Guide to Thailand

    • Longan
      Longans (a member of the lychee family) are a small round fruit that needs peeling, grown across the northern part of Vietnam. The juicy sweet flesh contains large seeds at random, so be careful when eating them. However the flesh is semi-transparent and the pip is black so they are easily identified. A bit of a fiddle but well worth it!

Rambutan. Credit: Foodwallpaper.info

    • Rambutan
      Rambutans are grown across the south part of Vietnam and have a spiky red shell revealing a sour soft white flesh.
Jackfruit growing on treetrunk

Jackfruit growing on tree trunk

Jackfruit segments

Jackfruit segments

    • Jackfruit
      Jackfruit, a large fruit with a flavour somewhere banana and mango, is found growing from tree trunks all over Southeast Asia. These small boulders, when opened, contain many small orange segments which are slightly rubbery to the touch. The taste is sweet but not overpowering and slightly perfumed.

Durian. Credit: Iwasanexpatwife.com

    • Durian
      Durian is famed throughout Southeast Asia and is often smelt before you see it. The smell has been narrowed down to a mixture of caramel and vomit, with hints of cheese and rotting onions. Don’t let that put you off though! Take off the outer shell and a yellowy flesh is revealed with a flavour combination of custard and almonds. A true Asian delicacy!







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