Victoria Falls By: Maia Coen

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Victoria Falls was the second natural wonder of the world I’ve experienced in my life.  As I approached the falls, I could hear the water roaring in the background and I swear it was the most powerful sound I’ve ever heard.  Have you ever heard a sound that you can actually feel in your body?  It made my skin tingle.  I was about to see the most magnificent waterfall in the world, and I could literally feel it.  When we rounded the last corner and the falls came into view I had to stop and stare for a moment.  Most people around me immediately took out their cameras and started snapping away.  I took photos of course, but not immediately.  I let the magnitude of it sink in first.  I think sometimes our instinct to take photos immediately can take away the wonder of an experience.  The photos will only serve as a reminder of the beauty, not a replication of it.  So, just take a moment to be there.  See the falls without the lens for a moment.  It’s difficult to describe how spectacular it was.  It was the kind of experience that makes you thank whatever you believe in that the earth was capable of such wonder.  The sheer power in those waterfalls is greater than anything manmade.  The waterfall formed a giant chasm in the earth and water poured out of it with a sound like thunder.  As I watched the water flow, in that moment I believed that water would never stop roaring.  

 

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As we walked the pathway and made our way along the edge of the waterfall it progressively began to get mistier.  Each viewpoint was just as spectacular as the last.  The images that come to mind when I think about this walk are the rainbows.  I’ve seen rainbows in my life but never have I seen as many as there were here.  Everywhere I looked there was another and they were the brightest most amazing rainbows I’ve ever seen. One place I remember to be particularly special came at the end.  We all walked to the end of a cliff where the spray was the most intense.  I stepped out onto a rock and took it all in again.  I could see so much of it from that one spot.  I stopped trying to keep the water out and pulled my hood back and just let it soak my face.  There was so much water.  I stood there with a smile on my face and water dripping down my cheeks in the most incredible moment.  Its moments like these where I am overwhelmed by how lucky I have been to experience things like this all my life.

 

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I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling that came over me when I first saw the falls.  It was truly sublime.  Nature is terrifying and beautiful all at once and I am grateful to have experienced a piece of it.  The truth is I won’t remember these feelings of awe because of the pictures I took, I will remember because it was wild and powerful. I remember because I can still feel the water on my skin.  I remember because I can still feel the falls roaring through my body.

 

            Join Imprint Tours on our Southern Safaris tour and experience Victoria Falls for yourself.  Tentative dates are October 5th through 17th, 2020.

African Safari By: Maia Coen

 

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            I left home with the excitement of a child.  I was about to see African animals in the wild.  The journey was longer than any other I’d endured in the name of travel, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.  When I arrived in Botswana with my mother, I had the biggest smile on my face.  We settled into our tents that night and went to bed after a long day.  Despite the exhaustion that threatened to drag me under I lay awake that first night and I listened to the sounds permeating the tent.  There were so many new interesting, intriguing noises.  All the clicks and clacks and the outrageous sounds I couldn’t have placed in a million years.  Before I go any further let me tell you this; I am not a bug person.  There were spiders on the walls the size of my hand.  My stay at the camp could have been more comfortable if there had not been giant spiders above my head.  That being said, I’m glad it wasn’t.  Travel is often sugarcoated.  Especially in the age of travel influencers who dominate Instagram it is easy to forget that sometimes travel is not comfortable.  Travel is not just sitting on a beach with a tropical cocktail.  Sometimes there are giant spiders all over your tent walls.  And sometimes you just have to deal with it.  I think it makes for a better traveler to feel a little uncomfortable every once in a while.  So, despite the spiders I was able to lie in complete darkness and listen to the sounds of Africa as I drifted off to sleep.     

 

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            The following days were filled to the brim with excitement and the achievement of life long dreams for many people.  Seeing African animals on safari was something a lot of people dreamed about doing since they were children.  We saw elephants, impalas, hippos, lions, giraffes, water buffalo, and many more.  The only animal that eluded our eye was the leopard.  I have experienced so much culture and so much beauty in my lifetime, but I have never felt something so pure and true as I did when I saw the elephants.  They were huge majestic creatures who towered over me and made me feel like maybe we humans were not as important as we thought.  I looked into their eyes and they stared back in bliss.  They continued to chew their leaves while staring right into my eyes unphased by our presence.  They looked at me and I saw a kind of wisdom and grace I have never seen before.  I looked at them and I felt they knew more about the world than me or any other person ever would.  When I was around them, I felt calm like nothing else mattered.  They left me at a loss for words which does not happen often.  I felt that they had the secrets of the universe locked up tight and they were the only ones with the keys.

 

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            The other animal that had an incredible impact on me was the lion.  We came across a whole pride of them one day.   Our driver took us in closer, and closer, and closer until we were ten feet away from them.  It’s hard to explain the feeling of unease that collects in your stomach when you are that close to wild lions.  They were right there, just lying around and dozing.  Lions, elegant and deadly right before my eyes.  I felt uneasy but at the same time comforted since I was in a seat in a vehicle.  Even though I knew at any minute one of them could jump through the vehicle and we wouldn’t stand a chance.  The lions humbled me.  The beautiful animals made me feel that I was not the best, I was not on top of the food chain.  They were so peaceful and content and the most majestic creatures I have ever seen.  They yawned and I saw their deadly teeth and I knew they were the ones with the power, and I was okay with that.

 

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            There are so many things people think about when they hear the words African safari.  I will now forever think of the elephant and the lions that changed the way I thought of humans.  We may think that we’ve got it all figured out.  We may say that we rule this world.  We don’t tend to realize that we do not in fact own this world, we share it with thousands of creatures big and small.  We see our technological advances and our advanced society and think we know best.  Mistakes are being made every day by people and we continue to brush them aside.  The elephant’s wisdom and the lions pride made me understand a little better.  This was an experience that happened to me five years ago and I look back and realize these animals were saying more than just how small humans are.  If that elephant could speak it would have said “When will you start paying attention to us instead of what’s in your wallet?”  We and our corporations are killing our planet and I am tired of sitting around and watching it burn.  If we don’t get on top of climate change, there won’t be any safaris to go on.  Imprint tours is working to offset carbon emissions for the flights of our employees, please consider doing what you can to offset your own emissions.  Below is the link to offset your flights.  I implore you to take the climate crisis seriously and acknowledge your part in it, then do something about it.

 

https://www.americanforests.org/

 

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Gaudi's Barcelona by Maia Coen

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Barcelona is an architect’s dream.  Everywhere you turn you are confronted with buildings of creative and unique design.  Although other architects helped design this beautiful city one man’s work clearly stands out: Antoni Gaudí. 

            Gaudí imagined architecture in a fascinating new way; as one with nature.  He strived to design buildings that combined human needs with natural structures. For example, his Casa Batlló is an amalgamation of soft curving walls and bone like pillars that crawl up the façade.   The exterior reminds one of coral and the combination of various blue tiles replicate the sea.  The interior is no different.  The ceilings are covered by glittering blue and silver tiles that give one the feeling of being underwater.  Countless spirals embedded in the architecture represent the fluidity of nature opposed to the static nature of modern buildings.  In the center of the building is a light shaft.  It is covered in various hues of shiny blue tiles.  For the upper floors which need less light the tiles are darker.  Lower down they are lighter to reflect more light.  The shaft also provided ventilation for the entire house.  The amount of air is controlled by adjustable venting on each level.  Gaudi was essentially “green” a century before being green became popular.  Additionally, Gaudí took care for the visual harmony of the feature.  He carefully chose which colors he places where so that the column looks the same shade as you peer up but as you walk up the stairs you notice the changing tones.  My favorite level displayed windows overlooking the corridor with altered panes of glass.  When looking through the warped glass the blue tiles give the impression of looking at the sea, as they seem to ripple like water.

Battlo exterior

Battlo exterior

Battlo light well

Battlo light well

            Another well known building, largely regarded as Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, is the Sagrada Familia – the church of the holy family.  It is impossible not to be impressed by this structure.  As one comes up from the metro and turns to see it towering above it leaves you breathless.  There is absolutely nothing else like this in the world.  The spires wind their way to the sky in knobby uneven columns.  The church looks like something unearthed from beneath the sea, like a coral reef that was once alive but has now solidified under the pressure of the water.  The details are as diverse as they are uncountable.  It is no wonder Gaudí died before its completion.  If the outside is magnificent the inside is even more spectacular.  When you enter the church, it feels as if you are walking beneath a stone forest.  The pillars built to support such a tall structure are cleverly designed to look like huge trees.  The ceiling itself mimics the canopy of a forest.  Various shades of stained glass allow light to filter in from all sides like light filtering through a forest.  Everything Gaudi did was in service of creating a living breathing structure, and that he did.  The building is still under construction, but officials say it will be completed by 2026, the 100 year anniversary of Gaudí’s death.

Sagrada Familia exterior

Sagrada Familia exterior

Sagrada Familia interior - like walking through a forest

Sagrada Familia interior - like walking through a forest

            Park Güell, Casa Vincens, and Casa Mila are other well-known Gaudí buildings.  Each has its own unique design, but each shares his goal of integrating nature into the architecture.  Whether it be flower decals on a ceiling or pillars that look like trees Gaudí proclaimed his vision.  Each building is littered with spirals, curves, odd shaped roofs, rounded structures, reflective tiles, and designs of various sea creatures like trilobites or corals.  I have never been so impressed by buildings before.  No other architect has captured that quite like Gaudí.  His genius and his vision gave the world a beautiful glimpse into the workings of his mind.  When you are standing in Casa Batlló looking through that glass you truly believe you are looking at water rippling, now that is something amazing.

“looking through water” - Battlo

“looking through water” - Battlo

Imprint Tours has a Barcelona tour scheduled in late September.  Join us and see for yourself.

“Swirl” motif - interior Battlo

“Swirl” motif - interior Battlo

Nature and sealife motifs in the decorative tiles - Battlo

Nature and sealife motifs in the decorative tiles - Battlo

Bangkok Thailand

Bangkok Thailand – the name alone evokes images of a mysterious oriental cityscape of busy streets, sidewalk vendors, bustling markets, exotic entertainments, and striking Buddhist architecture. As the capital of modern Thailand and the center of its burgeoning economy Bangkok is a multifaceted city filled with myriad delights and destinations. Known as the “Venice of the East” because of its many canals and water-bourn culture (the word Bangkok means “water-flower village”), Thais themselves refer to the city as Krung Thep, City of Angels.

Wat Phra Kheo buildings

Wat Phra Kheo buildings


Bangkok’s history is relatively brief. Following the fall of Ayuthaya (Siam’s historic capital and a World Heritage site - an easy daytrip from Bangkok) to the Burmese in the late 18th century, Siamese society was fractured and prostrate. A hero emerged, Taksin, who rallied and united the Siamese people and established a new capital at Thonburi on the Chao Phraya River. The next king, Chao Phraya Chakri (Rama I, founder of the current dynasty) moved the capital across the river and founded Bangkok in 1782. Bangkok has been Siam/Thailand’s capital and primary city ever since. Rama undertook an ambitious building program including the Grand Palace complex and Wat Phra Kaew in an attempt to recapture the lost glory of Ayuthaya. Other important Wats and palaces followed in successive decades.
From a western perspective, Bangkok burst into the public consciousness during the Vietnam War as American GIs flocked here on leave. The Southeast Asian economic boom of the 1980s and ‘90s fueled the explosive expansion of Bangkok into the teeming metropolis of 10 million it is today.
Bangkok’s top sights are clearly the Grand Palace complex and Wat Pho. The highlight of a Grand Palace visit is Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha. The complex is a jaw-dropping collection of spectacular buildings, monuments, and statues. The entrance is guarded by two fantastic yaksha, or mythical giants. The compound walls are lined with beautifully restored murals of the Ramakian (Thai version of the Ramayana). The grounds are punctuated by multiple stupas, with their dramatically and diversely decorated prangs (spires). Many stupas are ringed by elaborate mythical warriors. The bots (temples buildings) are decorated by colored tiles and tiny mirrors – quite dazzling. Brightly gilded mythical statues add to the fantastical, mystical ambiance.

Phra Kheo garudas

Phra Kheo garudas


Next door Wat Pho is Bangkok’s oldest temple. Pho is another complex of beautiful bots and stupas (more than 100) and home to Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha. The striking, 150 foot long, gilded gold statue barely fits in its bot. The soles of the feet are particularly interesting, displaying 108 auspicious laksana (characteristics of the Buddha) in mother of pearl. Thailand’s largest collection of Buddha images (almost 400) is also housed here. Lastly, Wat Pho is the national center for traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage. There is no better place in the country for this obligatory experience. For about $10, one can experience 90 minutes of therapeutic, relaxing heaven.

Wat Pho reclining Buddha

Wat Pho reclining Buddha


Bangkok’s third signature sight is Wat Arun – the Temple of the Dawn. Its 266 foot Khmer-style prang dominates the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. Wat Arun was founded by Taksin but the tower itself was built by Ramas II and III in the early 19th century. One of Arun’s unique and pleasing features is its creative design and decoration. The materials used are a lesson in early Asian recycling. The entire stupa is decorated with broken Chinese porcelain. Eighteenth century Chinese trading ships used tons of broken porcelain as ballast, providing inexpensive, readily available materials.

Wat Arun

Wat Arun

Imprint Tours recently completed another successful tour of Thailand, the jewel of Southeast Asia - our favorite tour. We have made the decision to repeat both Vietnam and Thailand again in February 2020. If you’d like more information, here are the links to the respective tour pages.
Vietnam
Thailand
OR - contact us at info@imprinttours.com

Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Saigon

The final stop on Imprint’s Vietnam Tour was Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it is officially known today.  The locals still refer to it as Saigon and that seems appropriate.  I must admit, Saigon was not my favorite stop.  It is a big, busy, bustling city.  It is obviously the beating economic heart of modern, flourishing Vietnam, so it is an important stop.  But personally, I liked the ambiance of Hanoi and Hoi An much more.  However, Saigon has some worthwhile sights and is an important springboard for destinations in the south of the country.  After a morning flight from Hoi An we had a tour of the city which included some of its famed colonial architecture.   We saw their Notre Dame, Hotel de Ville, and the neo-classical Post Office building.  Perhaps all my travels in Europe for Rick Steves has jaded me against European Colonial architecture.  They were beautiful buildings all, but failed to excite my travel imagination.

           More enjoyable for me was the War Remembrance Museum.  The courtyard is filled with American planes, helicopters, jets, tanks, cannons, armored vehicles, and all manner of war machines.  It was fun having daughter Maia to pose in front of the captured armaments.  Like the Hanoi Hilton, this was an effective propaganda institution, characterizing the US as evil capitalist aggressors.  I did not find it offensive, merely instructive.

           The inside of the museum was dedicated to photos, explanatory panels, maps, and global press excerpts used to tell the story of American aggression, though there were plenty of bombs, missiles, ammunition, and small weaponry to go around.  Most of the ground floor was devoted to the American anti-war movement of the 1960s.  Images of violence on American campuses and stories of prominent objectors line the walls.  The experience prompted many questions from Maia and I realized the Vietnam War was a part of our history we had never discussed.  Bringing that to light and prompting discussion is another of the hidden values of travel.  I found great delight in taking her around to show her famous images I had grown up with.  Among them:  the South Vietnamese officer executing a Vietcong (pistol to temple); the village girl running naked after her clothing had been burned off by American napalm; pictures of Sgt Calley, the self-immolation of a Vietnamese monk, a US helicopter being pushed off a Saigon building at the end of the war, and many more.  Maia wore down quickly, but I was energized by the walk down memory lane, albeit, a sad and unfortunate lane to be sure.

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           Any sting that might have been felt from the jingoistic perspective of the museum was assuaged by the kindness and hospitality of every Vietnamese person to which we’d been exposed on the trip.  We were consistently met with kindness, openness, and inclusion.  Quite assuredly, many in our group came with certain trepidations about this tour.  The Vietnam War is a deep scar on our cultural psyche.  But this is the power of travel: to change perspectives and broaden our vision.  I start every tour with a Marcel Proust quote:  “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  That has never been more true than in Vietnam.  On the last night, when we were sharing highlights, Maia said it best.  She said, “What I learned on this tour is that Vietnam is more than just a war.”

Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Mekong and Cu Chi

At the end of our Vietnam tour we had two of the best experiences of the trip.  We had a Homestay visit in the Mekong Delta and visited the wartime Cu Chi tunnels outside of Saigon.  Both were interesting and served to connect us to the Vietnamese culture – always a goal on an Imprint tour.

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On our homestay visit we had a great local guide named Thu who exposed us to the waterborne culture of the great Mekong Delta region.  The mouth of Southeast Asia’s mightiest river is the agricultural heart of Vietnam and a place where traditional culture still holds sway.  Our bus dropped us off in the bustling port town of Cai Be.  We boarded our own boat and Thu started teaching us about life on the water.  We saw whole families living on the junks and plying their trade.  We stopped for a visit of a fish sauce factory.  Fish sauce is sort of the national “condiment” of Southeast Asia.  The fermented, salty sauce is used in virtually every local dish.  The process was worthy of note and educational, but I have to admit, not particularly pleasant for the olfactory nerves.  Later we visited a craft village that produces coconut candy and, for the adventurous among us, an opportunity to sample snake wine.  The Vietnamese make a spirit from the whole body of snakes, preferably venomous ones, in rice wine or grain spirits – with the whole snake still in the bottle.  The snake venom is dissolved into the liquor, giving it its medicinal properties.  It is widely believed to be an aid to health and virility – yum!

Then it was on into the archipelago of islands in the braided channels of the mighty Mekong.  Once having left Cai Be the scenery became lush and impressive, with jungle vegetation growing down to the riverbank.  Only the occasional farm showed that human habitation even exists here.  After gaining some miles upstream we were transferred to smaller, human-powered sampans.  The smaller, shallow draft boats allowed us to explore the smaller channels and inner waterways.  This was the best part of the experience in my mind.  We were given Chinese coolie hats for sun protection.  Our rowers were engaging and happy, though they spoke no English.  And we passed many other sampans laden with fruits, other produce, grains, and almost any agricultural products one can imagine.

Eventually we transferred back to our large boat and motored to our accommodation.  Our homestay was a large wooden building with a great dinning hall, rustic but comfortable sleeping quarters (raised beds, mosquito nets, and ensuite bathrooms) and, best of all, a lovely veranda around three sides of the building.  It was a lovely place for a happy hour and the cold beer was heavenly.  Some of the group dozed in the many hammocks available.  For dinner, we all had the opportunity to go into the kitchen and help prepare our dinner.  It was not a cooking class, but rather more like a cooperative venture.  It was a great chance to rub elbows with our local hosts.  After dinner we were surprised with a presentation of local music and drama – a private concert just for us.

The next day, before leaving the Delta, we visited the huge, bustling riverside market of Cai Be.  We saw explosions of color – every tropical flower and fruit imaginable.  All being brought in by barge, sampan, and boat.  On the way back to Saigon, we had a bonus stop at the vibrant and colorful Cao Dai temple. Indigenous to Vietnam, Caodaism is a unique fusion of Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Confucianism.  The interior is an eruption of multichromatic visual drama.  I won’t try to describe it, when a picture is worth . . .

Our other “experience” of southern Vietnam was the Cu Chi Tunnels.  If there were ever an ideal symbol of Vietnamese tenacity, resiliency, and resourcefulness, this vast system of tunnels is it.  Some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place in this region.  The Viet Cong, mere miles from the southern stronghold and capital of Saigon, literally went underground to survive and to maintain control of the area.  The system, which is often several layers deep, spread out like a subterranean spider’s web of more than 150 miles of tunnels.  The system included hundreds of trap doors and booby traps and consisted of living facilities, storage, weapons storage and manufacturing, hospitals, kitchens, and command centers.  The VC used the tunnel system to maintain communications and mount surprise attacks inside US controlled lines.  Eventually, the US resorted to saturation bombing which devastated the area.  Even so, they were never able to dislodge the combatants.  Cu Chi is now a very popular destination for the Vietnamese themselves and a favorite of school groups.

Today a small section is open to the public.  The tunnels have been enlarged so visitors don’t get the full claustrophobic effect of life underground – but it is bad enough even so.  The visit begins with a propaganda film and then one is escorted by local guides in camouflage fatigues through short sections of the tunnels.  There are pictures and examples of booby traps and lots of images of life underground.  The best part is the few minutes one is allowed to explore independently.  It is a meaningful experience and certainly causes reflection.

Between the rural, traditional experience of the Mekong Delta, the wartime connection at the Cu Chi tunnels , and rounded with the unique religious encounter of the Cao Dai temple we truly felt like we had “Traveled with Intent” in southern Vietnam.

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Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Hoi An

I should begin with the fact that Hoi An was my favorite stop on the initial Imprint Vibrant Vietnam tour back in 2015.  Halong Bay was more spectacular, but Hoi An has that great cultural vibe I’m come to love in my travels.  Its hard to define and articulate, but its easy to identify when you experience it.  For me, that makes Hoi An Vietnam’s unofficial cultural capital.  From my pre-tour research it was obvious there would be lots to see and do in Hoi An, so the tour tarried for 3 nights.

           Hoi An’s historic core is very charming.  As a long time trading city the architecture is of eclectic origins.  There are Chinese, Japanese, Cham, and even European-style buildings, giving the town an international feel.

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           Then there is the shopping.  Anyone who knows me knows I am not a shopper.  But Hoi An is the tailoring capital of the country and getting quality clothes custom tailored is easy and inexpensive.  I succumbed to the lure and got a bunch of new travel clothes made.  It was equally fun to shop with my daughter Maia for dresses, shoes, and a jacket.  All were custom fitted, great values, and will be unique back in Seattle circles – very important for a 16-year old.

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           Much like Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, Hoi An is a center of cooking schools.  There are dozens to choose from.  Most offer pickup from your hotel, a market tour which includes selecting and purchasing your ingredients, hands on training in preparation of several local dishes, instruction in decorative vegetable or fruit carving, and then the enjoyment of consuming your creations for lunch or dinner.  I organized a class for those tour members who were interested and they reported a genuinely wonderful experience.  Their “class” uniquely included a bike ride through a couple villages to the local market.  The instruction was top rate, the English good, and the experience fantastic.

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           It would be hard to say that any one town has the best food in Vietnam because the food was universally fresh, creative, unique, and delicious.  But it did seem like Hoi An has an embarrassment of culinary riches.  We had two excellent organized meals and our free time choices were also successful.  But the edible highlight was the great Banh Mi sandwich shop our Vietnamese guide Bon took our group to.  Famous all over Vietnam, our travelers confirmed the reputation was well earned and in no danger of falling off any time soon.  The sandwiches were simple (no choices), fresh (including the bread), cheap, and immense!  Best value meal on the tour!

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           We made one short but worthwhile excursion from Hoi An.  We journeyed to the nearby ruins of My Son, one-time capital of the Cham civilization.  While not the most spectacular ruins in Southeast Asia, the Cham remains were nonetheless worthwhile.  An hour’s drive brought us to an impressive bridge where our bus left us and we proceeded on foot.  The Champa kings built temples, tombs, and monuments here from the 4th to 18th century.  The structures that remain are intricately carved from a red sandstone.  I was put in mind of Banteay Srie at Angkor.  Like there, the details are important.  The buildings are covered with carvings of gods, priests, sacred animals, and mythical battles.  We were able to enter several buildings and photograph to our heart’s content.  The humid, tropical air of central Vietnam softened the light for photographs even at mid-morning.  One last bonus experience awaited us when we began our return to the bus.  Under a pavilion, ancient Cham music and dance are performed.   It was quite good.  Usually performances that are provided free tend to be cheesy and touristy.  But I found this performance quite compelling.  We saw several dances and heard at least 3 styles of music.  One performer, playing a rudimentary clarinet-type of horn impressed us all by playing a single note for several minutes without interruption.  Obviously he had perfected a technique of breathing in and blowing out at the same time, allowing him to hold the single note an impossibly long time.  After the performance we boarded our bus and returned to more relaxing in Hoi An.

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           One last indulgence that Hoi An provides is massage.  I don’t think the massage is special or unique, but it was readily available and inexpensive.  All in all, tied off with the ribbon of a beautiful hotel with a relaxing swimming pool area, our 3 days in Hoi An were well spent.

Imprint Tours has a group visiting Vietnam right now with colleagues Sarah Murdoch and Trish Feaster.  Follow their adventures on FB, Twitter, and/or Instagram:  thetravelphile and adventureswithsarahm

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Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Hue

           Halfway through our Vietnam tour we were halfway down the country in the charming town of Hue.  After Hanoi and the north we jumped aboard an overnight train and chugged south through the Vietnamese night.  The train was quite comfortable, more so than European couchettes I thought.  After breakfast and showers we continued south by bus.  We made one foray enroute, stopping to see another of Vietnam’s many imposing caves – Phong Nha.  I have been in many caves in my life, including the one on Halong Bay.  Phong Nha, which means “Cave of Teeth”, is easily one of the most remarkable.  What makes it unique is that you enter via boat on the river that flows from the cave mouth.  Once inside the boatman shuts off the engine and you glide in silence in a surreal subterranean world.  The combination of water and limestone make for eerie echoes and many of the most impressive formations are illuminated.  After our drifting tour of 20-30 minutes we disembarked our boats and climbed through several caverns, emerging high above the river and entrance for fine views and a picturesque temple.

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           After another amazing lunch, we were back on the road and heading south with quick photo stops at Cloudy Pass and famous China Beach.  In the late afternoon we arrived in Hue, the 19th century capital of the Nguyen dynasty.  The big sight in Hue is the great citadel, Kinh Thanh.  Equal parts military fortress, royal residence, and religious compound, the citadel is well worth a couple hours of exploration.  There are moats and cannons to photograph and bastion walls and towers to climb.  The Imperial Enclosure contains the palatial emperor’s residence and state buildings.  There are ceremonial gates, palaces, temples, pavilions, and galleries.  It is divided into concentric walled sections, the innermost being the Forbidden Purple City, where the emperor and family entertained, recreated, and housed the royal concubines.  Much of the compound was destroyed or burned during the war.  But the semi-destruction gives the whole place an air of mystery and one can almost sense the ghosts of the past.

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           Hue’s secondary sight is Thien Mu Pagoda, found just outside the city .  Easily accessible by boat, that is how we traveled to see it.  This temple complex is dominated by its 70+ foot high tower, Thap Phuoc Duyen.  Originally founded 400 years ago, the temple became a center of political rebellion in the 1960s.  In fact, one of the seminal events in Vietnamese history had its genesis here.  It was a monk of Thien Mu, Thich Quang Duc, who publicly burned himself in Saigon in protest of contemporary policies.  A photographer captured the incident and the image was shared across the globe on newspaper and magazine covers. The auto which transported him to his destiny can still be seen in the temple complex.

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           One last experience rounded out our time in Hue.  From Thien Mu we took a dragon-headed river boat up the Perfume River into the Hue countryside.  The area is littered with royal tombs, all of which are impressive architectural expressions.  We stopped at the tomb of Minh Mang, one of the most famous.  It is renowned for its peaceful, wooded setting.  A great granite staircase leads to ceremonial gate through which one enters a lovely courtyard, backed by the impressive pavilion.  The tomb and the pleasant river cruise seemed the perfect conclusion of our Hue activities.

Imprint Tours has a group visiting Vietnam right now with colleagues Sarah Murdoch and Trish Feaster.  Follow their adventures on FB, Twitter, and/or Instagram:  thetravelphile and adventureswithsarahm

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Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Tam Coc & Halong Bay

On day two of our Vietnam tour we visit the stunning landscape of Tam Coc.  It has been said that Tam Coc is the terra firma version of famous Halong Bay.  Like Halong, it is the geology that is special here, with karst stacks and towers jutting up from the valley floor.  While not as vast and high as the karst formations of southern China and Halong, those of Tam Coc are still breathtaking to behold.  The activity one comes for is a slow, luxurious paddle up the river to and through the three caves (like the hongs of Thailand) which give the area its name (Tam Coc means “Three Caves”).  The unique element is the manner in which one is rowed.  The locals here have perfected a technique whereby they row the small boats with their feet.  Its fascinating, pleasing, and of course, extremely photogenic. And the experience is sublime.  Drifting peacefully along past rice paddies and occasional temples, always with the stunning backdrop of the karst formations, propelled by your own private rower.  At first your ‘rower’ is likely to chatter on in Vietnamese with a big smile on his or her face.  But eventually they settle in to the task at hand and you are left in silence to enjoy the show drifting by.  The caves themselves are fun, creating echoes in the darkness and emerging again to sunshine – like emerging from the gates of Hades into the world of light and the living.  There are even entrepreneurial locals who row out to meet you with cold drinks for sale.

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On day three we headed out for one of the great natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay.  Halong is probably the most majestic collection of karst stacks and islands anywhere in the world.  The marine setting makes it even more spectacular.  Most of us are familiar with this natural wonder from movies or nature shows on television.  But as always, seeing something on a screen hardly compares to the real experience.  Around 2000 karst tower-islands sprout from the bay making a truly spectacular vista.  Most are shrouded in jungle vegetation and many are pierced by erosion-created grottos and lagoons.  Apart from visiting one of the larger caves, which we did, one can swim or kayak or simply sail around the bay marveling at the exquisite formations.  Excursion boats are everywhere.  But we opted to spend the night on the bay – in our opinion, the only way to experience this wonder.  We slept on converted junks which were quite comfortable.  Small but comfortable cabins with AC, a tiny desk, and ensuite bathrooms.  And the food (fresh seafood of course) was some of the best on the tour.

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Ha Long means “descending dragon”.  Various Vietnamese legends all suggest the islands were created by a great dragon or dragons.  One suggests a great mountain dragon came crashing into the sea, its tail thrashing about creating the geologic chaos that characterizes the area.  Eventually, it settled on the seabed, its spiny dorsal creating the stalagmite islands.  Another suggests a family of dragons was sent by the gods to protect Vietnam from invaders.  The dragons spewed jewels into the bay, each of which sprouted into one of the protecting islands. The scientific explanations are not as fun, but any way one chooses to believe, the results are beyond spectacular and not to be missed.

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Imprint Tours has a group visiting Vietnam right now with colleagues Sarah Murdoch and Trish Feaster.  Follow their adventures on FB, Twitter, and/or Instagram:  thetravelphile and adventureswithsarahm

Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Hanoi

In 2015 Imprint Tours had its first tour of Vietnam.  As there is currently an Imprint group in this up and coming Southeast Asian nation, and another scheduled again next February, it seems an appropriate time to share some of the recollections from that first foray. I had no serious trepidation about how I, as an American, might be treated.  But I would be lying if I said I expected such warm and welcoming treatment.  The war is a distant memory here and American visitors represent commerce, income, and prosperity.  Relaxed attitudes, genuine smiles, and open hearts were the order of every day on the tour.  And that constant will probably be reflected in all my blogs.

Overall, I found our Vietnam tour to be one driven by cultural connections far more than big bang sights.  Hanoi, where we began, reflected that dynamic as well.  It was the perfect place to start.  The city is big, busy, and loud but it has a welcoming energy and ambiance and I felt relaxed right away. The Temple of Literature and Hoa Lo Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton) were interesting and engaging.  But they were hardly jaw-dropping.  I enjoyed them both, but not more so than wandering the streets, trying street food, and engaging the locals who spoke English.  Oh, and while hardly a pleasant highlight, the number one sport for pedestrians is dodging the almost astronomical number of motorbikes in the city.  They swarm like locusts, only pausing for the occasional red lights, behind which they gather like water behind a newly constructed dam.  Building up pressure, widening out behind, filling every void, the kinetic energy building for the big surge when the light turns green.

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The Temple of Literature is well worth visiting of course.  Almost 1000 years old, it is dedicated to Confucius and honors Vietnam’s literary heroes.  The entrance gate is one of the iconic images of the city and country, a classic example of Vietnamese architecture:  multi-tiered with Chinese-like winged flourishes.  Manicured gardens surround you as you pass a gallery featuring 82 stelae, which proclaim the genius of 1300+ scholars and writers from Vietnamese history.  Each stelae rests on the back of a turtle, a sacred animal in Vietnam and symbol of wisdom. The culmination of the compound is a grand courtyard entered via the notable Khue Van Cac (Pavilion of the Constellation of Literature), built in 1802. The most imposing building on the courtyard is a temple dedicated to Confucius.  It’s interior is dominated by an impressively large statue of the great teacher.  Incense burns in great sand-filled cauldrons, lending an air of mystery and mysticism.

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Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton (the name coined by American POWs), is a different kind of experience all together.  As one would expect, it is hardly as uplifting as the celebratory Temple of Lit.  The timbre here is more sobering.  Most of the exhibits feature scenes from the colonial period when the French built and used the prison for the incarceration of rebellious Vietnamese.  But a few rooms feature images and artifacts from the Vietnam War, when US pilots were imprisoned.  Visitors see a very sanitized version of life in the prison, which of course is at odds with the documented reports of those who were housed here.  But that is to be expected.

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Two last sights are certainly worth a photographic drive by.  Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is an expectedly large and imposing building.  Reminiscent of the political architecture of the Chinese Communist Party to the north, it is certainly a fitting memorial to their independence hero.  The second is lovely Hoan Keim Lake.  A stroll around this lake provides a peaceful respite from the hub-bub of the urban surroundings (though one does not escape the sound of the relentless traffic).  It is particularly peaceful at dawn before the city fully wakes up.  A picturesque temple on a tiny island make the lake one of the most photographed subjects in the entire country.

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One last “event” bears mentioning.  Vietnamese Water Puppets are a bit of performance art worth seeking out.  Unique to Vietnam, it was invented by rice farmers about a millennium ago.  They carved puppets out of fig tree wood (water resistant) and performed in ponds or flooded rice paddy fields.  Today, eleven trained puppeteers manipulate elaborate puppets up to two feet long and weighing 30+ pounds in a square tank of waste deep water.  The clever manipulations make the figures appear to walk on water.  It takes considerable skill, long years of training, and the techniques are a closely guarded secret.  The performance is truly unique, visually engaging, and simply a lot of fun.  I think it’s a no-miss activity in Hanoi.

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Hanoi, with its international airport, is certainly the ideal place to start a north to south trek through Vietnam.  I would say it is worth one single day of sight seeing, and another couple of days as a base for seeing the many interesting things nearby.  On our tour, we ventured to Tam Coc and Halong Bay, but there are plenty of other worthwhile things to see in the north.

Imprint Tours has a group visiting Vietnam right now with colleagues Sarah Murdoch and Trish Feaster.  Follow their adventures on FB, Twitter, and/or Instagram:  thetravelphile and adventureswithsarahm

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