Crow Castle

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The magnificent & beautifully preserved Matsumoto Castle is unique in that it is a flatland castle (hirajiro) situated  in a basin just 590m above sea-level & is also the oldest  five structured, six storied  inter-connected castle constructed at the end of the Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai c1467-1603) which saw widespread social upheaval, political intrigue & military conflicts in the fiefdom.

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The Keep has retained all its original wooden interiors & external stonework. After WWII on 29th Mar 1950, Matsumoto Castle  was gazetted a national treasure according to the Cultural Treasures Preservation Law. The Inner  Moat surrounds the castle & here we have a partial view of the Tsukimi Tower (Tsukimi Yagura) , Tatsumitsuke Tower (Tatsumi Tsukeyagura)  & The Main Keep (Daitenshu).

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Notice the small square openings  in the buttresses  of the Inner Gate (Ninomon);  that allows  for the handheld matchlocks to be fired at enemies on the opposite shore of the moat.

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The  Inner Gate (Ninomon)  is in ‘Koraimon‘ style characterized by front pillars & doors covered with a small roof & is one of the main entrances into Matsumoto Castle.

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You will see the Ticket Office on the left upon entering the Ninomon & enter this walled compound between the two gates where the buttresses propping the walls were restored in Nov 1989. These buttresses help to prevent the walls from collapsing in the onslaught of an enemy attack.

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Entering through the Outer Gate ( Ichi no mon)  which was also called Black Gate (Kuromon) as Black was regarded the best colour in those times & it represented the magnificent formal gate leading to the Honmaru Palace.

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Everyday between 9am to 4pm, Matsumoto Castle’s Hospitality Team will grace the Honmaru Gardens dressed as princesses, ninjas  & armoured warriors so you could take a photo with them as a momento.

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An unmasked  Samurai Warrior brandishing two swords. Samurais carry two swords with them.  A short dagger (tanto) or shorter sword (wakizashi) worn with another long curved, single-edged sword (katana) with the blade typically between 60-73cm long weighing about 1.1 to 1.3kg. The pairing of a katana with a smaller sword is called ‘daisho’ literally meaning Big & Small.  Only a Samurai could wear the daisho which represented his social power & personal honour.

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Entering through the Outer Gate ( Ichi no mon) into Honmaru Gardens.  Matsumoto Castle which is commonly known as Crow Castle (Karasu-jo) because of its black exterior is located in the city of Matsumoto, in Nagano Prefecture. The city is built around the castle which sits right smack in the middle of Matsumoto.

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Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered the construction of the Main Keep (Dai-tenshu), smaller  Northern Tower (Inui-kotenshu) & the Watari Tower (Watari Yagura) at the end of the Warring States Period for the purpose of monitoring the Kanto region. The Moon Viewing Tower (Tsukimi Yagura) is connected to the Main Keep (tallest structure) via the Southern Wing (Tatsumi Tsuke Yagura) & these two structures were additions during the peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868)  & do not have stone-dropping holes or defence mechanisms built-in.

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Vermillion handrails (Hane Koran) installed around the Moon Viewing Tower (Tsukimi Yagura) suggests that it was built during peaceful times & it was meant for rest & recreation.

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  Moon Viewing Tower (Tsukimi Yagura) – This tower was built hurriedly sometime in 1633 under the domain of the Matsumoto Lord Matsudaira Naomasa for the impending visit of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu who was stopping by at Zenkoji Temple for pilgrimage,  enroute  from Kyoto  back to Tokyo in 1634. There is a vast difference between the keep & this tower with no defense equipment. It is kept simple with only pillars & thin wooden sliding doors with horizontal crosspieces called Mairado which are easily removed so that people can enjoy viewing the moon rising from the east whilst seated in this tatami laid room.

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Armour on display exhibiting the typical battle accessories the Samurai would carry. Sword on the waist, ramrod for loading bullets on the back, a bullet case on the waist & an ignition agent hanging from the shoulder that looks like a gourd & not forgetting the matchlock that is carried which weighs about 20kg.

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This Ammuniation Box for carrying  bullets at Matsumoto Castle Gun Museum on the second floor exhibits a variety of weapons & guns including those manufactured in Kunitomo (Nagahama city, Shiga Prefecture) known as a major producing area of matchlocks, large guns weighing 16kg & portable guns for self-defence.

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This Kabura Gegyo is a decoration mounted on the triangular-shaped gables (Hafu) found under the roof. It serves as a talisman to ward off fires. Gegyos originated from China & usually took the form of a fish but in Japan it is commonly that of a turnip. This one was dismounted & replaced by a new one during the Showa period restorations.

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Lead Musket ball ammunition  for firing from the little cannons.

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In the Akahane Collection  of weapons is the Sashibishikiju Rantakaho is a little cannon, 1460mm long with the muzzle size of 32.8mm

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On the second floor of the Main keep the Daitenshu are these vertical lattice windows known as Tategoushi-mado where  matchlocks could be fired from.

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A good view of the Black lacquered weatherboards on the lower parts & white stuccoed walls on the upper parts. The sidings provided protection against the rain & the walls of the  Keep of the Castle (Daitenshu)  is said to have lasted over 50 years. The walls in this lower section are about 29cm thick & impenetrable to matchlock bullets. Tree branches called ‘Naru‘ were tied with rope & plastered over with mud to form these thick walls & the thickness  is progressively reduced on the higher floors.

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These special projecting shelves are Stone Dropping Windows (Ishi-otoshi) built at intervals  where stones or hot water is dropped on enemies trying to scale the wall. A total of 11 such windows are installed on the first floor of the Watari Yagura(Roofed Passage), the Inui Kotenshu (Small Northern Tower) & the Keep respectively. Looking from the insides, you will notice the stonewalls have a steep gradient of about 57 degrees which makes scaling difficult even for a samurai.

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These are the only windows on the Third floor that allow natural light to filter through as the walls are hidden behind the double layered roof. This Hidden Floor (Kakushi-kai) or Dark Floor (Kurayamijyu) likely served as a warehouse & shelter during wars.

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The Third Floor of both the Main Keep (Daitenshu) & the Small Northern Tower ( Inui Kotenshu) are similar in that they hardly have windows as the 2 layered roof covered the periphery of the walls of this floor.

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This  5.4m by 5.4m area is the  Living Space (Gozaisho) for the lord when he was present at the Keep. If the lord remained at the Gozaisho during battle, it meant that the Keep was in the final phase of the battle. The area is cordoned off by vertical wood screens (Uchinori-nageshi) that hang between the ceiling & the lintel. Smoothly planed Cypress wood pillars are used instead of roughly hewn timbers as seen in the lower floors.

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Beautiful silk brocade & tassels (fusa) decorate the screens which could divide the large space into three rooms with a surrounding corridor.

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This is the fifth floor & the Strategy Meeting Room where the senior vassal held meetings during an ongoing battle.  Seven sets of staircases lead from the first to the sixth floors & they are located at different places.  The staircases are both steep & narrow ranging from a 55 to 61 degree incline,  making it harder for enemies to infiltrate & vanquish the floors above. The steepest set is between the fourth & fifth floors with steps rising 40cm.

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Chidori Gable on the  5th floor of the Dai-tenshu. Chidori gables decorate the East & West & Kara gables decorate the North & South.  Behind each gable is an attic & all the directions can be seen through the Warrior windows (Mushamado).

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The  Watari Tower (Watari Yagura) on the left  links the Main Keep (DaiTenshu) to the Small Northern Tower  (Inui-Kotenshu) & these three structures were built during late 16th century.  In the middle of the picture you see a section of flat tiles laid on the roof – these are rain covers or ‘Sutegawara‘ put in during the Showa era (1926-1989)  to prevent damage to the roofs from falling frozen snow.

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The Sixth floor of the Daitenshu stands at an elevation of 22.1m above ground & it could be covered with 16 pieces of Tatami (rush-woven mats). It was designed to be the headquarters of the Feudal Lord (Daimyo) when the castle was under attack.

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Seen  here on the sixth floor is the ‘Hanegi’ eave structure where the eaves are placed radially & directed outwards to support the eaves of the heavy tiled roof.  The Toda Clan moved to Matsumoto in 1617 & placed the Nijyu-rokuya Shin (26 Day old noon god) where approximately 500kg of cooked rice was offered monthly in worship. Partial view of the plaited straw covered altar.

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Some mountains seen here include: Takeshimine Peak, Mount Hakamagoshi, Mount Yake & Mount Ougatou in east.

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Tiles laid on the grass delineate the location of Honmaru Palace (Honmaru Goten) that covered about 2,730sq m with about 60 rooms that was used as the domain’s administration office & residence of the lord. It was unfortunately burnt down in a fire in 1927.

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A panoramic view of the vermillion Uzumi Bridge (Uzumibashi) & the Inner Moat from the 6th floor of the Daitenshu & the Japanese Alps that surround Matsumoto City.

This is truly a ‘Samurai’ experience not to be missed! Entering this almost intact fortification from the 16th century is like going back in time when these walls lived through political intrigue,  social upheavals & constant military conflict. Walking along the passageways & corridors & looking at how the Keep was constructed, pretty much gives you an idea on how warfare was waged in those troubled times.

The Matsumoto Castle Gun Museum has an extensive collection of matchlocks & other battle equipment donated by the late Akabane Michishige & Akabane Kayoko, both natives of Matsumoto which would further enlighten you on what the life of a Samurai was like.

 

 

Island of Kings

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Lokrum Island (Otok Lokrum) seen from the Old Town  Fortress wall walk of Dubrovnik. This little island is about 2km long from north to south & 500m broad. The summit elevation is about 96m. Lokrum which in Italian is Lacroma  is derived  from the Latin word ‘acrumen‘ which means sour fruit probably after the citrus  cultivation  on the island since the time the Benedictines arrived in 1023.

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Lokrum Island is just a stone’s throw from Dubrovnik Old Town, so it makes it a popular local & tourist getaway. You can catch a 15 min ferry ride from  the Old Town Port to Lokrum.

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Lokrum is a small island that lies in the Adriatic Sea,  600m away from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

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As we sail out to the Adriatic Sea, we are treated to this sweeping view of the Medieval 16th century fortification perched on a solid mount of rock, encircling the Old Town of Dubrovnik.

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The Adriatic Sea separates the Balkan Peninsula with the Dinaric Alps from the Italian Peninsula with the Apennine Mountains. We spy Montenegro in the distance.

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As we continued to sail out from Dubrovnik which historically was known as Ragusa, capital of the maritime Republic of Ragusa during the 15th & 16th centuries;  we see Mount Srđ rising high up behind the city.

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It was such a beautiful day as we cruised in this sturdy boat that took us around Lokrum Island & back to harbour.

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The Stijene Rocks section. Legend has it that King Richard the Lionheart was shipwrecked on Lokrum following his crusades of 1192. In 1859, Maxmillian von Habsburg the Archduke of Austria bought Lokrum & transformed the Benedictine Abbey & monastery into a summer palace. Hence, this little island was later  nicknamed the ‘Island of Kings’.

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The south-western part of the island is craggy & this islet is a quiet haven with  no vehicular traffic or dogs allowed.

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The whole island is composed of carbonate rocks namely sedimentary limestone & dolomite which was formed approximately 85 million  years ago in the younger geological period of Cretaceous.

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As we continued to hug the coastline, we passed  this cove named Velika špilja.

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The Bay of Portoč (Uvala Portoč) is another swimming spot to enjoy the clear blue waters of the Adriatic but be careful as the beach is rocky. Lokrum is lush & beautiful with  holm oaks, black ash, pine & olive trees & has virtually remained untouched for centuries. In 1964 Lokrum was declared a Managed Nature Reserve & in 1976 a Special Forest Vegetation Reserve under the auspices of   UNESCO.

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This natural shelter is the FKK (frei-körper-kultur) zone designated for skinny dipping, so be prepared to bathe in your birth-day suit here! If you are modest like me, try swimming at the Dead Sea (Mrtvo More) a 10m deep lake linked to the sea.

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There is quite a bit to see on Lokrum but the principal highlight is probably The Benedictine Abbey founded in 1023 & its formal gardens. There is also an impressive Botanical Garden of the Dubrovnik Oceanographic Institute & the 19th century Fort Royal which stands at the top of Lokrum Hill.

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The cruise gradually turned around & we see Mount Srđ with the Cable car station right on top looming over Dubrovnik.

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The Adriatic Sea is the northern-most arm of the Mediterranean Sea & countries that have coastlines by the Adriatic include Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Montenegro & Slovenia.

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Many villas are built on these steep cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea with their own private jetties like this one.

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Along Croatia’s glimmering coastline that spans about 1,800km, Dubrovnik is the top tourist town & it lies along the southern-most stretch known as the Dalmatian Coast. There are 79 islands & over 500 islets & the Adriatic Sea’s high water quality coupled with the immense number of coves & channels make it an ideal spot of nautical races, sea-sports & tourism in general.

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The Dalmatian Coast is dominated by dramatic limestone cliffs that rise from the deep, isolated islands, attractive beaches, water-sports & the beautiful  turquoise Adriatic Sea.

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Banje Beach can be reached from the Old Town when you exit the Ploce Gate on the eastern side & walk towards the suburb of Ploce for about 100m. At sunset, this amazing beach transforms into a night club for revellers.

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Our exciting cruise ended here at the Gradska Luka (Old Town Port) but our day in Dubrovnik was  far from over as we next made our way up  Mount Srđ on the cable car to catch the magnificent sunset.

When you are done with exploring the Old City of Dubrovnik, hop over to this gem,  Lokrum Island. What you would need is good walking shoes, your swim gear, sunblock & shades for a relaxing time away from all the hustle & bustle!

Doorways & Courtyards

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Tứ Trụ – In front of the Temple of Literature are these four tall pillars with Chinese inscriptions & two  stelae from which  horsemen dismounted.

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Standing before the Great Portico of the Temple of Literature (Cồng Văn Miếu) which was built in 1070 & reconstructed during the Trần Dynasty (1225-1400) & in later dynasties but the ancient architectural styles have been carefully preserved.

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Vietnam’s first  university,  ‘Quốc Tử Giám’ the Imperial Academy was established here & built by Emperor Lý Nhân Tông  especially for the bureaucrats, nobles, royalty & members of the elite as he recognised that education was of utmost importance.  A bronze bell hangs above this main gate signifying that a person of importance is passing through & affiliated to the Văn Miếu.

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Archway meant for the Monarch is decorated with a gold gilded  Dragon motif wooden panel.    The Imperial Academy was later opened to the public as there was a shortage of universities in Hanoi & remained opened from 1076 to 1779.

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The Great Portico is flanked by two other smaller gates; the centre gate was reserved for the Monarch, the right gate for the administrative Mandarins & the left gate for the military Mandarins..  This temple complex was dedicated to Confucius, a venerated teacher, politician & philosopher & has the same structure as the Temple of Qufu in Shandong, the birthplace of Confucius in China.

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We passed through this gate (Cồng Đại Trung) from the First Courtyard to the Second Courtyard, approaching Khuê Văn Pavilion. The first two courtyards are quiet areas with ancient trees & trimmed lawns where the scholars could relax & get away from the busy outside world.

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Khuê Văn Các – The upper portion of the wooden pavilion is painted a vermillion red with two circular windows topped by an elaborate roof.  A bronze bell hangs from the pavilion’s ceiling & it is rung only on auspicious occasions.

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We are now in the Third Courtyard after crossing the Khuê Văn Pavilion (Khuê Văn Các) which was uniquely built in 1805 on four whitewashed stone stilts.  Thien Quang Well (Giếng Thiên Quang) lies in the middle with the great halls (Bia Tiến Sĩ) on either side, housing treasures of the temple.

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Young Graduates having their portraits taken by the professional photographers.

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This section here is the  ‘Doctors Stelae‘ which was erected in 1484 by Emperor Lê Thánh Tông. Originally there were 116 such Turtle steles but only 82 remain today. They bear the names of  1307 successful candidates of 82 triennial royal exams held between 1442 to 1779 in honour of their talent & to encourage learning. In Vietnamese culture, the turtle symbolizes longevity & wisdom.

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Another batch of happy graduates are having their portrait taken within the Third Courtyard with Khuê Văn Pavilion as the backdrop.

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I am about to cross  Đại Thành Gate (Cồng Đại Thành) into the Fourth Courtyard. There are several pavilions & halls within this complex, where study sessions & the strict exams of the Đại Việt took place.

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Looking through Đại Thành Gate into the Fourth Courtyard which was a flurry of activity as different groups of Graduates prepared to have their photos taken.

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The House of Ceremonies (Đại Bái Đường) with two dragons sitting on the ridge of the roof. According to ancient origin myth, the Vietnamese people were descended from a dragon & a fairy. So the Vietnamese believe that the dragon brings rain essential for agriculture & it also represents the emperor, prosperity & power of the nation.

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Love the colourful  Áo Dàis  & the enthusiasm of these  young people,  the very future of Vietnam.

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A Bronze pair of Crane-like mythical birds guard the altar in the middle. In Vietnamese culture, the colour red is auspicious & represents happiness, love, luck & celebration.

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A long corridor of vermillion pillars with gold embellishments & wooden plagues with Chinese proses in gold lettering. Gold is associated with wealth, prosperity, royalty, happiness & change.

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An ornamental incense holder with two twining Dragons, in front of the Thượng Điện for devotees to place the lighted joss sticks in worship of Confucius (551-479B.C.) & his disciples.

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Within  the Thượng Điện  Confucius & four of his closest disciples Yanhui, Zengshen, Zisi & Mencius are worshipped.

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Beautiful traditional wooden doors within the Thượng Điện.

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Thái Học Gate (Cồng Thái Học)  brings us to the  Fifth & final Courtyard – the Thái Học Courtyard.

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The Thái Học Courtyard was constructed in 2000 where  the Quốc Tử Giám or Imperial Academy formerly stood.  This section  was destroyed  in 1946 during the French occupation  & was re-built to honour talent, the national traditions of culture & education in Vietnam. It consists of a front building, rear building, left & right buildings, a bell tower & a drum tower on each side & some other peripheral buildings. This front building is where ceremonies in memory of cultural scholars, scientific & cultural activities are held.

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An Orchestra performs at regular intervals featuring some  bamboo instruments, playing traditional music in honour of the Royal founders & Confucius.

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Entrance to the rear building at the Thái Học Courtyard with the Altar to Chu Văn An, rector of the Imperial Academy,  facing the main  doorway.

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Altar of Chu Văn An,  a  venerated rector of the Imperial Academy.

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Overview of the first level of the rear building at Thái Học Courtyard.

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This upper level of the rear building is dedicated to the three monarchs who contributed most to the foundation of the temple & the academy.  Right in the middle is Lý Nhân Tông (1066-1127) who founded the Imperial Academy & Lê Thánh Tông (1442-1497) who had the Doctors Stelae erected & Lý Thánh Tông (1023-1072) not in the picture, who founded the temple in 1070.

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On the second level overlooking the tiled roof of the rear building & the Bell Tower.

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Lầu Chuông – This Bell was cast in 2000 & has a height of 2.1m & width of 0.99m

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View of the rear building from the Drum Tower all within the Thái Học Courtyard.

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Lầ Trồng – this drum weighs about 700kg, is 2.01m high & 2.65m wide, with the volume of 10m³

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The temple complex covers an area of over 54000 sq m & it includes the Văn Lake, Giám Park & the interior Courtyards which are surrounded by a brick wall.

The Temple of Literature is truly an interesting visit, as it is well-preserved & holds a lot of history & gives insight into the lives of the literati in Hanoi during the centuries past. It is also featured on the back of the 100,000 Vietnamese Dong banknote. Every year,  just before  the New Year celebrations Tết, calligraphers would gather outside the temple & write well wishes in Chinese Han characters. These are either given away as gifts or used as home décor for special occasions.

A Bridge Down Under

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View of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from my room at the Marriott Hotel at Circular Quay.

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Full view of  the Harbour Bridge & the partly lit Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay from the Marriott Hotel.

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The Sydney Harbour Bridge is playing peek-a-boo, hiding behind the luscious trees at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Bennelong Point.

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An iconic picture of  Australia with the  Sydney Opera House,  the Harbour Bridge & Port Jackson all  in one,  as seen from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair within the Royal Botanic Gardens.

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Circular Quay is always bustling with all kinds of seafaring vessels big & small like ferries, water taxis, Captain Cook cruises & ocean liners plying Port Jackson which consists of Sydney Harbour, Middle Harbour, Lane Cove & Parramatta River.

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Museum of Contemporary Art on the left, as I stand at the pier of  Circular Quay to capture a shot of the Harbour Bridge.

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A good night view of the Harbour Bridge nicknamed ‘The Coat-hanger’ wedged by 4 pylons  & North Shore – taken from the Sydney Opera House.

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This spanning arch bridge is the 6th longest in the world & it is also the tallest steel arch-bridge standing over 134m from the water level to the top of the structure. Milsons Point on the North Shore with Sydney Luna Park prominently lit on the foreshore.

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Woke up to a day with overcast skies & as we took the Ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, we passed an Ocean liner that had just docked the night before & coursed right past  the iconic steel arched bridge.

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Conservation area  ‘The Rocks’ at Circular Quay W walking towards Campbell’s Cove Jetty near to the Harbour Bridge.

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At Campbell’s Cove Jetty where a luxurious yacht is docked just by Park Hyatt Hotel, sitting beneath the Harbour Bridge.

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Enjoying the green space at the Hickson Road Reserve where there  is a good view of the Harbour Bridge built by the NSW Department of Public Works under the direction of Dr John Bradfield & opened in 1932. The bridge was designed by the  British firm Dorman Long & Co Ltd of Middlesbrough.

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Walking along Hickson Road & snapping away merrily, as the vista here is pretty to say the least & the weather superb.

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This end of the  Harbour Bridge is located at Dawes Point in ‘The Rocks’ area which is part of the southern CBD of Sydney. Looking across is Lavender Bay & the Luna Park amusement & entertainment venue.

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This iconic bridge carries rail, vehicular, bicycle & pedestrian traffic between Sydney’s CBD & the North Shore. Cahill Expressway & Bradfield Highway spans across this bridge but there is an alternative crossing via the Sydney Harbour Tunnel which was opened in 1992 after 5 years of construction to ease congestion on the Harbour Bridge.

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28 panel arch trusses ranging from 18m to 57m support the Bridge which weighs about 52,800 tonnes in totality.  About 79% of the steel was imported from England & the rest sourced from Newcastle, NSW.  The Bridge is held together by 6 million Australian made hand-driven rivets supplied by the McPherson Co of Melbourne with the last one driven in on deck on 21st Jan 1932.

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It is interesting to just stand under this gargantuan structure & listen to the trains coming,  cars passing,  trucks trundling along & not  forgetting the boats & cruisers quietly sailing past.

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Standing at Ives Steps at Dawes Point where I spied some anglers trying their luck for the day right under the nose  of the Harbour Bridge.

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Walsh Bay consists of a mix of commercial & residential properties with quite a few art houses & theatre companies based here.

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Barangaroo Reserve is a 6 hectare park at Millers Point which is Sydney’s latest Harbour foreshore playground. This park resonates with Aboriginal significance & maritime history &  it is a good place to walk, cycle, picnic or simply to take in the stunning view. More than 10,000 sandstone blocks were extracted from Barangaroo  & used to create this extraordinary headland park with native flora on the city’s doorstep.

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Sydney is a city built on & from sandstone. Aboriginal rock carvings have survived because of the durability of sandstone that lies up to 6km deep beneath the Harbour. Some of the city’s beautiful landmarks like the Queen Victoria Building, Australian Museum, Town Hall & Central Station & now Barangaroo Reserve are constructed from Sydney sandstone.

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Was it 200 steps that I climbed to get to the top of the Pylon Lookout? There is a 360 degree observation deck with a glass view finder pointing out Sydney’s surrounding suburbs & the panoramic view up here is spectacular.

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Literally looking over the Sydney Harbour Bridge at this angle. Pedestrian footway on the eastern side, Cahill Expressway & Bradfield Highway,  two Train tracks & a cycleway on the western side – all  suspended over Port Jackson. Side fences have been added to prevent suicides by people jumping off the bridge.

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In the 1950’s & 1960’s there were occasional reports of climbers making illegal arch traversals of the Bridge in the dead of the night. French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked across a tightrope between the two pylons at the southern end of the Bridge. BridgeClimb opened in 1998 making it possible for tourists to legally climb the southern half of the bridge for an exhilarating experience.

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Looking up from Dawes Point Park I saw another group of Harbour Bridge climbers listening attentively to their guide. Wish I was not acrophobic & believe me, I did seriously think about conquering my fear but at the end of the day, settled for the ‘pseudo climb’ up the Pylon Lookout instead!

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At the junction of George St & Lower Fort St, you can walk under the Harbour Bridge at Dawes Point Park & see the Dawes Point Battery which was the first fortified position constructed in 1788 to protect the cove from foreign invasion. Five cannons manned up till 1916  still remain here but the fort was removed during the construction of the Harbour Bridge.

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At each end of the Harbour Bridge stands a pair of 89m high concrete pylons faced with granite such as this.  Abutments at the base of the pylons are essential to support the load from the bridge’s arch & to hold its span firmly in place. The pylons in themselves do not have structural purpose except to provide a frame for the arch panels & to give better visual balance to the bridge.

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Since 1993 the Harbour Bridge has been an integral part of the Sydney New Year’s Eve celebrations where spectacular firework displays with special themes & effects are staged at 21:00 & midnight.

This majestic bridge soars 10-storey high, looks like the heaviest thing you know & can be seen from many parts of the city. It has been great fun capturing  it from different places & angles & it has certainly cut a deep impression as a symbol synonymous to Sydney & Australia!

Okuma Beach

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Detailed map of the entire Okuma Private Beach & Resort.

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This is the Garden Villa where we stayed the night which is roomy enough for 4 pax. The villas are  nicely spaced out & are encircled by greenery.

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Bougainvillea spectabilis also known as Great Bougainvillea is a flowering species of shrub that originated from South America. The heart shaped leaves are thorny & the white flowers small & inconspicuous but are highlighted by modified leaves called bracts. This fuchsia pink bract is very vibrant & attractive but the colours can vary from white, pink, mauve, purple-red to orange.

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The Garden Villa has an adjoining verandah & it feels comfortable here just like home away from home.

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This is the Grand Cottage section which features Asian-style rooms with a luxurious atmosphere &  a sense of privacy. 

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Grand Cottages illuminated at night.  Guests staying at the Grand Cottage, Grand Cottage Maisonnette 64 & Grand Cottage Masionnette 125 enjoy the use of the Exclusive lounge at Club Shiokaze during meal times & to hang out,  practically all day.

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The Palm Cottages are closest to the Carpark (at the back) & the Beach. It makes a great base for going to the sea, enjoying Yanbaru’s natural environment & the various marine activities at Okuma Beach. Even the colourful buildings seem to hint at the more active guests’ preferences.

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Reflections on the moat surrounding the frontage of the Palm Cottages.

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We  enjoyed the sumptuous buffet breakfast spread at the Surfside Cafe situated on the left side in this photo. There are 7 different food & beverage outlets at the resort to relax & enjoy your meals.

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Bashful Water Lilies just unfurling.

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Surfside Cafe on the left where we had buffet breakfast  & Iju Restaurant right in front of the lily pond that serves Japanese & Okinawan local Cuisine.

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This is the pier where the Boats are moored for boarding & disembarkation. The resort has recently been renamed Okuma Private Beach & Resort under the Nikko Hotels International group.

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It is lit up & shines like a gem in the night. The bell was very inviting & I could not resist ringing it gently just once.

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The main entrance to the reception area of Okuma Private Beach & Resort.

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Walking towards the Shopping area – Plumeria

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The Marine House is where the Beach Information Desk is located & honestly the activities available on any good day is truly amazing. The Oasis is a beach cafe with the seating capacity of 65 & you can enjoy lunch & the bar from 4pm to 11pm daily.

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View of the pier from the deck of the Marine House.

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Entering the fountain courtyard of the Okuma Felicia Church.

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Inside the modern chapel that has glass panels & furnishing that gives an airy & feeling of lightness with a good view of the sea. It is a perfect  venue for a romantic, quiet & intimate wedding.

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Rentals of Yacht, Canoe, Marine Walker, Windsurf Board, U Tube Giant Float & Stand Up Paddlers are available for your picking.

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Lazing by the poolside is not a bad idea,  to catch up on your reading or have a drink at the bar of Club Shiokaze right beside you.

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A  5min Banana Boat or Rocket Board Ski Biscuit costs ¥1,000 a pop. Or how about a Glass-bottom Boat Tour to get out there & see the exotic fish in the ocean.

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This resort is comfortable & set in a secluded private beach making it a sub-tropical paradise.

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The luxurious guest cottages & apartments are scattered throughout the spacious area, a stone’s throw from the beautiful white sandy beach.

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The swim bay is cordoned off & the beach patrolled by lifeguards to ensure the safety of the swimmers & those enjoying recreational water activities.

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In the cool of the morning, when the sun is just rising from the east.

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It is about 6am now & the beach is quiet but in about an hour’s time, people will come out to play. In the summer, this beach would be bustling with activity.

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A simple yet sweet declaration of love fashioned out of seashells & corals found on Okuma Beach.

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The first family to hit the beach this morning & the boy is picking seashells by the seashore. 

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Okuma Beach faces the East China Sea & is part of Kunigami Village in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.

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Never a dull moment, as this guy gamely allows his buddies to bury him in the sand.

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 In the distance northwest of Okuma is Akamaku Misaki (Akamaku Cape) which has an elevation of 22m. Can you spot a tilted face in the rocks? As the sunshine got stronger, the sand started drying out & looked  whiter in appearance. 

Okuma Beach is surrounded by beautiful views of the East China Sea & there are different facilities from camping to luxurious resort to enjoy the great outdoors & a wide array of land & water recreation. It is a great place to relax & get away from the hustle & bustle of city life & to…… simply chill!

 

Lao Chai to Ta Van

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The village of Lao Chai is just 30mins drive or 6km away from Sapa town where we were based.

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Lao Chai is nestled at the beginning of the Muong Hoa Valley with over 100 ethnic Black H’mong families in the village living on subsistence farming & tourist dollars.

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The Floating Homestay is a rustic & interesting place, strategically located & looking into the Muong Hoa Valley.

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The majestic  Hoang Lien Son Mountains is an eastern extension of the Himalayas & the inhabitants at the foot of the range include  ethnic minorities like the H’mong , Dzao, Zay, Tay & Red Zao.

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The padi season is  over & all the sheaths have been harvested so the rice terraces look a little empty but the ducks are pecking & cows grazing, perhaps still finding something to eat.

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The Indigo plant (Strobilanthes cusia nee kuntze) is a leafy shrub that grows no taller than 1 metre  bearing violet-coloured flowers. They thrive best at altitudes of between 500-1600m above sea-level under natural conditions.  Indigo has been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes & as a natural dye for textiles. The leaves are processed by soaking in water & later fermented, releasing the Indican which can be hydrolysed & oxidised to indigo-blue with the addition of lye. The precipitate is the dried & pressed into cakes or powdered.

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Lao Chai is currently positioned as the rest stop for trekkers going to other villages like Ta Van & is inhabited by mainly Black Hmong families who offer genuine homestay experiences & Batik making workshops. What better way to immerse yourself in Hmong culture than to live amongst them.

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The Muong Hoa River flows through this area where several villages starting with Cat Cat, Lao Chai, Ta Van & Giang Ta Chai gradually fanning out to  many others. This river  feeds the rice terraces that are so beautifully crafted in the valley.

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Soaking in the awesome view at Lao Chai & the Muong Hoa Valley.

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This Hemp plant (Cannabis sativa) is what the Black Hmong process & weave into fabric which is fashioned into  clothing & a wide variety of items. In recorded history, the Cannabis sativa has been cultivated as a source for industrial fibre, hempseed oil, food, recreation (marijuana, hashish), spiritual rituals & medicine. Each part of the plant is harvested differently dependant on the purpose of its use.

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We stopped briefly at a small rest house by the  idyllic Muong Hoa River for a swig of Coke…the DRINK & some local ice cream which I sadly did not enjoy!

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We crossed this narrow Red bridge tagged Lao Chai quickly as it was only wide enough for one car to pass & a truck was rumbling along.

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Without a guide or map, we happily embarked on the trek but these friendly  women from the Black Hmong tribe came alongside right from the start, at the top of the hill. They speak a little English  & tried their best to engage us in conversation which I did not particularly mind but soon realised that they were actually street vendors touting their embroidered items.

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A colourful convenience store in Lao Chai where fruits & vegetables are not the only things on sale; we may be in a remote area in the mountainous region of North Vietnam but staying connected to the world via telecommunications is big here judging by the 4 advertisements posted.

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The valley is dominated by rice terraces but the higher reaches of the mountain sides are usually where other  agricultural crops like corn, sweet potato & cassava is cultivated.

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A provision shop that is well stocked with fresh produce, poultry, pork & sundries in Lao Chai.

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H’mong village houses in Lao Chai near  Sapa.

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We are in Ta Van territory but I honestly do not know where the delineation between Lao Chai & Ta Van really is. Could it be this bridge crossing is the start of Ta Van Village?

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Ta Van was formerly a quiet village with a mix of Dao, H’mong & Giay minorities populating it but tourism has brought tremendous changes & the people have experienced economic growth & adapted. It is hoped that rapid changes would not affect the urban layout,  have negative impact on the people & erode their unique culture.

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Pretty blooming violet flowers of the  aquatic Water Hyacinth plant (Eichhornia crassipes).

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Picture perfect  Ta Van – complete with green vegetable patches, cascading rice terraces, the imposing Hoang Lien Son mountain range & the  illumination of by  blue skies. A snapshot which I treasure & have kept in my heart.

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We see stalks of corn being hung up to dry in the sun before the kernels are extracted from the cob & laid on the ground for further drying. It would be used to feed their livestock like cattle, poultry, buffalo & hogs. On the left side of the porch are joss sticks laid out to dry.

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Cottage industry where the  Giay women folk  manufacture  Joss sticks & pellets of Sandalwood incense. Giay women wear blouses like this one with splits at the sides & buttoned on the right side paired with dark indigo trousers & their hair wrapped around their head with a scarf. The older women usually don blouses of darker shades & in their costume we see  Vietnamese & Western elements blended together.

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A pair of ducks sunbathing & contemplating their world – Ta Van, Vietnam.

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Our 3 hour long slow & easy trek ended as we exited Ta Van crossing this bridge.  Child labour is an issue Vietnam  contends  with but  I sincerely hope that these young girls will have a chance to get an  education & secure themselves  a brighter future.

The journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai takes a gruelling 8 hours & though the train’s air-conditioned sleeping  berths were reasonably comfortable, it could not make up for the noisy & bumpy ride which kept me awake through the night though I was dead tired. On arrival at Lao Cai Station, you have to take a bus or van ride for about an hour with  a fair bit  of winding mountain roads before reaching Sapa town proper.

My wish is that the Train system would be overhauled & high-speed trains would be running when I next visit Sapa.  Despite the rough journey,  I must say Sapa & the surrounding areas around Fansiṕan Mountain are the highlights of my trip to Northern Vietnam & I love this place!

Indochina’s Rooftop

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We took a 15min taxi ride to Sapa Station which is about 3km South-west of Sapa Town to where the Fansiṕan Legend commenced.

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Directly opposite the Sapa Station entrance is Bao An Thien Tu or Bao An Pagoda which not only is located in beautiful surroundings but stands at an impressive  altitude of 1,604m.

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The Fansiṕan Legend newly opened in Feb 2016 is a suspended cable car system that is the highest, longest & most modern suspended cable car system in Asia as well as the world. Adult Tickets are priced at VND600,000 approximately US$33 which is a little steep but state of the art as promised.

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The 15min ride  was very smooth & quiet, fitted with comfortable seats that can easily accommodate up to 20 people each trip. Fansiṕan Legend was awarded a Guinness World Record for the feat in transporting 2000 guests in an hour.

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Fansiṕan is about 9km away from Sapa town & a round trip hike would take  about 3 days for anyone in good shape.

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Muong Hoa Valley is carved with an intricate maze of rice terraces that look interesting even when barren after the Autumn harvest. The best time to catch the verdant valley is around July-August; during April-May, the rice fields would look like huge sparkling mirrors as water cover the surfaces. From September-October, a golden sea signals harvest time.

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The Sun Group employees did a good job braving the weather & working on the rough terrain to get this first class cable car system in place.

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As we ascended higher into the Hoàng Liên Son Mountain range, we were engulfed in swirling clouds.

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Cổng Tam Quan or Tam Quan Gate shrouded & celestial – the first flight of steps to conquer after exiting Sapa Station.

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The  signboard missing a “G” detailing  what you can expect to see as you head towards the crown of Fansiṕan. However, a few of them are still under construction at this time.

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No. 7 on the map. On the steps of Chùa Hạ – Bích Vân Thiền Tự Temple which is 3,037m above sea-level. Believed to be where Heaven & Earth blend harmoniously converging Yin & Yang, & where all sorrows dissipate leaving only peace in one’s soul.  The architecture in the spiritual landmarks reflect the style of the Ly-Tran Dynasty.

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No. 9 on the map. The Vọng Lĩnh Cao Đai Buddhist Great Bell.

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I did not keep count but there are supposedly over 600 steps from Fansiṕan Station to the summit of the mountain.

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Point No 11 on the map. Slowly taking shape is the unfinished iron structure of the  Great Buddha Statue seated on a giant lotus throne. The Lotus flower symbolises fortune in Buddhism, as it rises & blooms above the  muddy waters to achieve enlightenment. It also speaks of purification of the spirit that is born into murkiness & a world of suffering & finally it is an inference to faithfulness, as those who seek to rise above the muddy waters need to be faithful followers.

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Point No. 18  on the map. The final station of the Funicular is still under construction which was why we had to climb about 600 steps to get to the crest of Fansiṕan. Some workers seen carrying construction materials uphill  are catching a breather here.

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No. 17 on the map – Cột Cờ, the Flag pole. It was nice to finally reach the peak of Fansiṕan. The exertion & perhaps thinner air, meant I had to take  short breaks in between climbing but I certainly enjoyed the cold weather & wind with temperatures  hovering around 10°C.

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No 19 on the map – Dĩnh Fansiṕan, the zenith of Fansiṕan Mountain & the Rooftop of Indochina stands at the elevation of 3,143m (10,371.9ft)

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It was time to make tracks as it was getting dark;  my hair was dripping wet from walking in the clouds as I did not have a hat.

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Return leg from Fansiṕan Station to Sapa Station which would cover a  non-stop distance of 6,292.5m on this sophisticated  3-rope cable car system.

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This breathtaking scenery coupled with the feeling of soaring through the clouds is nothing short of amazing. We passed Hoàng Liên National Park, Muong Hoa Valley & the impressive peaks of the Hoàng Liên Son Mountain range.

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The vast open skies, a canvas painted with the colours from the palette of a beautiful sunset.

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How magnificent  is the Creator’s handiwork & what an awesome privilege to be there to capture this  incredible moment.