Halong

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The anticipated day finally arrived, as we waited eagerly for our morning transfer from our hotel to the luxury van that would take us on the 4 hr journey from Hanoi City to Halong Bay. I heard stories from travellers who have been there on how rough & bumpy the ride was but we were fortunate enough to sink into comfortable reclining seats & to top it off… free wifi which helped in entertaining  us as we watched music videos endlessly. There was a brief stopover midway at a souvenir place  where we grabbed coffee & snacks & for the road trip.

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We arrived at Hon Gai Port around mid-day & the skies were a little over-cast & though we got there earlier than some other groups, we were strangely the last of the lot to board our vessel. Tinier bum-boats took us out to where the Huong Hai Sealife was anchored off the pier for the start of our 2 Days & 1 night tour of Halong Bay.

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As we sailed away from the pier, I was pleasantly surprised to see this giant ferris wheel at the top of the hill which was not visible from the winding road down to  Hon Gai Port & also the clear blue sky behind us.

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My room on the 3rd floor has a tiny balcony & a large window that offers spectacular views of the surrounding rock & island formations plus the beautiful expanse of blue sky.

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Climbing to the top is the sun deck which is a great spot for sunbathing, chilling & imbibing  a long drink whilst watching the setting sun. If you are an early bird & would fancy some exercise you can join the organised Tai Chi sessions  for passengers at 6am in the morning. The 360° view up here is simply marvellous & you really have to see it to believe it!

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Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site & it is a popular tourist destination in Quảng Ninh Province in Vietnam. It is sits in the middle of 2 other zones, namely the Bái Tử Long Bay to the Northeast & Càt Bà Island to the Southwest all of which  share the same geological, geographical, climatic  & cultural characteristics.

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Halong Bay covers an extensive area of 1,553km² that includes nearly 2000 islets but the core of the bay with denser saturation of around 775 islets stretches about 334km².

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After landing on Hon Co Island or Grass Island, we climbed some 60-80 steps up to the entrance of Co Cave also known as Thien Canh Son Cave, where this delightful vista welcomed us.

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Thien Canh Son Cave is situated in the protected area of Cong Do which is part of the Bái Tử Long Bay area. This cave is not very large compared to some others I have been to but it is still interesting & unspoiled.  Allow your imagination to run wild a little & you would perhaps see semblances of animals or beings amongst the stalactites & stalagmites.

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I love this particular shot as it feels so much like something taken from an Indian Jones set. Escaping from danger, running towards the light… into safety & freedom! Exiting Thien Canh Son Cave the same way we entered.

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Hon Co Island stands out because it has thick vegetation & grasses growing, compared to most other barer karst formations & it is also lesser known & visited. This is the perfect place to escape  crowds & enjoy the lovely, white sandy beaches & crystal clear waters where you can swim, sunbathe or kayak.

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Calm waters, stillness & tranquillity – my soul feels rested & refreshed as I blend in with nature.

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Geologists tell us that this amazing landscape evolved over 500 millions years ago & the limestone in this bay had undergone the impact of tropical wet climate resulting in these fantastic karst formations.

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This is the second kayak adventure of my  life. I was both nervous & gung-ho at the same time but in the end my thirst for thrills triumphed over whatever reservations I had. It is completely safe & great fun if you fasten your life vest properly, can swim & do not try to stand up whilst kayaking midways. It is a little tricky getting in & out of the kayak though & you must literally not ‘rock the boat’ too much or it would keel over & capsize easily.

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We took the kayak around an islet not realising that it would take much longer to transverse & even hit a section where the currents were strong & we had to paddle hard.  Thankfully we spotted our boat, the Huong Hai Sealife after turning the 4th corner. Dusk was approaching & we were the last kayak to return to the vessel.

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The Bay turned pitch dark soon after  & all we could see outside were the lights of other boats that were moored close by. We enjoyed a scrumptious 4 course dinner whilst being entertained in song & dance by our versatile boat crew who played multiple roles during the entire trip from porters, waiters, concierge, chef to guide.  It was great fun learning how to make, wrap & finally  taste the yummiest  freshly fried Vietnamese rice rolls.

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I woke up to this awesome view on the 2nd day morning, exclaiming “WOW”!!!  As the ship sailed quietly in the bay, the scenery from my bedside window was just like a picturesque, moving gallery. These karst formations range anywhere from 50m to over 100m in height.

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As we approached Vung Vieng Village I spotted this boat that was decked out neatly with provisions on sale. This is the first time I see a floating provision shop as I am more accustomed to seeing those ‘hole in the wall’ ones run by Indians in Singapore. They never fail to amaze me as they seem to have what you want stashed away somewhere in that super tiny space along the five footways of old buildings.

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We were cutting through emerald-green waters on a special rowboat that has a flat, tarred woven bamboo bottom & carefully manoeuvred around these gray limestone monoliths.

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This is the defunct floating school that the children in Vung Vieng Fishing Village used to attend. We were told that they moved the school to mainland as the teachers found it arduous to travel 24km back & forth daily & it was safer during the Monsoon season.

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Vung Vieng Fishing Village is located in the heart of Bái Tử Long Bay & is an idyllic village that thrives on fishing as a way of life.

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Passing the colourful fishermen’s houses & fishing boats where their casting nets & other implements are seen. These simple wooden houses of Vung Vieng are built on floating structures such as these buoyed by huge fibreglass drums. Being situated in an area surrounded by karst formations they are sheltered during storms & bad weather.

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This peaceful location has a charming landscape & it is a great place to discover the culture & life of the fishermen & gather insight from the community that has settled here for several generations.

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This is the area where they implant & cultivate Halong pearls.

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We rowed towards this natural bridge which seem to delineate the    village from the open sea. 

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Our boatman took us under Circle Cave (Hang Vòng) to have a closer look at the limestone formation before continuing our journey  back to the Tourist Point of Departure platform.

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It is such a lovely morning & a great way to enjoy the natural beauty of the limestone formations & the vegetation that tenaciously spring to life from the crevices.

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We are back at the Tourist Point of Departure after an interesting visit to Vung Vieng Fishing Village before a smaller vessel from Huong Hai Sealife ferried us back to the main ship.

Halong Bay is a ‘must do’ on your checklist if you have come this far to Hanoi, Vietnam. This UNESCO site not only has rich geo-diversity which includes a tropical evergreen bio-system, oceanic & seashore bio-system, it is also home to 14 endemic floral & 60 endemic faunal species.

Whats more, it has a stunning landscape made more memorable by cruising & a host of exciting activities to be experienced first hand. Cave exploration, island-hopping, kayaking, swimming, sunbathing, fishing, floating village visits,  cooking lessons  or just plain lepaking; there is something for everyone young & old to enjoy!

 

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Dolphin Watch

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I based myself at the Best Western Apollo International Hotel in Charlestown, New South Wales & it was a good start-point to tour the Hunter Valley, Newcastle & Port Stephens. It took about an hour to drive to Nelson Bay & for most of the way the road was just straight, running parallel to the coastline.

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I encountered some glitches with my online reservations & instead of getting on a catamaran which I originally booked for; I literally ‘jumped on board’ another boat when I found out minutes before departure time that the catamaran was not running that morning due to maintenance work being done.

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This photo should be aptly captioned as… “Calm before the storm” as it was taken minutes before I made a beeline for the last pier in desperation to board  the cruise. Other than this little unhappy episode, it was a lovely morning where I was able to watch the seagulls take flight & capture  them in motion.

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D’Albora Marinas at Nelson Bay is a nice pier area with shops & restaurants & this is where the Imagine Cruises Booking office is situated. This is the embarkation  point for the Dolphin & Whale watching tours.

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After a mad scramble;  jumping & waving,  I managed to get on the Moonshadow V Supercat  that was just pulling out from the pier.  Phew….it was embarrassing to say the least but I really did not want to miss this exciting opportunity of seeing the dolphins which was an almost guaranteed sighting & mess up my plans for the day. A phone call by the Boat Manager was all it took to sort out the ticketing issue & all was good, so that I could continue with the Sand Dunes tour at Stockton beach  in the afternoon.

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After about 20 mins as the boat sailed towards the open sea, a school of curious dolphins visited us. It takes trained eyes to spot them in the distance but the Boat Captain was really helpful in pointing them out to us.

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At first, all I could see were their dorsal fins as they surfaced about 200-300 m away. If I was not in the know, it would have been easy to mistake them for sharks. But then again if you observe their swim patterns you would notice that the dolphins frolic in the water, diving in & out rather playfully in comparison  to the straight cruising sharks.

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Everyone on board was ecstatic to be this close to the dolphins & I was just musing about how it might have been the reverse  –  where the dolphins  have come to observe this crazy bunch of people get all excited,  clamouring to get the best spot on the bow, busy taking selfies/ wefies & trying  to keep their balance on the rocking boat without dropping their mobiles or cameras into the sea!

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It must have been entertaining for the dolphins as much as it was for us homo-sapiens in this friendly encounter.

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This vessel has a Twist & Twirl Water-slide with a huge boom net for ultimate fun during their 2 hour Splash & Slide Dolphin Watch Cruise which operates during mid Nov till early May.

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Just passing the Nelson Head Lighthouse Reserve where the water is clear & an attractive  turquoise blue but be careful in these parts as the currents are strong & I observed some sections where  the waters was  swirling agitatedly.

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At the upper deck of the Supercat with a good view of the pointy  Mount Yacaaba in the background.

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Nelson Bay, New South Wales, Australia

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Our hour & a half cruise seemed to end all too soon as we headed  back to D’Albora Marinas after all that euphoria.

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After expanding some energy sand boarding at the Stockton Bight Sand dunes, it was time to replenish & we drove up to Nelson Head Light where I was told there is a charming cafe with splendid views of Mount Yacaaba, Boondebah Island & Mount Tomaree.

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The Inner Light Tea Room is such a sweet spot to have breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea & the panoramic view is…priceless!

I had a scrumptious  Chicken Salad which came in a generous portion.

My sweet tooth beckoned…could not resist their lovely Scones paired with Strawberry jam & cream.

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The first light was installed in 1872 & the cottage built 3 years later. It was occupied by the Maritime Services Board until 1985. Since 1990 the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol has been appointed as trustees.

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The Nelson Head Light is different from others as it does not have a tower. Light is shone through the windows of the octagonal  lantern room but it was later mounted outside. In 1946 the light was electrified & evetually  in 1984 it was automated. The original light was just a kerosene lamp mounted on a wooden tower. It was maintained &  lit every evening by Mr William Glover who was also the Telegraph Operator. The light was a white red white sector lamp

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The Inner Light was built on Nelson Head to guide vessels through the Yacaaba & Tomaree Headlands. Before the commencement of the lighthouse in 1875 entering Port Stephens was extremely dangerous. There were records of 44 shipwrecks & at least 40 lives lost as a result.

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We see here a Dolphin Watch cruiser in Port Stephens & can catch glimpses of the occasional dolphins leaping out of the water, delighting the spectators on board. The fishermen in Port Stephens estimate that there are about 160 dolphins living in this bay area which is why dolphin sightings is a common occurence.

If you are anywhere near Port Stephens, remember to do a Dolphin or Whale Watching tour depending on the season. I have seen dolphins following our ship at Milford Sound in New Zealand which was nice but the dolphins pods here at Port Stephens are highly sociable,  love meeting people & actually swim towards the vessels to ‘say hello’!

Postcard from Pokolbin

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Spent the morning wandering around  Hunter Valley Gardens,  then feasting on the gastronomic Degustation luncheon at Bimbadgen Winery.  After which a little shopping at Hunter Valley Chocolate Company & Pokolbin Village before a cheese platter sampling at Hunter Valley Cheese Co in the late afternoon. What a fitting end to a splendid day out at Pokolbin as we witnessed this beautiful sunset. This photo was taken along Broke Road in New South Wales, Australia. And as darkness finally engulfed, we headed to Muse Restaurant for yet another fine-dining experience!

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.