Wednesday-Thursday, December 5-6, 2018 - Vancouver, BC, Canada, to Narita airport, Tokyo, Japan
I left Vancouver in the afternoon of the 5th and arrived 10 hours later at Narita airport the next day. I found out there was a free bus to my hotel - though there was no information on the hotel website about this. I found my way outside to bus stop 16 with some help and waited about 15 minutes for a huge bus to arrive to take us to two sister hotels about 15 to 20 minutes drive away respectively. Mine was the ANA Crowne Plaza, Narita. The young man who met us outside the hotel and insisted that his colleague bring a huge cart for my suitcases (although I was completely capable of rolling them myself), had excellent English. I was offered a discount coupon for dinner, though no free breakfast, as well as free access to the pool, the fitness centre and somewhere else, but all I wanted to do was sleep. So I retired to my room and after letting family and friends know I had arrived safely, I climbed into my bed - after, I might add, experiencing my first warm-seated Japanese toilet - and slept for about 10 hours, though I woke up every hour after about the first four hours.
Friday, December 7, 2018 - Narita airport to Yokohama, Japan
I awoke at 7:00, had a nice hot shower, sent a few e-mails and ate some breakfast items I had brought with me in my suitcase. Then I took myself and my suitcases downstairs to check out and wait for the shuttle bus back to the airport. While I was waiting, I met a couple from Florida who were doing the same thing. They had pre-reserved the transfer to Yokohama with the cruise ship company, whereas I had left it to the last minute and had not. When I researched how to get to Yokohama, the port where our cruise ship was docked, I read that a taxi ride would cost $300-$350.00 US(!) whereas the transfer that the ship was offering was only $49.00.
They had provided an extra bus for late bookers so I was able to get a seat without any problem. It took about an hour and twenty minutes along very boring highway, with a lot of industry, bridges, wide rivers, bright-pink-flowering camelia bushes and russet-coloured leaves that had not yet fallen off deciduous trees. It is still pretty much autumn here with no frost and no snow yet.
Upon arrival at the port town of Yokohama - Japan's third largest city after Tokyo and Osaka, apparently - I breezed through the check-in as an elite member. I embarked the ship, found my stateroom, walked up the stairs to the buffet for lunch, returned to the cabin to unpack and be introduced to my steward, and then partook in the obligatory lifejacket drill - surprised to learn that we were no longer required to bring our lifejackets with us! I then began a movie on TV as I waited for dinner, but just couldn't keep my eyes open. Consequently, I had another early night and managed to sleep better - about 12 hours - though I did wake at about 2 to 3 a.m. to receive and send some e-mails. Below are two views of Yokohama port - one from when I arrived on board and the other when we set sail, at which time it was already dark.
Saturday, December 8, 2018 - Shimizu, Japan (Fuji and Take)
Shimizu is the stopping off place for Mount Fuji, “Fujisan,” an active volcano, which, at 3,776 metres (12,388 feet), is the highest mountain in Japan and on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. It is climbed by 200,000 people every year between 1 July and 31 August, averaging out to about 4,000 to 5,000 people climbing it every day in the season, so it gets a bit crowded. Our tour guide, Take (rhymes with sake, the rice wine), told us he climbed it 16 times last summer working as an interpreter for climbing guides. Not only this, but one year he participated in a half marathon race up the mountain. Runners must reach the top within four and a half hours, otherwise they are obliged to stop where they are at the four and a half hour point, walk (or rather drag themselves) to the nearest hut to rest (of which there are 10 from bottom to top) and then walk back down. The record for the shortest time to run up the mountain was won by a Japanese man who managed to complete it in about 2 hours and 30 or so minutes. Previous to that, the record was held by an American man who had completed it in 2 hours and 40 minutes.
As the weather was likely to be fickle, we were told to bring warm clothing, prepare for rain and wear good walking shoes. We were also told that chances were high that we would not see Mount Fuji at all, due to her having her own micro-climate so that most of the time she was covered in cloud. Noticing she was visible off the starboard side of the ship after breakfast and before joining the other people who were taking ship-organized excursions, I managed to capture a clear picture of her, though somewhat far away. My tour today would bring us to the second station up the mountain, yet we would climb her by bus and not by foot.
Our tour guide, to our delight, went above and beyond our expectations - but more about him later. Our first stop, about 30 minutes in, was a bathroom stop and I was glad I had taken my camera with me as this bathroom was a clear example of Japanese efficiency and cleanliness. On the wall at the entry to the Women's there was an automated computer screen showing you which cubicles were occupied. It also indicated those cubicles with what we call Japanese toilets and what apparently the Japanese call Western toilets, and those cubicles with what the Japanese call Japanese toilets and what we Westerners call squat (or Turkish) toilets - also popular in China I might add! There were also special toilet rooms for kids with tiny thronelike toilets and tiny urinals - the wall was low too, so you could look over the wall and make sure your kid was OK. Moreover, there was a seat in the women's cubicles where you could place your baby - sort of like a high chair but without the legs, just suspended on the wall. That way you could watch your baby while you were busy doing something else. And there was lots of toilet paper, although of course there were all the automated gadgets for washing and drying yourself plus an adjustable seat warmer and a flush on the side wall with all the other buttons, so you didn't have to reach behind you to try and find it.
Our second stop was the second station up Mount Fuji, which had a store, washrooms and an observation deck, from which we were supposed to have a marvelous view of the mountain. However, this time it was completely covered in clouds. We had momentarily glimpsed the peak though the clouds on the way up the mountain, so we were hopeful, but this time, no such luck. However, I was pleased to find that at this particular place I was able to get Wi-fi service, so that was a treat in itself.
On our way back down the mountain, our guide told us about the Japanese royal family and mentioned that the current Emperor of Japan, who had reigned for 30 years, had recently announced his abdication (he is in his 80s) and that the 58-year-old crown prince would be taking over the throne as of May 2019. Thus, a new era would begin. The crown prince and his wife have one daughter, yet according to local law, no female may inherit the throne, so when the current crown prince completes his era, the crown will go to his brother's son. A great deal of the country's taxes is used to support the royal family and its household!
Our third stop was the Mt. Fuji World Heritage Centre, Shizuoka. The architecture in itself was special as its main feature was an upside cone, which mirrored in the reflecting pool in front became the shape of Fujisan. Once inside the museum, we walked up a sloped ramp that spiraled round inside this upside-down cone, past audio-visual displays of mountain views. If one wanted to spend the time, there were other displays with descriptions to read and pictures to look at, but as some of us only had the desire to see if the mountain was now clear, we headed straight up to the observation deck on level five. There our patience was rewarded, and we managed to take photos of the peak appearing through gaps in the clouds. There were still clouds around the middle of the mountain, but we were nevertheless happy with what we were able to capture.
It was at this point that Take talked a little about the next Olympic Games that will be held in Tokyo in 2020. Construction of sports centres is underway, but they are already over budget. There are no casinos in Japan as it is an addictive activity and the Japanese are not encouraged to take up anything that they could become addicted to, yet throughout Japan you will find Pachinko parlours, which is a type of gambling, as well as lotteries. Despite that, we were told, the government had decided they would be obliged to build some casinos in order to raise money to provide the extra funds needed to meet the expectations required by the 2020 Olympics.
Next on our itinerary was lunch at a well-situated restaurant not far from the museum where we were seated at round tables with our entire individual meals set out at each seat on separate little dishes. We could consume these little dishes in any order we wanted to: burdock root, marinated fried eggplant, rainbow trout sashimi with wasabi, rolled Japanese-style omelette, octopus, cucumber and mazuku salad, miso soup, boiled white rice and green tea ice cream for dessert. This was the first time for me to eat octopus and raw fish. Then we all exited our tables suddenly because someone yelled out that Mount Fuji was clear! We may have seemed a bit rude to the restaurant staff all leaving suddenly like that, but they are probably used to foreigners doing odd things. Though I did take a few photos through the window in the restaurant's observation room, I noticed people were outside in the parking lot where the view was even better. There was also useful vegetation to frame the mountain. In fact, we all ended up staying a long time in that parking lot. However, our guide was clearly happy that he had managed to meet our expectations and that he had made all of us very happy indeed.
Our final stop then was a Shinto shrine, called Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha Shrine, located in the same area and constructed in the early 1600s. Our guide tried his best to teach us all the ceremonial necessities before entering a Shinto shrine, washing hands and mouth, bowing twice, clapping twice, praying, and bowing once, but as I had no intention of entering the religious building, I wandered away to photograph some children in native costume (but was unsuccessful). Apparently, it is customary for girls aged 5 and 9 and boys aged 7 to visit a Shinto shrine as part of their religious upbringing. Shintoism is the indigenous religion of Japan - or this is how our guide put it. In fact, 70% of Japanese are Buddhist, 20% Shinto and 10% are other, including Christian. Shinto is a polytheistic religion.
Some Japanese, although they have no Christian upbringing or affiliation, decide to get married in a Christian church as it is quite the chic thing to do. Perhaps it is because Japanese brides like the Western style of bridal gowns. Our guide, Take, told us that his wife, who taught Russian at university, had decided that she would quite like to get married in a Russian Orthodox Church. He agreed to comply with her wishes and underwent the necessary instruction. The couple was also required to purchase a Russian bible and a special white wedding costume.
However, in Japan, there is a problem in that couples are not having enough children and the population is decreasing. This means that Japan is having to import workers from other countries. For now, at least, these workers include immigrants from the Philippines, Malaysia and Korea. The current population of Japan as a whole, according to Take, is 107 million.
On our ride back to the port, when most tour guides turn off their microphones and let passengers chat and/or sleep, Take continued to entertain us. First, he sang a song about Mt. Fuji in Japanese and English, then he demonstrated how to make two items in origami - the ubiquitous crane and Mt. Fuji, and then two designs with cats' cradles - Mt. Fuji and the Eiffel tower, or Japan tower, which is a similarly shaped tower in Tokyo. Certainly, I had never experienced a more interesting and cheerful guide. And at my arigato as I descended from the bus back at the port, he bowed to me and thanked me in Japanese for coming to Japan!
The show was not over yet, for at the docking area, entertainment was provided by singing school girls, and very nice it was, too. The first piece I listened to was something classical or quasi-classical that I couldn't quite identify, and then, as it was December, they sang Christmas songs in Japanese: Frosty, Rudolf and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I did record some of it and you will find it in the video below.
Following their concert, a group of drummers started up and they were still there when the gangplanks were pulled up. A largish crowd of Shimizu locals had gathered to see our ship leave, and as our ship's horn blew a farewell, the Japanese sent fireworks off the port side (my side). Our hosts also held their lit-up cellphones over their heads and waved good-bye to us with them as it was now nearing dusk at 4:00 p.m., thanked us for coming and hoped that we would return soon. It was quite moving. I do not remember such a display in any other port around the world that I have cruised to. To my added delight, on our way out of the harbour, we passed a very clear Mount Fuji once again - as the photos show - appearing slightly pinkish at dusk.
Sunday, December 9, 2018 - Osaka and Kyoto, Japan (Kitkats and Kimonos)
Today we arrived at Osaka, whose prefecture has a population of nine million, whereas Osaka city itself has 2.6 million, swelling to 3.5 million during the day due to business commuters who live on the outskirts. As such, it is the second largest city in Japan after Tokyo, which I believe our guide, Miyumi, said had 13 million, unless she said 30 million but that seems unlikely given that Canada has just over 30 million. She did point out that Kyoto is an anagram of Tokyo. In fact, Tokyo means 'east of Kyoto'. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for a thousand years and due to its rich cultural heritage, it was luckily spared from bombs and air raids during the Second World War. Miyumi was an older Japanese lady whose English was not as good as Take's. She repeated herself a lot and had some problems with her tenses. Also, she had a tough time counting us all - we were a busload of 40. She was frankly not well organized and left us out in the cold frequently. Yesterday I had been overdressed, so today I was underdressed. Honestly, I was surprised when near the end of the tour she announced that her other job was as a conference interpreter. For those of you not in the business, conference interpreters are considered the top of the profession and require perfection in terms of language skills. But to give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she does not actually count English as one of her conference languages.
She told us we had a long day ahead of us and that our programme was to see one castle, two buddhist temples and a market as well as have a box Japanese lunch. She also told us that there were five types of traditional architecture in Japan: castles, which historically belonged to the samurai or feudal lords, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, imperial palaces and imperial villas, though she never explained to us what this latter building was. The imperial palace in Kyoto was pointed out to us briefly sometime in the afternoon on our drive between the market and the final Buddhist temple but it was located behind high walls so we couldn't really see it.
When we asked why Japan drove on the left, like the British, we were given two different stories. One story was that the custom was derived from the Samurai era. As the samurai rode horses and held their swords in their right hand, they could then attack if they rode on the left side of the path when passing enemy samurai also on horses. The more likely story, however, was that when Japan finally emerged from its feudal era in 1867, a time during which it had been cut off from the rest of the world, and political power was returned to the emperor, said emperor sent his subordinates to travel and find out how other nations lived. One group of people went off to England and brought back the UK driving and parliamentary systems, while another group went to Germany and brought back German medicine.
As we drove past the Osaka Castle, which could be glimpsed briefly from the highway as it was on a raised part of the city, we were told it was once the greatest fortress in Japan. Completed in 1597, it has 400 acres of grounds and 600 cherry trees! Osaka specializes in electronics, pharmaceuticals and textiles while Kyoto specializes in textiles and tourism, fans, ties and pottery. Kyoto is also renowned for its education and has a total of 29 universities. As a result, it has produced several famous scholars, including a total of 23 Nobel laureates. Kyoto University is second only to Tokyo University. While Tokyo University is famous for producing businessmen, Kyoto University is famous for producing researchers.
But back to architecture. At one time there were 20,000 castles in Japan. This number went down to 200 and now only 38 are left. In regular Japanese houses, the rooms are measured by the number of tatami mats that can fit inside. So, an average house of, say, two adults and one or two children would have three rooms, a larger living room cum bedroom would have 6 tatami mats, while smaller rooms like kitchen, etc. would have, say, between 4.5 and 3 mats. The castle we were about to visit, Nijo Castle, built by the Tokugawa family's first shogun (Tokugawa Ieyasu), has a surface area including the grounds of 270,000 m2 and was built in 1603. The flooring size was equivalent to over 800 tatami mats. Moreover, said floor was rather special. We were required to take off our shoes, yet this was the best way in any case to experience the sound the floor made. To warn the shogun's guards that there were intruders present, each step on the floor makes the sound of a nightingale chirp. This sound is in fact made by clamps moving against nails driven into the wooden beams that support the floor.
At 410 years old, Nijo-jo Castle is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered the best surviving example of castle architecture from Japan's feudal era in 17th century. It contains gold-leaf interiors, over 3,600 exquisite wall paintings, 1,016 of which are designated as Important Cultural Properties, and the aforementioned floor. As we were not given very much time and a deadline by which to be back at the bus, I went through the palace as quickly as possible - each room was pretty similar to my eyes anyway - so as to have a bit of time to see other bits of the grounds. Yet even that was not possible, so I turned to the shops and found some very expensive ice-cream topped by gold leaf - not to eat, you understand, but merely to photograph - as well as green tea beer, and green tea ice cream. Yes, the Japanese must surely like the flavour of green tea.
Here is the description of the ice cream, a photo of which should appear below: “Golden soft ice cream 1,200 yen (= about $12.00). Matcha soft serve, covered with a full sheet of edible gold leaf by the well-established Hori Metal Leaf & Powder Co., with the topping of maple-leaf-shaped fresh gluten cake, crisp toasted gluten cake and macarons, to be distinguished as the gorgeous Japanese sweets.” I have also included more photos of the doors in the ladies' toilets, to distinguish the type of toilet, as well as an image of the baby seat inside the cubicle that I mentioned in yesterday's account.
Our second stop was the Golden Pavilion, another UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a National Special Historic Site, and, I read, one of most popular attractions in Japan. Built in 1397 as a shogun's retirement villa, Kinkatu aka Rokuon-ji Temple was converted to a Zen temple upon his death. Gold leaf decorates the upper two stories. In actual fact, this building is a shariden, i.e. a Buddhist hall containing relics of Buddha. The grounds also include a tea house and gardens. I was more interested in taking photos of women and the occasional man in traditional dress. Note the running shoes on the left. There was one young man walking in front of me with some very special blingy red shoes. I just had to take a photo of them.
Next, we travelled to Shozan Resort, not too far away, to have a typical Japanese box lunch. More sashimi - I have now consumed raw salmon and raw squid! I found they were a bit stingy with the wasabi, however. There were other unidentifiable yet edible bites and dessert was a small soft green square wrapped in a bamboo leaf. We had some free time after finishing our meal, thus, appropriately, there was a store at the resort. Here, I finally identified the kitkats we had been told about - special Japanese kitkats mind you, catering to the Japanese palate. Not just chocolate wafers enveloped in milk chocolate, but green-tea and black-tea flavoured, and sake-flavoured. I could not identify the second sake flavour but there are what look like apricots in the photo so perhaps they are an additional flavour.
Unfortunately for us, our next stop was not an overall success. We were dropped off in front of a coffee shop and walked a few streets away to the famous Nishiki Market. It was crowded and difficult to walk through and seemingly went on for several blocks. I managed to get to the end and turn around again but most of our group didn't even manage to get a few blocks along. I did find some more kitkats for about a third of a price of those at the lunch place, including strawberry-flavoured and - could it be - wasabi flavoured? At the correct time, we gathered at the coffee shop again, but it had turned quite cold and was getting late in the day. In addition, our guide seemed quite incapable of counting us. She had forgotten that two of our group had stayed in the bus opting not to go to the market. Consequently, we were left waiting unnecessarily for non-existing late-comers.
Our final stop was the Kiyomizu Temple, founded on the site of a rushing waterfall whose water is said to have wish-granting powers. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it dates back to 778 A.D. and is best known for its wooden stage that extends out over a cliff and offers great views. Unfortunately, with the delay we had experienced from waiting an extra half hour or so beyond our meeting time, we only arrived at this temple at dusk. Moreover, although we did catch the sunset from somewhere near this stage, visibility was in general poor and parts of the route it was suggested that we take through the complex were blocked off after 5:00 p.m. However, the atmosphere was quite a happy one as many young people dressed in kimonos were present, and young women were trying their luck with the special water. As one of these photos shows, three streams flow down over a ledge and these young ladies were collecting water in long-handled dippers in the hope of making wishes. One stream supposedly provides luck in their studies, another, success in business, and a third, fortune in love. Don't ask me which is which though. We were told they could only choose one, so as not to appear greedy!
It was fun to see groups of school students and young kimono-dressed women and couples taking selfies. How disappointed was I, then, when, once we were all finally back on the bus and on our way back to the port and our ship, our guide told us that the kimono-clad people we saw were most probably not Japanese at all, because the Japanese favoured rather more subtle patterns and pastel colours. It was more likely that these were tourists who just liked the idea of dressing up for the day whilst in Japan - tourists from Korea, Taiwan, China or even the Philippines!
Wednesday, December 12, 2018 - Keelung - Taipei, Taiwan (Buildings and Baubles)
Today we arrived in Taiwan, which has a population of 23 million and a surface area of 36,000km2 - about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland or 60% of the size of Switzerland. I had booked a Best of Taipei tour, and the weather was cool and cloudy. When I looked out at the port terminal this morning, I saw that the ground was wet, so was prepared for rain. However, it actually held off until our arrival back at the port around 5:00 p.m.
Our guide today was a retired professor from MIT who owned one home in Boston and another in Taipei. He said he still taught in Boston for the spring and summer but returned to Taipei for the winter as it was warmer in Taipei than in Boston during the winter months and he did not like cold weather. His surname was Hu, so he asked us to call him Dr. Hu. He was a mine of facts. He did not so much give us a tour spiel as continually request that we ask him questions. Some of these facts: Taipei has 5% of the population of Taiwan; the private sector income tax (which is about 30% of tax in general) is 17.25% while corporate tax makes up the other 70%; Hu's government health care insurance costs him $25.00 a month.
Taiwan, which used to be called Formosa by the Portuguese, was actually “discovered” in 1622 by the Dutch. From 1895 to 1945 it was governed by the Japanese, during which time it was significantly modernized and became an influential political core. Later on, Taipei served as the headquarters of the Nationalist Party after the Communists threw Chiang Kai-shek's government out of the mainland in 1949. The PRC was established on October 1, 1949. The United Nations does not recognize Taiwan as a separate country: Taiwan was voted out of the U.N. in 1975. There has been undeclared strife between mainland China and Taiwan for years, yet there are hundreds of flights weekly between the two, which seems to show their willingness to get along.
One thing Taiwan has going for it, compared to China or indeed Hong Kong, is that it is fairly clean. Apparently, the trash is collected 3 times a day - or at a bare minimum once a day. This is amazing when compared to Vancouver where garbage is collected now once every two weeks! The result of this multi-day garbage collection is the reduction of diseases. There is also a low ratio of police at 70,000 policemen and women for 23 million inhabitants. This shows too that there is a very low crime rate, of which 80% is related to drugs. Unemployment is also low at 3.9%. Thirdly, Taiwan, unlike China, has an election every two years. The current president is a woman. In comparison, the current president of China recently declared himself president for life!
Another piece of information I learned is that Taiwan has an indigenous population, a total of 16 clans who claim first-class citizenship in Taiwan. They are permitted to retire at age 55 while the rest of Taiwan's population is set to retire at age 65. Moreover, these indigenous populations' entire education through to college is subsidized by the government. Another couple of tidbits: the best paid jobs in Taiwan are in banking and hi-tech and the price of houses in Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan is about a third of what the same size costs in Taipei.
Our first stop was the National Palace Museum of Taipei. There is also a National Palace Museum in Beijing (aka the Forbidden City) and there are more than 200 agreements regarding the exchange of items between the two as of 1967. This museum in Taipei has one of the world's largest collections of ancient Chinese art and artifacts spanning over 8,000 years and includes precious objects amassed by ancient emperors of the Qing, Ming and Sung dynasties. We were told that it is the third most visited museum in the world (in numbers of visitors) after the Louvre and the British Museum and yet it is far smaller. In fact, every three months, the exhibits are rotated, and it would take 36 years for all these thousands of items to be exhibited. Consequently, due to the large crowds of tourists and the size of the rooms, we saw a very small portion of the exhibits it houses today over three floors. We started off with bronze objects, went into enamels and porcelain and ended up with some jade. One famous piece of the collection is a large (Chinese) cabbage made of jade, a copy of which was on sale in the museum shop, (photo below). Another key item is a 19-level ivory ball made from one elephant tusk, seen below. The third photo is of some jewellery, a brooch and earrings, likely worn by an empress.
Our second stop was at the Martyr's Shrine, a tribute to 330,000 men who sacrificed their lives in battles throughout Taiwan's history. It is a tourist attraction due to the hourly change of guards, one of whom is shown in the photo above. Below, too, is a video that I captured of the ceremony. The next photo is a close up of the Grand Hotel, where we were provided with a buffet lunch. This hotel on a hill has a great view and a history of visits from famous people from Eisenhower and Liz Taylor to Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat.
Lunch was followed by visits to two temples within a short walking distance of each other. First was the quieter, simpler and plainer Confucius temple, known as a Level Three National Cultural Relic, which was built in 1925 and owns the ornate ceiling seen in the first photo below. Mere steps away was the Pao An Buddhist Temple, completed in 1830 and restored in 2002, which honours the god of Medicine. Ornately decorated with stone lions and carved dragons, it was filled with offerings of flowers, including the orchid below, and worshippers, as well as the heavy smell of incense.
Then we were bussed to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which was constructed in honour of the former president of the Republic of China. While the previous four buildings we visited today were full of red and yellow to celebrate the living, this memorial hall and its outer gate were white with a blue roof to celebrate the dead. The huge area between the outer gates and the memorial hall, known as Liberty Square, has been the site of many rallies. To either side of this square are two yellow-roofed red buildings for music and culture - one for musical concerts and the other for dancing. I walked across the vast square to climb the steps up to the memorial hall and was surprised to see a crowd of people with their cameras and selfie sticks in the air. Thinking they were just there to photograph the statue of Mr. Chiang, I glanced at the screens and saw in fact that they were filming another changing of the guard taking place at that precise moment. I could not get near enough to see properly but was able to watch the screens of other photographers and hear the sounds of the young men's steps and the clacks of their rifles. Then, once the new guards had taken their places, they were inspected by the guards' guards, the posts were taken away, and everyone rushed forward to photograph the statue of Mr. Chiang and of course photograph themselves standing next to the stoic young guards. Apparently, there were other things to see here, including artifacts, photographs and cars to commemorate the late president's life, but I reluctantly had to give those a miss as I had only five minutes at that point to run back down the ninety steps and across the vast square and to the bus so as not to be left behind. Yet, despite my hurry, as usual, I was not the last to get on the bus.
A stop for shopping was made at a government tourist store, but I stayed on the bus. I was told I didn't miss anything and that the prices were quite high. Then, just as it started to rain, the bus made one last stop so that we could get out and take photos across a parking lot of the 101-floor Taipei 101 tower, the world's tallest skyscraper until 2020. Built in 2004, it is 508 metres tall. After the 26th floor, there is a new section every 8 floors to make it safer for cleaning the windows, apparently. An office building, its occupation rate is over 99%. It also has five floors below ground and an adjoining multi-level shopping mall. Two people were killed during its construction due to an accident with a crane, but it can still boast having the fastest elevator in the world at 60 km per hour. It costs tourists $20 to travel the 36 seconds from floors 1 and 92. To visit floors 92 through to 101, which are government-owned, however, you must apply for a special permit.
Friday, December 14, 2018 - Hong Kong, China
Today, I needed to catch up on my e-mails and translation work, and since I had lived here for eight years, I did not feel the need to go on any tours. I went into the cruise terminal to use the free Hong Kong government Wi-fi. There were plenty of seats in the waiting room, yet nowhere to plug in laptops, so I ended up working until my battery gave out in the morning and returned to the ship for lunch. Then, once my battery had refueled to 100% in my cabin, I went back to the cruise ship terminal waiting room to work for another two hours or so until my laptop threatened to shut down again.
From my cabin with a balcony on the port side, I had a fantastic view of Hong Kong island, so here are the flags of both nations flying on top of the cruise terminal building, as well as a couple of scenes of Hong Kong island in the daytime in low cloud. The next three are photos I took as I watched the sunset from my stateroom. The last two photos were taken as we left Hong Kong at about 6:45 p.m. - over an hour later than planned as new arrivees on board - and those who had gone to China and Macau for the day - did not understand that they had to go through immigration on the ship. The very last photo is a view of the Kai Tak cruise ship terminal. I honestly felt that the views were worth the price of the balcony stateroom.
Sunday, December 16, 2018 - Nha Trang, Vietnam
Yesterday was a sea day and I won the afternoon trivia all on my own and received the prize of a wine bottle stopper for my efforts. Today, we were suddenly in the tropics and humidity was up, as was the temperature - to about 26 degrees Celsius. As we arrived in Nha Trang, on the south-east coast of Vietnam, we noticed logs and bits of wood in the water. Apparently, there had been a storm yesterday with a great deal of rain. As a result, the sea water was a golden-brown colour due to the silt that had washed down from the mountains along the Cai River and out into the harbour. Luckily for us, however, today was sunny. As we were obliged to anchor, due to there being no berth for us to tie up alongside, Vietnam officials came on board and stamped our landing cards as we embarked on the tenders to go ashore. Below, after the photo of the Vietnam flag - a five-pointed yellow star on a red background - and a view of Nha Trang and its brightly coloured fishing boats, there is a photo of the customs and immigration officials coming alongside to board the ship.
My tour today took us into the countryside, but I was rather disappointed with our tour guide - Phuc - pronounced Fook - as his English was difficult to understand, though his sing-songy voice was pleasant enough. Consequently, I'm afraid I rather zoned out when he gave his spiel as it was difficult to decipher what he was saying sometimes. Our first stop was at a temple with a pagoda cum school cum orphanage. As it was a Sunday, the school was not in session, but there were five or six orphans there who did not mind being photographed. The school is subsidized by Western donations and run by Buddhist nuns. On our way in the bus to said complex, it was amusing to watch all the scooters whizzing by. I believe I understood our guide to say that Vietnam has a population of 90 million people and 60 million scooters, so if you take away non drivers - i.e. people below the age of, say, 16 and over the age of, say, 65, you still have some people owning more than one scooter - perhaps one for work and the other for leisure? Not only were these scooters carrying two, three or four people - the children without helmets I might add - but also freezers, fishing poles, planks of wood, shopping and I even saw one scooter driver on the phone and another texting while driving!
Our second stop was at a small village market, full of fruits and vegetables, meat and shoes, etc. My eye was drawn especially to those vendors wearing conical reed hats. Next, we went to a communal house - so-called - but actually more of a place of worship - ancestor worship, I gathered. There were no statues of Buddha, just Chinese writing. There were also two ladies demonstrating the way they weave their floor mats from reeds and a high school student selling silk embroidery pictures for an exorbitant price of $20.00 each. Exorbitant for Vietnam, because, for instance, the lunch we were offered today cost only $3.00
Our subsequent stop was at a typical house where three generations live together. We were invited inside to see their family altar, living quarters, kitchen and to view their large garden, with vegetable crops and chickens in a coop. On the same street we saw papaya and coconut trees full of fruit, ripe for picking. We stopped a short time later on another street. Here there were several racks of round flat disks. This was where we were told people make rice paper - or so they called it. In fact, they took rice, soaked it in water overnight and with the subsequent mash spread it onto a round pan and rolled it onto something like a rolling pin and then rolled it off onto these racks. Seeds and chilis were sprinkled onto these flat round pancakes, they were dried in the sun on these racks you see in the photo, and then subsequently roasted to produce a spicy rice cracker. We were all given a sample to try and I found it very tasty indeed!
We were then told we would be driven into the real countryside and see rice paddies. Although rice is harvested here in the valley twice a year and up in the mountains three times a year, this was the wrong time of year for harvesting, so I was disappointed not to see any workers in the rice paddies. However, we did have some luck because, as we were driving, suddenly to the right side where I was seated, we saw about ten or so water buffalo and their young. They were fairly close to us in one field, and next to them there were about six adults hoeing. One elderly gentleman was the most interesting looking of the lot and very photogenic, I thought, with his bright red chin strap making a wonderful contrast to his pastel blue hat and shirt.
Our last stop was confusing because our guide told us we would have lunch and that his company was offering us one coconut each as a beverage, but that other drinks would cost us. The coconuts were very refreshing and were full of liquid to drink. Then it was revealed that the food too - if we wanted any - was extra. However, they did serve us complimentary plates of fruit - bananas and oranges. They also provided us with a floor show of Vietnamese folkloric music - a drummer, a flutist and a player of one of those long plucked stringed instruments - and dance. The dancing seemed similar to Thai dancing, though the costumes and make-up were not as elaborate. Finally, at this restaurant, which also doubled as a wedding venue, there was a plethora of souvenirs to buy if one was so inclined. I took a photo of some cards, which when opened had intricately cut objects that stood up on the card - things like boats, trees, pots of flowers, etc.
Monday, December 17, 2018 - Phu My - Vung Tau, Vietnam
Although Phu My is the port for Ho Chi Minh City (population 7,521,138, est. 2011), I intend to visit this spot next week and consequently opted today for a tour to Ba Ria and Vung Tau City. Our rather dour guide today was called Tai and though I never did see him crack a smile the entire seven hours with us, his English was a lot better than yesterday's guide and he had a lot of facts about his country to share with us. Our itinerary, he told us, was to be as follows: First we would travel to Ba Ria to visit the following: the Long Diem Temple, a Family Workshop making rice paper, a family farm and workshop making rice wine, a local market in another village, and finally a fruit orchard where we would have a snack of seasonal fruits. Next, we would go to the resort of Binh An for a buffet lunch where we would have about an hour and a half. After that, we would travel on to Vung Tau City, a fishing village to photograph fishing boats and then the Jesus Statue, the highest Jesus statue in Vietnam. Our final stop would be at the Whale Temple in this same city, before returning to the pier by 4:00 p.m.
Ho Chi Minh City, Tai told us, was founded in 1698. This area used to be part of the Cambodian Kingdom until the 17th century when the Vietnamese first entered the area. Then in 1698, the new emperor turned a small fishing village known as Prey Nokor into an administrative outpost. Conquered by the French in 1859, the outpost was renamed Saigon and became the French Indochinese capital. French occupation lasted just under 100 years. Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to honour North Vietnam's revolutionary leader, and today it is the largest city of Vietnam. It is still referred to as Saigon by the locals, and citizens of this city are called Saigonites. As for Ho, he died in 1969, six years before the liberation date of April 30, 1975 that signified the end of the Vietnam War. The capital of Vietnam is Hanoi, in the North. The political system is communist - there is only one political party - yet the economy is capitalist, i.e. citizens are allowed to own their land and their house for life. Since 1995, Vietnam has been open to tourism, which has been good for the economy. Vietnam, at 300,000km2, is about the same size as Italy, and currently has a population of 100 million, while in 1945, its population was only 40 million.
If you work for the Vietnamese government, you must follow the new family plan whereby you may have no more than two children. If you do have more than two children, you must stop working. However, few people want to do this, as the benefits of government work are the best in the country. If you do not work for the government, however, you may have more than two children, but education is expensive, so most families have only one child - or two at the most. The education system is similar to the French system, due to their history of governing Vietnam in the 19th century. To send your child to kindergarten or pre-school - from age 1 to 5 - it costs USD$100 per month. The education for ages 6 to 10 (elementary school) and ages 11-15 (secondary school) is free. The next level, ages 16-18, is called high school, after which there are two years of military service that are compulsory for men but not for women. If you manage to pass an exam to enter college or university, however, you are exempt from military service. Yet, once you finish college or university, you may volunteer for the army. Education in Vietnam is very important; to secure a job with the government or a company, you must have a college certificate or a bachelor's degree. Nevertheless, the cost to go to university is high at $1000 per year.
Freelance workers (such as tour guides, farmers, etc.) earn about US$20-30 a day and receive no pension or social benefits. Fifty percent of Vietnam's population are farmers or freelancers. If you work for a company, you must work 30 years to receive a pension. Five percent of your wage goes towards the pension fund and the company pays another 5% into it. Therefore, to pay into their own pension, freelancers and farmers must pay 10% of their earnings. If you work for the Vietnamese government, your average wage will be $500 - 600 per month. Working for a company will earn you, on average, $400 - 500 a month. The price of gas is now about $1.00 per litre. Vietnam produces some oil offshore but not enough to provide for the entire country. Income taxes range from 10 to 40%, but if you earn less than $600 a month, you do not pay any taxes at all. Earn just above $600 and you pay 10% However, there are deductions for dependents. For each child you have, you are entitled to a deduction allowance of $300 per month. If you have a parent who is 65 years old or above who does not receive a pension and is living with you, you can deduct another $300. Nursing homes are not very common in Vietnam, so the older generation usually lives with their children. As a result, it is common to have three generations living under the same roof.
The general religion of Vietnam is “Confucius” (sic) and, according to this belief, you must look after your parents. After their death, you are required to look after their graves. Usually you would bury you parents in the field around your house. You would also keep a photo of them on your home altar among offerings of fruit, tea, etc. There is also an annual festival in Vietnam for paying respect to your ancestors. Finally, in matters of health insurance, there are three tiers. The first tier is for government workers, politicians and the army, who pay nothing. The second tier is for company workers, whereby the employee and the employer each contribute 3% into a health plan. The bottom tier, once again, is for freelancers and farmers. Tai told us he pays $60.00 a year for his health plan.
The first photo below shows the pier at Phu My (pronounced Foo My) and all the buses waiting to transport passengers taking tours. The next photo shows our tour guide, Tai, at the Long Diem Temple, a communal temple complex surrounded by teak trees and walkways so that neighbouring folks can come and socialize and exercise. He showed us two large seeds they throw on the ground to find out if their wishes are granted (if they fall on opposite sides) or not (if they fall on the same side), and a pot of sticks, each with a number. You shake the pot and then take the number of whichever stick falls onto the floor first and look it up in a large book (written by the founder of this religion and which Tai compared to a bible) and it will tell you your fortune. The third photo shows more of these rice paper rounds drying on racks like yesterday. This time we were shown more closely how they were made. These ones though were not roasted into crackers like those of yesterday, though they did have chilis in them. I did not try the samples we were offered this time, but my travel companions said they were of uninteresting consistency and taste while overly spicy. The farm producing these rice disks was also growing some colourful and photogenic orchids.
The next family home we visited was making rice wine, similar to sake with 25-30% alcohol content, which, Tai said, goes down better with a Coke or Pepsi. I tried it and found it mild. This farm also had a talking and chirping myna bird in a cage, as well as two large pigs and two brahma bulls. The rice fields across the road, looked ready to harvest. Then we stopped at a market and I was disappointed not to find very many people in the typical conical hats. There were some school girls, though, who very obligingly allowed me to photograph them. Otherwise, I photographed some live frogs which had been tied together in bunches of three for sale (a delicacy left over from the French colonial times, perhaps), as well as some large, colourful fruit, such as the mangosteens and dragon fruit you see here.
Next was the visit to a family orchard, and three lovely ladies all in conical hats treated us to a sit-down platter of banana, papaya, watermelon and pineapple as well as a young coconut each as a refreshing drink. They posed for photos, too! We then drove about 40 minutes to the seaside city of Vung Tau, considered once of the country's most beautiful cities. Binh An was the 5-star resort where we had a marvellously tasty buffet lunch - possibly the best lunch I've had so far this cruise. The resort also had free Wi-fi, so many of us used the time after lunch to catch up on our e-mails, Facebook, Whatsapp, etc. or to photograph the many beautiful flowers in the resort.
After lunch, we drove along the beach road, stopping at a spot where several fishing boats were beached and fishermen were repairing their nets inside their boats. At every single spot we had stopped at today, a very persistent trio of vendors was also there endeavouring to sell us fans, kimonos, toys, bags, etc. They had all their wares in plastic bags balanced on their scooters and seemed to know exactly where we would be next before we even got there. Below is a photo of one of them with her souvenir-laden scooter and covered in hats and scarves. Tai told us that they wear these face-covering scarves so as not to become darkened by the sun as they spend hours and hours driving around on their scooters, as white skin is very much prized in their culture. In case you were wondering, this is how they manage to wear their scooter helmet and their conical hat at the same time. Tai told us that drivers between age 16 and 18 can drive smaller scooters after taking a special test, and then at age 18 they can get a licence for a full-size motorcycle after taking both written and practical exams. Then, after age 65, drivers are tested yearly to make sure they are still capable of driving.
The Jesus statue you see above is 32 metres high and the arm span is 19 metres. Tai told us it takes one hour to climb up the hill to the statue and there are 1,000 steps involved in the climb. Inside the statue, there is a spiral staircase with 132 steps. Construction of the statue was begun near the end of the Vietnam War but in 1975 the government at the time had the construction stopped. Then in 1990, the new government ordered the construction to be recommenced and it was finally completed in 1992. The girl you see below was a very young vendor with her mother located on the sidewalk across from the Jesus statue.
The remaining three photos were taken at the whale temple, erected in honour of whales, the so-called “Generals of the Sea,” believed to protect local fishermen and their boats. When a whale dies and washes ashore here, the locals drag it to the temple, hold a festival with traditional singing and dancing, and then the whale bones are buried at the temple for three years. After this time, they are dug up and displayed inside the temple, which is recognized as a National Cultural Historical Monument. The gentleman in brown you see here is a monk from the temple. Next, a live pigeon is standing atop a dragon on the temple roof, while a lion stands guard outside another temple in the complex.
This first leg of the cruise has now come to an end, and in order not to miss out on the sea days - of which there were five this cruise - I thought I would add one photo here from Tuesday December 18, 2018 taken somewhere in the tropics between Phu My and Singapore. It was a glorious day for sitting on a ship balcony, admiring the sea, the sun and the shades of blue.
My adventures during leg two of this voyage can be found here.