Archive for the ‘Interesting Places’ category

Gaudí Revival in Vietnam: The Crazy House in Dalat

December 9, 2011

La Casa Loca en Vietnam
Photos and Captions by Zigor Aldama
Dalat Casa Loca Tree Hollow
Part of the building looks like a gigantic tree hollow.
Dalat Casa Loca Caves
Some interiors imitate the caves of Vietnam’s Halong Bay.
Dalat Casa Loca Eagle Room
The Eagle Room is designed with U.S. artistic elements in mind.
Dalat Casa Loca Pass
Some of the facades look sinister enough at night to disturb the hotels’ guests.
Dalat Casa Loca Tree Hollow Entrance
Entrance to the tree hollow-like structure.
Dalat Casa Loca Tree Structure
From a certain perspective, the organic forms and lack of straight lines recall the style of Gaudi, whom the architect of the complex recognizes as his inspiration.
Dalat Casa Loca Passageway
The passageway that unites the arboreal structure with the caves.

Gaudí Revival in Vietnam
The daughter of a Communist ex-president constructs a “crazy house” with her gaze settled on the Catalonian architect
El País: Gaudí resucita en Vietnam
Zigor Aldama reporting from Dalat, Vietnam November 28, 2011

It has the impossible organic forms, the Neo-Gothic details taken to excess, and the incoherent spaces: from a claustrophobic catwalk to a colossal room. Nor it is lacking the grays and soft ochers splashed with some notes of color. The work is doubtless inspired by nature: this is similar to a gigantic tree with branches serving as handrails; that is a cave with stalactites and stalagmites; hanging everywhere are big spider webs – both artificial and real ones – functional toadstools, and monsters with brilliant red eyes.

To be honest, some of its corners provoke shivers: at night, the gates screech, and the windows stare fixedly as if they were the eyes of faces drawn on the facades. Yes, one could imagine it to be a work of Antoni Gaudí, although some elements of this “crazy house” (casa loca) are more reminiscent of the melting clocks of the surrealist Salvador Dalí. But surely neither of the two Catalonian artists ever heard the name of the city that took in this building which brusquely breaks with the duality imposed by its European colonial architecture and sober Communist delineation: Dalat, Vietnam.

It’s no wonder the hostel Hang Nga, The Moon’s Sister, has become one of the principal tourist attractions in this unusual city, a former mountain retreat for French colonists. The establishment, inaugurated in 1990, was designed by Dang Viet Nga (born in Vietnam in 1940), daughter of the president of the State Council from 1981 to 1988, Truong Chinh, who received a doctorate in architecture from the University of Moscow. Following in the footsteps of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) basilica in Barcelona, it is still under construction, though Dang hopes to complete her masterpiece in a more modest period of time than the Barcelonese cathedral (itself slated for completion in 2026, the centennial of its architect’s death): two years.

The house’s construction has not been the least bit conventional itself. Dang doesn’t draw plans, just sketches and ideas, which eight local artisans, none experienced in architecture, make into reality, supervised by an engineer tasked with keeping the dream from crumbling. Everything is done by hand, including the furniture, which has to complement the always asymmetrical forms of the rooms.

The Chinese official newspaper People’s Daily called the hostel one of the ten strangest buildings in the world, and not in vain: it’s difficult to determine how many floors it has. For Dang, who recognizes that her inspiration is “The Great Gaudí” without batting an idea, the building is just “the union of technique and art”. Nevertheless, the creator recognizes that many officials in the Dalat People’s Committee, her old colleagues, do not approve of her work.

“There have been problems, and I haven’t lacked for people discrediting me as crazy, but fortunately, in Hanoi there are people who understand what I want to achieve.” Thanks to those people, who revoked the local authorities’ prohibition, she received permission to begin construction, 18 years after asking for it. Now the building is a money magnet.

For a modest sum (20-60 euros), one can spend the night in one of the rooms, “which are similar to tree houses and have different characteristics.” For example, the tiger room, designed for Chinese guests who adore kitsch, the eagle room, made more spacious to accomodate the volumnious bodies of Americans, and the ant room, in honor of the laborious work that made Vietnam imperialism’s worst nightmare.

The suite is dedicated to the bee, which symbolizes the collaborative union of living beings which can add up to a little cascade. “There are bees in every country, and this habitation does not have a nationality. It represents the world coming together to make a better world.” Visitors are coming from every corner of the planet; those who only want to have a look need only pay 30,000 dong ($1.43) for entry.

There are more than a few people coming to see it. The “crazy house” is already an obligatory stop for all the travelers seeking fresh air in Dalat. “I didn’t expect to find soething like this in Vietnam, much less in Dalat,” Miguel Saavedra, a Spanish tourist, wrote in the guestbook. “This building is like a dream that’s out of place, and I admire the bravery of its architecture. But not all share his enthusiasm. Dang’s cement insanity has provoked debate. Some of her colleagues have openly criticized it in the Vietnamese press, saying it does not have aesthetic cohesion or functionality. These aren’t empty words: a blueprint like this would be swiftly rejected in Spain for not satisfying any safety requirements. If you had one drink too many here, it could easily be your last.

But this fairy tale, which would often remind Anglo-Saxons of Walt Disney’s creations, has practically unlimited resources, and it is continuing to transform. The number of rooms is growing though the hostel does not have a very good reputation among those who have spent the night there. “Most complain that the beds are too hard, and the visitors are too noisy from the first light of morning onward,” says Trang Hung, a local tour guide. “And there are also people who say they were frightened,” she adds with a laugh.


King of Bhutan Weds, Will Visit Japan with Queen Soon

October 13, 2011

Bhutan Royal Wedding
The King and Queen of Bhutan after their wedding ceremony on October 13. Photo by Eki Arai.

King of Bhutan Weds, Will Visit Japan with Queen Soon
Yomiuri Shimbun: 新婚のブータン国王夫妻、国賓として訪日へ
Eki Arai reporting from Punakha, Western Bhutan October 13, 2011

On October 13 in Punakha, the ancient capital of the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (age 31) married Jetsun Pema (21), a woman from a common family.

The ceremony was held in Punakha Dzong, which doubles as a monastery and a state administrative center. It strictly followed traditional customs. Afterward, the bride and groom went to the plaza, where tens of thousands of citizens were gathered, and enjoyed a traditional dance while receiving well wishes.

Under the direction of the former king, Bhutan’s government changed from a hereditary monarchy to a unitary parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy in 2008. The current king, who took the throne the same year, is open-hearted and popular, and “he is playing a centripetal role in the country during this time of transition,” in the words of the editor-in-chief of the local newspaper.

The new queen’s father was a pilot for the national airline. She has studied abroad in India and England. It seems the crowning of a queen from a common family is having a positive influence on the democratization of the country.

Since the new king and queen announced their plans to wed in May, they have frequently made official visits together, but in November, they will make their first foreign tour as husband and wife, and they are planning to visit Japan. They are also considering visiting the Great Tōhoku Earthquake disaster area.

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Hiraizumi Becomes Tōhoku’s First UN World Heritage Site

June 28, 2011

Hiraizumi Becomes Tōhoku’s First UN World Heritage Site
Yomiuri Shimbun: 「平泉」世界文化遺産に登録…東北では初
Mina Mitsui reporting from Paris June 26, 2011

On the 25th, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee designated Hirazumi, Iwate a World Cultural Heritage Site. Five of the six places at the site that Japan nominated were chosen, including Chūsonji Temple and excluding Yanagi no Gosho Museum.

12 places in Japan had been named World Heritage Sites before now, most recently Shimane Prefecture’s “Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape” in 2007, but this is the first in Tōhoku [the region that bore the brunt of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami]. The Bonin Islands (Ogasawara Group) off Tokyo was selected on the 24th, bringing the number to 14 (including natural heritage sites).

Hiraizumi’s Cultural Heritage consists of temples, gardens and the like created by Ōshū Fujiwara clan when it was flourishing in Tōhoku in the 12th century. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which advises the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), recommended excluding Yanagi no Gosho, the former home of the Ōshū Fujiwara, because “it does not have a direct relationship with Pure Land Buddhism and does not have something of conspicuously universal value.” UNESCO, following ICOMOS’s recommendation, excluded Yanagi no Gosho Museum and honored the other five sites for their universal value as part of Pure Land Buddhism’s cultural heritage.

Location of Hiraizumi
Map of Hiraizumi

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China Through the Looking Glass of Shanghai Pu Dong International Airport

March 29, 2011

International airport terminals are the most controlled environments in most countries, and I’m looking forward to comparing what I saw on my layover between Taipei and Fukuoka with the real McCoy on my visit this summer.

I’m not sure if it was supposed to be sunny or cloudy on the days I arrived: the smog made it seem like every day is as gray as the others. At least the air and water quality inside the airport were good. The landscape around the landing strip suggested the quick construction projects the country is known for.

The most depressing airports I’ve visited were layover stops in Malaysia. They were materially comfortable, as are all international terminals, but there was nothing original about them, just a lot of duty-free stores stocked by multinational corporations like Ferrero Rocher and Disney. This suggested domestic weakness. Shanghai’s international terminal was also on the boring side: the restaurants were no cheaper or better than their American airport brethren, and the souvenir shops were present must be capitalizing on the difference between Westerners’ and natives’ concept of a fair price. The most salient fact about international airports is that it takes money to get inside them. The most ubiquitous advertiser was London-based multinational bank HSBC (滙豐控股有限公司). I read one of its tag lines, 成功, as chenggong [Chinese pronunciation] on my way into Japan and seiko [Japanese] on my way out, by the way.

The English press is much freer than the Chinese press. Practically every English news website is available, and the print magazines have more incisive analysis. Why’s that? Well, only a small number of the citizens can get something out of reading English media. The benefits of these restrictions wouldn’t justify the cost in management and public relations. Chinese sites and social networks like Facebook are the real targets of the firewall.

The Chinese headline for the first day of Libyan operations referred to the American-English-French action as an invasion, noted in the sub-headline that 48 were killed in the air force bombing, and said Qaddafi was getting the citizens ready to resist it. The Japanese nuclear plant stories included one titled “our nuclear plants are safer than the ones in Fukushima.” The balance of the stories I saw were positive. Instead of muckraking, there were government reports and editorials. I couldn’t even find the crime briefs that fascinate so many Taiwanese and Western news readers.

The bilingual flight magazine boasted it was a winner of the Golden Great Wall Media Awards, a deliciously ironic name. The first feature was about the company executives visiting the honorary chairman to give him New Year’s greetings. This man, He Pengnian, “was appointed as office director of Shanghai municipal construction operating committee of the Communist Party of China; secretary of the Party committee of non-ferrous metal institute of Shanghai; deputy secretary-general and deputy director of Shanghai Municipal Economic Committee; deputy director of traffic office of the People’s government of Shanghai. He began to hold the post of chairman and general manager, chairman and secretary of the Party committee of this company since 1985. He is now in the post of honorary chairman of [Shanghai Airlines] while the honorary dean of Aviation transportation college of Shanghai University Of Engineering Science and the part-time professor of Shanghai Jiaotong University.”

The second article was a ceremony for the opening of a company “microblog.” In that second article, 70% of the English translation and at least half the Chinese original were occupied by the names and positions of the executives attending the ceremony. There were articles about nice places to visit and popular high-end goods, as always (the most eye-catching article was about chicken blood stones and carvings, so named for their color). The magazines and newspapers had plenty of profiles about CEOs, and during a break in the CCTV variety show, the host interviewed an executive for a successful company. So they are using positive advertising to burnish the images of leaders and entrepreneurs. The English translations had mistakes, so native Chinese must have written them.

The most impressive part of the bookstore was the photographic albums, which gave me my first look at the Beijing and Shanghai skylines and some of the national parks. Startling beauty and creativity were on display. The new CCTV Building is startling. How many articles about China’s development start by describing those new buildings, I wonder? What a great PR investment. There were also some fascinating photographs of Chinese family homes of both the rich and poor, so the less rosy part of the country was not completely whitewashed.

I study traditional Chinese characters in Taiwan, but China has simplified its writing system dramatically. Their current writing style, which is more phonetic and less clear in distinctions between words, is suitable for adults who can speak but cannot write but more difficult for students who are starting to learn the language. Since the purpose of the simplified system was to increase the literacy rate, presumably among adults, this makes sense, but I wonder if the government will change back after the base level of education in the country is stable. I hope so because I think the simplified system is aesthetically damaging.

The CCTV broadcast was of a play performed before a live studio audience of men and women in suits and dresses: powerful viewers, perhaps? Their applause helped propel the show, which was about a singing college student learning to be more filial and hardworking. Besides the break for the businessman interview, there was a report about a musical about the Chinese military. After the clips of singing soldiers, well-dressed audience members were asked about the quality of the show: everyone said it was a 成功 (success), and the 10 people’s voices were looped two times over to make a wave: “Chenggong! Chenggong! Chenggong! Chenggong!” There was also a public service rap by an animated pig about how to avoid H1N1, the new contagious disease from America. It was cute. The most memorable advice was “stay away from groups of strangers!” with the foreigners represented as rabbits in monk’s robes. Finally, there were advertisements for art exhibitions in the country and worldwide soccer highlights.

The artists whose works were featured in the paper and the arrival hall and on the television were in their 50s or above, suggesting they’d paid their dues. Impressionism seems to be fashionable now.

I didn’t need a visa to lay over in Shanghai on my way from Taiwan or to make the return. I had to pick up my bag and check it in again when I arrived in Shanghai from Taiwan, but my luggage went straight through when I arrived there from Japan. About 2 million Taiwanese work on the continent now, and they need to do a little extra paperwork to cross the PRC border each time. Foreigners looking for a Chinese tourist visa have to apply to a Taiwanese travel agency and pay over $200 (more than double the normal price) or pick up the visa in Hong Kong instead. In Chinese airport parlance, visitors from Formosa are “Taiwanese residents,” not “Taiwanese citizens,” and flights to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are not called “international flights.”

China East had markedly lower ticket prices than competitors, but it makes up the difference by restricting luggage weight: 10 kg on your person and 20 kg checked in, and any overrun WILL be charged by kilogram and by mile. If you take two flights, you have to pay both times. In Taiwan, the staff was pretty accommodating with me and charged me less than the scale said I deserved, but in Shanghai there was no question I would pay the full rate: I paid $100 across two flights and left a suitcase (with a broken handle) at the Shanghai check-in counter to avoid paying $100 more in charges. I carried some luggage onto the flight rather than checking it in for the same reason: no matter that the baggage weighed the same no matter where it was on the plane, rules are rules. It’s possible that in China, you get less leeway. You could say “there’s less margin for leniency” or “there’s too many people for us to make exceptions.”

Each customs official had an instant rating device posted next to his window, but I’m not sure how my vote was calculated. The staff’s Mandarin was easily understandable, but they talked amongst themselves in Shanghainese. Service, safety, and cleanliness were commendable overall; I kept to myself and didn’t have any problems, luggage frustration aside. With that, I end my report.

부산/釜山 ~ Busan

March 4, 2011

부산/釜山 ~ Busan

Busan is the second largest metropolis in Korea after Seoul and the fifth largest port in the world.   Since it’s right across the sea from Fukuoka and borders a river, it has been a port for trade with the Japanese for hundreds of years.  Nestled between the mountains and sea on the southern coast, it was one of only two cities not conquered by the invading northern armies at the beginning of the Korean War.  The weather is lovely: the average low in January is 0°C; the average high in August is 29°C.  This is one of the few big cities with beautiful mountains and beaches both accessible by subway.  I visited in September 2009.

Busan Street
I had lovely weather both days in the city. This is a really beautiful and wide road, isn’t it?

Path to Beomeosa Temple
Climbing to Beomeosa Temple

Beomeosa Temple Courtyard

Geomjeungsan and Fortress Walls
The city surrounds the mountain. Atop the mountain, Geumjeongsan (peak: 801.5m) are a temple and a castle. It would take an entire day to hike all the way around the perimeter of the fortress, and afterward you’d be exhausted.

At Peak of Geomjeungsan

Haeundae Beach

Busan Sunset

Korean Test Books
There are aptitude tests for everything.

桃園 ~ Taoyuan

March 3, 2011

桃園 ~ Taoyuan

Here are some of the pleasant sights northwest of Taipei: Yingge Pottery Street (鶯歌老街), Sanxia’s Zushi Temple (三峽長福巖/清水袓師廟) and Minquan Old Street (民權老街), Xiao Wulai scenic area (小烏來), and Chiang Kai-shek’s summer home and the camphor museum in Fuxing (復興). We took this trip in October of 2010: I remember this because the Rangers were battering the Yankees’ Sabathia at the time.

Yingge Pottery Shop

Yingge Pottery Street

Eggplant with Signatures

ASS Authorized Service Shop

Sanxia River Scene

Sanxia Zushi Temple

Sanxia Temple Pillar

Sanxia Temple Capital

Wulai Mountain Town

Fuxing Chiang Park

Sanxia Temple Ceiling (more…)

On the Road in Hindustan

March 2, 2011

On the Road in Hindustan

The places between the places I visited. The “Hindu Belt” is the northern plain of India.

My Driver, Raj
I, the Passenger
Slightly Flooded Street
City Cow
Oversized Load
Elephant Driver
Roadside Camel Stand
New Buildings Outside Delhi
Young Camels (more…)