Hoi An charmed its way into my heart right from the beginning. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this place even with my high expectations shaped from hearing all about this famous town. It is a busy little tailoring town located halfway between North and South Vietnam with bright yellow colonial architecture and colourful lanterns strung all along the narrow streets.The food is delicious as you’d expect in Vietnam, and the eager tailors can whip up a suit or dress for you in a day, or sew a new leather bag or pair of sandals if that’s what you fancied. We could wander the streets freely without worrying about bikes and cars because the streets are cordoned off for pedestrians. At night, the lanterns painted a romantic glow over the town. The river is lit up with candles carrying the wishes and hopes of tourists and locals alike. We spotted a few young couples in traditional garb posing for engagement photos. It was the perfect backdrop for blossoming love and it felt right for the mood we were in.
There are a few things in this world that one must see in their lifetime. Some may say the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon. To me, it has got to be the Taj Mahal.
As you enter the main gate leading to the Taj, you see the arch of the gate slowly unveil this majestic piece of architecture and framing it in the process. It literally takes your breath away. You can’t help but stop and take in this wonder of a sight right before you. Then you whip out your camera and take a zillion photos of this perfectly symmetrical and incredibly photogenic man made creation.
What makes the Taj all the more special is the story behind it. Emperor Shah Jahan was so heartbroken by the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz that he commissioned the building of the Taj as a mausoleum in memory of her. Add to that the outrageous myth that every craftsman and builder had their hands chopped off to prevent a replica of the Taj from being built. It is impossible not to be charmed by this architectural marvel.
Forty eight hours in this progressive Arab nation was enough to reveal interesting facets of this tiny country. Every other person we see on the street is a migrant or expat with local Qatari nationals forming a minority in this oil rich state. You would also never see a Qatari taxi driver, alluding to how rich the country is. Unsurprisingly, impressive sky scrappers and high rises crowd the skyline of Doha bay, and many more are on the way. The notable architect I.M. Pei of the Lourve glass pyramid fame was even commissioned to design the Museum of Islamic Art, the star attraction of Doha.
Despite the intense heat and temperatures, Doha was a gem of a visit. Relatively clean, safe and modern, this city is one to watch out for.
We have had a deep fascination with Russia ever since visiting the ex-Soviet block countries like Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia. We figured, why not visit the very place where it all began? Moscow was out of reach due to visa restrictions but St Petersburg offered us a taste of Russia visa free! We just had to adhere to some simple rules which was to board a ferry from Helsinki in Finland, not overstay our 72 hours allocation in St Petersburg and return via ferry back to Helsinki. The process was straightforward and uncomplicated as long as you followed the rules and the moment we got past customs, we were exhilarated! Our first foray into Russian soil and we never felt more excited to explore this foreign land that so much of the world talks about.
St Petersburg can be summed up as truly belonging in a class of its own. Elegant, polished and majestic, the buildings were made to impress. The boulevards are wide and plenty and not short of traffic. It is a bustling metropolis that attracts hordes of tourists who want to see the beautiful and ‘European’ city of Russia, fashioned by the great Tsars of Russia. Exploring the city and all its architectural marvels with occasional glimpses of the unmistakable Soviet style building blocks was a real highlight. The Hermitage and Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood were just some of the outstanding sites we visited in 72 hours, plus a spectacular ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theatre
As for the locals, we left with positive experiences and new friendships that we hope continues on. There’s nothing like a rewarding local interaction to top off an experience in a country.
When I first heard of a Moroccan town with buildings awashed in hues of blue I knew I had to see it with my own eyes. This town is no stranger in the Moroccan tourist circuit and it’s no wonder why. Wandering the maze of alleys and corners in Chefchaouen is like unwrapping presents on Christmas day. Every turn reveals a delightful surprise of a quirky blue door or blue steps leading to more hidden buildings. Getting lost within this blue maze is part of the fun of exploring Chefchaouen and it amazes me that people actually live and go about their daily lives here amidst tourists sneaking glimpses into their half open doors and windows. And yes, the insides are blue too 😉
Dresden is the only city of former East Germany (discounting East Berlin) that we visited and we were keen to see how different it would be from other parts of Germany. We were charmed by Dresden’s Alstadt (old city) with its distinctive Baroque style architecture and Soviet style pastel coloured buildings with cute windows poking out of the rooftops. Despite being completely bombed out during WWII with only a few buildings left standing, the old city was rebuilt to resemble its former glory. Dresden reminded us of Prague and this could be attributed to the Soviet influence or just simply physical proximity of both cities.
The newer part of Dresden known as Neustadt is what stayed with us. We were drawn to this quirky area known as Kunsthofpassage which is a courtyard with several buildings, each with a unique modern design. The best design is known as the ‘Court of Water’ which merges architecture (funnels, gutters and pipes) and nature (rain water) to create music. I’ve never seen anything more clever. These buildings are inhabited by locals and indie or vintage shops which adds to the charm of this place.
On a whole Dresden took us by surprise with its old and new and is worth stopping over for a day or two if not more.