29 May 2011

Hanoi - Bac Ha Market

Date of Exploration : 22 May 2011

One of my favourite things to do while travelling is to visit the local markets. Not that I have anything to buy but to kaypoh (busybody) about what's being sold and to browse through folk handicrafts in the hope of finding cheap souvenirs that look expensive. But usually without success. I'm not good at price haggling and I'm born without a shopping gene so I always ended up just taking photos of the markets.

Hence, the visit to Bac Ha Market during my photography trip with SGTrekker was great because the focus was on filling my memory card and not draining my credit card. Bac Ha Market is a Sunday fiesta where 11 ethnic minority groups in Vietnam gather to trade and spend a day of R&R. With so many tribes coming together, you can expect it's going to get really colourful and busy at Bac Ha. Well, not exactly. But that's my opinion.

The Sunday market wasn't as vibrant as I thought it would be but it has a very local vigour. That is nice because you don't feel like tourism has 'corrupted' the place yet with cosmetic surgery to make it foreigner-friendly.

It was also much quieter than I imagined but that's good news for that means more room to move around while taking photos. I've been to packed markets before and I constantly worry if I'll leave them with a chunk of me missing because I can't always see where the chopper is going while lost in my viewfinder.

Since my purpose of visit to Bac Ha was photography, I shall put up more photos on this post and let them do the talking. Hope it'll give you an idea of what to expect here and for photographers, an impression of the subjects you can find.

Getting to Bac Ha Market : From the township of Lao Cai, you can look for tour agencies that organise excursions to the market. But remember it's only opened on Sundays from 9:00 am onwards. As mine was a packaged tour, we basically took an overnight train from Hanoi (9 hours) to Lao Cai and then taking a van to Bac Ha. The van ride was approximately 2 hours.

I saw quite a lot of yellow and red vans there used by the locals. Not sure about their fares and stops but from the looks of them, unless you possess a Viet tongue, the prudent way not to get lost is to go with a reliable tour operator.

Bac Ha Market itself isn't very big. It consists of a main stretched of road lined with clothing and souvenir stalls that leads to a market compound. One part of the compound is occupied by food stalls while another part trades sundries, meats and crops. That is the main market but quite a lot of these makeshift tentage stalls also spill over to the sidewalks and surrounding streets, creating a maze of merchandise.

You can expect to find your usual fridge magnets and other touristy knick knacks here but what I found unique were porcelain smoke pipes shaped as a horse or small Chinese urn. You can also adorn their ethnic identity with hand-sewn tribal costumes and metal jewellery worn by the womenfolk.

What I found interesting was that almost all the women were decked out in traditional costumes but the guys wore cotton pants with T-shirt or shirt. I saw many couples, the wives would be wrapped up in the layers of tradition while the husbands had it light and easy.

Remember to watch your belongings while you walk about at Bac Ha Market. I squatted down to take photos of a girl playing with Viet figurines (photo above) and got pretty engrossed. My camera bag containing my wallet and passport was slung behind me. When I'm done shooting, I stood up and turned around.

At the same time, a guy behind me also stood up. Then he picked up a briefcase-looking bag and walked off. Gosh, was he trying to pickpocket me but I got up in time?! I quickly checked my belongings and thankfully, I don't have to look for the Singapore Embassy in Vietnam.

While I'm very adventurous when it comes to food, I wouldn't eat at the market. The food preparation seems to be of dubious hygiene standards. My stomach is not built like theirs so I better not invite E. coli or Salmonella.

Amongst the usual Vietnamese pho, I think I saw blood porridge being sold too though I'm not sure if it's of porcine or avian origin. I haven't had pig's blood congee since the life juice from hogs was banned in Singapore in the late 1990s due to some outbreak.

The lighting conditions were very challenging at the market area for photography because of the wide contrast in shade and sunlight. I was taught to use spot metering instead of matrix metering when taking photos under these kind of circumstances.

As Bac Ha Market is very close to the border of China, some of the people here have very Chinese features like this ah gong. After taking some photos of the boy, I gave him a gummy and the elderly man came over to thank me. He then asked the boy to look in my cam and pose some more. Very nice of him. And he didn't ask me for money. Quite a lot of the people here will ask for money or for you to buy something if you took their photo.

General environment and people shots. While I was the one hunting for people to shoot all the time, the man in blue eating an ice-cream approached me to have his photo taken. Yay... such luck! So I took a few shots and he asked to see them. He reeked of corn wine and the ice-cream was dripping onto his fingers while he held my camera. Arrggghhh... such luck!

After the hawker area, I came to the section selling meats and farm produce. Come to think of it, I won't call what they sell as meat. More like carcass. Parts of the dead animals were just laid out on a wooden table like an autopsy gone horribly wrong.

The freak-o-meter further went off the chart with the skinned head of the animal. I think it's a horse. If this stall open in Singapore, sure very good business from the dai ee loong (loansharks).

After the grisly encounter, I traced my way out of the market and took a road to the right at its entrance. It led to an open field where horses and buffalos were traded. It's definitely worth making a trip to the outback because the grassland-lake-mountain-sky scenery was simply heavenly. It really felt like I walked into a painting except for the stench of ammonia which brought me back to watch the ground I thread on.

The poor animals were parked under the hot sun without water. Vietnam was experiencing a heatwave as high as 37°C during the period we visited. Ten minutes under the sun to take the animals' portraits and I already felt roasted. 做牛做马真辛苦!

But stallions and bulls weren't the only livestock on sale. Saw this poor doggy tied up in a sack by the roadside too weak to even pant in the heat. Dogs are sold for their meat here as well. Hope this pooch isn't for dinner. Felt so bad seeing the dog this way but what can I do?

We spent about 1.5 hours shooting at Bac Ha Market before having lunch at one of the restaurants there. Food was so-so. My tummy wasn't feeling too well from a spoilt meat skewer I had the night before so I didn't quite have an appetite.

After the meal, we took a 2-hour ride back to Lao Cai. The sun was blazing and the van was stuffy. And I took the seat where the right wheel was and got stuck in an uncomfortable position with my legs crammed up throughout the journey. I arrived back in Lao Cai feeling like I belonged on that wooden table at Bac Ha Market.

As I end this post, I'll leave you with these two portraits I've converted into black and white. Amidst the striking colours, I think the fine patterning of the native costumes and weathered faces makes monochrome shots interesting. Have fun exploring! :o)

18 May 2011

Barcelona - Martorell & Pont del Diable

This artistic positive-negative punch-out of the town's name greets visitors at its entrance and provided a peek-a-boo of the beauty waiting to unfold behind it.

23 April 2011 : Sitting at the outskirt of Barcelona city about a half-hour's drive away, Martorell is a small town best known for being home to the national automobile manufacturer, SEAT, and something more sinister... the historical Pont del Diable (Devil's Bridge).

The town has 2 parts - one part seemingly modern, uniform and organised while the older, historical portion is a labryinth of narrow streets flanked by rows of unique heritage buildings. It is in the old part that the Devil's Bridge spreads its arch across the Martorell-Castellbisbal section of the Llobregat river and this post while showing you the sights of Martorell, is also a picture-by-picture guide of prominent buildings you'll come across when walking from the town's entrance to the ancient bridge.

Getting Here : The town can be reached by the RENFE line and the stop name is Martorell. It is also served by the FGC line and there are 3 stops - Martorell-Vila, Martorell-Enllaç, and Martorell-Central. We've taken a train at the Martorell-Enllaç and Martorell-Central stations and I would say that your best bet would be Martorell-Central for proximity to the town's centre. If you take a cab from Barcelona city, it's about 30 minutes but it won't be cheap.

Before I go any further in being a literary GPS, please know that I only spent 1 day in Martorell so I don't know everything about it. What I'm sharing is the self-explored walking route taken after the taxi dropped us at Martorell's town sign to reach Pont del Diable. The town centre is pretty much a standard urban development. Clean, neat and pleasant. Great to just walk down the street and visit some of the shops to see the kind of things they retail. But the key destination is still Pont del Diable.

From the entrance signage, if you walk down the stretch of orange pavement (pictured above and below), you'll see this big curved block. I think this is the town centre's main shopping complex as it houses quite a number of shops and a supermarket.

We had quite a bit of fun window browsing and checking out the prices of things here. Compared to Barcelona city, I think merchandise are slightly cheaper. Mum bought a neon pink fluff hat at one of those Chinese-owned thrift stores for only €2.50. Kinda loud and obiang (gaudy), but that's her style. She's always been very adventurous in fashion. Thankfully I did not inherit that chromosome.

Streetscape dressed in the colours of spring / summer and an apartment block that is at the end of the orange pavement and opposite the shopping complex. Take the street to the left of this block and continue walking. You'll come to a T-intersection where to your right is a mock suspension bridge I call the 'A' bridge because it's shaped like the letter.
Now, I'm sharing with you all these pics for a reason. As the Spaniards don't speak English, the best way to ask for directions is to show them a photo of where you want to head to. I have a research file with photos of places I want to go and just open it to show the locals I'm asking directions from. So it may be helpful for you to print out this post and show-find your way to Pont del Diable.

Here's a peek at the living environment of Martorell residents. We came across a replica of Pont del Diable which shows how much pride the town has in owning it.

This is the 'A' shaped mini suspended bridge that cuts through a part of the residential area. Go down the road as shown in this photo and you'll arrive at a modern bridge that links new and old Martorell.

Scenes leading up to the bridge that crosses to old Martorell. It is a pretty scenic route for us maybe because we're seeing all these things for the first time.
Don't you just love the diminishing perspective and symmetry?.This photo is taken from the other side after it has been crossed. In the background is modern Martorell.

A river divides the 2 sections and upon reaching the older section, the buildings do look less cookie-cutter and weigh the atmosphere with retro European nostalgia.

The junction with an old church to the left and a road straight ahead. The old cathedral looks interesting and you'll be drawn towards it. But to go to Pont del Diable, take the road ahead. It's one straight road that leads to the river bank and that's where the bridge is.
Our mistake was going towards the cathedral and taking a small street alongside which led to the back of the religious monument. We were way off tangent and got lost quite a bit before reaching Pont del Diable, but that gave us a peek at the lifestyles of the townfolks The Devil's Bridge is beyond the biege residential block.
Pont Del Diable (Devil's Bridge)

I think what should've been a 30 minutes walk from the beginning of Martorell to the bridge took us 2 hours with the photo stops and shop browsing. When I finally encountered the bridge, I wasn't wow-ed. It was just a very simple red brick arch across the Llobregat river. And the dieted river looked more like a longkang (drain) with its unimpressive brown stream. The surrounding was also polluted with buildings and mega highways so its medieval aura was much diluted.

But as I started to see it through my camera lens, cutting out the modern distractions, the scenery suddenly took on a very picturesque quality. If you're a photographer, this place can yield some rather interesting shots that justifies the trouble to get here. As for sightseeing, it's not really a worthwhile effort unless you're staying near Martorell.

Constructed in 1283, the bridge was destroyed in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War and rebuilt again 1965. Only the foundation dates back to the original Roman period around the first century B.C. Today, it still functions as a pedestrian bridge and you can cross it without any entrance fees, tolls or charges. It's a functioning,  free-use public bridge.

Felt kinda incredible crossing it and looking out over the river, it's like taking a walk back in time. If only the bridge can bring me back to the past mistakes of my life...

Pont del Diable features the classic Roman triumphal arch with a small shelter at the highest point. The shelter is also referred to as a chapel. I guess in the olden days, it must have functioned as one but now, it's just a brick shell on top.

The bridge used to be much longer but only this portion survived the ages. Apart from the bridge itself, another point of interest is a park along the residential side of the river's bank.

So why is it called the Devil's Bridge? The term Devil's Bridge is not exclusive to this bridge. There are many bridges given this title because in ancient times, to build a bridge of such scale and complexity is a feat that would've cost many lives. But they were also conferred the title as a result of folklores and legends.

Some of the most popular legends surrounding devil's bridges would be the outsmarting of the devil after a bridge has been built. An example of such a folklore tells of how an old lady made a pact with the devil to build a bridge and the devil could claim the first soul that crosses it. After the bridge was magically constructed overnight, the town's people lured a dog to cross the bridge with a piece of bread.

However, the Devil's Bridge of Martorell has a more historic significance. This bridge was believed to have been commissioned by Hannibal (247-182 BCE) in honour of his father, Hamilcar Barca. Hannibal is one of the greatest military generals in history and a mighty adversary of the Roman empire.

Under the leadership of the briliant Carthaginian general, the undefeatable Romans suffered many set backs so much so that the Romans nicknamed Hannibal the devil. Roman mothers would scare their children by saying that the devil (Hannibal) would visit them at night if they misbehave. That's how this Catalian bridge in Martorell got its name.

The Devil's Bridge sure look like a highway to heaven. This photo was taken at about 6:00 pm on 23 Apr 2011. I think it is a gorgeous time to photograph the bridge so if you're planning to visit during the spring / summer period, note the timing. Days are very long in these months with sunsets starting at around 8:00 pm in Barcelona. In Singapore, our sunsets are between 6:30 - 7:00 pm.

So thankful that the weather was great that day with deep blue skies and dramatic clouds. The photo on top and below were taken at the same angle - the top pic with my semi-tele lens and the bottom with a fisheye.

We spent about 2 hours at the site. Rather, I should say I was fascinated for 2 hours while my parents were done snapping holiday pictures and appreciating the bridge in 15 minutes. That should give you an idea of how this attraction would interest you - not very much to see for regular tourists, potentially rewarding for photography enthusiasts.

Best time to shoot would be early morning or evening because the bridge itself is rather plain so to get more visually interesting shots, you'll need the sunlight to hit the bridge at an angle and for the sun to be down so as to capture starbursts with the bridge in foreground or background.

Sant Jodi (St. George) Day

After our visit to Pont del Diable, we headed back to the shopping complex at the town centre and on the way, we were delighted to walk into a small street parade to celebrate Sant Jodi (St George's) Day.

St George is the patron saint of several Spanish cities in Spain which included Barcelona, Catalonia. 23 April is the generally accepted death anniversary of the saint who died in AD 303. The day is often  commemorated by Spaniards dressing up in medieval costumes to reenact the siege between the Moors and Christians. Under the patronage of St George, the Spaniard Christians won the battle and that's why there's such a huge celebration in his honour.

If we look at the many Christian celebrations, all of them commemorate death anniversaries of saints but for Jesus Christ, His birthday is celebrated (25 December) as well as His 'death' (Good Friday). When we celebrate birthdays, we reaffirm that the person is still alive.

St George slaying a dragon is a common emblem used in the Aragon code of arms and represents the triumph of good over great evil. Aragon is an autonomous community in Spain with its Eastern side flanked by Catalonia. Barcelona, being under the municipality of Catalonia, naturally inherited the Aragonese traditions.

The custom on Sant Jodi Day is to present your loved one with a gift. The guys will give their gals flowers while the ladies give the men books. How come girls have it so easy? All they need to do is smell the roses while guys have to read a book!

Beauty and the beast. The colourful fiesta featured traditional costimes and fineries as well as tall puppets of kings, queens, knights and jesters. Love the humour of the comedic masks.

Beauty and the beast? Which is which? Haha... The pirate got himself a bumper loot with such a big ang pow (red packet)!

Admist the fanfare and celebratetory atmosphere, we ended our visit to Martorell and got our first taste of the rich culture and heritage of Barcelona, Spain. Hope this post has provided you with some useful info and tips. Happy exploring :o)

16 May 2011

Barcelona - Hosteria Grau Review

For the second leg of our extension stay in Barcelona after the cruise, we lodged at Hosteria Grau, which is in Barcelona city and just an arm's length from the famous and busy La Rambla. La Rambla is the equivalent of Orchard Road in Singapore. So the location of Hosteria Grau is pretty convenient except that the section where the hotel is located doesn't seem very safe.

Hosteria Grau sits next to a faculty building of the city's university and many students populate the area during the day and in the evening, the atmosphere takes on a grunge-punk feel with frequent sightings of wildly dressed Spaniards - think shocking pink mohawks with black leather, chains and fishnet stockings. Items sold in the shops here have in excess of skull-shaped everything, heavy metal records and fierce fantasy art that terrifies as well as sexifying death.

But all things accounted for, I still think the hotel is worth checking in to with its quaint decor and authentic feel of living like a 18th century Catalan (Barcelona is under the political administration of Catalonia and its people are known as and speak Catalan).

Hosteria Grau
Address : C/Ramelleres, 27 08001 Barcelona (Spain)
Website : http://www.hostalgrau.com/

How to Get There : Refer to hotel's website for directions. Nearest train station is Plaça de Catalunya (which is the equivalent of Orchard Road MRT station in Barcelona). However, the hotel is hidden inside a small lane so it is not visible from the main road.

I paid S$1,106.51 for 4 nights which worked out to be S$92 per person per night. Because there were 3 of us, we had to take the family suite which actually sleeps 4. So if you split 4-ways, per person cost is S$70 a night.

The inconspicuous entrance to Hosteria Grau. It's like a hole in the wall.

Not much to whine about the hotel since the location is accessible and the room is comfy enough but be very vigilant for your safety. One of the nights when we returned to the hotel, we buzzed the receptionist to let us in but he just didn't. We waited for quite a while before he finally unlocked the door for us.

When we got in, he asked if we knew the man who was behind us. Wha?! What man behind us? Is this twilight zone or something?! I didn't notice we were being tailed.

Apparently, someone followed very closely behind my dad and the receptionist didn't want to let him in so he waited for that guy to leave before opening the doors. He asked us to quickly check our belongings and he went to the door to see if the guy was still around. Thankfully, we lost nothing. We were told to never put the wallet in the back pocket and to carry our haversacks in front.

Hosteria Grau is located at the end of a little street which is also a junction for a network of 3 alley-ways. From the main road called Carrer Pelai, turn into Carrer Jovellanos (diagonally opposite from a shopping mall called El Triangle). There's a Pull & Bear shop at the mouth of Carrer Jovellanos. Walk to the end and you'll see the hotel's entrance next to Cafe-Bar Centric.

Then on our last night, it coincided with a big match between Barcelona and Real Madrid to make it into the finals of this year's UEFA Champions League. Barcelona won with a 2-0 score lead and the Catalans went wild. They were celebrating into the wee hours and making a racket with horns and louds cheers. The noise could raise the dead. But my parents slept through.

A group gathered just below our room's balcony to celebrate. We were 5 floors up so I can see all that was taking place. At about 1:30 am, I heard police sirens and loud smashes. Residents must've complained and the enforcers came to break up the party. The police were in full riot gear! And they needed to be. The partyers weren't ready to disperse without a fight and were hurling glass bottles at the police van and men. There was even something of a small bon fire burning at one corner. Very drama!

The reception area of the hotel with an English-speaking receptionist who's very helpful.

Lest you become unnecessarily worried about safety issues in staying here, be consoled that simple precautions you would take while travelling and staying alert are enough to keep you out of harm's way. Avoid coming back late alone and carry your bags in front of you. Else, pray to Bruce Lee.

Alrighty. Now let's leave the scary things outside and step into the compact interior of Hosteria Grau. Perhaps due to its small size, there's more of a homey feeling. Of course the last thing I want is to feel at home. I mean, why travel so far to feel at home right? Might as well not step out of my HDB flat then. Ha. But this homey feeling is in a nice sort of way where you feel you've walked into somebody's house rather than a hotel.

A common area on the second level. There are no TVs in the rooms and this is the only place to watch tele. There's also a PC with free internet connection but the thing is, many of the pages show up in Spanish, including Facebook. And if your FB page's language is set to Chinese, many of the tabs and link turns up as jibberish.

Decor-wise, the interior is steeped in European retro with antique lamps and architectural elements reminiscent of the Baroque or Renaissance era where everything little thing is opulently decorated.

Our room was on the fifth level. Don't worry, I'm showing the staircase here not because there is no lift. I just like the perspective. A lift serves the various floors but it's a very tight lift. Three of us and our luggages and it's filled. It's an interesting experience stepping and living in one of Spain's heritage buildings and get a feel of what it's like.

Once inside the room, we were greeted by a narrow hallway. The left door at the corner of the left pic is the very, very, very small toilet. It's so tiny that when you sit on the bowl, the door is at your face. There's no room to bend down to remove your bottoms, you just have to wriggle out of them to do your business. At the end is the bathroom and there's a door next to it to the living room. The reasonably sized living room is an Ikea showcase.

The bathroom is also not spacious and the only toileteries are sachets of all-in-one shampoo and shower gel. When staying in budget hotels, always bring your own toothbrush and toothpaste for they usually don't provide.

The room we booked is spacious with 2 queen beds and a single bed. I think it can sleep more than 4 but bathroom time would be a problem with so many people. The room make-up service isn't very prompt and be prepared to live with dust bunnies below the beds. Otherwise, the room is of an acceptable level of cleanliness and comfort for the price it commands.

Love the classic switches and flower lamps that add a touch of old world charm to the living space.

Small cases of 3D wood-carved Parisian corsets adorned the wall above each bed. Wishing an erotic European dream for all travellers who lay their heads on the hotel's pillows perhaps? My mum would be dreaming of getting a figure like that.

A small balcony in our family suite looks out to the narrow Carrer Jovellanos, ending at the intersection with the arterial road, Carrer Pelai. The photo on the right is the view at the hotel's entrance where the palm tree marks the junction where a number of small alleys meet.
So this is Hosteria Grau. If you've ever stayed here, do share with me your comments and if you're planning to use it as your hotel in an upcoming trip, let me know your thoughts after you've been there. Have fun!
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