Tag Archives: Hanoi

My (current) top 20 cities … or today would be a good day to be anywhere but here

It seems to be the time of year for making lists, so today I’ve had a go at one a few people have asked me about: my top cities. I didn’t manage a trip these summer holidays, so as I head back to work this week, here are all of the places I would have loved to sneak in a visit to.

A few disclaimers: if you ask me tomorrow, this list may well have changed; these are cities to visit rather than necessarily live in; the list is drawn from cities I have actually been to, so there are some world class cities missing (and South America is notably absent … I must rectify that asap!) Feel free to tell me what I need to add; and I have excluded cities from my home country, even though Sydney undoubtedly deserves to be on any such list.

20. Stockholm

Almost missing out due to high prices and lack of sunlight hours, Sweden’s capital has just scraped on to my list due to its colourful buildings, beautiful waterways, and royal and intellectual history. Next time I’d try to go in summer rather than winter for some longer days, although Scandinavia in the cold is beautifully pristine.

19.  Phnom Penh

Beating out Bangkok which feels a bit too showy, Cambodia’s capital offers sobering history, cultural resilience, incredibly friendly people, and all kinds of opportunities to learn from people seeking to rebuild and restore. While Siem Reap holds the famous temples, this is the Khmer city whose streets I would love to wander.

18. Montreal

It was a toss up here with Vancouver, but the French factor tipped the scales for me. A stunning cathedral, an impressive penguin habitat in the biodome, a solid history museum, and French-Canadian culture of all kinds make this city a delight. And of course a winter visit adds to the beautiful vibe: snow just makes everything prettier.

17. Berlin

After being disappointed with Frankfurt and Munich, Germany’s capital restored the country’s travel value in my eyes. So many layers of history, a people who honour and acknowledge the past well but still look to and celebrate the future, an incredible array of museums and streets made for walking and people watching combine to make this one of my favourites.

16. Krakow

Old world Poland’s walled city with its bustling square and serene castle, alongside a funky modern city which pays respect to its tragic 20th century history, Krakow was an unexpected treasure and one I’d highly recommend.

15. Cairo

The only African entry on my list (although if the list were places rather than cities that might be quite different!), Egypt’s capital is worth the price of admission for the pyramids alone. But more than that, it is a melting pot of ancient and modern history, home to delicious cuisine including possibly my favourite meal ever, and the location of one of the world’s greatest museum collections put together like a haphazard choose-your-own-adventure maze.

14. Barcelona

A more recent addition to my list, Sagrada Familia on its own makes the Catalonian capital worth a visit. Antonin Gaudi’s imprint all over the city is an invitation to wonder, from crazy buildings, to an incredible park, to the design of the pavements. Add to that pintxos, cava, and people who welcome you into their crazy traditions and celebrations, and this is a city of history, architecture, and party.

13. Tokyo

One of my first big international cities to explore, Japan’s capital is unlike anywhere else, with ancient religion alongside modern tech obsessions and everything in between. I have been obsessed with finding good okonomiyaki ever since.

12. Budapest

Most people seem to pick Prague, but while I truly loved the Czech city, it was nearby Hungary’s similar but less crowded capital that stole my heart. The fairytale castle. The striking parliament building. The solemn Jewish museums and synagogues. The hauntingly beautiful Shoes on the Danube memorial. The cakes. The bookshops. The bridges. I could go on …

11. Lisbon

One of the world’s hilliest cities, Portugal’s capital will give you a workout and an overload of historic beauty. Castle ruins overlooking colourful tiled buildings. Various delightful modes of transport including elevators and funiculars. A golden bridge to rival San Francisco’s and a Christ statue to rival Rio’s. And. The. Most. Amazing. Custard. Tarts.

10. Hanoi

It’s hard to choose between Vietnam’s two big cities, and Ho Chi Minh is definitely worth a visit. But for me, Hanoi’s more old world charm, slower pace, and natural spaces tipped the balance in its favour. The art and history museums provided insight and a different perspective into a culture quite different to my own.

9. Florence

Again, many might prefer Venice or Milan, but of these three stunning Italian cities, for me there is no question. I love the river Arno and the Ponte Vecchio is beautiful despite being overhyped. I could spend days in the Uffizi Gallery and another one admiring Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Galleria dell’Accademia. Watching the sunset over the Duomo from high across the river after hearing Gregorian chants in an ancient church is but one of a multitude of standout memories I have from this incredible city.

8. Washington DC

I could probably make the US its own top cities list, and Chicago and San Francisco would rate very highly on it. But other than that one you just know is still to come, it is the combination of history, politics, culture, and nearly everything being free to visit that puts DC this high on my catalogue of must-visits. Having family live there for a few years means I’ve had the privilege of multiple visits, and there is always something new to discover. While American patriotism does not always resonate for us Aussies, it is fascinating to observe – from Arlington to the Capitol to the White House. And (apologies for bragging), meeting Bo Obama and hearing Barack speak were certainly icing on the cake.

7. London

This is one of a number of predictable entries near the top end of my list, but while finding lesser known gems is always amazing, there is a reason some places are perennially popular. The Clock. The Abbey. The Church. The Eye. The Tower. The Bridge. The Palace. The Theatre. The Hall. The Library. The Museum. I don’t even need to give their names for them to evoke the stories of history, culture, architecture. Sure, its probably got a lot to do with being from a former colony, and certainly the food isn’t much to write home about, but let’s be honest: any time I was given the opportunity to visit again, I’d jump at it.

6. Beijing

Shanghai was certainly up for consideration on this list, but of the two, it’s China’s capital that wins out for me. The Summer Palace. The Forbidden Palace. Tiananmen Square. The Great Hall of the People. The National Museum.  Plus perhaps one of the more surreal attractions I’ve visited, Mao’s mausoleum. The friendliness and stealthy photo snapping skills of the locals. The pride in both history and modern achievements. And of course who could forget the Great Wall.

5. Rome

From here on, ranking gets really difficult and contentious (as in, I’m even arguing with myself). No doubt this could be many people’s number one. The Eternal City. The Caput Mundi. Byron called it the city of the soul and Browning said everyone sooner or later comes by it. It wasn’t built in a day and all roads lead to it. It contains within it a whole other city/state. It touches on history that has shaped my culture and history that reflects my faith. I could wander its streets for days. I have. I hope to again.

4. Paris

The city of light; the city of love. The city of romance and beauty and charm. The city of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame; the city of Montmartre and the Seine; the city of the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. The Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie. Walking down the Champs-Élysées; eating crepes, macarons, eclairs, croissants. In my experience the stereotype is based in reality and the people are not always the friendliest, but they don’t need to be – they know we will all be back regardless of how they treat us.

3. Istanbul

The only city located on two continents. Where East meets West. No, its not Constantinople, at least not any more. The Ottoman Empire’s ancient capital and Turkey’s modern hub, it is currently one of the world’s five most populous cities (and the only one of those on my list). And they are people who embrace life, with the sights, sounds, and smells of this bustling city imprinted in my memory. From the Blue Mosque to the Spice Bazaar, and the underground Basilica cistern to the Hagia Sophia, there is a wealth of sites to discover. And the baklava is to die for.

2. New York

Predictable? Sure. Overrated? I don’t think so. I try not to be one to just go with what everyone else says, but in this case, I think they’re right. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. So nice they named it twice. I’ve had five visits and I’d go back in a heartbeat. I’d pretend to be a local and stay uptown near Central Park, catch the subway, walk the High Line. I’d embrace being a tourist and ice skate at Rockefeller Center, line up for the Empire State Building, and do the UN tour (again). I’d spend hours exploring the Met and the Library and the Natural History Museum. I’d get tickets for multiple Broadway shows and rectify one of the greatest blunders of my travels when we could have bought cheap tickets to a brand new sung and rapped musical about American history that had recently opened with its original cast in 2015* but chose to see Les Miserables again instead. I’d eat Korean and Italian and Thai and Indian and any other cuisine I stumbled upon. And I’d wander the streets looking up at all the familiar famous buildings, searching for hidden gardens, monuments, and waterfalls, and watching the world go by.

*Yes, it was Hamilton with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

1. Jerusalem

I know this will not top everyone’s list, but its been my number one for a long time. I love history, I love the Bible, I love the Hebrew language, I love the Palestinian people, I love the coming together of cultures and perspectives and stories. I love staying inside the Old City and walking the streets early in the morning before anyone is around, and again later in the day when the place is buzzing with activity. I love seeing the newest archaeological discoveries, watching the layers of history peeled back and some of the secrets of ancient cultures revealed. I wrestle with the politics and I grieve with many of the people, and I long to see new ways forward to find peace and justice. I’ve loved taking people to see and experience this incredibly unique city and I’m keen to do so again. Who wants to come?

Advertisements

There’s no such thing as history (or Today would be a good day to be in Hanoi)

It’s time for a Monday morning travel post … where would I like to be spending the day today? One of the most recent places I have visited was Vietnam. The friendly people, delicious food, warm weather, and stunning scenery made this a great tourist destination. But the complicated history, ongoing after effects of war, and the challenges of relationship given the baggage of the past raised lots of questions for me as well. Reflecting on visiting the capital city today gives me the chance to ponder a thought I had often while there, something I have been known to say to my Old Testament students: “There’s no such thing as history.” I mean that in two different ways, but you’ll have to read on to find out which.

Masouleum back

What did I love about Hanoi?

I had a wonderful few days in Hanoi. Day or night, there were always people around, smiling, laughing, enjoying life.

Street market

And the food … I’m not sure there is such a thing as bad Vietnamese food.

Lunch

What I did learn was that it’s all about the sauces – something that looks simple is taken to a whole other level by an amazing complex Vietnamese sauce!

Dinner

And I do love history, so I loved seeing glimpses of the past and the present side by side in the centre of the city …

Lake with new and old buildings

.. in a modern performance of the centuries old art of Water Puppetry …

Water puppets

.. and in the beautiful artefacts in the history museum.

Wardrobe detail

What did I learn from Hanoi?

As well as loving the history,  the thought I kept coming back to was “there’s no such thing as history.” First, in the sense that there is really only historiography (written history) or people’s perspectives on history, rather than any objective reality of the past that we can access. And secondly, in the sense that the past is never just the past; its effects echo and resound in the present and will continue to do so no doubt long into the future.

Outside history museum

One of the great things about travel is the opportunity to see another perspective on the history of the world, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Certainly that is the case with Vietnam, particularly when it comes to the War. Even what the War of the 1960s-70s is called is a complicated question, and really depends on whose perspective you are looking at it from. I grew up calling it “The Vietnam War” but it’s kind of obvious to realise that a person from Vietnam would not use that term.

Sign

Seeing artefacts, photos, and in particular the written commentary on them in the history museums was a key reminder to me that ‘history’ is always written from a particular perspective. I saw some tourists who seemed frustrated, even angry, because it felt to them that history was being told ‘wrongly’. But who is to say that we haven’t also learned it wrongly? Of course we are all going to see it from the perspective of the country in which we grew up. Of course there are multiple sides to such complex stories.

Prison entrance

Visiting Hỏa Lò Prison (sometimes called the Hanoi Hilton) brought this to the fore. Half of the prison remembers the Vietnamese revolutionaries who were kept here as prisoners of the French and so, of course, tells the story from the perspective of being the oppressed.

Prison memorial

The other half of the prison remembers the American pilots who were kept here as prisoners of the Vietnam and so, it could be argued, tells the story of the perspective of being the oppressors, or at least those in power rather than those without power. I found it a fascinating place, because in the very same place, history is being told from these two very different perspectives. It’s a stark illustration of the fact that we all tell our stories from the perspective we find ourselves in, that history is not objective fact but interpreted experience.

Prison explanation 2

I hope I’m not sounding judgmental of the Vietnamese – that is not at all my point. I think we all do the same thing. That’s why it is so valuable to try to stand in another person’s shoes and think of how history looks from their perspective. Hopefully it gives all of us more compassion, more understanding, more forgiveness, and more humility, to do so.

The second sense of the phrase “There’s no such thing as history” is the idea that the past isn’t gone and forgotten – its after effects linger on. Seeing the ongoing issues of disability and disease in people suffering the effects of Agent Orange some forty years on is both sobering and heartbreaking.

IMG_4203

And finally, due to my history, what you could call the accident of birth, I come to visit a place like Vietnam as a rich, white, Westerner. This shapes and colours how I am perceived and responded to, and is something that I cannot really escape, no matter how much I might like to.

Difficult as I might find it, it is good for me to see myself from someone else’s perspective. It challenges me as I consider how much of who I am is shaped by the perspective on the world I have inherited, and how I can continue to allow the culture, experiences, and perspectives of others to be used to transform me and open me up to others.