A Visit to the Museum

The Gallery of Palaeontology at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris encapsulates all that I love about nineteenth century French architecture.

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First of all there’s the scale. There’s something special about French public buildings from this time. To my eye the scale is slightly exaggerated; they are a bit too big for we mortals. But it’s not an intimidating or belittling size like a skyscraper; it’s more as though by making the buildings a little too big the architects are encouraging us to grow to fit them; to be a bit better than we are.

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By the standards of construction of the time this one is quite modest (a certain Tour Eiffel was going up at around the same time). Like the Tower, this building uses a lot of steel and rivets. These materials showcased French mastery of the latest engineering techniques, but more practically they allow for large windows, huge spans and consequently lots of light and space.

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Part of what I love about riveted beams is that the mark of the maker is so much on them. Although they were the most advanced technique of the time I can’t see one without thinking of each rivet being hammered in to place by a human. There’s a lovely conversation I think, between the hand sculpting of the stone friezes around the outside of the building, the steel within, and the scientific endeavour the building celebrates.

Vietnam Days 12-15: Hanoi & Ha Long Bay

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Ha Long bay was an unexpected delight.  I’d seen photos of the karsts (the little limestone islands) before, but their extent – and the feeling of being within them – caught me by surprise.

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We travelled to the bay by bus from Hanoi, and the train trip up to Hanoi from Da Nang in  was a case of once is enough.

It was not too bad – we had the “foreigner soft sleeper”, a small cabin on the overnight train with four bunks. One might say the train was charmingly dilapidated, but that kind of charm wears off when applied to the toilets at the end of an overnight trip.

Hanoi was experiencing record temperatures when we entered it; 43 degrees and very humid, and our train was delayed when we hit a truck.

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We visited the Vietnam’s first university and the old French prison, which had been taken over by the Vietnamese and used to feed ice cream to captured GIs in the war.

Southerners had told us that Northerners were less friendly, and apt to scowl rather than smile (that is, once they had finished eating their dogs) but to me they seemed nice enough. We walked at night through the old city, and while it was mayhem, it felt safe and friendly, with lots of families and children on the streets. image

The paper next day said that the streets were deserted because of the heat; perhaps “a little less filled to bursting than usual” might have been more accurate.

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We knew it was the end of our trip, most of us felt a bit “Vietnamed-out” by this stage, and rather than hit the hot streets and dodge the scooters again were content to enjoy our air conditioned hotels and Vietnam-priced (cheap) cocktails for our last day.

While all of Vietnam had made an impression, it was the closeness we felt to the life in the small fishing and farming villages while riding through them on our bikes that made the strongest connection.

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Vietnam Days 8-10: Quy Nhon & Hoi An

“It’s not hot – it’s very very hot.”  This joke was first made by Tiet – our guide – in relation to chilli, but it applied equally to the weather.

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May seems to be the hottest month of the year; about 34 degrees and very humid while we rode, and quite ferocious in the direct sun. We travelled north up a beautiful coast, The mountains rising steeply to the west as we rode along coastal roads or though flat areas used for rice, prawns or salt farms.

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Hot dry weather was used for drying chilli rice and salt, in gardens and by the side of the road. At the end of our first day we stayed at Quy Nhon, in a hotel where three weddings had been scheduled for that day. Two were in progress, and the volume and tunelessness of the karaoke that accompanied them was remarkable.

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As we prepared to leave at dawn the next day, the beach was already being used by many swimmers, most of whom wore life vests.

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After a morning ride we visited the museum to the My Lai massacre of 1968, and did our  bit for world peace by being photographed with many smiling schoolchildren.

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Hoi An has a reputation for being more gentle than Nah Tran, and it does have a World Heritage market area, but to my eyes it is still a tourist trap – albeit a very nice one. The vendors are very polite in most instances.

It was interesting (even after another fearfully hot ride) to see the 1000 year old ruined temples of the Cham people at My Son. The Yanks did a good job of bombing it in 1968, but parts of the temples are still there to inspire.

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Vietnam days 6-7: Da Lat

Leaving our resort we headed north up the coast past abandoned building shells that gave the appearance of a war zone. image We turned inland and started to climb. The land became drier with red sandy soil, less farming, wider vistas, and more goats. image image As it became steeper still we left the bikes and went back on the bus to drive five hours into mountains. Away from the coast things became less western, the people different, with darker skin and speaking a different dialect. Da Lat means place of the Lat people, and is a beautiful cool town with a lake. It shows much evidence of its French Colonial history – exemplified in our hotel, which was beautifully proportioned and simple, retaining its cage elevator in the lobby.

imageWe ate a dinner of pancakes and cold rolls in the house of local people. Da Lat’s role as resort town for the Vietnamese was evident, as was its role as a centre for cool climate agriculture. Our ride down from the mountains was spectacular – we climbed in heavy rain with thunder and lightning around us, and then, donning ponchos against the cold, descended for 30km towards the coast.

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imageThe rain started to clear on the way down, and we had occasional views through wonderful valleys towards the coast. back in our bus for the last part of the journey we travelled to spend the night in Nha Trang – a cheesy resort town full of noise, baubles and fat Russians.