Author: Paul Terry

I love to travel. I've been fortunate to visit about 75 countries so far. I prefer to travel independently to get off the beaten path a bit. I also try to find good deals to make my travels more affordable.

War Museum, Saigon

5 Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City. The city was known as Saigon for many years until it was renamed after the end of the Vietnam War. Interestingly, locals still often refer to it as Saigon. This is Vietnam’s largest city with about 10 million inhabitants.

Ho Chi Minh City view

View of central Ho Chi Minh City. The central tower has an observation deck for tourists.

The first thing we noticed on our drive into the city from the airport was how different it felt from Hanoi! Ho Chi Minh City felt much more vibrant, fashionable and modern – with lots of marquee international stores and young people on scooters going everywhere.

Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

View of Ho Chi Minh City from the observation deck mentioned above.

We spent two days here. Our first day was spent exploring the sights in the core downtown area (on foot) and on our second day we took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, about 70 km (45 miles) outside the city.

War Remnants Museum

This is the main tourist attraction in Ho Chi Minh City. It tells the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese people and their Communist regimes.

War Remnants Museum Saigon

Exterior view of the War Remnants Museum.

War Remnants Museum Saigon

The courtyard of the War Remnants Museum is filled with various U.S. Military equipment.

Of course, horrific tragedies occurred on both sides and no one was innocent in this conflict. The whole war was an unfortunate disaster that caused pain and suffering on both sides.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon

A sign post in the War Remnants Museum.

Saigon War Remnants Museum11

Prisoner cages.

Vietnam War Map

This map shows the areas of heaviest fighting during the Vietnam War (areas in black).

Saigon War Remnants Museum12

A display inside the War Remnants Museum.

The museum is large and well organized, with exhibits on several floors and outside the main building. Plan at least two hours for your visit, and if you want to read everything, even longer.

 

Jade Emperor Pagoda

This temple takes the cake for weirdness for those of us less initiated in the Buddhist and Taoist religions – with crowded, smoke (incense) filled rooms.

Jade Pagoda, Saigon

Exterior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Exterior detail at the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

It’s hard to describe, although Lonely Planet does a pretty good job: “this is one of the most spectacularly atmospheric temples in Ho Chi Minh City, stuffed with statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes”.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Interior view of Jade Emperor Pagoda with a variety of figures.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Another view in the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

One other view of the interior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

The temple is not old, having been constructed in 1909 in honor of the supreme Taoist god (known as the Jade Emperor), Ngoc Hoang. It is crowded with strange-looking figures and jumbled rooms. Definitely worth a visit!

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

This basilica was built between 1863-1880 by the French during the period of French colonialism in Vietnam. One of the vestiges of their occupation is this beautiful (and out of place) cathedral located in the heart of the city on a pretty square.

Saigon Notre Dame Basilica

A view of the Basilica in Ho Chi Minh City. The statue of Mary in the foreground supposedly shed tears in 2005, stopping traffic in this busy area.

All of the materials for this cathedral were imported from France.

Saigon Notre Dame Basilica1

Interior view of the Basilica.

Central Post Office

Right next to the Cathedral is another relic of the French era, the Central Post Office. This building was constructed in the late 1800’s and contains two beautiful paintings on its walls (maps of Saigon and the larger region) and a variety of shops.

Central Post Office Saigon

Exterior view of the Central Post Office.

Central Post Office Saigon

Interior view of the Central Post Office.

There is a tourist office here where we arranged for our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels (see below).

Cu Chi Tunnels

These relics of the Vietnam War are less than 45 miles outside the city, but took about 90 minutes to reach due to traffic getting out of the city. They are well worth the effort. We did this as part of a day tour (our group had about eight people).

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City

Entrance to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

The extensive tunnel systems served as communication and transportation networks to aid the Viet Cong in fighting the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. There are two main tunnel areas that can be visited: Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh, our tour went to Ben Dinh.

Cu Chi Tunnels

A main entrance into one of the bunkers at Cu Chi Tunnels.

Some rooms were large enough to be used as conference rooms and hospitals.

Cu Chi Tunnels

One of the war rooms in the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Hospital display at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

There are 250 km (155 miles) of tunnels here, some are two levels deep. It must have been quite an engineering feat to dig these tunnels and lay out the system in a stealth manner.

We were shown secret entrances, disguised air vents, and treacherous booby traps.  We had the opportunity to crawl on our hands and knees through tiny tunnels that had lovely bats flying around you!

Hidden entrance to Cu Chi Tunnels

A hidden entrance to the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels

A typical corridor in the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City

Cramped space in the Cu Chi Tunnels!

Cu Chi Tunnels air shaft.

Concealed air shaft to the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Booby trap – watch your step or you could end up falling on these huge spikes.

Be sure to wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty! After spending time crawling on our hands and knees in the tunnels in a damp humid climate we gained an appreciation for what it must have been like to live in these conditions for months or years.

Ho Chi Minh City is a great place to visit, be sure it’s on your itinerary in Vietnam.

 

Visiting the Charming Village of Hoi An (with a Day Trip to My Son ruins)

From Hanoi, we flew to Da Nang, a city on the central coast of Vietnam and kind of like the “California” of Vietnam – the winter weather here was sunnier and warmer than Hanoi. The setting is quite pretty with green mountains surrounding the city and long stretches of beachfront and resorts along the South China Sea coast, making it somewhat of a vacation destination. Da Nang is the 5th largest city in Vietnam and a major port.

Da Nang, Vietnam

A snapshot of Da Nang from our taxi.

Our purpose in coming to Da Nang was to visit the UNESCO World Heritage town of Hoi An, a picturesque village just about 30 minutes south by taxi. Several centuries ago, when Vietnam was just being “discovered” by European explorers, Hoi An was a major port and trading hub for much of Asia.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A view of the village of Hoi An with the river boats.

Japanese Bridge. Hoi An, Vietnam

The 18th century Japanese covered bridge, the symbol of Hoi An.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A temple in Hoi An.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A street scene in Hoi An.

Hoi An is now a primary tourist destination—with well-preserved 15th-19th century architecture and lots of shopping and restaurants along the Thu Bon River. Speaking of shopping, good values can be found here – I got a wooden ship (junk) model for $25 and my daughter bought a couple pairs of custom made leather sandals and my son bought a leather wallet, made overnight after they copied the best features of his current wallet!

Hoi An18

My ship model. A bargain for $25.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Some fashionable shoes for sale in Hoi An!

The Thu Bon River is the lifeblood of Hoi An – providing a highway for transportation, access to the sea and sources of food. We took an hour tour along the river – very enjoyable, with views of homes, boats and daily life along the riverfront.

The Ban River, Hoi An, Vietnam

Demonstration of how to cast a net on our Thu Bon River cruise.

The Ban River, Hoi An, Vietnam

Our river boat guide.

Thu Bon River, Hoi An, Vietnam

View along the Thu Bon River.

The evenings are when Hoi An shows its best, with the decorated lights along the river, and lively sounds coming from the restaurants, shops and bars around the town.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An comes alive at dusk, with the tourists looking for food and drink after the day’s adventures.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A dusk river boat ride.

Hoi An, Vietnam

One of the many tailors in Hoi An.

My Son Ancient Hindu Temples – A Good Day Trip from Hoi An

Another thing we did while in Hoi An was hire a taxi to take us out to the My Son ancient ruins, another UNESCO World Heritage site, which was about 37 kilometers (20 miles) distant. These are ancient Hindu temples, constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

View of the ruins of My Son.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

One of the better preserved temples at My Son.

Most of the temples were built out of brick rather than stone. There is a large visitors center and interpretive signs in English at the major temples. The ruins are some distance away from the visitor’s center, and you can either walk or take a cart ride provided by the park.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Another temple at My Son.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

This ruin has been restored; the UN is providing some funds for restoration of these temples.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Detailed carved writing (with some bullet marks) can be seen on this stone.

While this site in its current state does not compare to the ruins found in Siem Reap, it is nonetheless interesting, partly for the history and partly because there was significant fighting here during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, much of the site was destroyed during bombing runs by the U.S. Evidence of this can still be seen in the bomb craters.

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Bomb crater (the mud hole at bottom of photo).

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Some ruins are still covered by dense jungle foliage.

Unexploded land mines are still in the area too, so don’t wander off the main paths.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Going out on patrol in this dense jungle must have been no fun (some ruins can also be seen).

It was rainy the day we visited and I can only imagine how miserable it would have been to slog through the humid, wet jungle for days and weeks on end constantly in fear of being shot or captured. Plan about 4 hours for the round trip from Hoi An, which leaves about 2 hours for the site visit.

Biking in India

10 Exhilarating Biking Trips in India

In this article our guest writer, Rohit Agarwal, explores 10 great biking adventures in India. See his bio below.

For the biking enthusiasts among us, India can prove to be a wonderful destination to take amazing trips because of the differing levels of challenging terrains across the country and the breath-taking view of the landscapes it has to offer. Here are ten of the best trails within the country that are sure to provide you with a delightful experience.

1. Iruppu To Ooty

Biking in India

Photo by Zigg-E, CC BY-ND 2.0

  • Distance Covered: 4 h 35 min (157.0 km)
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Lakeview in Ooty & Tropical Blooms in Iruppu.
  • Bike Rentals: From Royal Brothers Bike Rental in Coorg (1 hour away from Iruppu). One way rental not available.

A trail that takes about 4 to 5 days to complete, the places the trip of Ooty covers are absolutely stunning. The glorious sound of the mountain streams and lush greenery of the Nilgiri Hills will make you gaze in wonder at the beauty of Mother Nature.

2. Bomdila To Tawang

Biking in India

Photo by Bobinson K B, CC BY-SA 2.0

  • Distance Covered: 5 h 48 min (170.2 km).
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Tashi Ga Tsel in Tawang & Hotel Seagull in Bomdila.
  • Bike Rentals: Rent a bike from Guwahati via Rentrip, Awerides or The Highland Outback Riders etc. One way rental not available.

With the snow-clad mountains peeking in at almost every point of this trip to Bomdila, this is a trail that offers a moderate difficulty level and unlimited views of Nature’s exquisiteness. The rice plantations and gorgeous forests the trail takes you through are truly sights to behold.

3. Shimla To Manali

Biking in India

Photo by _paVan_, CC BY 2.0

  • Distance Covered: 7 h 4 min (247.5 km).
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Sidharath in Shimla and Hotel Greenfields in Manali.
  • Bike Rentals: Rentrip offers one way rental services in this route.

The trails of Himanchal Pradesh are absolutely stunning and the Spiti Valley offers many challenges to get the blood pumping in your veins as you travel to Manali through the charming valley as the rich vegetation surrounds you with its splendour.

4. Salem To Kolli Hills

Biking in India

Photo by Sodabottle, CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Distance Covered: 1 h 13 min (61.8 km).
  • Places of Stay: Nallathambi Resort in Kolli Hills and Hotel Ashwa Park in Salem.
  • Bike Rentals: Self Drive in Salem, A 1 Tour & Travels and many other options available. One way rental would require extra charge.

Not only are the impressive Kolli Hills known for the amazing view of the extravagant landscapes but also for the 70-hairpin bends that offer a real challenge to all those biking junkies with prior moderate experience.

5. Mumbai To Daman

Biking in India

Photo by Jugni, CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Distance Covered: 2 h 54 min (176.9 km).
  • Places of Stay: Silver Sands Beach Resort in Daman & Hotel Transit in Mumbai.
  • Bike Rentals: Ziphop, GetSetWheel and many more. One way rental would cost more.

This is a calm and quiet trail filled with beautiful forts, fun casinos and striking beaches. It takes about 2 to 3 days to complete the journey to Daman and is an ideal choice for those looking for a modest trip to appreciate the quaint town out in Daman.

6. Pollachi To Chalakudy

  • Distance Covered: 2 h 43 min (129.3 km).
  • Places of Stay: Pollachi Classic Club in Pollachi and Bethania Resorts in Chalakudy.
  • Bike Rentals: From Coimbatore via Rentrip or Royal Picks. One way rental not available.

Rated as one of the most breath-taking journeys to take, this trail passes through the amazing Vazhachal Forest, with numerous waterfalls, streams, dams and reservoirs along the way to make the experience that much more memorable. The evergreen forests and stunning flora along with the thrilling terrain creates an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

7. Jaipur To Jaisalmer

Biking in India

Photo by Jorge Láscar, CC BY 2.0

  • Distance Covered: 9 h 19 min (558.9 km).
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Tokyo Palace in Jaisalmer and Hotel Kalyan in Jaipur.
  • Bike Rentals: Rent Set Go, Rentrip, Wicked Ride etc. One way rental would cost extra if the bike rental is not in the end destination.

What makes this trail unique is that it takes you through astonishing deserts and beautiful views of the landscape of Rajasthan. You also get the chance to experience the colourful local food, the jaw dropping architecture and the inspiring lifestyle of the people inhabiting the rural parts of the state.

8. Darjeeling To Sikkim

Biking in India

Photo by MithilaConnect, CC BY 2.0

  • Distance Covered: 4 h 36 min (126.2 km).
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Shangri-La Regency, Darjeeling and Hotel Saikripa, Gangtok.
  • Bike Rentals: Adventures Unlimited and Darjeeling Riders. One way rental would cost more.

A trip to Darjeeling, that is sure to mesmerise your senses and get your adrenaline rushing through your veins, this trail offers a fantastic view of the mighty Himalayan mountains all throughout the surreal journey and the various cultures and religions you get to discover and explore along the way are unique and impressive in their own rights. Add to that the hospitality and warmth of the local people and what you have is a beautiful collection of memories and lovely experiences to take away.

9. Delhi To Nainital

Biking in India

Photo by Ekabhishek, CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Distance Covered: 6 h 50 min (301.0 km).
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Delhi Darbar, Delhi and Treebo Cloud 7, Nainital.
  • Bike Rentals: Rentrip, Rent Set Go and Wheel Street. One way rental available.

The trip which starts from the enthralling capital and leads to the exquisite city of lakes via Corbett-Mukhteshwar is a journey filled challenges and thrills. The winding roads, orchards lining the sides of the trail and lavish woodlands filled with various types of flora are truly sights to behold.

10. Siliguri To Gangtok

Biking in India

Photo by Christopher J. Fynn, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Distance Covered: 3 hr 45 min (116.1 km)
  • Place of Stay: Hotel Saikripa Gangtok and Hotel Sharda, Siliguri.
  • Bike Rentals: Darjeeling Riders, Adventures Unlimited, Rentrip. One way rental available.

One of the most popular trails in the North-Eastern region of the country, the journey is quite challenging due to the steep route that is sure to test your skills. The astonishing culture present here is a lovely mix of both Hinduism and Buddhism.

So, what are you waiting for? Pick up your gear, choose the destination and set on a trail that challenges the biker in you. With the rush of adrenaline pumping through your body and the exquisite scenery you get the chance to visit, any journey you choose is sure to be unforgettable and full of lovely memories to take back home.

Guest Author Bio: Rohit is an adventure sports junkie and enthusiastic traveller residing in India. He enjoys writing content for Trans India Travels and hopes to inspire his readers to join him on the numerous trips he takes across the country.

Cruising Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Our main reason for visiting Hanoi was to have a launch point for a Ha Long Bay cruise. Ha Long Bay is one of the most scenic locations in Vietnam.

On the morning of our cruise departure, we were picked up at our hotel at 8 am by a transportation service that took us to Ha Long City, a 3.5 hour drive east of Hanoi. We enjoyed seeing the countryside and towns along the way. The transportation van was first-class, very comfortable with amenities such as wifi and water.

Ride to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi, Vietnam

Our comfortable ride to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi. The van has wifi!

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Ha Long Bay, with a new ferris wheel being constructed in the background. The goal is to make the town a tourist destination in its own right and not just a transfer point for the cruises.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

The crowded port with the launches lined up for the waiting junks.

Upon arrival in Ha Long City, we completed some paperwork at the cruise terminal and then took a small launch to our boat (the ‘Prince Junk’). We had purposely chosen a cruise company that offered a smaller boat (see featured image above). There were just four guest cabins, or room for 8 passengers total. After getting settled in our cabins, we were offered a welcome aboard lunch and an orientation to our cruise itinerary. A young man was our cruise director and in addition to him there were 3-4 other crew, plus the captain.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Dining area on our ship.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Our cabin. Since there were only four rooms, all have large windows with a view.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam

The large shower and bathroom in our cabin.

Since it was January, the weather was overcast most of the time, with just a few sprinkles and the air temperature was probably in the upper 60’s F – just a bit warmer than Hanoi. Because of the gray skies, it looked colder than it actually felt. The water was quite warm and perhaps was a bit warmer than the air.

Ha Long Cruise, Indochina Junk, Vietnam

Enjoying the Ha Long Bay view from the lounge deck.

In addition to enjoying the passing scenery that first afternoon, we went on a kayaking adventure with our cruise director, one of two kayaking tours during our cruise.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay, with the beautiful rock formations and islands everywhere.

Ha Long Bay Kayaking, Vietnam

Another view of our kayaking – our cruise director is in the first kayak. We each had a watertight container for cameras.

On our 2nd day we went on another kayaking adventure and also to an island with a large cave and lovely beach–this was one of the few places where we ran into other cruise ships.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

The island with the cave, about halfway up the hill.

Cave, Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Inside the island cave, Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

A view of Ha Long Bay from the cave island.

Also, on the 2nd day we were treated to a beach-side lunch at a quiet cove on another island where we were the only people on the beach.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Setting up our lunch on the beach.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

A panoramic view of the beach where we had lunch. Our boat can be seen in the distance.

On our third day, we went to a floating fishing village in the morning, where the local women rowed small boats for a tour of the village (the men are fishermen) and then a stop at an oyster pearl farm.

Floating village, Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Our tour guides for the floating village. These women work very hard and row a long way!

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam

A view of part of the floating village.

After our tour of the floating village and pearl farm, we had an early lunch as we cruised back to port for disembarkation at around 12 pm. On the way back to Hanoi, we stopped (along with all other cruise passengers from multiple cruise lines) at Yen Duc village, for a water puppet show, which are unique to north Vietnam. At the show, the hosts provided a wide array of fruits and snacks; the whole event lasts about one hour.

Practical Details

We arranged the cruise several months earlier and were overwhelmed by the choices of cruise companies. We learned that most cruise companies complete the same general itinerary and activities, even though prices for the cruises vary a lot. The junks vary in size from two to 20 cabins.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Example of a larger cruise junk in Ha Long Bay.

We choose a more expensive, small cruise junk option, so that we could have a smaller number of passengers and (likely) increase the quality of the food (the food is well prepared and presented, the cuisine is mainly seafood with a few other meat and chicken dishes too. Bring some snacks/fruits along if you wish to supplement what is provided). Given the immensity of the bay, we were largely out of sight of other cruise vessels. Most cruises are one or two nights. We opted for the two night cruise. Tips are provided directly to the captain (which he distributes to the crew) and cruise director at the end of the cruise, so be sure to bring cash. I don’t recall the specific amounts, but the equivalent of $10-15 per person (guest) should be sufficient.

Huc Bridge, Temple of the Jade Mountain, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Visiting Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Hỏa Lò Prison (aka “Hanoi Hilton”)

From Siem Reap, Cambodia we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam for the last leg of our Asian trip. In Vietnam, we went from north to south: Hanoi (plus a cruise in “nearby” Ha Long Bay), Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Posts on these other locations will be coming soon. The first thing we noticed in Hanoi was the significantly cooler weather. Coming from Cambodia it was a real shock, Hanoi was in the 60’s F in January vs. 80’s F in Siem Reap.

Hanoi Old Quarter

We spent very little time in Hanoi itself. Our hotel was conveniently located in the Old Quarter, and within walking distance of everything we wanted to do.

Royal Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Our hotel, Royal Palace, in Hanoi. Decent rooms and comfortable.

Hanoi Old Quarter, Vietnam.

Street scene in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

The main tourist sites are in Hanoi Old Quarter, a densely packed section of the city with lots of little shops, temples tucked into hidden corners, and scooters everywhere! Scooters are the transportation vehicle of choice in Hanoi and Vietnam overall.

Hanoi, Vietnam Old Quarter.

Rows of scooters on the side streets of Hanoi.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake

This lake and park in the Old Quarter provides a serene contrast to the busy streets nearby. There is a story of a Turtle God associated with this lake that is quite interesting. I won’t retell it here, but look it up on Wikipedia. There is a monument called “Turtle Tower” in the lake commemorating this legend.

Huc Bridge, Temple of the Jade Mountain, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Leading to the Temple of the Jade Mountain (18th century) in Hoàn Kiếm Lake is the pretty Huc (“Welcoming Morning Sunlight”) Bridge.

Temple of the Jade Mountain, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Temple of the Jade Mountain entrance.

Hanoi,Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Old Quarter, Vietnam

A view of the Hanoi skyline from Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral

A pretty odd sight in Hanoi is this Neo-Gothic 19th century Christian cathedral. It is the oldest church in Hanoi and was built by the French colonial government. According to Wikipedia, it is the headquarters of Archdiocese of Vietnam which serves 4 million Catholics across the country. From the mid 1950’s until 1990 the cathedral was closed, during this era Christians suffered major persecution. I’m glad the cathedral survived. While it cannot compare to what one finds in Europe, it still has its charm situated as it is in Hanoi.

St. Joseph's Cathedral, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

Exterior view of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi.

hanoi4

Interior view of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi.

Hỏa Lò Prison (aka “Hanoi Hilton”)

If you do nothing else in Hanoi, take the time to visit the Hỏa Lò Prison, now a museum. This prison is famous for being the “home” of Senator John McCain, after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War. He was held as a prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years, from late 1967 to early 1973 and along with other American pilots, he suffered greatly. All American prisoners were released in 1973.

John McCain, Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam

A photo of a wounded John McCain after his capture in October 1967.

John McCain, Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

John McCain’s flight suit on display at Hỏa Lò Prison.

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Typical prisoner supplies.

Rather than focusing on the American prisoner era, the purpose of the museum is to tell the story of the suffering of the Vietnamese people (particularly members of the Communist Party) at the hands of the French during the colonization period beginning in the late 1800’s, which laid the foundation for what became the Vietnam War. The French built the prison in 1896. It was turned into a museum in 1993.

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Hỏa Lò Prison entrance.

The prison is located just south of the Old Quarter and is quite close to St. Joseph’s Cathedral (discussed above). The prison used to occupy a much larger area, and only a small portion remains, undoubtedly due to the value of real estate in this part of Hanoi. I am glad they persevered at least a portion of this prison for modern day tourists.

hoa-lo-prison34

A snapshot of the original Hỏa Lò prison. What remains is just the section facing the street on the lower left.

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Vietnamese prisoner depiction, all shackled.

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam

Prison cell corridor, Hoa Lo Prison.

Prison cell door, Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prison cell door, Hỏa Lò Prison.

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Although a bit hard to see, looking into a prison cell at Hỏa Lò Prison, “bed” slab in background.

The pictures of American POW’s in the museum are quite interesting, they make it look like it was a social club!

hoa-lo-prison26

The current Vietnamese government attempts to show how well it treated American POW’s by showing them playing basketball and volleyball. Just a day at the gym!

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam

Here are some photos of prisoner Christmastime celebrations!

Summary

As we visited Hanoi, my sense was that it’s less progressive and dynamic than Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and that turned out to be the case. I will share more on Ho Chi Minh City in another post.

Please note that Vietnam requires a visa, which is not difficult to obtain. Complete an application on line, print out the paper work, and take this information with you to receive your visa upon arrival at your point of entry.

Our main purpose in visiting Hanoi was to serve as our departure point for a Ha Long Bay cruise–our next Vietnam post!

 

 

Visiting Prague and Nearby Castles

Prague, in the Czech Republic, is a beautiful city with striking architecture and an interesting history. It is a city that lends itself to walking. The Vltava River (the same river that runs through Český Krumlov) divides the two main tourist hubs, Old Town Square and Prague Castle hill.

Here are just a few highlights of Prague along with two castles outside the city.

Prague Castle

As castles go, it’s a little hard to recognize Prague Castle as such from the exterior – it just looks like a collection of buildings, and yet there is a lot to do here – palaces, museums, churches and shops. The castle area surrounds a large square which includes St. Vitus Cathedral. The cathedral is so massive and “shoehorned” into such a small area, it is difficult to get a good close-up photo of this stunning structure.

prague_czech-republic-13

A view of St. Vitus Cathedral (begun in 1344 and finished 600 years later), along with various buildings of Prague Castle.

prague_czech-republic-16

Basilica of St. George and Convent. This red building is Prague’s best-preserved Romanesque church. It dates from the 900’s. The convent to the left houses an art museum. These buildings are part of the Castle Square.

Golden Lane. This is an old medieval street just below the castle grounds.

prague_czech-republic-17

Golden Lane. Little shops in old medieval houses. A quaint little area in Prague’s Castle Quarter.

Charles Bridge

This bridge was built in the 14th century by King Charles IV and was the only bridge in Prague to cross the Vltava river until 1850.

prague_czech-republic-8

On the Charles Bridge, with lots of tourists moving between the Old Town Square and Prague Castle. Artists and various vendors line the bridge along with statues. The tower (on the east end, near Old Town Square) was originally a toll booth.

prague_czech-republic

The Castle (west) end of the Charles Bridge.

Old Town Square

Located on the east side of the Vltava river, this square dates from the 11th century. It was once the center for executions of convicts. A lane, called “The King’s Walk” connects Old Town Square to the famous (and busy) Charles Bridge which then leads to Prague Castle.

prague_czech-republic-3

A view of Týn Church and Old Town Square.

The Gothic Týn Church is a major landmark of the Square and has been the main church in this part of Prague since the 14th century. Nearby is the 15th century Old Town Hall and astronomical clock, which is quite fascinating–it tells time in a variety of ways (with Roman numerals, Gothic numbers and planetary symbols).

prague_czech-republic-10

The 15th century astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall. It was damaged in World War II and largely reconstructed.

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Another view of Old Town Square and Týn Church (the astronomical clock and Old Town Hall are just to the left of the church).

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A street scene in Old Town Prague.

Jewish Quarter

Close to the Vltava River, the Jewish Quarter contains several synagogues and a Ceremonial Hall which can be visited. In addition, there is an old Jewish cemetery (which was the only burial ground in Prague allowed for Jews for 300 years). Centuries ago, the Jews were required to live separately from Christians. Of the 120,000 Jews living in this area in 1939, only 10,000 survived to see liberation from the Nazis in 1945.

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Old-New Synagogue. Built in 1270, it’s the oldest synagogue in central Europe.

Nearby Castles – Karlštejn and Konopiště

Twenty miles southwest of Prague is Karlštejn Castle, one of the Czech Republic’s great attractions. It is a bit of a hike up to the castle from the car park, but the route has lots of little shopping booths to keep you entertained along the way.

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Karlštejn Castle. Built in 1350 to house the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire. Reservations are required to see the Chapel of the Holy Cross where the crown jewels were housed.

Konopiště Castle. This castle is 30 miles south of Prague. There is an interesting (and free) display of numerous statues of St. George “slaying the dragon” here.

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Konopiště Castle. Construction began in the 14th century, but the castle was largely modernized around 1900 by Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne. The castle houses an excellent medieval arms collection.

 

 

 

 

Getting Beyond Prague – Visiting Český Krumlov, Kutná Hora and Sedlec Bone Church

The Czech Republic is a wonderful country to visit, and while many tourists head straight to Prague, there is so much more to enjoy in this country. (I will share a bit about Prague and a couple nearby castles in my next post).

Here are some recommendations beyond Prague:

Český Krumlov

This town, located in the southern part of the Czech Republic, is about 170 (106 miles) south of Prague or 225 km (140 miles) northwest of Vienna. It is one of the most delightful medieval towns in Europe.

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A view of the old town of Český Krumlov from the Krumlov Castle tower. The Church of St. Vitus dominates the skyline.

Although there have been various settlements in the area going back to 100 BCE, the town and castle we now see were founded in the 13th century. The town was under Communist rule after World War II, and since there was no money to modernize the town, it was (thankfully) preserved for today’s tourist.

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A small square in Český Krumlov.

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Street scene in Český Krumlov.

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The Vltava River encompasses the old town, with the Castle and tower providing a scenic backdrop.

The Vltava river makes a u-shaped bend as it winds through the town, providing scenic views and foot bridges from almost every point, in addition to being a major venue for canoeing and rafting. The town is considered the Czech answer to picturesque Rothenburg, Germany. The major sight, besides the town itself, is the majestic castle (see featured image at top of post) and the adjacent Baroque Theater sitting on the hill above the town.

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A courtyard at Krumlov Castle. You can climb the tower for good views of the town.

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The Krumlov Castle entrance. No photos were allowed inside the Castle.

Our hotel (Maleho Vitka) in the center of the old town was like Middle Earth (from The Hobbit), with winding corridors, unique “woodsy” rooms and furniture.

Kutná Hora and Sedlec Bone Church

Kutná Hora is about 64 km (40 miles) east of Prague and is considered a “typical” Czech city, not high on the tourist circuit. Its economy centuries ago was based on its silver mine.

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View of Kutná Hora town.

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The pointy roof of St. Barbara’s Cathedral in the background. The Cathedral was founded in 1388 and has original frescoes inside.

Other than seeing the Cathedral of St. Barbara, our main reason for visiting Kutná Hora was to go to the Sedlec Bone Church. Sedlec is a little town just a mile outside Kutná Hora.

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The exterior of Sedlec Bone Church.

If you like seeing human bones in about every imaginable configuration, this is your place. The bones of about 40,000 people rest here.

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The Sedlec Bone Church chandelier – it includes every bone in the human body.

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Another unique configuration of bones.

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Lots of skulls and bones in every recess of the Church.

The plagues and wars of Middle Ages took their toll on the population and provided the “decorative” materials displayed by the monks in creative fashion throughout the church.

 

A Few Sights in Austria

Austria is a beautiful country with so much to offer the tourist. During a road trip from southern Germany to the Czech Republic, we drove through a portion of Austria and made the following stops, knowing we could not do the entire country justice. The locations below are in order of our visit, from west to east.

Ehrenberg Castle. This is not a famous castle and while the castle is largely ruined, the hike up to it is very enjoyable. It sits on a steep hill in a beautiful valley (the featured image above is another view from the castle). The castle was built in the 13th century.

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The steep approach to Ehrenberg Castle.

It is located near the town of Reutte, just 18 km (or 11 miles) across the border from the famous Neuschwanstein Castle in Füssen, Germany. There are three other castles near Ehrenberg, all of which were constructed to protect an important salt trade route in medieval times. The castles are in the process of becoming connected as a unified castle museum.

Salzburg. Salzburg is famous as the setting for the events in the musical and movie “The Sound of Music”, and for being the birthplace of Mozart.

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St. Peter’s Cemetery, which inspired the graveyard hiding scene in the “Sound of Music”.

The town was an independent state until the time of Napoleon. The old town is nestled around its whitewashed castle (Hohensalzburg Fortress), from which good views of the town and surrounding area can be seen.

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A view of Salzburg looking northwest from Hohensalzburg Fortress. The Salzach River meanders through the town.

Hohensalzburg is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe and was so impressive that no one attacked the town for a span of 1,000 years. We enjoyed a wonderful concert at this castle. (Interestingly, if you google “Salzburg Castle” you’ll be directed to a castle in Germany, not the castle in Salzburg!)

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A view of Hohensalzburg Fortress and old town.

The old town was not too heavily damaged in World War II, even though Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” hideout (Berchtesgaden) is just south of Salzburg. As mentioned above, Salzburg is also the birthplace of Mozart, one of the most famous classical composers of all time. His birthplace is a museum in the old town.

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Mozart’s birthplace in 1756 (Geburtshaus).

Mauthausen Concentration Camp. This Nazi slave-labor and death camp operated from 1938 to 1945. It is located 148 km (92 miles) east of Salzburg, on the Danube river. The prisoners worked in the nearby quarry and more than half its 206,000 prisoner/laborers perished from exhaustion or starvation.

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The entrance to Mauthausen (from the inside looking out).

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The prisoner barracks, camp wall and guard towers.

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Prisoner barracks – interior.

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Cremation oven (the gas chamber was next door).

A relatively small camp, Mauthausen still packs an emotional punch to the gut, thinking about the horrors that transpired here. There are quite a few exhibits and displays explaining “life” in the camp.

Melk Abbey. An amazing contrast to Mauthausen, this is a beautiful 18th century baroque abbey located in Melk, on the Danube river, about 87 km (54 miles) from Vienna. If you like Baroque architecture, this is the place to go.

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The interior of the Church at Melk Abbey.

There was an 11th century Benedictine abbey originally on this site, but it burned down. The library and church are the two most stunning features of Melk Abbey.

Vienna. Vienna is one of Europe’s great cities. Although it’s a large city, the old part is quite compact and is famous for its music and beautiful architecture.

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Street scene in Vienna.

We visited St. Stephan’s Cathedral, the Opera House, and the Hofburg Palace.

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A view of St. Stephan’s Cathedral, built in the mid 13th century. The roof was damaged by fire in World War II. The tiles are decorative and local citizens contributed to the rebuilding of the roof in 1952 by buying a tile.

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The famous Vienna Opera House, rebuilt after World War II. We took a tour, and our tour guide reminded me of Count Dracula! This is the home of the Vienna State Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra, where they do 300 performances a year.

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A small view of the Hofburg Palace with various members of my family. The Palace is huge, and was continuously undergoing construction from the 13th century to the 20th century. It was the Imperial Palace of the Hapsburg Empire until 1918, and is still the home of the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

Outside of Vienna is the Schönbrunn Palace, which is nearly on scale with incredible Palace of Versailles near Paris. On another trip this would be a must-do.

5 Interesting Things to Do in Kochi, India

In this article our guest writer, Rohit Agarwal, explores Kochi, in the state of Kerala, India. See his bio below.

Kerala is a state in India that is blessed with inherent natural beauty, calm, peaceful beaches and very rich cultural heritage. Kerala’s financial capital Kochi is one of the most favourite holiday destinations of tourists. Kochi has variety of things to offer that fulfils wanderlust of travellers having altogether different interests. Right from marvellous beaches to huge museums and from jungle walks to folk dance theatres, Kochi  is full of attractions to make your stay here memorable. To celebrate a holiday that would have a never-fading impression on your mind, here is a list of a couple of interesting things you can do in Kochi.

Go for Kayaking in backwaters of river Periyar

In Kochi, one can experience the pleasant Kerala backwaters while gliding the kayak. Many boat clubs and adventure sports companies provide excellent facilities of Kayaking in the river Periyar with complete safety and guidance.

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Photo by Challlivan, CC BY-SA 3.0

The experience of kayaking in the morning while listening to chorus of birds at dawn and witnessing an alluring sunrise can be mesmerizing; while moonlight kayaking can soothe your soul and offer romantic moments to cherish forever. Considering such a perfect combination of thrill and bonding with nature, kayaking definitely should be on your list of must-do things in Kochi!

Visit a spa and get a rejuvenating Ayurvedic massage

It would be a bonus to have a perfect massage on a refreshing trip, wouldn’t it? Kochi has some extraordinarily luxurious spas that practice ancient art and science of Ayurveda to offer you a rejuvenating experience of massage. In this massage offered by the therapists trained under Ayurveda masters, you can experience each cell in your body getting relaxed and all your stress and tiredness vanishing!  During a visit to a close-to-nature city, Kochi, experiencing a completely natural massage will certainly reignite your life force.

Witness the Chinese Fishing Nets in action

It is said that Chinese Fishing Nets were introduced in Fort Kochi by the Chinese explorer, Zheng He. These nets are fixed land installations, which are used for an unusual method of fishing.

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Photo by Kreativeart, CC BY-SA 4.0

Witnessing the use of these ancient objects by local fishermen is a very unique experience to have. An ideal place to watch fishermen use these nets is the Vasco da Gama square. There you can actually see these nets lowering into the sea and fish being caught in nets! The Vasco da Gama square also has food stalls that serve fresh and tasty seafood. Spending an evening here enjoying an amazing view of the sunset can be a mesmerising experience.

Experience live performance of Kathakali dance

Kathakali is one of the 7 classical Indian dance forms and is a dance-drama traditional to Kerala. The grand make-up of the artists and the graceful way of narrating meaningful mythological stories enthral the spectators.

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Photo by AnastesMp, CC0 1.0

Learning the art of Kathakali is not an easy task. It requires years of intense training and it is evident from the performances one can experience while in Kochi. Places such as Cochin Cultural Centre, Kerala Kathakali Centre, Greenix Village offer the opportunity to watch Kathakali performance.

Evening walk on Princess street

Princess Street is the oldest street in Fort Kochi surrounded by buildings with civil colonial architecture. The street has a number of coffee shops where aroma of coffee and fresh bread fills the air and you feel like being in a western world!

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Photo by Oboe, CC BY 3.0

The street has many restaurants and yes, shops! An evening walk along the old street, catching glimpse of remnants of European architecture and shopping ‘masala’ from tiny shops is surely a refreshing experience for anyone visiting Kochi.

The list is really unending as Kochi is an amazing tourist spot, but one thing is true for sure – Once you have been to Kochi you can’t stop yourself from falling in love with it!

Rohit Agarwal is a traveller and a blogger at Trans India Travels. A true nature lover at heart, Rohit was fascinated by cultural and biological diversity in India and is in search of the most interesting tourist sites in India.

Three Great Stops Along the Romantic Road in Germany

The Romantic Road, which winds its way through scenic old towns from central to southern Germany, covers a distance of almost 400 km (250 miles). It was a medieval trade route and several towns were at crossroads on that route.

This post will cover two of those scenic towns and the world famous Neuschwanstein Castle.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Rothenburg (located on the Tauber river and hence its name) is definitely one of the most interesting (and popular) small towns in Germany. It was saved from destruction during World War II by an American general, who, knowing of its historical significance, agreed not to bombard the town if it surrendered, which it did. Thank goodness. It retains its medieval feel, and there are lots of quaint buildings; most of which were built before 1400.

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Every street is a postcard view in Rothenburg.

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One of the most famous street scenes in Rothenburg.

The most popular time to visit Rothenburg is December. It has a famous Christmas festival and market. With a little snow it would a picture-perfect Christmas village. We visited during the summer and had no complaints.

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Another view of Rothenburg. There was an older inner section of the medieval town and hence why there are so many gates.

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A timbered house, tower and section of the medieval wall in Rothenburg.

There are several “don’t miss” things to do in Rothenburg:

  1. Walk the town’s surrounding medieval walls on an old boardwalk.
  2. Visit Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum, which contains all kinds of creative medieval torture instruments.
  3. Take the Night Watchman’s tour. Hans Georg Baumgartner has been doing these tours for years, and they are a blast. He tells a bit about the history of Rothenburg with lots of humor as he walks you around the old town at dusk. He conducts tours in English and German at different times.
  4. Visit St. Jakob’s Church, which houses the Riemenschneider wood carving (Altar of the Holy Blood, 500 years old and 35 feet high).
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Hans Georg Baumgartner starting his Night Watchman’s tour in Rothenburg.

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The famous Altar of the Holy Blood by Tilman Riemenschneider. The carving took 5 years (1499-1504) to create. It’s located in the 14th century St. Jakob’s church in Rothenburg.

Dinkelsbühl. This great town is considered Rothenburg’s “little sister” and is only 49 km (30 miles) south of Rothenburg.

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Street scene in Dinkelsbühl.

It has a moat, towers, gates, timbered buildings and a medieval wall surrounding the town (which, in addition to Rothenburg, is one of the few remaining in Germany). We found Dinkelsbühl a bit less touristy than Rothenburg. Amazingly it also miraculously escaped damage in World War II, except for a broken window in St. George’s Minster.

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A tower, moat, and wall surrounding Dinkelsbühl.

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One more scenic view outside the walls of Dinkelsbühl.

Don’t miss climbing the tower connected to the 15th century St.George’s Minster. The tower was originally a 12th century free standing structure, but later became part of the church structure.

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The tower of St. George’s Minster is in the distance.

Neuschwanstein Castle. Just about everyone has seen a picture of this castle, nestled against the Bavarian Alps. This well-known castle marks the southern end of the Romantic Road, near the town of Füssen.

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This image of Neuschwanstein was taken from Mary’s Bridge, a short hike to the south of the castle.

It’s been said that this castle was the inspiration for Cinderella’s castle at Walt Disney World. The castle was constructed by King Ludwig II, King of Bavaria in the late 1800’s.

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Interior courtyard view of Neuschwanstein Castle.

He died at age 41 in 1886, having lived in his dream castle (a 17 year project) only 172 days! Only about one third of the interior was finished at the time of his death, it remains unfinished to this day.

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Interior view of Neuschwanstein castle. The two figures represent the story of Tristan and Isolde, a romantic 12th century story, inspired by Celtic legend.

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Looking up at Neuschwanstein Castle from the road you hike up (or take by carriage) to get you to the entrance.

While I prefer older, “real” castles, Neuschwanstein is a beauty and was built on the site of an older medieval castle. To get the best postcard view of this castle nestled in the mountains, you really have to be in a low flying airplane or helicopter. Also in the same area is the older Hohenschwangau Castle, which you see first as you arrive, but we did not take the time to visit it. Be forewarned – this area is mobbed by tourists, so plan your visit well in advance and ensure you get your tours and tickets set before arriving.