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.

Conimbriga, Portugal

Conimbriga – Portugal’s Best-Preserved Roman Ruins

On our way north from Nazaré to Porto we stopped at the site of a Roman settlement in Portugal, known as Conimbriga, which is about halfway between those two cities (roughly 110 km or 68 miles either way). The history of Conimbriga actually dates back well before the Romans, to the Bronze and Iron ages. It was an ideal location, on a plateau that was easy to defend and good access to water.

What remains are the Roman-era ruins, of which 17% have been excavated, leaving a lot more to discover. The visible ruins date from about mid 1st century CE to about 500 CE, when the Roman empire finally completely collapsed. Although most of the structures are pretty ruined, enough remains to get a feel for the wealth and prosperity of Conimbriga in its prime.

Conimbriga, Portugal

The gate and road into Conimbriga. The original city walls were smaller and encircled a much wider area. The town’s fortifications were strengthened around a smaller portion of the city in the 3rd century CE.

Conimbriga, Portugal

These structures, which include shops, baths and houses, are just outside the town’s walls, which form the backdrop.

The largest aristocratic residence, known as the House of Fountains, sits just outside the walls. It was constructed around 200 CE and excavated in 1939. It has a huge courtyard (or peristyle) with pools, fountains and beautiful mosaic floors in its rooms. Unfortunately, it was largely demolished when the defenses of the town were strengthened and building material was needed. The remnants of this 35,000 sq. feet residence are still interesting, protected by an overhead shelter.

House of the Fountains, Conimbriga, Portugal

The courtyard of the House of the Fountains, with its pools and small fountains. It must have been very impressive 2,000 years ago. Note the mosaic floors around the perimeter of the pools.

House of the Fountains, Conimbriga, Portugal

A view of some of the rooms in the House of the Fountains.

House of the Fountains, Conimbriga, Portugal

A closer look at the frescoes and mosaic floors in the House of the Fountains.

There are remains of other buildings inside the city walls, including a forum, basilica, and other dwellings. The Romans were amazing engineers and builders, their ability to construct a city layout with infrastructure that is still partially intact today speaks to their skills.

Conimbriga, Portugal

This structure is known as the House of Cantaber, constructed about 100 CE. The columns surround the peristyle (courtyard). The city walls are right behind the house.

Baths, Conimbriga, Portugal.

A view of private baths at Conimbriga, the foundations here date from the 3rd and 4th century. The hexagonal tanks were heated and held hot water.

Conimbriga, Portugal

Detail of the mosaic floor of the aptly named “House of the Swastika”, excavated in 1940. (The infamous Nazi adaptation was reversed from this much earlier version)

Conimbriga, Portugal

Another view of the ruins of Conimbriga.

Conimbriga, Portugal

The remains of the Baths of the Aqueduct (the wall behind the raised floor was the aqueduct, and the raised floor covers part of the baths).

In addition to the ruins at Conimbriga, there is a small museum on the site, and there are a few other small Roman ruins north and south (Alcabideque, Rabaçal and Santiago Da Guardia), indicating the expanse of Roman civilization in this part of Portugal.

Places to Visit in Central Portugal (Tomar, Alcobaça and Batalha) – Part II

Portugal is home to some of the most famous medieval-era monasteries in Europe. On our last trip, we were able to visit four of them. A primary reason for our two day stay in Nazaré was to visit three of these monasteries: Alcobaça, Batalha and Tomar (the fourth monastery is in Belém, near Lisbon, I have written a little about it here). It might be possible to visit all three in an extremely rushed day; however, I would suggest visiting Alcobaça and Batalha on one day (both are pretty close to Nazaré) and then see Tomar on the second day, with a visit to Almourol castle before or after (these two sights are just 32 km (20 miles) apart).

All three monasteries in this post are well worth visiting. For sake of time, I would prioritize Tomar first (it’s the furthest away and has the most extensive set of rooms that can be visited), Alcobaça and then Batalha.

Tomar (Convento de Cristo)

The town of Tomar, known for its unique monastery (called Convento de Cristo), is one of the signature sights in Portugal. The main chapel dates to the 11th century and the walls surround the monastery complex are much older. Convento de Cristo is extremely unique because of its circular, fortress-like chapel, and its long association with the Templar Knights.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar

A view of the walls surrounding Convento de Cristo in Tomar.

I had the privilege of visiting Convento de Cristo a few years ago, and I was just as amazed visiting it again on this trip as I had been previously. The site is extensive, and consists of visiting the chapel, cloisters with several levels, kitchens, refectory, dorm rooms, meeting halls and other places, including the exterior gardens.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

The circular (16 sided) Templar chapel of Convento de Cristo.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar, Portugal

Interior of the Templar Chapel (Charola), Convento de Cristo.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

The elaborate entrance to Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Detail of the Manueline sculptures (16th century) which decorate the Convento de Cristo.

Allow at least two hours for your visit. The site is well sign-posted with English explanations.

Note: Several years ago, I visited Tomar as a day trip via train from Lisbon (see post here). This is very doable. However, if you have more time, a road trip is better, since you will be able to see more sights along the way. Since my family had not been to Tomar, we made this sight one of our destinations out of Nazaré. It’s only 77 km (48 miles) directly east of Nazaré. This monastery sits on a hill overlooking the town, and parking is available off the road part way up the hill.

Tomar Aqueduct

Also, just north of the town of Tomar a few kilometers is an old aqueduct, built in the 1590’s. Visiting it is free, it goes right over and next to the road. We saw it on the map and made our way to it after our visit to the monastery. It was built to provide water to the monastery.

Tomar aqueduct, Portugal.

A view of the aqueduct near Tomar. You can take a walk across the top.


This Cistercian monastery is just 16 km (10 miles) east of Nazaré and takes its name from its location at the confluence of the Alcoa and Baça rivers, which provided a water source for crops and the monastery residents. Construction began in 1178 and now the monastery is surrounded by the old town of Alcobaça.

Alcobaça monastery, Portugal.

Exterior view of Alcobaça monastery.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

A view of the Cloister of Silence, built in the 13th century.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

The massive and austere interior of Alcobaça Church. The vaults are over 20 meters (65 ft) high.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

Alcobaça’s refectory (where the monks would eat their meals). From this pulpit, there would be scripture readings to those gathered.

Alcobaca Monastery Kitchen2

Everything in Alcobaça is on a huge scale. This is a view of the massive kitchen.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

Reliquary Chapel, built between 1669 – 1672, part of the Manueline Sacristy. There is an additional fee to visit this chapel, but it is well worth it. Seventy-one terra cotta busts adorn the interior.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal.

The dormitory, one of the oldest parts of the monastery.

The adjacent town of Alcobaça also deserves at least a short walk, it has a scenic center.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

A view of Alcobaça town.


Founded in 1386 by King João I (who is buried here), to commemorate a battle that led to Portugal’s independence from Spain, this site is of national importance to the Portuguese. Construction went on for hundreds of years and was never completed. This monastery is 32 km (20 miles) northeast of Nazaré. It is considered one of the finest manifestations of gothic architecture in Portugal. This monastery was nearly in ruins in the early 1800’s, and thankfully it has been restored and is now a museum.

Batalha Monastery, Portugal.

A view of the north side of Batalha Monastery.

Batalha Monastery, Portugal

Another view of the exterior of Batalha Monastery.

Batalha, Portugal

The intricate detail carvings over the entrance to the unfinished chapels (Capelas Imperfeitas) at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal.

A view of the unfinished chapels.

Batalha, Portugal.

The soaring expanse of the main nave in the church at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal

Door carving at the entrance to the cloisters.

Batalha, Portugal.

A view of the cloisters at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal.

The Chapter House at Batalha. Its ceiling covers a large expanse and has no central support, an engineering feat in the early 1400’s. Soldiers can be seen standing as honor guards in this room by the far wall, stationed here in remembrance of the war of independence from Spain.


We visited these monasteries in October, and none were very busy. You can get a ticket that allows you to visit all three of those discussed in this post for a discounted rate. A senior rate is also available. Buy your ticket at the first monastery you visit. There is a direct train to Tomar from Lisbon (I recall that there were only one or two stops along the way), and it’s an easy day trip from Lisbon. Travel to Batalha and Alcobaça is a bit more complicated from Lisbon via train (it requires bus travel too). A rental car is by far more convenient.

Nazaré, Portugal.

Places to Visit in Central Portugal – Part I

From Sintra, we drove north to our next destination, Nazaré, a town on the central coast of Portugal. We chose Nazaré as our base for exploring this region of the country due to its location, choice of hotels and natural beauty. Since there is much to see in this part of Portugal, I will cover some sights in this post and others in Part II.

Almourol Castle

This scenic, small medieval castle sits on a rocky outcrop in the Tagus River, the same river which flows through Lisbon.

Almourol Castle, Portugal

A view of the castle from our small boat.

The castle is located 110 km (68 miles) east of Nazaré. Not much is really known about the castle’s history, but it was likely built prior to the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 1129. The Knights Templar had stewardship of the castle and surrounding lands until their disbanding in the 1300’s.

Almourol Castle, Portugal.

The massive walls of the castle.

Almourol Castle, Portugal

Entrance to the castle.

To reach the castle, you have to take a small boat, and you are given about 45 minutes to visit the castle before the boat returns to the mainland. The castle is in a rural area–there is a small snack shop near the parking lot, but not many restaurants around. Also, the boat operator takes a 1.5 hour lunch break, so plan your visit accordingly.


This town would be another good base for visiting central Portugal (it’s just 37 km northeast of Nazaré). Even though Leiria is surrounded by many tourist sights, the town itself is not on the tourist map, but is still worth a stop. Sitting on a prominent hilltop overlooking the town is an old castle (which was turned into a palace).

Leiria Castle, Portugal

Leiria’s town square with its castle on the hilltop.

The town square below (known as Praça Rodrigues Lobo) has a nice view of the castle. The town also has some quaint streets, a cathedral, an old 15th century paper mill and a little 11th century church (near the castle).

Leiria, Portugal

Street scene in Leiria.

Just 15 minutes south of Leiria is the stunning monastery of Batalha, which I will cover in Part II.


About 40 km south of Nazaré is Obidos, a medieval town encircled by a high wall. At the south end of the old town is a beautiful gate and at the north end is an old castle watching over the town and surrounding countryside.

Obidos, Portugal.

At the north end of of the old town of Obidos with its castle.

Obidos, Portugal.

Main Gate, Obidos. A 14th century gate, with 18th century tile work.

You can walk on the walls around the whole town for free.

Obidos, Portugal.

One of the entrances to the wall by the castle.

Obidos, Portugal

On our walk around the walls of Obidos.

We made it one half the way around the walls and then decided to do some shopping and have lunch in this magnificent setting.

Obidos, Portugal

Obidos Town Square. There are several interesting old churches is the town.

Obidos, Portugal.

Street scene in Obidos.

I would consider Obidos on the “must see” list in Portugal.


Nazaré itself is an interesting town and was our home for a few nights as we explored the region. It is a fishing village and a summer destination for the Portuguese, given its good beaches and central location. Nazaré doesn’t really have a “surfing vibe” like spots in Southern California, but I understand it has some of the best waves found in the Atlantic Ocean.

Nazaré, Portugal.

Looking down on the lower part of Nazaré with its wide expanse of beach. (The funicular tramway is in the lower part of the photo).

The beach is wide and quite beautiful, but unfortunately, we were there in the fall time (October) and didn’t get to enjoy the water. The town is split into two distinct parts, with the lower part hugging the beach, and the oldest part of the town sitting on a bluff overlooking the ocean, lower town and beaches.

Nazaré, Portugal.

Old Town Square, “upper” Nazaré.

Lots of good restaurants down by the beach. We stayed at the Hotel Magic, a great boutique hotel in the lower town.

Nazaré, Portugal.

The lower part of Nazaré has a nice promenade along the beach.

In my next post, I will cover our visits to the world famous Alcobaca, Bathala and Tomar monasteries.

Mt. Kilimanjaro

Conquering Kilimanjaro and Finding My Heart for Adventure

Note from the Independent Tourist: The below post was written by my nephew, Mark Bitton, who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in the spring of 2017. At the bottom of this post, he provides some practical tips for anyone considering this climb.

Mt. Kilimanjaro

Photo by Slavomir Hepka

Mt. Kilimanjaro rises 19,341 ft. above sea level and is the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Being in Africa, the average temperature is higher, making it one of the few 5000m+ mountains in the world that can be climbed without crampons, ice picks and technical training. In fact, the primary skill level required to summit is simply being in reasonably good shape, which is why over 25,000 climbers a year come to Tanzania and attempt to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. That said, not everybody makes it to the summit. The Kilimanjaro National Parks department put out statistics showing that of those climbers that tried to summit in 5 days or less, only had a 27% success rate. By contrast, those who take 8 days to summit have about an 85% success rate. In other words, it’s not about how fast you can run the mile, it’s based on how your body acclimates to the higher altitude and the more time you give your body, the greater your odds of success.

Turning 40 this year, my primary motivation for flying solo to Tanzania was not solely recreational. My life lacked a sense of adventure and the idea of traveling alone to Africa and scaling one of the world’s taller mountains seemed to adventurous and frankly a little scary. I’d never climbed anything higher than 14,000 feet and had only done that once. In addition to not knowing how I’d do with the altitude, by going alone, I was to be mixed in with a hodge-podge group of 11 other climbers from around the world. Fortunately, not only did they all speak English at least as a secondary language, but we quickly discovered everybody in the group to be very friendly, open and humorous.

Mt. Kilimanjaro climging group.

Our climbing group. (That’s me on the right in the white shirt).

In 8 days, I felt like I’d made lifelong friends with almost everybody in the group.

Day 1:  The first day entailed a muddy drive up to the starting point of the hike. We were doing the Lemosho Route, so most of the scenery at the bottom of the mountain was tropical rain forest. It was pretty humid, though already being at about 4,000 feet, it wasn’t as hot as it had been down in Moshi or Arusha, the two closest towns to the base of Kilimanjaro.

Day 2:  On Day 2 you hike for about an hour before you say goodbye to trees for the remainder of the climb. Much of day 2 was filled with what I would describe as overgrown sage brush.

Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Typical terrain on Day 2.

At the end of Day 2, we were introduced to all of the porters and guides in our group. In all, there were 36 porters (guys that carry a portion of your equipment, food and tents, etc.) and 8 guides.

Days 3-5:  If you’re looking for lush, verdant vistas and valleys, this is not the place. There is no mistaking Kilimanjaro for anything in the Swiss Alps. The terrain is rocky, with very little vegetation and very little protection from the sun. There are some plants you’ll find on Kilimanjaro that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

This is the Senecio Kilimanjari plant. Each branch represents 25 years of age – some trees are over 400 years old.

The weather can change quickly as well. We were fortunate that Day 5 was the only day in which we were soaked by a heavy thunderstorm. Nobody’s “rain proof” gear proved completely waterproof and when combined with our sweat from hiking, it made for a soaked day. Most of the day was filled with conversation while hiking, mixed in with a bunch of “pole, pole” reminders from the guides, which is Swahili for “slow, slow”, reminding us that in thin air, going slow will help us adapt better. Our late afternoons and evenings were generally occasioned by a couple of card games, dinner and then hitting the pillow early each night as camp fires were not allowed.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Typical terrain on Days 3-5 of our climb.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Carefully finding our way.

Days 6-8: Due to the rocky nature of the landscape, we were impressed at how well the porters did in finding flat spots for our tents.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Our camps included facilities for sleeping, eating and a portable potty.

On Day 6, we arrived at the final base camp named Barafu, which is at about 15,331 feet.  The air was noticeably thinner here and we were told to sleep as much as we could before and after dinner as we would begin the final ascent at about 11pm. I was not accustomed to sleeping in the afternoon and my brain refused to sleep. (Side note: It’s not safe to take sleep aids at this elevation). So with no sleep, we started climbing for Uhuru Peak, which was another 4,000 ft vertical climb in the dark, with only headlamps to show the way. The higher we went, the colder it got. I tried sipping from my CamelBak® every 5 minutes or so to keep the line from freezing, however, about an hour before the summit, it froze anyway and the rest of the way I was without water and only had snacks that were frozen solid. Not everything was pain and drudgery however. The star filled sky from the top of Kilimanjaro was magnificent.  I’ve never seen the stars with such clarity and brilliance. The final ascent was quite hard and only through extreme determination and effort did about 2/3 of our group make it to the peak. The other third did so without too much of a struggle.

Summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The exhilaration of making it to the top – 19,314 feet above sea level.

I felt extremely fortunate to not feel the heavy toll of the altitude as extensively as most of my hiking comrades. Talking became rare as we approached the summit simply because the expiration of breath cost too much to do so. That is, except for the guides of course who seemed to be well acclimated and accustomed to the hours and the elevation.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

From the summit of Kilimanjaro at sunrise. What a beautiful sight.

Around 6:30am we arrived at the peak, just in time for the sunrise, the dim light revealed a large glacier near the peak and the solemn expanse of a treacherous and rocky peak.

Once you’re at the summit and have taken your pictures, there’s no hamburger joint to hang out at, so after about half an hour of the frigid cold, we headed back down. The journey back down proved to be the most difficult part of the entire hike for me. Upon beginning our descent, I’d now been awake for over 25 hours straight and the exhaustion from a combined lack of sleep and thin air was beginning to be apparent. The descent was steep and filled with loose shale and rocky dust, resembling volcanic ash more than it did a loamy dirt.

About half way down to the Barafu base camp, my knees started to feel the pain of absorbing the stress. I hobbled into base camp at about noon and was told to sleep as we would be doing some more hiking that afternoon. At this point I had a pounding headache, was sweating profusely and had both knees throbbing. 800mg of Ibuprofen didn’t seem to make the slightest dent and I had no hunger for lunch. I didn’t even come close to sleeping that afternoon and around 2pm we headed out for what I thought would be a short hike to get to a lower elevation. Twelve miles later and what felt like a gazillion rocky stairs later, I finally arrived, dead last to the camp. In all my life, I’ve never felt so exhausted. I had gone just over 40 hours without sleep, in some of the most strenuous conditions I’d ever faced. When my head hit the pillow that night, sleep finally came easy and I enjoyed one of the most restful nights of sleep I’d had in years. The next day, I awoke and to my great relief, with sleep my leg muscles had rejuvenated and my knee pain as a result had dissipated about 75% making the last 8 miles of decent feel easy by comparison to the prior day.

When I’d left the U.S., I’d wanted it to be tough. I was looking for a challenge, so in an odd way, I found the grueling descent experience perhaps the most rewarding part of my adventure. Most of the others I should note, did not have similar issues with their knees. I guess that’s my reward for enjoying one too many skiing moguls as a youth.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The descent seemed never-ending.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Our tired, but happy group. Photo by Slavo Hepka

Upon returning I’ve been asked by several persons if I’d experienced the adventure I was looking for. Yes, I did. However, on Kilimanjaro I discovered that it’s not simply about experiencing an adventure, it’s about finding the heart of the adventurer inside yourself.  That, my friends, is a thirst I cannot quench, but one in which I’m happy to live the rest of my life pursuing. ‘Til the next great adventure.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Photo by Slavo Hepka.

Practical Notes:

Season: The Kilimanjaro climbing season is late September through late February, with November – January typically being the best weather.

Tour Company: The company I used was “Ultimate Kilimanjaro”. Of the companies I researched, they had the best combination of overall value, price and expertise. I also added a two-day safari at the start of the trip. Very worthwhile.

Access: Kilimanjaro National Airport, near Arusha. The mountain is near the city of Moshi, about a one hour drive from Arusha.

Route: Our tour company took the Lemosho Route, about 42 miles total, and one of the longer routes. Most of the miles are spent going up and a shorter route is taken coming down.

Preparation: I am in fairly good physical condition, exercising regularly. I hiked 5-10 miles a couple times a week with a 50 lb pack for a couple months prior to the trip. The porters carry most of the camp gear and the group members each carried about 25 lbs of personal gear with them. Most of the group was between the ages of 20 and 50. You do NOT want to have medical attention on this trip. Very difficult to get assistance.

What to Bring: The website provides lots of information. Don’t skimp on the rain gear or warm weather clothing. Also, bring a couple card games for entertainment – there are no campfires so evening entertainment is limited. Solar is the only practical way to charge your electronics (e.g. phone) and lamps, and they will probably not last long each day. Diamox for altitude sickness is very helpful.


Sintra – You Won’t Get Bored Here – Part 2

I had been to Sintra a few years ago while on business to Lisbon, Portugal. I knew one day I would have to come back, and I finally did. It is a short drive (or train ride) away from Lisbon (about 40 kilometers or 25 miles).

Sintra, Portugal

A view of Sintra and the surrounding countryside.

As I said in my original post on Sintra, it is one of the most enchanting towns in Europe, due to its multitude of fascinating sights. I don’t know of any other small town that offers so much for the tourist in such a compact area. Even after spending the better part of two days here this time, there are still things I did not get to see.

Sintra has its roots in Portugal’s Moorish past, dating to the eighth or ninth century. On my first visit I saw the Moorish castle (Castelo dos Mouros, a fine set of ramparts high above the town) and the Pena Palace (Palácio Da Pena), the polychromatic post card image of Sintra.

On this trip I added three more sights:

Quinta da Regaleira. This manor house with its gardens takes its name from Baroness da Regaleira, who bought the property in 1840. This was the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family beginning in the mid 1800’s, and most of what we see now is from the late 1800’s and early 1900s.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

A view of the house and chapel. The chapel contains scenes of the lives of Mary and Christ, and symbols from the Templar Order (Knights).

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Ornate wood work and beautifully painted walls adorn this bedroom.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The Hunting Room. The mantlepiece depicts exceptionally well-carved hunting scenes.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The decorative exterior can be appreciated in this view.

The house exterior exhibits the ornate “neo Manueline” (named after King Dom Manuel I) style, but what really sets this incredible estate apart are the fascinating (and extensive) gardens.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The Regaleira Tower, which provides a great view over the gardens and sits on top of Leda’s Grotto.

The Monteiros had quite an imagination in creating these gardens – which contain numerous grottoes, underground walkways, an inverted tower (that goes several stories underground), gardens, pools, towers, statues and a chapel.

Quinta da Regaleira,Sintra, Portugal

A view from the bottom of the inverted tower at Quinta da Regaleira.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

One of Quinta da Regaleira’s grottoes.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Entrance to one of the many tunnels in gardens.

Many of these features contain symbolism from mythology, ancient classical works and the medieval period.

The National Palace (Palácio National, or Palácio de Sintra). The palace occupies a prominent spot in the center of town. It was originally an Arab construction and became the residence of the Portuguese royal family from the 12th century. Later on it became a royal summer retreat. Although the outside looks rather plain, painted white, the interior is something to behold. It has a unique blend of styles, including Gothic, Mudéjar (Iberian Arabic), and Manueline, with incredible collections of tiles and other artistic treasures.

Palace of Sintra, Portugal.

A view of the Palacio de Sintra from the Castelo dos Mouros. The conical towers are chimneys over the massive the kitchen.

National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

The Grand Hall (or Hall of the Princes) at the National Palace.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

The Blazons Hall, built during the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521). The ceiling in carved gilded woodwork is crowned by the royal coat-of-arms and is surrounded by the armorial bearings of seventy two noble families. The late 17th to early 18th century panels of painted tiles depict courtly and hunting scenes.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

Grotto of the Baths, the decorated tiles depict scenes of nobility, fountains and gardens.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

A view of the kitchen.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal.

Another room in Palácio de Sintra.

The Convent of the Capuchos (Convento dos Capuchos or The Convent of the Holy Cross in the Sintra Hills). This is probably my favorite spot in Sintra and perhaps all of Portugal. This 16th century convent sits south of Sintra about 7 km (4.5 miles). It was abandoned in 1843 when religious orders were extinguished in Portugal.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

Courtyard of the Crosses. The courtyard leads into the Convent and contains three crosses representing Golgotha.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Courtyard of the Fountain, where visitors making the long journey to the Convent would take refreshment.

Built among the huge boulders of its hillside location, it embodies the ideal of universal fraternity of the Franciscan friars who lived here.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Hermitage of Our Lord in Gethsemane, with frescoes (near the door) of St. Francis of Assisi (left) and St. Anthony of Lisbon (right).

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

A view of the Cloister, a private space for the Franciscan community.

Covento dos Capuchos Entrance2

Entryway ceiling, lined in cork.

It is simple, small, very picturesque, and feels like something right out of The Hobbit. Many of the rooms (especially the dormitories) and corridors are tiny.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

Dormitory corridor. Note the ceiling and door frames decorated in cork.

The unusual extensive use of cork (that’s where the name ‘Capuchos’ comes from) throughout the monastery was for insulation, sound proofing and decoration.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Chapter House, with cork entry way.

We were given a brochure as a guide and allowed to wander the site on our own. Be sure to explore the nature trails above the monastery for a few other interesting sights.

All added up, I’ve spent about three days in Sintra and I could have easily spent one or two more. This is a special place. For more information on Sintra, visit

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.

My Son Ruins17

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.


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.


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!


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!


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!