Explore the Charm of Old Geisha Districts: Visit the Historical Streets in Kyoto

When in Kyoto, follow in the footsteps of Geikos and Maikos down the narrow, charming cobblestoned streets. Take a walk through the pleasure districts, where teahouses, restaurants and bars, as well as Geisha residences line the historic districts of Kyoto. Red paper lanterns indicate you are in one of the four remaining Geisha areas.

Red lanterns of Pontocho-dori Street

Wood blocks with calligraphy names hanging above or to the side of doors indicate this is a geisha residence, featuring the names of the residing Maikos.

Geisha House: Maiko name tags indicating who lives in this household

You will spot Geikos and Maikos rushing down the cobbled streets as they run between appointments to entertain wealthy business men or foreign dignitaries. During the day Maikos are dashing down the streets for cultural lessons in song, music, dance and tea ceremonies. You have to be a member of clubs to enjoy Geisha entertainment.

Geikos are in high esteem: In Kyoto Geishas are referring to themselves as Geikos, meaning ”women of art”, while the apprentices are called Maiko. A Maiko starts her training to become Geikos at a very early age, around 12, and is living as an apprentice at a Geisha house for about 5 years, receiving training in the art of entertaining and traditional culture, musical instruments and dance. A Maiko can be recognized by her elaborate hairstyle, hair ornaments, white painted face and neck with scalloped patterns.

Spotting a Maiko: note her exquisite kimono and hairdo, hair ornamentation and white painted face

A Geiko has finished this apprentice training (and has paid off her debt to the Geisha residence owner). She can now use a wig instead of getting her hair done for hours weekly, and do not need to paint her face white. Each Geisha district features their own Geisha households, tea houses and clubs and have their own rankings of lineage, such as names, kimonos and dances. Competitive Geisha cultural events are taking place during the cherry blossom festivals in April, where the Geisha districts compete in the art of entertainment. At other times you can visit one of the Kabuki Theaters to see traditional performances.

The pictoresque Geisha District in Gion offers great street photography opportunities. This is not a Geiko or Maiko, but many young Japanese will be wearing their charming kimonos and generally love being photographed.

Gion is the most famous district, which is now a Unesco Cultural Heritage site, featuring a large amount of renovated historical townhouses. The most famous geisha districts can be found on either side of the Kameo River, and are great to visit both during the day and night, changing ambiance like a chameleon:

Night scene at Pontocho-dori Street
  1. The six block long narrow Pontocho Street is packed with teahouses, restaurants and bars, and during the warm months some of the restaurants feature decks facing the river. Traditional architecture is maintained throughout the street. Kimono clad customers enrich the cultural ambiance of the narrow alleyway. Pontocho has been a geisha district since the 16th century.
  2. Across the river you will find Miyagawacho south of Shijo: a large geisha and entertainment district with Kabuki theaters where performances are held all year.

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    Geisha District in Gion late at night
  3. The most picturesque area is along the Shirakawa Canal with its traditional houses and is a popular setting for traditional weddings and selfies by kimono clad young Japanese. Shinbashi-dori is considered the most beautiful street in Japan.

    Charming old architecture along the canal in Gion
The perfect romantic setting for a wedding proposal

You will find an array of antique shops just a couple of streets away, with museum quality art and artifacts, along Nawate-dori Street, Shinmonzen  Street and Furumonzen Street; many are housed in old traditional wooden townhouses which have been in the same family for generations. Tatami mats are used for both seating and display, often overlooking small Zen gardens.

The antique district in Gion offers delightful insight into Japanse culture and traditions, with their tatami mats and Zen gardens. Often inherited through generations

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Explore the Old Pleasure District of Asakusa in Tokyo: Where Old World Charm meets Serenity

Springtime in Japan
Shopping street leading to the Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

A place of old world charm, spectacular temple grounds and great food, Asakusa is a vibrant oasis to visit and stay in Tokyo. Traditions are alive and the area oozes of ambiance. What used to be an area filled with gangsters, samurais, writers, artists, geishas and courtesans is now mainly a safe leisure and spiritual area, anchored by the Senso-Ji Temple founded in 628.

Senso-Ji Temple on a busy Sunday. Thousands of people visiting the shrine every day

The large Thunder God Gate is vibrant and impressive, and creates a powerful spiritual transition between the bustling life of Tokyo and the old world charm. A long shopping street leads to the temple, offering the best souvenirs of Tokyo as well as delightful mouthwatering street food. It is extremely crowded during the day with temple visitors. Take the side streets if you want to move faster, or savor the experience of being carried away by the crowds. Large gates with huge lanterns create the transition between the shopping arcade and the temple grounds.

Large lanterns at the temple gate

The temple architecture is impressive, with its layers of red roof structures, lanterns and shrines. Incense burning adds a sensory delight, but is overshadowed by the many young women in their bold patterned kimonos. I was delighted seeing the traditions are kept alive. Several smaller shrines and Japanese gardens dot the large temple grounds, making it a perfect weekend excursion for Tokyo’s residents and tourists alike.

Traditions are alive in Asakusa, where families arrive at the temple dressed in kimonos

Several quaint shopping arcades lead to the temple grounds from the side streets and offer some of the freshest sushi I have ever tasted, due to its proximity to the fish market. Old ramen houses and Izakaya restaurants are lining the side streets in the neighborhood. During the day the food stalls are competing for your attention, offering an array of freshly grilled seafood and beef skewers.

Street food stalls offer fresh seafood and many other delights

If your passion is the samurai history you will find several shops that can cater to your alter-ego whims, -or you will find numerous kimono rental places that will transfer you into a feminine seductive goddess or a stunning traditional couple.

Night life in Asakusa: charming young women

At night time the neighborhood slows down to a provincial old town charm and offers a very different ambiance and experience.

Shopping street in Asakusa turn into a samurai/geisha gallery at night

The local food will tantalize your taste buds, or you can walk around the old samurai district with the possibility to meet one of the remaining 40 Geishas.

Dine with the locals in Asakusa, even on cold evenings you can enjoy the street ambiance

Visiting the temple ground at night is a much more serene experience of calmness and devotion.

Temple grounds at night

I highly recommend staying at the Richmond Premier Hotel, which offers views over the temple grounds and is just steps away from delightful local restaurants and the charming shopping arcades leading into the Senso-Ji Temple. The guestrooms are very comfortable, and spacious and the staff is very helpful. Richmond Premier Hotel,  2-7-10 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Tel; +81-3-5806-3155

View from our hotel room over the temple grounds with the Skytree in the distance

Traditional Ryokans are also available in the area. Asakusa is easily reached by the Ginza metro line at Asakusa Station.

Please share if you enjoyed reading.

Writing and photography by Zia Hansen

Explore the Happiest City in the World: Wonderful Copenhagen


Denmark is consistently rated the happiest place in the world. Some of the reasons why: Steeped in rich history, Copenhagen offers a wide spectrum of architectural, cultural and urban delights, the best of modern design and food as culinary art form. The city has much to offer travelers within a short radius and new cheap airfares make a visit from the US very tempting. The laid-back artful city center is located just 25 minutes from the design infused Kastrup Airport, and is easily reached by a new efficient metro system.

Here are my favorite places you should not miss:

Nyhavn is a charming old canal lined with pastel colored houses, bars, restaurants and wooden schooners, great for people watching
  1. After a long transatlantic journey Nyhavn is reached by metro in just a few stops to Kongens Nytorv. A quaint canal, flanked with old wooden schooners and pastel colored 17th century historic houses, is lined with lively restaurants and bars. During summer and winter, -especially those long Nordic summer days where the sun barely sets-, this is the perfect place to stroll, people watch, eat, drink or embark on a harbor cruise. The Danes love to gather here and warmly welcome tourists. Some bars are open 24/7.
  2. Nyhavn is the perfect starting point to explore the city from the water: rest your feet and enjoy a 1 hour Harbor Cruise through idyllic canals, where guides will tell the history behind the most beautiful churches, castles, old historic buildings and new modern architectural delights. Guided tour: Dkr 80, free with Copenhagen Card. (3 Nyhavn, 1051 Copenhagen K, Tel: 45 32 96 30 00)
  3. Amalienborg Castle is where the royal family presides. On axis with the harbor and the impressive rococo-baroque Marble Church, four identical classical-baroque palace buildings frame a large octagonal square. Watch the Royal guards change guard shifts: every day you can follow the guards as they march from Rosenborg Castle through the streets of Copenhagen and end up at Amalienborg, where the changing guards take place at 12:00 noon. (Amalienborg Slotsplads 5, 1257 Copenhagen K)

    Rosenborg Castle in Kongens Have (courtesy Pinterest)
  4. Nearby Kongens Have (Royal Garden) with the renaissance Rosenborg Castle is a favorite park for locals. The castle houses the royal crown jewels, diamonds and tapestries. (Oester Voldgade 4A, 1350 Copenhagen K +45 33 15 3286)

    Rundetaarn was built as an 7 story equestrian ramp to King Chr. IVs observatory
  5. Walk up the seven floor high brick paved equestrian ramp of Rundetaarn, a 17th century tower built by King Christian IV as an astronomical observatory in the heart of the old Latin Quarter of Copenhagen. The brick paved spiral walk offers stunning architecture and breathtakingviews over the roofs of old latin Quarter of Copenhagen. (Koebmagergade 52A, 1150 Copenhagen K)

    Illums Bolighus is a mecca for modern design
  6. Denmark is world known as a design mecca. One place not to miss is Illums Bolighus, a retail store representing the ultimate in modern living, showcasing jewels of both Danish and international design, fashion and furniture innovation. (10 Amagertorv, 1160 Copenhagen K. )

    Danish smoerrebroed – open sandwiches – a culinary art (courtesy Pinterest)
  7. Copenhagen is a food lover’s dream destination. Noma is internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s best restaurants. Traditional Danish food is hearty and comforting, but Danish Smoerrebroed (the open sandwich translation does not do it justice) is now a vanishing art form. Beautifully decorated dark rye bread is ornamented with layers of decorated, at times pungent, meats, herrings or old cheeses. Try one of the few classic remaining old lunch café’s, my insider’s choice: Kanal Cafeen, an authentic place which oozes of old-time ambiance under the low ceilings a few steps down from the street level – or try their open air boat in the canal overlooking Christiansborg Castle. Smoerrebroed is best when paired with beer and Danish Aquavit. (Frederiksholm Kanal 18, Copenhagen K. Tel: +45 3311 5770. Reservations recommended)

    Koedbyen – a culinary and cultural mecca
  8. A new buzzing culinary and cultural mecca is Koedbyen (Meat-town), the Modernistic 1930’s meat packing district in Vesterbro. There is a certain rawness to the place and all the charisma from the old days is still authentically there, but now offers an array of rustic restaurants, underground clubs and bars. Butchers still arrive early in the morning, but the old halls and the square are now full of ambiance, food, art and music, offering a multitude of hip food venues and the hottest nightlife in town. The district consists of three separate areas: the white, the brown (oldest brick buildings) and the grey “Meat-City”, based on the buildings dominant colors. The square is packed with people on summer afternoons and evenings. The local food market is open Saturdays and the first Sunday of the month from spring through fall. Try Koedbyens Fiskebar with a simple Nordic design, long communal tables and couches. (Koedbyens Fiskebar, Flaesketorvet 100, Copenhagen V +45 3215 5656)

    Market halls at Israels Plads: artisan breads, flavorful cheeses and fresh markets
  9. The new Market Halls at Israels Plads are bustling with activity and house fresh market delights, cafes and eateries. Find healthy artisan bread, cheese caves with a mouthwatering selection of fragrant or stinky cheeses, fresh fish, meat and seasonal vegetables. (Frederiksborggade 21, 1360 Copenhagen K, 10AM-7PM)
    Fristaden Christiania: a social experiment at an old military fortification area (courtesy Pinterest)
    Christiania: a vibrant social experiment (courtesy Pinterest)

    Architectural experimentation in Christiania (courtesy Pinterest)
  10. As a social experiment, Freetown Christiania offers an insight into a self-proclaimed alternative society, a grass-root movement which is still independent of the Danish Government. An abandoned military barracks area was taken over by squatters in the late 60és –and was saved from speculative development. Old military barracks have been turned into café’s, bars, performance spaces and residences. Creativity and experimentation has always existed, as has illicit drugs. This area is raw and may not appeal to everyone. The main entrance is called Pusher Street, but drug sale is being combated by the police. A great place to eat is Spise Loppen in a casual old gunpowder warehouse with exposed old ceiling beams, a collective-run venue with global chefs and bright art. Get a creative meal at a decent price. Vegetarian choices. (Baadmandsstraede 43, 1407 Copenhagen K +45 3257 9558)

    Louisiana Art Museum
  11. If you have an extra day Louisiana Art Museum in Humlebaek is a delightful contemporary art museum with sprawling pavilions in a lush sculpture garden, which offers breathtaking views to the ocean. A place where modern art, lush gardens and ocean meets. About 40 minute train ride from centrum of Copenhagen to Humlebaek, and a 15 minute walk. A great museum café offers tasty selections of contemporary Danish food. (Gl. Strandvej 13, 3050 Humlebaek +45 4919 0719)

    Tivoli Gardens: an old-time entertainment park in the heart of Copenhagen (courtesy Pinterest)
  1. Finally, the Tivoli Gardens is the quintessential Danish experience, with a sense of quaint adventure. A historical amusement and pleasure park with Pantomime Theater, several free concert venues, expensive food, fun rides and beautiful gardens. Located across from the grand Central Station and the City Hall. A great place to stroll and have a fun time, open from Mid-April to End of September. (Vesterbrogade 3, 1630 Copenhagen V +45 3315 1001)

Author: Zia Hansen, born in Denmark and lived in Copenhagen for many years. Photos by Zia Hansen unless otherwise noted

Go Glam at the Ultimate Aprez-Ski Yurt in Park City

Imagine ending your day of invigorating skiing in an ultra-chic cozy yurt, filled with eclectic mountain style furniture and European antiques, warmed up by pot bellied open stoves with flickering flames. A place where champagne flows and caviar is melting on your tongue. The perfect place to share classic European and inspired avantgarde American bites that all pair well with champagne.

Luxe Aprez-Ski Yurt in Park City

Deer Valley in Park City is known for luxury, amazing service and offers a number of great restaurants and food outlets on the mountain, but most places are large and efficient (think quick in-and-out on the slopes again) and lack intimacy and coziness.

Time to take a rest at the Veuve Cliquot Aprez-Lounge-how do you get a pair?

After braving the moguls or cruising the smooth corduroy groomed runs, this cozy bright orange circular hut is the ultimate in comfort for body and eyes: filled with art, antiques, fur throws, antler decorated lounge chairs and sofas, a wooden bar that reminds me of the Adirondacks, and amazing views out to the snow filled slopes. Old snow shoes, sledges, plaid covered furniture and pillows galore make this a yurt I would love to stay in for a couple of days. It is time to design a cozy yurt hotel!

Cozy  champagne & caviar bar at Aprez-Lounge yurt in Deer Valley

Beyond champagne and caviar, try the black truffle popcorn, Korean chili lime popcorn or lobster corn chowder. Food selections vary and the yurt can be reserved for special parties and events with bespoke catering.

A yurt filled with Swiss antiques

The lounge is open every day from noon to 4 pm during the ski season and is located in Empire Village in front ski lifts at the Montage Resort Hotel. The adventure is pricey, but a very rewarding and truly memorable experience. (Montage Resort, 9100 Marsac Avenue, Park City, UT 84060. Tel 435.604.1300)

Cozy-up

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Life Elevated in Park City: Where Anything Can Happen

Not only can you can challenge yourself on snowy white groomed-to-perfection slopes or participate in Nastar races on the runs skied by Olympic contestants during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games; you can also enjoy sleigh riding, snowmobiling, dog sledding, snow shoeing or heli skiing during the winter. Or, you can choose to be entertained in one of the many aprez-ski entertainment lounges in the ski resorts or on Main Street. How about champagne and caviar aprez-skiing at a cozy yurt? Two of the world’s best ski resorts: Deer Valley and Park City Resort, offer some of the best skiing in the world.

Sundance Film Festival Park City 2017

During the 10-day Sundance Film Festival showcasing American Independent and international films, the old mining town is filled to the brim with actors, producers, film critics, investors and over 40,000 movie lovers, all in fluffy down jackets, knitted beanie hats with furry pompoms and aprez-ski booties. A great place to spot celebrities, or attend forums discussing issues and topics which are motivating both film makers and audiences. Any movie could become a breakout hit, any new talent could be discovered. The air is filled with the anticipation of boom or bust.  One third of film features come from first-time film makers, and one third from foreign countries. Hotels and restaurants are fully booked, one fourth of all retail stores and galleries are turned into Sundance VIP Lounges.

World Cup Freestyle Aerial contestant

Just a few days after the Sundance Film Festival has left Park City back to its slow normal pace, the World Cup of Freestyle Skiing embarks on the mining town with a completely different energy and enthusiasm. For three afternoons and nights the best and most exhilarating dare devils of the world compete for world recognition at Deer Valley Resort. The Freestyle Aerial competitions display stunning breathtaking acrobatic excellence, as the Aerial Freestyle competitors twist, fly and dive, and the Dual Mogul competitors display amazing speed racing combined with aerial flip and turn talents. The final night this year was packed to the brim with an estimated 50,000 spectators and the energy was contagious, filled with cheers or sympathy for those who crashed and lost their chances for medals. What a great event which even is free of charge to all lovers of the sport and excitement.

World Cup Freestyle Skiing: Cheering audience

Once again, after the completion is over, the old mining city is back to normal, where weathered skiers and snow boarders pack the lounges after a day of thrills. The steeply sloped Main Street is packed with art galleries, restaurants and bars, luxe realtors and retail stores, offering an artsy all-American Main Street charm. The ski reason ends Mid-April, after which the city slows down to a hiatus until Memorial Day Weekend.

Deer Valley Resort-Peak view

Summer activities: during summer the mountain is again filled with non-stop activities such as mountain biking, hiking, golfing and horseback riding to hot air ballooning. Music filled evenings offer a variety of outdoor concerts, from symphonies, rock, folk or jazz, where you can enjoy custom gourmet picnic baskets or bags. Silly Sundays on Main Street are fun and packed with tourists and locals, enjoying live bands, fresh food markets and food vendors. Bicycle races and soccer tournaments bring new masses of tourists to town.

Hot Air Ballooning: summer activity
Fall colors are spectacular near Park City

Food: the resort town caters to families and couples who enjoy eating and relaxing as much as they enjoy skiing or mountain biking. Healthy, comfort and delicious food options are plentiful, both on the resorts and on the charming Main Street.

For an unforgettable dining experience try Chimayo, located on Main Street: a charming Tex-Mex romantic style restaurant on Main Street, which offers delicious Tex-Mex food, I especially recommended the Elk and the Tortilla Soup. A perfect setting for a romantic dinner complete with fire places. Reservations recommended. 368 Main St, Park City, UT 84060-5223 Tel: (435) 649-6222 www.chimayorestaurant.com

High West Distillery Park City
High West Distillery Park City: a historic western monument

For a locally made whisky tasting experience and gastro-dining, try the High West Distillery just behind Main Street. This western historical monument is a wonderfully renovated old western garage turned into a cozy restaurant and bar. Try their Flight 101 and taste the difference, best sitting at one of the cozy bars, where the bartender can walk you through the difference. You can purchase the whisky you tasted and get food pairing suggestions. Reservations are recommended as the place is very popular. 703 Park Avenue, just one block off historic Main Street. www.highwest.com

Stunning America As Seen Only From The Air

Travelling by air always reveals amazing sights that tell a story about the world below. I confess to being a window seat addict. My favorite time of travel is mid afternoon in the wintertime as the sun is setting low in the horizon creating long shadows and stunning vibrant and painterly coloration.

Aerial Newberry Springs, CA
Aerial above Newberry Springs, CA: desert with traces of highways and irrigation

Sunny days are a treat, but even cloudy days provide amazing photo opportunities through the fluffy beautiful clouds and patches of land below.

In just 1 1/2 hours of travel time from Newport Beach in California en route to Salt lake City in Utah you can explore poetic coastlines, dense suburban urban areas, mountain ranges, dramatic desert landscapes and snow clad mountain ranges.

Aerial Newport Beach towards Huntington Beach
Aerial at Newport Beach towards Huntington Beach: endless white beaches and stunning coast line

Flying from John Wayne Airport in Newport Beach is always thrilling as the planes take off at a dramatic roar to quickly reach a high cruising altitude, then almost stilling the engines while flying above the stunning Back Bay areas and the charming Newport Marina, then quickly turning around above the ocean rendering stunning views of endless wide white beaches.

Cruising above seemingly endless suburban areas and packed freeways for 5 minutes to reach Riverside and the green hilly mountain ranges of Lake Arrowhead; suddenly the desert landscape takes over, a reminder of the dependency of irrigation in Southern California. Western America is so vast and empty, with only traces of life below.

Aerial at Ludlow, CA: sand dunes stretching seemingly endless
Aerial at Ludlow, CA: sand dunes stretching seemingly endless without a trace of life

Traces of roads crossing sand dunes with amazing windblown formations and bluish purple colors merging the yellow and red sand formations. Solar farms with their reflecting mirrors, dry lakes and old mining areas pop into view for just seconds.

Aerial at Mesquite Wilderness area: solar farms amid sandy valleys

Flying past Las Vegas and Lake Mead, the Mohave Desert is stunning and spectacular, its long shadows emphasizing the unruly geology. Valley of Fire with the intense red coloration quickly transitions into the lower Grand Canyon plateau, with its table mountains and jagged lines carved by rivers for thousands of years.

Aerial above dramatic arroyos tracing through the desert feeding Lake Mead National Park and Valley of Fire National Park
Sunset aerial above Eureka, CA: long shadows render an almost surreal landscape

Slowly the snow clad mountain ranges of Southern Utah appear with light fluffy layers of clouds, painted orange and pink by the setting sun. The Greater Salt Lake and Salton Sea are different geological sights, while the plane is preparing for landing, with the white mountain ranges as a backdrop.

Aerial approaching Salt Lake City with snow clad mountains as a stunning backdrop

Relax, enjoy and explore during your travel time being airborne.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Destination Vietnam: Surrender to the Charm of Ancient Hoi An

Imagine a place where time seemingly stands still and ambiance invades all your senses. Tranquility, beauty, poetic romance and friendly welcoming local people. Not only is Hoi An one of the most charming old towns I have ever visited, the colors of the ancient buildings’ architecture ageing poetically is a visual feast that will remain a fond highlight on your mind’s hard drive, but the local food is a sensory delight as well. Hoi An is now a designated Unesco World Heritage site, saving the ancient town for the future generations.

intriguing ornamentation on temple roofs
Hoi An temple roof ornamentation

The drive from Hue to Hoi An along the scenic route was long, but certainly offered some beautiful views and historic sites of previous horrid war events. We arrived at Hoi An just before sunset, perfect timing, just when the various shades of ocher old buildings glow intensely.  The Unesco World Heritage designated city is even more alluring than I remembered from a previous visit. Our small gem of a villa hotel, Villa Hoi Su An – or endearingly and appropriately named Villa Frangipani – at the outskirts of the town, adjacent to a lazy river, was an unexpected and very charming location. Only 8 large villa rooms facing a koi pond with a central old wooden pavilion surrounded by the heavy scent of blossoming frangipani trees.

Tranquility at Villa Frangipani

No time to unpack yet, as we wanted to get into the old town before sunset. The old town is a pedestrian zone where only bicycle rickshaws are allowed. The ocher colored old houses are incredibly charming.

Ocher colored ancient houses line the narrow cobble stoned streets

Most buildings are around 200 years old, many were and are still owned by Japanese or Chinese merchants. Some merchant houses are open to visit if you buy a reasonably priced coupon book. It is fascinating to see how families still live here and especially still cook multiple meals here in the very primitive kitchens.

Old Japanese merchant houses
Entrance to old Japanese merchant house

The sun is now setting along the river and the restaurants in the quaint houses along the river and the small narrow streets are starting to get busy.  Some old fishermen are sitting on primitive wooden scaffoldings pedaling the huge fishing nets up from the bottom of the river, while old smiling women are sitting in their old rowing boats with their Vietnamese straw hats, begging you to take a sunset river ride, or at least pay them for letting you take their photo.

Fishermen pedaling from their bamboo shacks to raise their fishing nets from the river
Take a sunset boat ride on the river

The bicycle rickshaw guys are relaxing, chatting and eating or taking a nap on a street corner, waiting for business to pick up.

The next morning we bicycle into old town again, parking the bicycles in from of the old market building. Strolling down the cobble stoned old streets we discover old shop houses, stunning old Chinese Buddhist temples, wonderful cafes, galleries and tailors. I have never seen so many tailors in one place before. Check out the quality carefully before you order, as I learned by sad experience that the quality and styles vary tremendously. Overnight you can have your suit, dresses or shirts made. I recommend going to one of the larger and recognized places as their designers and tailors are excellent, and I recommend that you bring images of what you like as some of the style books are quite dated.

Step into into the vibrant temples

The old Chinese Buddhist temples are colorful and wonderful with their extraordinary roof ornamentation, bright hues and spiral incense hanging from the ceiling. Most temples require a ticket to get in, which is a bit annoying, but it certainly is worth it as the temple interiors are so stunning.

Burning red incense coils add to the visual and olfactory experience

My absolute favorite experience is exploring the many charming narrow alleyways running perpendicular to the river. The moss over-grown ocher walls and old colorful metal gates offer glimpses into how life is still lived today, simple. Families sitting on the floor watching TV or families gathering for a shared meal. Mainly old people are gathering, while an old fan is blowing a welcome breeze during the very hot day. You can spend hours crisscrossing the alley ways while trying to depict the residential charm of the past. Beautiful old ceramic tiles adorn many floors.

Venture down the narrow alley ways to explore local living

One of the most famous landmarks is the old Japanese covered wood bridge. Other of my favorites are the old Japanese shop houses, still belonging to the same family with many generations  living under the same roof, and still relatively untouched.

Hoi An
Old Japanese bridge

Food is wonderful and generally inexpensive. Vietnamese beers are cheaper than water and great companions to the spicy, simple but very tasty noodle dishes which Hoi An is known for. You can order tasty fresh Vietnamese spring rolls if you prefer non spicy food. Relax during the heat of the day with a cold Vietnamese coffee with icecream in one of the many charming cafes.

Street vendors outside the market hall

I love exploring the market halls. Around noon many of the vendors are napping on the benches and metal tables. Great food is freshly cooked in and being shared in some of the stalls, while spices and fresh vegetables are piled up in photogenic piles. Outside the market you will meet many Vietnamese ladies with their double baskets over their shoulders or squatting barely above the ground. Lovely ladies, who love to chat and laugh. Along the river you will find fresh fish and crabs with their claws tied up with colorful rags of fabric. Although the crabs’ future is limited, the craftsmanship of tying the claws with colorful strands of fabric is poetic. Beware, the halls are primitive and the smelly slimy fishy water makes it so slippery. I almost took a nosedive into the river, much to the entertainment of the old ladies, who had warned me. An occasional rat running in-between my legs made the experience even more authentic. The photo opportunities made the experience double memorable.

Crabs at the market hall
Catch of the day outside the market hall

Life is slow and it is a wonderful experience to meander through the old city for some days, as charm and architecture is truly romantic and stunning, the town offers full immersion. Some years the river will flood the streets dramatically, best to check the weather report before planning a trip. Nearby beaches should be quite good, but I just cannot get enough of the old town which is such a visual treasure.

Wedding photo in the old town

Biking back to the small hotel and getting served freshly cooked food cooked by the receptionist, surrounded by the frangipani trees, was a welcome respite after a very hot day of leisure.

Written by Zia Hansen.  Photos by Zia Hansen

Celebrate New Year by Exploring a New Adventure

Longboat in Bangkok

New Year for most of us feel like a crossing time, a time for reflection. What will the new year bring? Opportunities, adventures, love and happiness?

One of my goals is to take the time to open my eyes and explore the richness of my local context. Urban adventures are so inspiring and enriching. Explore the galleries, the side alleys, the urban richness with all your senses: the gritty, the artsy and the beauty. Be an adventurer! Explore with all senses -plus explore the world through the lens of a smartphone.

Longboat in Bangkok

The day before the New Year 2016 I explored the “darker side” of Bangkok (meaning less known) by taking a 2 hour longboat ride of the lesser known Thonburi Khlongs around Chrak Phra on the opposite side of CBD (central business district). Under the King Taksin Bridge at the BTS station Saphan Taksin you will find numerous boat tour vendors, and if you are persistent in negotiating, and insisting you are not a tourist, you can get a great deal for a 2 hour shared long boat ride.

Continue reading “Celebrate New Year by Exploring a New Adventure”

WHERE TO GO FOR WHISKY TASTING IN PARK CITY?

High West Distillery exterior

For an unforgettable locally made whisky tasting experience and gastro-dining, try the High West Gastro-Distillery just behind Main Street in Park City.  The whisky tasting is excellent! Take a flight 101, let the whisky tantalize your tongue and nostrils, taste and feel the difference.  The old western historical monument is a wonderfully renovated old western garage turned into a cozy restaurant and bar, paying homage to the history of old western saloons frequented by miners in the old mining town.

High West Distillery facade

The interior design is a wonderful contemporary western style and delivers a warm rustic and unique ambiance. The back wall is covered with ambient wall sconces and the open ceiling structure with huge warm glowing pendants creates a great rustic warm ambiance accentuated by the rough wooden flooring, blue whisky bottle displays and rustic simplistic furniture.

High West Distillery

The restaurant is anchored by a long rustic bar with metal mesh grille work- this is where the whisky tasting takes place.  The bar tender will guide you along with the tasting. The menu of light western-country food and cheese options looked very tempting.  I want to return for dinner soon, but be aware you need table reservations!  This restaurant is very popular, and deserves to be.  Service was excellent and very informative.  A restored old Victorian style house is connected to the old garage via a glazed distillery building with distillery tanks in-between; although both buildings offer authentic old western experiences the old garage is far a cozier unique ambiance.  Come twice to get the full experience. A tiny retail area sells the whisky you tasted and other memorabilias to take home as a souvenir. 703 Park Avenue, just one block off historic Main Street, Park City, Utah. Tel:   435-649-8300 www.highwest.com

The majority of the whisky is distilled 25 minutes away from Park City, high up in the Wasatch Mountains, where whisky distillery and tasting tours can be made and a light western country menu can be savored. 27649 Old Lincoln Hwy., Wanship, Utah 84017 Tel: (435) 649-8300 www.info@highwest.com

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

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WHEN CHOOSING THE WRONG ACCOMODATION PUTS YOUR LIFE IN DANGER AS A SINGLE FEMALE TRAVELLER

 

I love to travel and explore foreign countries and have traveled many countries alone.  As a single female traveler one of the most important aspects of each trip we take is where we stay during our travels.  I can speak of personal experience as I have had some really bad hotel experiences and unsafe locations have totally ruined my vacations for the first day, until I decide to forfeit my money paid upfront, in pursuit of finding more comforting, pleasurable and safe places to stay.

Today most of us spend hours searching online for the best possible accommodation based on location and price point.   Our accommodations are usually chosen based on authenticity, location, comfort, cost, and the way they reflect the local character.   However, even after hours of viewing alternatives, we sometimes end up with a bad choice which totally ruins our experience of a location.  The photos of the hotel and travel websites may look great or the reviews of the properties are good, but something glitches. Seemingly small things, such as the great looking pool in the center of the hotel property is under repair and workers start drilling at 7:00am in the morning, making your stay totally miserable, especially if you have had a long international travel and jetlag.  Or, you just needed that long peaceful weekend to distress alone, reading and writing.

30 years ago there were no travel websites, hotel reviews and smart phones.  The first time I arrived in Chicago 30 years ago I made 2 big mistakes.  First of all I had not made any hotel reservations ahead of time (I was traveling for 2 months with no fixed itineraries) – and I arrived in Chicago at 4:00AM in the morning.  I was from Europe and had no concept of American cities and the potential danger certain neighborhoods could pose.  The airport was dead at that time in the morning, no tourist information was available, and no car rentals were open.  What do you do?  I could not even get a map of Chicago in the airport.

I chose to take the metro, without knowing anything about the city.  Looking at the metro map it seemed that 6th Street would be near the center of town, and I decided this could be a good place to start my hotel search.  I was traveling in style, dressed in red crocodile lacquer heels, a black jumpsuit and a huge red suitcase on wheels.  I was travelling for 2 months through the USA for the first time in my life.  I arrived underground and had to carry my heavy suitcase up all the stairs from 3 levels below.   As I finally ventured up in street level I was horrified as I saw no city center; only a deserted old butcher house area-skid row-where homeless people are sleeping on the street amongst broken glass, rubble and garbage with the burned out ambers of the bonfires of the night.  Downtown could only be seen in the far, far horizon.  What do you do?  I could have ventured downstairs again to take the metro to a different stop, but I would still have no idea where to get off the train.

I decided my best option would be to start walking towards the far horizon of the luring lights of Downtown. I remembered the song “Woman in Red” and filled my mind with great energetic energy while I started walking over broken glass and rubble, careful not to get too close to any of the sleeping homeless people.  The wheels of my suitcase did however betray me with the clonking sound and numerous people were rubbing their eyes in disbelief.  Finally after an hour I see a bus and make it stop, but I still had no idea of where to go.  I figured First Street would be as central as I could get as my starting point and I remembered there was a YMCA on First Street, thinking this would be my saving grace.  I arrived around 6AM in the morning, but “Sorry Mam, everything is old out”…..Some elderly people were begging to stay another night as their welfare checks had not yet arrived.  Certainly they needed this roof more than I did.  I asked the reception if they could recommend any place to stay, but the answer was no.   Aimlessly I started wandering down the streets of Chicago, stopping at every hotel asking about any possible vacancies.  A huge convention in town had booked all hotels.  Downtrodden, my feet were blistering, and I desperately needed a shower after my red-eye flight and my long morning hike in heels.  All the hotels along the streets were fully booked, until I finally found a couple of dilapidated brownstone buildings, one of them Tokyo Hotel.  First I went into the adjacent hotel to ask for a room for 2 nights.  The receptionists giggled and told me this was for long term accommodation only…..on my way out I noticed a blue movie bar at the entrance, and although I naively did not know what that was, I sensed discomfort being a single female traveler.

Then I stepped into Tokyo Hotel next door.  The carpet was tattered, the place was run-down, but, yes, they did have a room.  The receptionist had stared me up and down, with her perforated acne scarred face, which felt uncomfortable, but I really needed a room.  “It’s $29 per night.  The room is non-refundable”. Ok, I grabbed the key and stepped into the elevator, which must have been one of the first elevators ever built in Chicago as an old man grey faced man on a stool in the corner of the elevator was pulling old chains, brackets and bolts. Finally the ramshackle lift reached my floor level: “Jump, Mam”.  It turned out I had to jump across a 12”gap and 8 “up to reach my floor.

Finally I reached my room, which only could be described as a “slimy”, tattered room.  As expected, the lock did not work….My heart was beating so fast, sweat running down my back in anxiety, what to do? I pulled an old tattered armchair in front of the door and loaded it up with my heavy suitcase while letting the hot water fill my bathtub.  Time to think – what were my options?  Being an architect I really wanted to explore the great architecture of Chicago and decided to take a risk and explore the city all day, hopefully sleeping soundly at night.  Chicago is an architecture lover’s dream.  I had a fabulous time exploring until I met with a famous architect I had previously met at the American Institute in Rome, and he asked me where I was staying.  Ashamed of my non-prestigious accommodations I hesitated, but he insisted I tell him: Tokyo Hotel. “Oh, no”, he told me! “You must get out of there, no matter what! That place is notorious for prostitution, crime and drugs.”

Shocked, but also grateful that this famous architect truly seemed to care about me, I started my journey back to the hotel.  I stopped at a motel nearby which I had visited earlier that morning, but it was still fully occupied.  When I shared my story to the 2 female receptionists they were horrified and told me they would cancel one of their reservations and give me a room across from the reception where I could be safe.  I was so grateful for the kindness of these 2 women.  30 years later I am still grateful for their extremely kindness.  Now I still had to go back to Tokyo Hotel to get my belongings. While waiting in a long line at the reception desk I overheard an old man complaining about his room service last night: he did not like her….The old lady reminded me of the no-refund policy, but I scurried off to my room to get my belongings almost tumbling over the rolled up worn-out carpets, thinking my life is worth so much more than the $29….and slept peacefully at the nearby hotel the next 2 nights.

After this experience I learned a hard-earned lesson: as a single female traveler safety comes first, no matter how central the location is.  Do your research ahead of time and at least book your first hotel night in advance when visiting a new city.  During the first day of exploration you can always find a better place to stay, if needed, after seeing the place in person.

I just researched Tokyo Hotel online and wish I had found this information 30 years ago:

Per Wikipedia: The Tokyo Hotel, located at 19 E. Ohio Street, was a hotel in the North Loop of Chicago. Designed by architect Ralph C. Harris, it is 15 stories tall, and has 150 rooms. It opened in 1927 as the Devonshire Hotel. Before it closed in 2013, the Tokyo was not aimed at tourists, but rather longer-term residents, and earned a reputation for being home to “prostitution and criminal activity.”[1]

Written by Zia Hansen

DESTINATION VIETNAM: IMPERIAL CITY HUE

Imperial Palace Hue

You can arrive at Hue in several different ways, by train or flight from Hanoi. We traveled from Hanoi to Hue via Danang Airport. Based on our experiences, by all means avoid flying Vietjet Airlines as they apparently are notorious for cancelling flights, causing us a “common” 5 hour delay.  From Danang the supposedly scenic route became a grueling night drive through roads full of road construction and huge trucks whirling rocks and dust. Our driver tried a slight shortcut resulting in a shredded tire around midnight with endless rows of speeding trucks passing by on a dangerous construction corner in the middle of seemingly nowhere.  The car’s spare tire was installed by the dim light of our Iphone’s flashlight and turned out to be only partially inflated.  Our driver continued at a speed of 10 km per hour.  The drive seemed endless and our 4 star hotel seemed to be fast asleep with staff sleeping on couches in the lobby-that is a first experience during my frequent travels. 

Why visit Hue?

Imperial Palace Hue
Part of the stunning Imperial Palace entrance across from the Citadel

Hue is designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site and has an intriguing past as both former Imperial City and National Capital.  It was both the residence of emperors and the national capital from 1802-1945, until the communist government moved its government in Hanoi.  Hue’s central location very close to the border between the North and South during the Vietnam War placed the city in a very vulnerable position during the Vietnam War.  The city suffered double damage, due to a combination of the American military bombing of historic buildings held by the North Vietnamese, and also by the massacre at Hue’ committed by the communist forces. After the war ended, many of the historic features of Hue’ were neglected as they were seen by the victorious communist regime and other Vietnamese as “relics from the feudal regime”.  Many historical areas of the city are currently being restored after the designation as Unesco World Heritage Site.  The Imperial City occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River.

Imperial Palace Hue
Spectacular ceramic roof ornamentation adorn many of the restored buildings

The vast 19th century Citadel and Imperial Palace are delightful to visit, surrounded by a moat and thick stonewall fortifications, encompassing some well restored palaces and shrines as well as parts of the forbidden Purple City, once the Emperor’s home.  Only the emperors, concubines, eunuchs and those close enough to them were granted access-alive.  Throughout the Citadel visual and written descriptions provide good insight into the cruel and lavish lifestyle within the walls in multiple languages.  The architecture is spectacular.

Imperial Palace Hue
Part of a wonderful reception hall
Imperial Palace Hue
Study the details: Intriguing roof ornamentations
Imperial Palace Hue
Exit gate to the Imperial City

Outside the Citadel bicycle rickshaw drivers are uncomfortably aggressive trying to drum up a business opportunity.  One driver tried to block the pedestrian intersection.  In my opinion there is really no need to use a rickshaw as most hotels are in walking distance and the area beyond the Citadel appears to be of limited visitor interest.  Perfume River seems almost unused, only one café’ has taken advantage of the location almost across the Citadel as well as a smaller night market mainly geared on tourists.  

Dragon river boat

Primitive colorful family owned river boats with dragon painted tin decorations were lined up along the river, and as this was a quiet time of the year the boat owners were hawking business.  Truly a family business, many boats were hawked by the older daughter, while the mother or father were running the boats, and their younger daughter would try to sell tourist souvenirs and refreshments while cruising the river.

Riverboat Hue

Families seemed to be living on the boats, which were only outfitted with loose plastic chairs arranged loosely on vinyl flooring resembling imperial carpeting.  

Riverboat Hue

Along the river are monuments, including the tombs of several emperors.  The tour along the river is not the most charming adventure, but can offer plenty of opportunities for future tourism development.  We took a tour to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was beautiful and in a stunning location at a river bend.  I have seen many much more stunning pagodas in other parts of the world, but this location was spectacular. Unfortunately this pagoda structure was not accessible.

Pagoda Hue
A majestic entrance to the pagoda from the river
Pagoda Hue
Thien Mu Pagoda

Hue remains a tranquil and conservative city, without much city life, and in my opinion is worthy of a full day of visiting, but not much more during the colder time of year.  Supposedly there are several good beaches about 15 minutes away.  The somber history of the Vietnam War era can be explored by day excursions to the tunnels dug by the Vietcong forces. We skipped this tour and only saw the scenic route driving to Hoi An.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

 

DESTINATION VIETNAM: EXPLORE HANOI

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A country so rich and diverse in culture: a cruel past with horrifying wars, wonderful hardworking and generous people and with so much potential for recreational and resort destinations. Diverse adventures and explorations await in different cities, Unesco World Heritage sites and stunning nature for the adventurous destineer and traveler.

Having recently returned from an intense one week exploration so full of diverse impressions my mind and camera are so full of impressions.

HANOI turned out to be completely different from my preconceived expectations. I expected to find formal French Colonial architecture juxtaposed with communist style concrete soulless buildings and wide streets jam packed with cars, an auditory inferno and assault on all senses. Instead I found a vibrant, exotic, vivacious, small scale and colorful urban life unfolding in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street dining at Old Quarter hanoi
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Street entertainers in Old Quarter Hanoi

Saturday evening in Old Quarter. The streets become pedestrian zones, inviting locals and tourists to share the ambiance on tiny low plastic chairs. Many small restaurants offer BBQ Korean style, where you prepare your own meet and vegetables while watching the street life unfold.

Intriguing coffee houses lure you with a reminiscence of romanticized rustic salvaged vintage combat furniture, worn out tile or concrete flooring flooring, bright and vibrant hues of wall colors, and-the best coffee in the world.

Food is being barbecued at tiny tin cans on low tables Korean style at the sidewalks while cheerful people are gathering for coffee, drinks or food on tiny kid sized plastic chairs.  The fumes of burning hot chestnuts merge with grilled corn on the cob; charcoal flames are being whipped to perfect intensity by old squatting ladies with banana leaves. The tantalizing mouthwatering sniffs of barbecued meat and onions interspersed with the scent of incense create a mysterious layered impact of scentsations. while live music and dance performances add to the auditory fusion.  Brightly colored lanterns and string lights add to the layered romantic experience.  We were lucky to experience the Old Quarter during the weekend when large areas are closed to traffic and Old Quarter becomes a large pedestrian zone

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street food

Beware, Hanoi can be cold and humid. Arriving from Bangkok’s hottest season in sandals and thin clothing was a thermal shock, but fortunately the Old Quarter is full of stores selling North Face feather jackets.  Comforted by cozy down jackets all street life activities can be thoroughly enjoyed.

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street life in Hanoi

At daytime the sidewalks are completely overtaken by parked motorbikes and you jump for your life trying to navigate the narrow streets full of motorbikes, bicycling rickshaws and vans.  The city is best enjoyed by bicycle rickshaw.  The elderly male rickshaw drivers are agile dare devils, going against intense traffic, honking cars and motorbikes with whole families of 4-5 on top.   We covered the major sight seeing venues and the rich variety of Old Quarter streets by rickshaw.

explore hanoi by rickshaw
Explore the city by bicycle rickshaw

Each street has their own type of businesses: one street of bamboo vendors, one for auto spare parts, one for motor bike repair shops, one for Chinese temple accessories, one full of vibrant baskets filled with garment dyes, one for fabric vendors, one for tailors, one for chrome metal manufacturers, one for lock makers, one for bird and fish vendors, one for tombstone, etc.

Some of the biggest sightseeing’s are the Women’s Prison but the line of tourists waiting to buy tickets was too daunting for a sinister experience.  The Library Temple Gardens was quaint and poetic. The monumental Ho Chi Minh Monument and museum turned out to be closed on a Monday. The lake is charming. Time for another Vietnamese coffee!

Conc Cafe, Hanoi
Conc’ Café: a coffee place with overtones of the Vietcong era

Hotels in the Old Quarter are tiny and can be a “hit-and-miss”, as even 4 star hotels can be rather unimpressive at the least and the photos on travel sites can be very deceiving.  Spas can also turn out to be less than a glamorous experience.  I recommend to book a hotel for the first night only and then explore some hotels by foot in person to find one that live up to your expectations.  With the large amount of tourists in Hanoi, new smaller independent hotels seems to have a great target audience. Most hotels can arrange junk boat excursions at Halong Bay and city excursions, but do search Trip Advisor first to read the reviews.

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Mysterious Halong Bay covered by clouds and drizzly rain

A tour to Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage site, is a must. The drive takes about 4 1/2 hours and is rather nauseating as the roads are still less than desirable and some of the excursion vans offer very little legroom.  Modern rest stops are surprisingly clean and sell all kinds of souvenirs plus some limited food choices. Once you arrive at your cruise junk boat and start your excursion through the stunning freestanding rocks and mysterious caves you forget about the hurdles of getting there.  Our day was poetic, interspersed by a thick layer of fog and a light drizzle. Elderly ladies in bamboo row boats will take you through beautiful secret photogenic coves-or you can choose to kayak yourself, but cannot take photos.  I strongly recommend to take the bamboo boat to support the lovely Vietnamese hardworking women.  You may even get a song.

Halong Bay
Bamboo boating in Halong Bay
Halong Bay
A wonderful Vietnamese woman and her bamboo boat

After a delightful fresh seafood lunch on the junk boat, we entered a great huge stalagmite cave which was fantastic and mysterious, although a slightly distressed experience as the cave was packed with groups of very loud Chinese tourists. The caves were used to hide troops during the war.  The stalagmite formations were truly stunning and offered myriads of photo opportunities.

Halong Bay
Magnificent Karst Caves at Halong Bay

Halong Bay

I highly recommend to take the 2 day junk boat trip in lieu of the one day trip.  One day just gave you an initial impression, whereas sleeping on one of the red-sailed junks will leave you with truly memorable experiences.  The 4-5 hour drive back to Hanoi was rather grueling as the minibuses were designed for Asians and not for westerners (No leg and shoulder space).-and the traffic congestion was gridlocked getting back into Hanoi.

Written by Zia Hansen.  Photos by Zia Hansen