Iran Diary #4: Isfahan & Varzaneh Desert

After my transfer tour from Kashan, I arrived in Isfahan (or Esfahan) early in the afternoon. Despite being a big tourist destination, the city has no affordable hotel/hostel within walking distance of the center. However, the hostel I stayed at, Ragrug, offers free transport to the center, so it’s perfect.

As usual, after checking in, I immediately headed out to see the sights. My destination was the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, one of the biggest squares in the world, and its surrounding buildings – the Shah Mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar (there is also the Ali Qapu Palace, which I didn’t check out.) The scales and the details of the mosques are just stupendous – I must’ve developed a crick in my neck because I couldn’t stop gawping up at their domes. It was like looking up at heaven.

The square

Courtyard of the Shah Mosque

The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, outside and in

Dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

The bazaar was good for souvenir shopping – I was especially impressed by the silver and copper shops!

A “spice mountain” in the bazaar

A silversmith at work and a fruit/snack stand in the bazaar

Unfortunately, I arrived just a day before a big national holiday, so everywhere was insanely crowded. I wanted to stay until nightfall to see the square lit up, but the crowd became too much for me, so I pushed on to the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge, one of the 11 historical bridges in Isfahan. The walk took me through a pedestrian street lined with shops and hipster food and coffee trucks parked in the middle – I had dinner on the go from one of these trucks. The crowd was pretty thick here, too, but at least I could keep moving and people-watch.

Eventually, I emerged into a square thronged with traffic overlooking the Zayanderud River. Somehow, I managed to reach the bridge, which was super crowded as well. Though the bridge was lit up beautifully and I was happy to see water in the river – most of the recent photos of the bridge showed the river dried up – the crowd was stressing me out. So after snapping a few photos, I went back to the hostel and called it a night.

Under the bridge

The next day, per the suggestion of the hostel staff, I avoided returning to the city center because a) it was going to be even more crowded, and b) everything was closed anyway. I briefly considered going to the Armenian Quarter to see the Vank Cathedral (Iran isn’t all about the mosques, you know), but after Tehran and Kashan, I was feeling a bit burned out on architecture, so I decided to have a “nature” day instead.

In the morning, I went for a walk on Sofeh, a mountain about 10 km outside the city (I wouldn’t call it hiking, because the paths up the mountain are paved). Although it was drizzling, it was great to get out of the city and away from the crowd.

View of the city from the mountain

Then, in the afternoon, I went on a desert tour organized by the hostel (15 euros/person). The sky was clear when we headed out, but as we approached the town of Varzaneh, it started pouring. Ironic, isn’t it? Here we were, hoping to see a scorching desert, and it rained!

We decided to press on anyway, and it turned out to be a really nice outing. We had some interesting discussion with our guide about life in Iran, about their frustrations in the present and their hopes for the future. It was a great way to get to know the country better.

And the scenery was pretty awesome too. First, we went to a salt lake – it must be really striking in the summer with all the salt crystals coming up, but even in the rain, it still looked impressive, in an alien kind of way.

You can still see the salt crystals

Our tour guide and the two guards working at the salt mine (they offered us tea!)

After that, we headed to the sand dunes. The vastness and emptiness of the landscape is astounding and really makes you feel insignificant (in a good way).

Looks like a set for Mad Max: Fury Road, doesn’t it?

On the way back, we stopped to see a “cow well”, which is a well where the water is drawn up by, you guess it, a cow (actually, it’s a bull), to irrigate the nearby fields. The really fun thing is that the trainer sings to the cow to get it to move – how sweet is that?

Our last stop was a roadside restaurant where we enjoyed some fresh fish – and I mean super fresh, as we watched the cook catch them from the pond where the fish were raised.

Best fish I’ve ever tasted!

And that wrapped up a really fun day and also my time in Isfahan. There are still a lot of places I didn’t get to see in the city – it’s not called “half the world” for nothing! – but I hope to return one day.


Iran Diary #3: Kashan & Abyaneh

I traveled from Tehran to Kashan on a VIP bus from the South Bus Terminal. There are buses leaving for Kashan every hour, so don’t worry about getting there on time. You just have to get your ticket (the ticket office is upstairs in the main building of the terminal; my ticket cost 200.000 rials, which included a light snack) and keep your ears out for people shouting out your destination.

The trip took 3 hours through the most depressing landscape I’ve ever seen – an endless stretch of brown wasteland, dotted here and there with soot-colored hills. It rained, too, which didn’t help. Thankfully, the rain stopped by the time we arrived; the sun came out, and things started looking up.

Here in Kashan, I’ve found the character that Tehran sorely lacks. Its Old Town is a maze of mud walls (my hostel, Sana Historical House, is located right in the middle of it) that threatens to swallow me up, but thanks to, I didn’t get lost – well, not too badly.

Agha Bozorg Mosque, an 18th-century mosque located right next to my hostel

Most of the Old Town is concentrated around a handful of historical houses – 19th century mansions of wealthy merchants, now converted into museums. I bought a combined ticket for three main places, Tabatabaei House, Abbasi House, and the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse (350.000 rials).

The ticket even included a greeting in Vietnamese. So nice!

The historical houses are just empty shells to showcase their architecture. I was slightly disappointed, for I’d hoped to see furnished rooms and learn how people used to live back then. Still, the architecture is gorgeous (and very symmetrical, which appeals to me), and it was oddly touching to walk around those empty houses with their faded grandeur.

The bathhouse

The bathhouse’s rooftop

After an early dinner at Abbasi (there is a restaurant attached to the house), I walked back to the hostel in the twilight and listened to the call to prayer echoing through the streets as a crescent moon appeared in the sky. This was more like it.

The next day, I took a “transfer tour” to Isfahan, with stops at Fin Garden, Abyaneh and Natanz (40 euros for the whole car; here was a disadvantage of traveling alone in the low season – there was no other tourist to share your rides!) Fin Garden and Natanz can be skipped – Fin Garden is nice in the sense that you get to see some green trees after days in the desert, but it’s not worth the admission price of 200.000 rials. The mosque at Natanz is at least free.

Fin Garden

The highlight of the tour, of course, is Abyaneh. The view (if you can call it that) along the way is largely the same at first – brown desert flanked by menacing mountains – but when the car started driving toward those mountains and climbing up, I could see that they have a kind of terrible beauty about them. They’re scary, but you can’t look away.

Abyaneh is nestled among these silent giants, a stepped village of distinctive red clay houses. It was deserted, though – aside from a few tourists, the only locals I saw were some old women (in their trademark floral scarves) selling souvenirs. I only encountered one family with children on the outskirt of the village. It was as if the entire place was frozen in the past.

Traditional doors – note the “male” and “female” knockers

I spent nearly two hours wandering up and down the alleys without seeing a soul, until the weather turned nasty – it was actually hailing – so I had to return to the car.

Look closely and you can see pieces of hail in the photo

It was nice visiting Abyaneh, but I wouldn’t want to live there. And I got the feeling that not many young people would, either.

Iran Diary #2: Tehran

My plane landed in Tehran at the ungodly hour of 3 AM. I got picked up by a taxi and taken to my hostel, Seven Hostel (I also pre-booked the taxi with them). It’s a tiny building on an unassuming street, surrounded by shops selling auto parts, but it is within walking distance of most of the attractions in Tehran, which is why I picked it.

Tehran is usually the first destination for travelers and it is the biggest city in Iran in Iran, yet most of them never stay for longer than two days. I soon found out why: it has no character. The attractions are nice, but I can’t tell you what Tehran is like as a whole. It has no clear “downtown” or central area; the architecture is a depressing concrete jungle, and the traffic is, frankly, menacing. Thankfully, I’m used to the wild traffic of Vietnam so it wasn’t so bad for me, but still, it was a bit of a challenge crossing the road for the first time.

An empty street – a rare sight in Tehran

After a nap and a quick breakfast, I headed out to Golestan Palace. In a way, it reflects Tehran – each building is gorgeous, but the grounds are rather uninspired, just a square park surrounded by 1970’s-style office buildings. Not the setting I imagined for an 18th-century royal complex.

There are many buildings, and you have to buy individual tickets for each, on top of a general admission ticket, which I think is bullshit, but that’s how it is. Following the receptionist’s suggestion, I bought tickets to three buildings – the Reception Hall, the Marble Throne, and the Hall of Brilliance.

My irritation with the admission prices was forgotten as soon as I stepped inside. Here are the finest examples of Persian craftsmanship, rooms after rooms of the most exquisite mirror tiles and colorful porcelain mosaics. The lack of tourists (I only saw one Chinese tour group and a handful of Iranians) was nice too.

This beats Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors by miles

Another plus: there are many stray cats around and they’re all very friendly!

This little guy refuses to let me go. “Stop! I demand attention!”

Afterward, I wandered to the Grand Bazaar. This being Friday, it was closed, but there were still shops opened on the street, so I bought some lunch and went to a nearby park to escape the crowd of shoppers. In the afternoon, I went to the National Museum, but at this point, I was deranged from lack of sleep (I hadn’t had any proper sleep in about 20 hours). All I remember is dragging myself back to the hostel and collapsing into bed. Tehran would have to wait.

I returned for one more day at the end of my trip, and this time, with the sun shining and the sky cleared, Tehran was decidedly improved. Not nicer, exactly, but brighter and neater.

My first order of business was to go to the Grand Bazaar for some shopping. Unfortunately, the Persian New Year is coming up, so it seemed everybody was out shopping. It was so crowded that I couldn’t really take photos.

I ended up doing my shopping at a street market near my hostel (it is right next to the Imam Khomeini metro station), which was much cheaper. The market also has food trucks and ice cream stands, making it a great place to hang out.

Next, I went to see some sights outside the city – Azadi Tower and Tabiat Bridge. These have two things to recommend them – one, they’re free, and two, they’re quiet. Also, you have to take the subway, which is an experience in itself. It’s very cheap (only 10.000 rials/ticket) and easy (the signs are both in Farsi and English), and there is the fun of watching hawkers selling all sorts of things from socks and scarves to make-ups and phone accessories on the train. There’s no other subway like it in the world, I guarantee it!

A hawker selling scarves on the “women only” section on the train

Azadi Tower is impressive, but it doesn’t require a lot of time. Tabiat Bridge, on the other hand, is a really nice outing. After getting out of the Shahid Haghani subway station, you walk through the Museum of Revolution and Holy Defense with its display of tanks and planes, up a tree-filled park, and end up at a lovely bridge overlooking the city and the snowy peaks in the distance. If I didn’t have packing to do, I would’ve stayed until sunset.

View from the Museum

Tabiat Bridge

View from the bridge

In the end, Tehran wasn’t a total bust like I’d originally thought. It may not have been my favorite place in Iran, but it has its beauty if you know where to look.

Iran Diary #1: Overview

When I first announced my intention of traveling to Iran – alone, no less (my friend from the Cuba trip last year couldn’t accompany me), I was met with a lot of concern – “Is it safe?” was the question most frequently asked, even though Iran doesn’t have a particularly bad rep in Vietnam as it does in Western countries. But I had read that it’s actually very safe – certainly the safest in the Middle East – and my dad, who has been there a few times for work, raved about it. Plus, any country that has a visa-on-arrival policy can’t be that bad in my book, so I was determined to go.

And I’m glad that I went. Iran is completely different from any place I’ve been to, yet there is something familiar about its busy cities, its mixture of modern and traditional architecture, the wild beauty of its landscape, and most of all, its friendly people. Don’t believe the media; go now if you have a chance!

Iran is growing in popularity as a travel destination, but people still know quite little about it, so I’m going to share with you some practical tips that I’ve learned from my trip.

– Visa:

If you are a US, British, or Canadian citizen, you have to join a tour and apply for a visa through that. Most other countries, including Vietnam, are eligible to apply for a visa-on-arrival in Iran, meaning you can get a visa at the airport. To save money and waiting time, though, I applied for an electronic visa and picked it up from the embassy in Hanoi. It was very simple.

– Money:

The money in Iran is called the rial, but everybody uses the old name, “toman”, instead. 1 toman = 10 rials, meaning when something costs 17.000 toman, it actually costs 170.000 rials. More confusingly, since there are so many zeros, people may leave out the “thousand” part altogether and just say “17”. When you’re not sure, always ask if the price is in toman or rial.

The inflation in Iran is quite bad, so the exchange rate changes every day. The “official” rate when I went there was about 40.000 rials = $1, but the actual rate was closer to 100.000 rials = $1. So definitely ask around first before you exchange any money. Most hostels/hotels and taxi drivers (especially for long trips) do accept euros/dollars.

Alternatively, you can also get a Mah Card, which is like a debit card that you can top up. Everywhere in Iran takes card – even street vendors! – so it can save you from carrying around wads and wads of cash. I didn’t, but some travelers I met had the card and said it was very useful.

Iran isn’t expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, especially when you count all the admission/entrance fees, which add up very quickly. My budget came out to about $50/day, but if I was traveling with a friend, I could’ve easily gotten away with $30 or even $25/day.

– Accommodation:

There are plenty of hostels and hotels in any of the main tourist destinations in Iran – in the individual post about each city, I will talk more about the hostel I stayed in. Since they can’t accept international credit cards, the easiest way to reserve a room is to email the hostel itself (which is what I did). Of course, it means you will have to carry extra money with you to pay them once you get there. There are some websites that allow you to book a room beforehand (1st Quest, Apochi), and some hostels can even be found on

As for prices, it depends on the kind of room you want. I stayed in private rooms in hostels (I’m at that age now where I can’t handle dorm rooms anymore), which average at about $20/night, with breakfast included.

My hostel in a traditional house in Kashan

My hotel in Shiraz

– Getting around:

Iran has a pretty good public transport system. During my 10 days there, I used a combination of public buses and private taxis to get between the cities (Tehran – Kashan – Isfahan – Yazd – Shiraz), plus one domestic flight (Shiraz – Tehran). The flight I booked beforehand via 1st Quest, while the bus tickets could be bought at the station. In each city, I mostly walked, except for Tehran, where I used the subway, and in Isfahan, where I used Snapp (an app similar to Uber/Grab/Lyft), both of which are very cheap and easy to use. Again, more details will come in the individual posts.

– Food:

Iranian food is good and cheap and the portion is huge – seriously, look at this kebab sandwich (with my sunglasses for scale). It’s as big as my head! The breakfasts at hostels are also huge, with bread, butter, jam, soft cheese, tea, and sometimes bean porridge and other traditional Persian food as well.

Fresh promeganate juice sold outside the Grand Bazaar in Tehran

A baker laying out his freshly baked bread in Shiraz

Also, get ready to drink a lot of tea – Iranians love their tea, and there are usually sticks of crystallized sugar to stir in it. Just don’t forget and leave it in too long, or you’ll end up with more sugar than tea!

– Internet:

Certain websites are blocked in Iran (Facebook, most social media sites except for Instagram, international new sites, etc.) but you can easily get around it by using a VPN. Being cheap, I used a free one (Hotspot Shield), which works fine for browsing Facebook and Tumblr, but if you want more security, you can pay for a premium one.

– Dress code:

This is one of the things that put people off visiting Iran, but I think that’s just silly. It’s no big deal to put on a scarf to cover your head and wear a longer shirt – because that’s all there is, really: no short sleeves, no short pants (this goes for guys as well), a headscarf, and shirts that cover your butt. I will also talk more about it in my packing post.

Fashionable young girls in Tehran and Shiraz

– Other tidbits:

You can find English speakers, but it can be difficult. I mostly relied on body language and Google Translate to communicate. I did learn the Farsi numbers, though, so I could read the prices of things.

Such as the prices of these spices in the Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz

Much more to come in the individual posts, so stay tuned!

Year Of The Pig

It’s the Lunar New Year holiday here in Vietnam, and in the spirit of the Year of the Pig, I’m taking the rest of the week off to stuff my face and lounge around doing nothing. See you guys next Monday!

Book Reviews: December 2018 – January 2019

I skippe December’s book reviews in lieu of the “Year in Review” post, so here they are, along with the books I read in January. A pretty diverse selection, even if I say so myself:

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman:

This book has a very specific plot that it shares with several other works of fiction – a grumpy but sympathetic Caucasian widower learns to open his heart with the help of his Asian neighbors. “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”, “Up”, and “Gran Torino” – they all have the exact same plot. Sure, the settings may be different and the actual stories are different, but the plot is the same. That may make it a little predictable, but the characters are all quite interesting, and I dare you to reach the end without choking up a little. 3/5

The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley:

I know Lucy Worsley from her BBC series about the six wives of Henry VIII, and I love anything that has to do with British history, so this book, which revolves around the court of George I and George II at Kensington Palace, is right up my alley, especially since these early Hanoverian monarchs don’t always get a lot of coverage from other historians. What I like about it is that it manages to give us a glimpse of the everyday life at court without getting bogged down by the historical and political facts. The facts are there, but the focus is on the people, and that’s what makes it fascinating. 5/5

The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamman:

I grew up watching the trilogy of films about the life of Elisabeth of Austria (or Sissi, as she was usually known) starring a young Romy Schneider, and since then, I’ve always been fascinated by her. This biography doesn’t take such a romantic look at her life; instead, it portrays Sissi as she was – a highly sensitive and complex but also emotionally disturbed woman, thrust into a marriage and a life she was not prepared for. Highly recommended. My only complaint is that the flow of the book is a bit all over the place – the first few chapters follow a chronological order, but then the book turns to specific areas in Sissi’s life (her beauty and fitness regime, her relationship with her children, etc.) which forces the narration to go back and forth in time. I’m familiar with the events in Sissi’s life, so it doesn’t bother me too much, but it can make the book difficult to follow. 4.5/5

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire:

Have you ever wondered what happened to Alice after she got back from Wonderland, or the Pevensie children after they got back from Narnia, or Dorothy after she got back from Oz? This dark little fantasy explores that question – it takes place at a school for those children who have traveled to fantasy worlds and are now having troubles adjusting to the “normal” world. I’ve read Seanan McGuire before, and I’ve started to recognize a pattern here – her world-building is top-notch and her subversion of the familiar fantasy tropes is super cool, but the story itself tends to be lacking and the ending feels very easy. Still, it’s a super quick read, and like I said, the world and the characters are pretty awesome. 4/5

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor:

It’s a murder mystery set during the Great Fire of London, which sounds exactly like the kind of thing I would enjoy. Unfortunately, this falls completely flat. Even though the murder is introduced quite early on, it’s very slow, and the mystery itself, when it gets revealed, is very anticlimactic. There is no twist or surprise. The problem is that the story alternates between two protagonists (a young man working for the editor-in-chief of The Gazette, and a young woman trying to escape her ruthless cousin and an arranged marriage, both children of fugitive Royalists), but what is seen as a mystery in one storyline is often revealed in the other, so often the reader is left frustrated since we know so much more than both characters. Plus I don’t feel engaged to either of them, and the historical setting is not well utilized either. 1.5/5

Farewell, Lady Opium by Vu Bang:

This memoir tells the story of a well-known Vietnamese writer’s struggle with opium addiction and his arduous road to get sober. I read it mostly for the description of life in Hanoi during the 1930’s, so the opium stuff and especially the author’s ennui can get tedious after a while, but you can’t deny that it’s painfully honest and surprisingly relatable. 3/5

Adventures In Watercolor 7

These may be the last watercolors I’m going to post in a while. I really should start painting again – I can feel myself getting rusty – but these past few weeks have been so insanely busy that I didn’t have the time or feel the inclination to take my brushes and colors out.

Anyway, here are some landscapes I did a while ago. I’m still struggling with shadows and reflections, as you can see. (These are all copies of existing paintings).

Back in October-November, I had enough free time to take another watercolor class, with a focus on landscapes, and the results certainly look better than the ones I did on my own:

I guess I’ll just have to keep practicing, or take another class if I can!