July in Vietnam: The Imperial Tombs

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I was glad to have taken a bit of a break before going to see the imperial tombs as quite a lot of the architecture was unsurprisingly similar to that of the imperial palace. I went first to the Tu Duc tombs where lots of stuff was under restoration. It was a huge complex with plenty of atmospheric, crumbling buildings.

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This place was huge, with pavilions leading into pavilions. Here, there was a stele pavilion that housed a stele listing Tu Duc’s reflections on his life and its meaning.

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Some side pavilions were in serious disrepair and waiting for the restoration crew to arrive.

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They were appropriately marked “dangerous area” so we were warned. The building could come down any moment!

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Leading up to the tomb was a gauntlet of officials, both military and administrative, attesting to the rank of the emperor.

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Before getting to the tomb proper, you have to get past the gate. It’s designed so that the tomb can’t be seen from the outside – a stone screen protects it from prying eyes.

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And the tomb itself, a little bit of an anti-climax but still impressive with its slightly austere air. Too bad about the graffiti marring it though.

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I was too palace and tombed out to explore further and went only to the outside of the Khai Dinh tomb to have a look round. The entry gate was absolutely impressive, with its ornate carvings in the grey stone and the long staircase forcing one to stare upwards.

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July in Vietnam: Going Where the Locals Go

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In spite of my past experience on the back of a motorbike, I decided that it would be better to sit on the back of a motorbike than try to cycle on my home. A splitting headache from a hangover sealed the deal. I was driven through beautifully green rice fields on the way to the Japanese bridge.

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It’s a beautiful bridge in the middle of nowhere, built in the Japanese style to give shelter to the locals in the heat of the day.

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I’m not sure how true it is but legend says that a childless Japanese woman left money for a bridge to be built in her memory so that people would pray to her in her afterlife. In such hot weather I guess more snoozing than praying is done here!

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I stopped for a light and very healthy lunch at a little place along the Perfume River. The rice pancakes stuffed with herbs and pork and washed down with plenty of cold weak tea did wonders to restore me for the rest of the afternoon. The bowl of bun thit nuong, thick rice noodles topped with the usual herbage and barbecued meat did the trick to keep me full till dinner.

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And then it was off to the Thien Mu Pagoda, famous mainly for being the monastery from which a certain special monk originated. It was on a lovely bend of the Perfume River and was quite pretty to look at.

Thien Mu Pagoda, from Wikipedia

Within, there were more halls with Fun with English signs. I have no idea what a “lish” is and how it could be beaten though.

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And here is the car of the monk who drove to Saigon, poured petrol on himself and set himself on fire while meditating. All this in protest of the American interference in South Vietnam. This image was supposedly broadcast all over Western media and played a pivotal role in the anti-war protests in America.

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And then calling it a day, I went to where the locals were – flying kites in the park.

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For dinner, I walked down to Dong Ba market and sat timidly down on the miniature plastic stools surrounding a chao long lady. The rice porridge was thin but the ingredients fresh. I thought I knew my pig parts, but this was a revelation. There was the usual meat, liver, small intestine and congealed blood cube but other stuff I couldn’t identify: large intestine cut longitudinally? strange sausage? bone marrow? Accompanied by basil and a squeeze of lemon, even the blood went down nicely. That hardly made a dent in stomach, so I switched sides and hefted myself 2 metres down to the next lady selling bun thit nuong, which is grilled pork over cold bun (thick rice noodles). Yummy and incredibly cheap (5000 dong approx S$0.45).

I was full by then started to walk back towards hotel. But a chicken noodle stall tempted me and I sat down to a delightful bowl of mung bean noodles (tanghoon) in chicken stock with generous lashings of chicken shreds. Ended up ODing on chilli. While Vietnamese food isn’t particularly spicy, even its “fiery” Central cuisine, I swear their chillies are the hottest in SE Asia. Even Thai chilli padi cannot beat them. There’s a very innocuous looking big yellow chilli that tricks you into thinking it’s going to taste sweet like yellow capsicum but boy does it pack a wallop. I made the very stupid mistake of rubbing my left eye after touching the chilli, ending up crying silently into food for 10 minutes.

(Sorry no photos, the lighting was too poor for the camera to work fine.)

Still, a good foodie end to a good chillout day.

July in Vietnam: The Imperial Capital of Hue

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It was early morning when I got into Hue and hopped out of the night bus. A lovely long day of sightseeing across the Perfume River awaited.

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Here in Central Vietnam, there was a slight change in personality. Somehow I felt that people weren’t quite as hardened by war and that commerce, tourism and the free market had penetrated somewhat.

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The first stop was the Imperial Enclosure, a large citadel built by the Vietnamese emperors. These were largely in the Chinese style, given the vast influence exerted by their vast northern neighbour. First, I had to get past the outer moat.

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The walls surrounding the Enclosure were thick earthen ones with squat yet somehow very fitting gates and gatehouses built into the packed earth.

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And then there were the grand linkways between the various buildings topped by intricate carvings and prosperous sayings.

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The buildings themselves were very grand. Again, the strong Chinese influence was unmistakable, particularly in the Thai Hoa Palace, a receiving hall for the emperor.

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Further towards the back of the Enclosure were little residences of a slightly less grandiose nature, like the Truong San Residence, recently rebuilt after being devastated in the war. The pretty garden with rockery and pond added lots of charm to the place.

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I liked the little details I saw while wandering through the city in miniature. Looking up at the eaves of gates, I wondered why the decorations were made that way, whether for good luck or merely for ornamentation, perhaps to please the whim of a favoured concubine.

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Other decorations were more for impressing visitors, like this stone qilin (unicorn).

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There were also old cannon left behind from the old days. I wonder whether these were just for show or they really were meant for battle.

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Nonetheless, these weren’t spared the Fun with English sign of “No laying sitting on the selics.” Evidently done by someone with poor copyrighting skills.

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Outside the enclosure but still within the compound of the ancient city, there was plenty of living city. People carried on their daily business amidst the backdrop of beautiful lotus pond fringed by banana trees.

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After walking round imagining what life in ancient Hue would be like, I went to Y Thao Garden, a restaurant that specialised in imperial Hue cuisine. It had a little garden in the style of the imperial palace.

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The menu here is a Viet version of the degustation menu, with lots of little course that never quite seem to end. The only problem for a one-person meal was that the little courses weren’t as little as expected, as evidenced by this starter of deep-fried spring rolls masquerading as feathers atop a pineapple-carrot phoenix.

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Then came the less highly decorated poached prawns with salt and pepper.

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Followed by a slightly greasy but very yummy pancake called banh khoai. It was stuffed with meat and beansprouts and dipped in a peanut-based sauce.

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Next came a meat salad of sorts, a bit like the Lao/Thai larb gai. Combined with herbs and topped with ground peanuts, this aromatic mixture was eaten by scooping some up on a crunchy prawn cracker.

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I so full I was about to give up when the rice arrived. I thought it was going to be a run of the mill fried rice but boy was I wrong. This appeared to be fully vegetarian. The rice was cooked in a lotus leaf  with carrot, lotus seeds, black fungus and other vegetables. The fragrance of the dish blew me away. I don’t know what they did to make it taste so good but they sure did the right thing.

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Dessert was slightly less inspiring. There was only one, masquerading as table flowers. They’ve changed with the times and use plastic flower stems as the base, sticking on little soft pastry desserts. The filling was yellow mung bean, which was encased in a soft glutinous rice pastry, then painted over with some glossy jelly. It was pretty but not particularly tasty. Nonetheless, it was overall a great introduction to Hue imperial cuisine.

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Y Thao Garden
D Thach Han
Hue, Vietnam

[edited to include name and address of restaurant]

A Very Comforting Stew

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It’d been raining quite a bit and I decided that I needed something warming and comforting for dinner instead of having leftovers. A quick whizz through the supermarket and scrounge in the fridge later, I’d assembled a whole bunch of root and other vegetables that completely overshadowed the meat. Let’s see, I had butternut squash, mushrooms, an onion, celery, carrots, potato and basil. The squash was an excellent addition as it added a lovely sweet dimension to the stew, I didn’t need to tweak the seasonings much at all. Lastly, the belly pork worked well as I didn’t have time to really stew it properly till melting soft and falling apart. It was tender enough after the one hour cooking time, though it definitely could have benefited from a stint in the slow cooker. I cheat a bit by adding some Marigold organic vegetable stock powder that I get from the UK. It helps give that extra little oomph. Lastly, adding basil at the end just before serving gave it a lovely fresh herby lift. Serve with bread, rice, or whatever carbs you have leftover in the fridge.

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Ingredients:
1 tbsp oil
300g pork belly, cubed
20g butter
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 onion, chunked
1 large carrot, chunked
2 sticks celery, chunked
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed
butternut squash, cubed
250g button mushrooms
1 tsp organic vegetable stock power, optional
2 tbsp or a good splash dry vermouth

Method:

  1. Heat the oil in a large pot and brown the pork belly on all sides in batches. Set aside in a dish.
  2. Turn down the fire and melt the butter in the residual oily juices and toss in the peppercorns, bay leaf and garlic. Cook gently till fragrant, then toss in the onion, carrot and celery. Stir to coat with butter and cover. Let sweat for about 5 minutes.
  3. Toss in the potatoes, squash and mushrooms and stir. Add in the pork and turn up the heat. Keep stirring.
  4. Mix in the stock powder and splash in the vermouth. Bring to a boil then turn down and simmer for at least one hour. If available, transfer to a crock pot and finish off the cooking there.
  5. The stew is done when the vegetables are soft and the pork is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 3-4.

Quick Drinks: Once Upon A Milkshake

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DC sniffed out this place. We whizzed by for some takeaway milkshake and ice cream. Though I didn’t try the ice cream, I’m already a fan! We had the Agent Strawberry flavour, a straight-up strawberry flavoured milkshake.

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Check out how thick the milkshake is. I’m not normally a fan of milkshake as I really couldn’t stand the ghastly over-sweet synthetic stuff McDonald’s used to hawk. This one made a convert out of me. The strawberry flavour shone through with clear flavours of sweet yet tart strawberry. It tasted almost like my weekend breakfast smoothies (just that homemade is always better) and was very very smooth. I really liked how the shake didn’t separate as it gets drunk. Some just turn into ice as you suck away the sweet milky part, but this one was pure strawberry goodness all the way to the last drop. Go try it, it’s very very good.

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Once Upon A Milkshake
32 Maxwell Road
#01-08
Maxwell Chambers
Tel: 9823 3779

Singapore Youth Olympics Opening Ceremony

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It’s a week late in posting, but better late than never.

DC managed to get free tickets to a very special event taking place in Singapore this month –  the opening ceremony of the inaugural summer Youth Olympic Games. After seeing the fantastic opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, we knew it would be a tough act for Singapore to follow.  However, we knew that the ceremony would still feature plenty fireworks, dancing and hopefully a great party atmosphere.

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It was held at the floating platform at Marina Bay.  Knowing that there would be a huge crowd of spectators, we decided to go to there early and have dinner there first.  We were lucky enough to find a parking lot right next to the main entrance to the grandstands at Marina Square, and after having a quick dinner, we walked over to the entrance to find a large crowd already forming.  We queued up dutifully, but after a while we started to wonder why the queue was moving so slowly.  At first we thought it was because of the stringent security checks, but when we finally got to the ticketing entrance, we found to our dismay that the reason why we had queued for so long was because the ticket sensor wasn’t working properly!  For the event, the organisers had very proudly announced that the ticket would be a newfangled swipe card that also doubled as a Visa pre-paid card. It was all very good except that the ticket sensors were having trouble reading the swipes, so every ticket required several tries before they could finally be read.  This delay caused the logjam of people at the entry point.  It wasn’t a great start to the night, and we wondered what the international community would be thinking of Singapore’s much-vaunted efficiency.
Things got worse when we finally got to the grandstands.  The tickets are priced in accordance with the different zones in the grandstand, with Yellow being the closest to the action (short of Red, for the VIPs).  We had the Yellow tickets, but we soon realised that this didn’t mean anything as no one was checking to see if people really did hold Yellow tickets or tickets of some other colour.  As a result, I think a lot of people were sitting in the Yellow zone without actually holding Yellow tickets.  Moreover, we were unable to find a seat for some time as the ushers seemed to be confused about where the empty seats were.  But this wasn’t the worst thing – what really annoyed us was that some people were reserving empty seats and claiming that they were waiting for their friends, but as the night wore on it became apparent that no one was turning up and said “people” were simply hogging extra seats so that they could put their bags somewhere. One woman and her young son took up five seats! So much for the Olympic spirit.
We tried not to let these events dampen our spirit – after all, it was the YOG and it was held in Singapore.  The stage was certainly beautiful.  Because it was a floating platform, the backdrop was the Marina Bay reservoir fringed by the tall skyscrapers, including the infamous “surfboard” that was the new Marina Bay Sands resort.  What was particularly interesting was that a large portion of the platform was partially submerged in the water.  We realised as that this was to allow the performers to wade through and achieve some rather stunning visual effects, such as the opening act that featured performers making Olympic rings in the shallow water.  It was all rather clever.

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The next few performances, however, were a bit dubious.  One of the acts featured the origins of Singapore.  Coming hot on the heels of our National Day celebrations the week before, it was all a little dejavu.  DC felt that we were watching the National Day celebrations part deux.  Yet another performance was labelled “Monster”, and had a huge monstrous puppet that was operated by 20 people as the centrepiece of the stage.  I think the idea was to convey how the youngsters are able to face their fears and conquer them to achieve future success, but somehow the props seemed a bit too frightening for some of the audience.  The last performance that was a bit controversial featured a young girl who was told by her mother not to play with fire, but gleefully ignored her and proceeded to set the whole stage on fire.  While this made for an excellent visual spectacle, I wonder what sort of message the organisers were trying to send here.

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Fortunately, a few other performances managed to produce a decent effect.  One example was the glowing dragon that arrived by boat and waded through the shallow water.  The dragon’s body was actually comprised of a horde of performers.  It was very impressive.

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Yet another performance that was apparently very visually appealing was the arrival of the Olympic flame on the back of a glowing boat shaped like a phoenix.  Unfortunately my vantage point was a bit off, so I didn’t manage to get a good look at the phoenix boat or the dozen dragon boats that flanked it.
Finally, it was time for both the Singapore and Olympic flags to be raised. I found it rather impressive and was even more wowed when the wind picked up such that both flags actually flew during the raising ceremony!

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And the flame being lit was of course quite something.  I think the flame tornado idea is awesome.

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And finally the Olympic torch was light and here it will burn for the rest of the games.

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Overall, the opening ceremony left me with mixed feelings.  Personally, I think some things could have been done better, such as the organisation and seating arrangements.  These are things that are absolutely essential, and we were let down.  As far as the performances were concerned, I think they were very much a matter of personal taste and while I didn’t agree with some acts, I don’t think the performers can be faulted.
I am aggrieved at one thing in particular though.  And this was the release of hundreds of helium-filled plastic doves into the air when the Olympic flame was lit.  While it was indeed a very lovely sight that elicited gasps of appreciation from the crowd, the lack of long-term perspective galled me. We were close enough to see that the plastic being released into the air was the plastic-bag variety, which will have to come down at some point and end up in the sea, contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and posing a dangerous hazard to the sealife.  Great environmental message that the organisers are trying to send to the world’s youth, particularly at an event that celebrated youth and the potentious future ahead. It was simply appalling and I can’t condemn this enough.  To me, this event was ruined by one very stupid act.
Not a good start for the world’s first YOG.

The Tanglin Tree

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The Tanglin Tree is a vaguely Australian-inspired place just at the edge of town that’s nice for a quiet dinner out. It has pretty decent food presented in an equally pretty manner. DC had the teriyaki cod skewers, I had lamb cutlets with spicy lamb sausages and we shared three sides of fries, green salad and ratatouille. The fries were done just right: crisp outside, fluffy inside and with salt bits bursting on the tongue. The green salad was well-tossed in a tasty low-key dressing, but the ratatouille was a letdown. Hardly the stuff of epiphanies and childhood memories, it was too sharp and too mushy for my taste.

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DC’s cod was surprisingly good and beautifully presented, as you can see from the picture. I normally steer well clear of teriyaki and cod as I’m not very fond of sweet in my savoury food and I find that cod is often too fatty for my taste. This version was deftly handled with a light touch. It helped that the cod was in small pieces so that the excess cod oil would’ve oozed out in the cooking. Lightly crisp outside and meltingly tender inside, the cod almost made me regret not ordering it…

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… until I ate my lamb and was well pleased. Now, it’s not earth-shatteringly good, but an extremely decently executed dish. I didn’t feel like it was lamb overkill as the portions were restrained and well-proportioned. The cutlets were done just right, again the contrast of the right textures inside and out, and the sausages were nicely spicy without being overwhelming. It also helped that my food came nicely presented too!

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The most interesting thing for dessert was this flourless orange cake (goes to show how boring the dessert menu is). It was very dense, a change from the spongier norm. It was also surprisingly good as we found ourselves gobbling up it all up with the creme fraiche despite already being very full from our mains. Though not a particularly orangey cake, the interplay of dense and sweet cake with tart fruit and unctuous creme fraiche had a lot to speak for.

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The Tanglin Tree
56 Tanglin Road B1-01
Friven & Co Building
Tel: 6733 0992