July in Vietnam: More Cham Ruins

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The Cham ruins in the outskirt of Quy Nhon were much more spectacular, particularly because they were set in the rather prettier countryside that the drab concrete town. It was a lovely time of year to visit as the padi fields were in the middle of the growing season, with pretty patchwork fields of alternating green and yellow.

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The towers were situated on a hilly outcrop overlooking the fields and a still stream that watered the area.

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The good thing about being in an untouristy area was that there weren’t any marked out areas at which to pay entrance fees; the bad thing about being in this untouristy area was that I really hadn’t a clue what I was looking at, just that they were ancient and it was remarkable that they’d been standing for so long.

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Still, it was a lovely walk up the hill where there really wasn’t anyone about and I could admire the large expanse of the country below.

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I liked the unique barrel-like roof put on a few of these towers and wondered the significance of these barrel-topped ones over the others.

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Some of them were already being restored, the sharp lines being made more pronounced with new brick.

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The great thing about this place was that I had free rein to walk around and it didn’t appear that the roof was going to tumble down on top of me at any moment.

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I took my time, enjoying the views inside and out.

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It was nice seeing how the place wasn’t totally restored yet there was still plenty of detail in the unrestored bits. I liked the humour of how the leering toothy face popped out of nowhere in the relief.

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There were also other reliefs that looked like table runners or part of a bookmark design. It’s funny how similar designs emerge time and again in different cultures.

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As I was all alone, it took  a bit of fiddling with the auto-timer on the camera to get a picture of sorts with the ruins.

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Well, not completely alone as I had the company of this little lizard with the rosy body.

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July in Vietnam: Quy Where?

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Quy Nhon (pronounced “wee nyon”) is a slightly industrial and not particularly pretty fishing town midway between Hoi An and my next stop, Mui Ne. It had charmless concrete buildings lining the street and not a great deal in its favour. Yet I was willing to stumble into town at 2am, taking the only available bus in. After a botched attempt at going to a place I’d booked ahead at (the people were fast asleep and no amount of doorbell ringing, door banging nor phone calling would wake them up to let me in), I managed to find a place at a hostel and not get ripped off or abandoned to die on the streets. It’s true, people did seem to get more hospitable as I went further south.

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The only interesting thing along the way to my destination was the way they sold goldfish and fighting fish in tightly shut plastic bags that sparkled in the sun. Pretty, but poor fish!

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Now the reason for going to Quy Nhon was to see the Cham ruins and how the city just built itself round them. It was so oddly out of sync how the concrete and electric wires stopped just shy of the ruins, still much inhabited by colonising plants and creepers.

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Inside one of these Cham towers was a lingam, still looking so little weathered that I wasn’t sure if it was a reconstruction or an original ruin. It was still used in active worship by the locals.

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While the main towers are further in the outskirts of the town, there was a Cham museum in the area, with rather interesting exhibits on show.

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Although the main building was closed, there were enough artifacts scattered in the courtyard to be worth a happy picture-taking session, just like this dog guarding the entrance. I really liked its toothy grimace and its pretty two-tiered decorative collar.

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Then there were these naga-like carvings that looked like they used to be part of a wall. It looked almost like a modern interpretation of Hindu art.

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And the same for this lion-like creature. I enjoyed the little details like the little whorls of hair on its head.

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The town has a nice beach with a great view of the curving bay.

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Too bad it wasn’t in any condition to swim in, the strong fishy smell put me off any notion of getting into my swim gear.

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You see, this town had part of its livelihood in fishing and there were plenty of pretty nets further out that somehow helped to net the fish. These nets were of course responsible for the stench.

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The fishermen went to and from the nets using cute little circular boats. It was a wonder they managed to get anywhere.

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It was lovely to be in this town with few tourists and no touts at all. I blended in fairly well with the locals (as long as I didn’t open my mouth) and enjoyed being on my own for a few days.

Whisky Night

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We had quite a few new whiskies to try out, first being the rather famous Yamazakis. These beat Scottish whiskies in blind taste tests and we were curious to taste the difference. It helped that in my last pass through Heathrow airport, I had a little sip of the Yamazaki 12 and was very taken by it.

The Yamazaki 12 (43%) is the entry level single malt from Suntory. It’s very smooth and light, with slightly fruity pineapple overtones and a lovely smokey ending. Lightened with a few drops of water, it takes on an almost sweet character. Very easy for a first-time single malt drinker.

Now the Yamazaki 18 (43%) is three times the price. I’m not sure if it’s three times as good as the 12, but it is Very Good. At first there was nothing much on the palate, but suddenly it exploded in the mouth like fireworks (the fireworks bit is according to DC). It’s smooth and buttery, tasting like dark herbal honey, except without the sweetness. It’s firmly on the favourites list.

We also got the MacDuff 27 (45%). It was from a little shop at Ion Orchard called Vom Fass that dispensed various liquors, vinegars and oils into little bottles. We started with 100ml of it for starters. This whisky took us on a different plane altogether. It was smooth like no other whisky I’ve tried, with very little bite of alcohol. It had an almost hay-like nose and a complex blend of flavours that made me keep going at the little bottle. We’ll have to get a refill to taste again.

Spruce Tacos

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I’d anticipated going to Spruce Taqueria for a while but its opening hours just didn’t do it for me. Not working in the area, it was practically impossible for me to make it there for the week-day lunch only opening hours. Imagine my joy when Travis tweeted that they now serve tacos in the evening between 5.30 and 7.30pm at Spruce itself. Sure, it’d take a bit of a rush there from work, but at least it was doable.

DC and I got there at 7pm and only went in after they assured us that tacos were still available. The head server must’ve thought we were totally bonkers when suddenly we lit up and rushed in upon hearing the taco affirmation. Last orders for tacos were taken at 7.15 so we had to quickly decide how much we wanted. There were three flavours: short rib, snapper and pork carnita. We went for the short rib and pork carnita first. When these arrived, it looked manageable to have more, so we quickly added to our bonkers quotient by asking for the third snapper flavour while just starting our first tacos.

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Only two pictures because they all pretty much looked the same. In order of yummyness, we both agreed that the snapper was the best, followed by the short rib and then a distant third with the pork carnita. Each dish consisted of two tacos and each taco came with two tortillas topped with filling, then taco sauce, shredded cabbage and guacamole, and garnished with plenty of coriander, which unfortunately looked a bit sad in patches. It was finished off with bits of radish and lime. The lime was a bit of a mistake because we’re both big lime fans and ended up squeezing too much on it. The sour drowned out much of the taste of the pork carnita. A pity.

The carnita was basically pulled pork and a bit stringy, though the sauce helped. I liked the tenderness of the short rib but wasn’t sold on how the flavour was drowned out by the rest of the taco. The fish surprisingly held up very well to the robust flavours and its soft, almost mushy texture was a nice counterpoint (plus it was much easier to eat, less effort to bite through the taco).

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The dragon breath later was terrible but it was definitely worthwhile.

Spruce
320 Tanglin Road
Phoenix Park
Tel: 6836 5528

Just a week later, DC and I were fortunately to be in the area on a weekday and we made it to the taqueria itself. The stand is perched at the top of hill, way to the right along the little curved street just coming up from Spruce itself. They were pretty slow to serve the food even though it looked like a fast food shack. Didn’t help that lots of stuff was already sold out by 12.45pm, like beef tongue and watermelon agua fresca. Disappointed, DC went for the short rib taco set that came with tortillas, salsa and lemonade. It was just as good as the tacos sold downhill for twice the price. I’m glad it’s consistent.

I went for the salad bowl, basically the same pile of stuff arranged differently: filling, salsa, guacamole and taco strips crisped to turn into tortillas. I liked the extra dollop of sour cream, it complemented the fiery salsa and filling of mushroom and poblano chiles very well. Plus, the salad is great for avoiding the greater part of the dragon breath (though you still get some).


Quick Eats: Sembawang Hills Hawker Centre

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DC and I thought we’d do something a bit healthier and go for the HSBC treetop walk at Macritchie Reservoir. Before that we of course had to stop somewhere for sustenance. The Sembawang Hills hawker centre nearby did the trick. I did a very unwise thing and queued for the famous “inventor” fish soup where the owner had lots of little contraptions for serving his customers better. There was a curved dispenser so that we help ourselves to spoons hygienically and a coin sorter that helped him with his change. Needless to say, the queue was horribly long and DC said he’d go for the salted duck noodles instead. I persevered and got my fish soup with instant noodles (everyone else seemed to be ordering that too) and added some fish roe to it.

My verdict? It wasn’t worth the queue. While the fish was decent, there wasn’t a great deal of flavour and the noodles were a bit too soft for my taste. I could have done better cooking it myself at home.

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DC was prescient enough to take this shot before he started. By the time I got back to the table with my fish noodles, most of the duck and noodles were gone! Still, I managed to wrangle some over from him. Oh my, the duck was very good! The salt had cured the duck somewhat and intensified the flavour of the duck, also giving it a firm, smooth texture. And the noodles! I’m not normally a fan of yellow noodles (sek mee) but this version was still very much firm to the bite. DC had to restrain me from buying my own set of duck noodles after the disappointing fish ones.

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Next time we go to Macritchie I know what I’m having!

Fresh Fish Soup
#01-36

Ah Ee Traditional Hokkien Salted Duck
#01-28
590 Upper Thomson Road
Sembawang Hill Food Centre

OChre: Flawed but Good Value

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DC’s father insisted that we try out OChre despite us wanting to dress down. We finally got round to getting me out of my usual casual garb (think T-shirt, three-quarter pants and slippers) and into a nice dress and heels. We were pleasantly surprised by this place as the food is pretty good and the prices pretty decent. The cooking is almost classic Italian, with a Japanese sensibility to it. No surprise from a Japanese chef trained in Italy. There’s a restrained elegance to the dishes done well, and a disconcerting feeling of blandness and not quite bringing out the ingredients’ full potential in those not so well executed.

We opted to share the antipasti and primi plati before having our own mains. The first appetiser of tomatoes and bufala was decent as the tomatoes were ripe and sweet and the bufala creamy and fresh. I wasn’t sure about the tomato jelly as it was basically solidified tomato soup that didn’t add much to the flavours and didn’t help to unify the dish. Decent but no a reorder.

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Next was the tonno vitello, slow poached veal topped with tuna sauce. Everyone else seemed to like it, but as it’s not my favourite dish, Ican’t quite comment on the execution. The only thing is thatI felt that it wasn’t a great deal different from the  more downmarket version at Riciotti. I liked how the veal was tender and didn’t like how the cooked tuna in the sauce made it all quite rough in texture.

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The last appetiser was the crowd pleaser: Hokkaido scallop carpaccio with parma ham. The scallop was impeccable, sweet and very slightly briny at the same time. The parma ham was passable, not great, and somehow didn’t quite go with the delicate scallop. Eaten separately, I think this works well, but not both ham and scallop in the same bite.

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I think the ravioli is where the chef really shone. I don’t remember much of the filling (was it kurobuta pork?), just that the little parcels were nicely al dente with chewy, salty filling, and oh the sauce! The sauce was a creamy mushroom sauce with ceps in them. I cannot tell you how much I love the soft texture and gently yet seductively woody flavour of ceps. Cooked into the amazingly creamy sauce, this really made my evening.

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The oyster and saffron risotto was a decent rendition, again not much different from a version at another restaurant, this time Prego’s. I liked the asparagus bits in it, but wasn’t too enamoured by how they couldn’t bring out the clean briny flavour of fresh oysters in this dish. While the oysters were definitely fresh, there was a hint of fishy that I can’t quite place or explain. Perhaps cooking the oysters slightly affected the delicacy of the risotto. Perhaps I also didn’t like that the rice was a bit too hard for my taste. Who knows.

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The chef’s specialty is the duck risotto. I thought it was quite different as it broke away from the mold of risottos being defined by the stock it’s cooked in. This time, I think the chef used water instead of stock and the rice had a very clean taste, quite akin to that of watery porridge made with Thai jasmine rice. Studded in the risotto were cubes of smoked duck, lending little taste explosions of gamey salt to the tongue. It was a good dish but again the rice was too hard. I prefer it cooked a tad more, probably 30 seconds more stirring in the pot and I’ll be a happy camper.

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On to the mains. DC and I shared a beef with foie gras and they portioned them out nicely onto two plates. The funny thing was that they didn’t ask how we wanted the beef done and protested that we should go with the chef’s preference of medium rare. We both like our steaks Bloody and vetoed that in favour of rare. It was almost comical how the waiter kept asking if we were sure. I liked the steak and accompanying vegetables very much, it was all very well executed and the natural flavour of the beef shone through. The foie gras I felt was superfluous and added nothing to the dish. I’ll give it (foie gras, not steak) all to DC next time.

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For dessert, DC and I shared a mille feuille, which we felt was the best dessert of the evening. (There was also panna cotta and creme brulee, which seemed slightly disappointing to the rest.) It was puff pastry with pistachio semi freddofilling. The semifreddo was excellent, being smooth, creamy and full of toasted pistachios. The pastry was a bit too difficult to handle: while crisp, it was a bit too hard and impossible to cut out to eat with the semifreddo filling. Nonetheless, taking a bit of pastry and a bite of semifreddo, this was a great dessert.

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A few last words on the service: fairly attentive though a bit lacking in the common sense department. One chose to make slightly disparaging comments of the very old Burgundy that DC’s father brought for dinner, not realising that though it wasn’t a Bordeaux (hey Bordeaux doesn’t automatically make a wine good!) it was a good vintage from a respectable vineyard. Later when asked our opinion on the food, one of them rather snippily said that the risotto was done that way in Italy. That certainly wasn’t the case in my recent trip to Italy (more on that later, oh my, one Michelin star heaven!) where risotto was done al dente rather than just off the verge of crunchy. Last, they didn’t do anything to clear away the bread basket that was obviously in the way, just says that the attentiveness is a bit of a show.

OChre’s definitely flawed, but the food has lots of promise, just having one or two things in each dish that if tweaked, would take it right up there in the good food stakes.

OChre
181 Orchard Road
#11-03/04 Orchard Central
Tel: 6634 0423

Viet-inspired Chicken Rice

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I was so inspired by the Viet chicken rice in Hoi An that I absolutely had to make my own. I started off on a typical Hainanese chicken rice base. Not having access to the type of chicken (most likely cornfed) that coloured the rice yellow, I improvised by adding turmeric to the rice base. For the chicken, I poached it the Hainanese way. However, the toppings were very much improved with plenty of typically Vietnamese herbage. Even in the absence of Hainanese chilli sauce, I thought this was a winner. It also passed the family test: every grain of rice was gobbled up even though I deliberately cooked more in the hope of leftovers. I can imagine it being even more magical with Hainanese chilli sauce.

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Ingredients:

2 cups rice

1 chicken
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sesame oil

2 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 thumb-length ginger, chopped
4 cloves, optional
1 star anise, optional
1 thumb-length turmeric, pounded

½ carrot, shredded
Thai basil
mint
daun kesom (laksa) leaves
kaffir lime leaves, very finely sliced
big limes, cut into wedges

Method:

  1. Wash rice and put in rice cooker pot. Measure out how much water you’d put in and keep that amount in mind for the stock to use, about 450ml. (I use the “equal finger” method: stick your finger in the rice, and add water to the same level above the rice.) Now drain the rice and set aside.
  2. Put chicken in pot and cover with water. Heat gently till just boiling and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off fire and leave for 30 minutes.
  3. Remove chicken and set aside. Keep all stock and juices from chicken. When cool, rub with salt and sesame oil.
  4. Fry garlic, shallot and ginger in oil till fragrant, then add cloves, star anise, cinnamon and fry for a few seconds more. Add rice and fry till it’s dry and glistening.
  5. Transfer to rice cooker and and chicken stock. Squeeze the pounded turmeric over, discarding the dry turmeric pulp. Season with a pinch or so of salt. Cook as normal.
  6. Chop chicken and prepare herbage for serving.
  7. Before eating, arrange chicken on top of rice and top with carrot shreds and herbs. Squeeze the lime over and tuck in.

Serves 4.

July in Vietnam: Eating My Way Through Hoi An

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Back in Hoi An, a great deal of colour and eating beckoned. The colourful Chinese lanterns dotting the streets and the relaxed way of life really charmed me. Here, there were few motorcycles and a lot of people got around either on foot or by bicycle.

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I spotted some amusing sights on the way, like this couple trying very hard to relax for their wedding photo shoot…

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… while their costumed wedding party awaited.

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And just before dinner I spotted this restaurateur picking his nose outside his very empty joint. I wonder why no one patronised his cafe.

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I headed on towards the market where lots of yummy sights and smells awaited. The sheer variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs made me yearn for a kitchen to whip up some food inspired by the local produce.

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I settled with having their local snacks instead. First, there were these odd little pancakes, reminiscent of the Indian appom. The tiny cakes were small enough to pop into the mouth whole and were crispy. The greasiness was countered by the shredded vegetables and herbs and the whole ensemble completed with a spamstick and a mystery-meat ball. It was a very satisfying starter.

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A short wander away was this version of bun. The thick rice noodles were bespattered with thick sweet sauce a bit like the stuff at home that’s put on yong tau fu, just quite a bit more savoury. It was much nicer with the hot sauce and the hotter yellow chillis.

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Yet another odd dish was this plate of assorted steamed dumplings. I wasn’t particularly impressed even though the guide book said something about “white rose” which was supposed to be shrimp encased in rice paper of sorts and steamed. It was more like soon kueh with slightly drier skin. Not bad when hot but not much more than not bad.

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Wandering away from the market, I ducked into an alley along the quaint streets…

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… and found myself in a little porch with a bowl of cau lau in front of me. This is a Hoi An specialty that involves flat yellow noodles being smothered with braised pork and topped with lime juice and the usual herbage. It’s finished off with crispy fried rice paper bits and tastes really yummy, though very much reminding of what I do at home with leftover braised pork.

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The best dish I had in Hoi An was the chicken rice, thankfully not featured in the guide but chanced upon on the street. The rice was cooked with chicken stock, just like Hainanese chicken rice at home. Unlike the stuff at home, it was topped with a whole variety of oddities like boiled pork, beansprouts and herbs. Not to mention, the chicken was just the shredded type torn apart with fingers. The flavour was amazing. It was an epiphany to have incredibly aromatic, chickeny rice matched with herbs like coriander and laksa leaves. It was definitely a step up from Hainanese chicken rice.

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I’m sure some of you must be wondering why I hadn’t mentioned Vietnam’s national drink yet. The coffee here is thick, strong and incredibly sweet and milky with added condensed milk. And that’s the only way you should have it. Ask for ca phe sua da and you get a tall glass of ice to cool it all down with. It’s wonderful on a hot day. When you’re done, chase it down with the green tea provided gratis.

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I first noticed this coffee place because of the many men perched on red plastic chairs watching TV in the morning. They disappeared by midday and I only ventured there in the afternoon to get a mobile plan top up card and a glass of coffee. After the first sip, I was hooked. I spent every afternoon there enjoying my ca phe sua da, playing with the very cute puppy called Remain, and chatting with the proprietress about Hoi An, Vietnam and Singapore.

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July in Vietnam: The Cham Ruins of My Son

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The Champa civilisation was one of the Indian-influenced civilisations in Southeast Asia, similar to those who built the ancient cities of Bagan, Ayuthaya, Angkor Wat and Borobudur. One reason to pass through Hoi An was to visit My Son (pronouced “mi sen”), part of this temple circuit. With this trip, I added the last scalp to my belt.

I booked with a friendly though somewhat scatterbrained travel agent a tour to My Son, Vietnam’s answer to Angkor Wat. After a false early morning start where they forgot about picking me up, I finally got on a tour out there in the later part of the morning. The entrance to the ruins was a lot newer than expected and a friendly American family helpfully snapped a picture of me next to this spanking new pile of stone.

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We were raring to go see the ruins, but not before admiring the local cows enjoying a good bit of rumination under the shade. The morning was progressing and it was starting to get mighty hot.

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True enough, lots of tourists were already out there, heavily armed with umbrellas. Still, they were very much dwarfed by the Cham ruins, rising up majestically and rather shabbily at the same time.

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I was struck by how much of the structures still remained. They survived years of weathering and wars and retained most of the main features of the buildings. The red brick still stood but the cement had long fallen off.

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The entrances were tall and thin, probably reflecting the girth but not height of the people then. I admired the intricate carvings on the eaves of the entrances.

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Too bad about the statues built into the walls. The details had pretty much been weathered off and the details of faces and dress could barely be made out.

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However, no amount of weathering could disguise what this was. This linga was the most graphic I’d seen in Southeast Asian temple sites. There were lots of giggling tourists wondering how on earth to pose with it.

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Much easier for the amateur photographer were the headless statues dotting the compound.

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There were also plenty of reliefs of lesser gods with heads.

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These were less interesting to the average tourist, but the unique features that seemed to me part-Indian and part-Balinese left me admiring them for quite a while.

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It was a pity that the wasn’t a great deal to the site as quite a lot of the ruins were really just that. Many of them were ruined not so much because of the passage of time but because of American bombings during the war. Sad indeed.

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July in Vietnam: A Viet Chinatown

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Hoi An is one of those paradoxical places: right smack in the middle of traditionally China-hating Vietnam yet if you’re dropped randomly into the town for a look round, you’d think it to be China. Except of course that if you’ve been to China before you’d know better. It’s like a really prettied up version of a Chinatown, what Singapore’s Chinatown would aspire to be when it grows up. It was full of Chinese characters and dragon motifs, yet the odd thing was that no one there spoke any Chinese at all.

My first stop was at the Fujian Assembly Hall, oddly named jin shan si or Golden Mountain Temple in Mandarin. It had such a grand facade that I bet any Chinese trader that would have been suitably impressed.

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Other halls were less impressive, like this tumbledown one on the edge of town. Unlike the others, it hadn’t a name and wasn’t featured in the guide book. Still, the dragon motifs were incredibly beautiful.

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It looked amazing even in silhouette.

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Other typically Chinese places were the temples. The eaves were beautifully, ornately decorated and very impressive to look at.

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Not being a frequenter of temples at home, I was taken aback by these very cool joss sticks that were twirled into cone shapes.

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As it burned, each joss stick gave off plenty of slightly sweet smoke that wafted past the eaves.

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Other traditional houses had craft showcases, like this one with lantern making demonstrations to make the colourful lights still used extensively in the town.

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Of course, not everything looked bright and new and restored. Here’s a little courtyard of a shophouse turned museum, looking very similar in style to Peranakan houses in Singapore and Malacca. I think it’s the tiled fountain against the wall that’s so typical of Chinese-influenced houses in the region.

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And last of all was the Japanese Covered Bridge, oddly not looking anything particularly Japanese at all. It was quite similar to the one in Hue, just that this one was on the edge of town and not in the midst of paddy fields.

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Here, the bridge god was a dog, and a strangely Egyptian-looking one at that. How strange.

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