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: 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: 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]

August in China: Guangzhou’s Nanyue Tomb

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In terms of tourist attractions, Guangzhou is a bit like Singapore. While there are lots of little things here and there, there aren’t really a whole load of interesting things to see. Sure, there are some historical sights and lots of parks, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a theme to the place and not much really stands out as a must-see for a foreign tourist. Guangzhou is more a place to be experienced by walking through the streets and observing life as the locals live it.

The only place billed as a tourist attraction that I really liked and felt was worth the entry fee was the Nanyue Tomb. This place was discovered, as per the typical case, by excavations for a spanking new skyscraper. It was not to be when they found the 2000-year old tomb of Zhao Mo, the grandson of the founder of the Nanyue kingdom. The tomb was pretty much intact and there were loads of precious artefacts and (gulp) skeletons of concubines and servants buried together with the ruler.

The imposing front edifice of the place had some odd carvings probably copied from the tomb. It was a nice non-tacky touch, quite atypical compared to other museums I’d been to.

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Unfortunately, they couldn’t resist references to Egypt and I.M. Pei. This is as good as it gets.

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The tomb itself wasn’t too impressive because it was pretty much empty. All the articles of note were put in the adjoining museum and only little scraps put behind glass were left. Not surprisingly, it was rather claustrophic and had lots of little side chambers. The most chilling bit was how the side chambers contained the remains of real people with real functions, even for the afterlife. There was a kitchen section with skeletons of the cooks and kitchen workers, and there was a concubine section where at least three wives were identified from their jewellery near their remains.

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In the museum proper were lots of beautiful things, from jewellery and musical instruments to weapons and religious symbols. It was all pretty cool. The best part of the museum was the burial suit consisted of lots of little jade pieces stitched together to form something like full body armour. It was obviously custom-made, all the way from the hands and feet to the little paunch for the emperor’s spare tire. (The red thread was also a modern reconstruction.)

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This place was so good that I spent two hours there and left reluctantly at closing time. I’d definitely have spent longer there had I known what was inside.