July in Vietnam: A Ho Chi Minh Finale

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Before I knew it, I was back in Ho Chi Minh City. It was unmistakable from the sheer volume of motorcycles that seemed to populate the city.

00461

I visited the main sights like the Main Post Office, worth a look for its French-style architecture.

00458

And the stately People’s Committee Building or Hotel de Ville. Sadly, it didn’t take visitors, leaving me to take (very bad) pictures from across the street.

00459

Right in the front of the Hotel de Ville was a statue of Uncle Ho, the city’s namesake, comforting a child.

00462

Then there was the Notre Dame Cathedral that lost all its stained glass in the War. Its facade wasn’t very inspiring…

00463

… but inside there were rather unique statues of Vietnamese saints at one of the niches.

00456

There were also amusing Fun With English admonishing tourists to let the mass be.

00457

I also wandered out into the Cholon district, where the Chinatown of Saigon lay. Some of the temples here outshone those in Hoi An by far with their ornate yet somehow tasteful decor. I greatly enjoyed the contrast between black and gold here, complemented by the red background.

00467

The light that day was just perfect for this lovely shot of celestial light streaming past the conical joss sticks to reflect wildly off the ceremonial urn.

00466

There were other bits of detail that I really enjoyed, like this eave guard standing with his fan or some such ready to do… what? Battle with unseen miniature dragons? Beat back the wind?

00465

And there was this deliciously child-like panorama of a manor house and its out buildings.

00468

I’ve somehow lost the pictures I took when eating with Delightt, of banh mi so yummy I had to take some on the plane with me, and mushroom pizzas so addictive I had to have one for brunch despite already having had breakfast and plans for lunch. But I managed to take a picture of a very unusual breakfast of banh cuon, the Viet take on chee cheong fun. I must say that the Vietnamese can outcook the Cantonese for chee cheong fun. (The Singaporean hawker version served with that nasty sweet sauce is irredeemable.) Their version was much thinner and finer, so good that it was even better eaten cold. Mine was stuffed with minced pork and mushroom then sprinkled with nuoc mam and accompanied by spamsticks and basil. It was incredibly yummy.

00469

And then there was Fanny. Delightt and I spent a good afternoon there trying flavour after flavour. They had strange ones like custard apple, peanut and ginger flavours. Most were really yummy, like passionfruit and mango and the usual vanilla flavours. The waitress was incredibly patient with us as we chose to order each scoop separately (they gave one wafer and one grape garnish for each ice cream cup), especially considering that each scoop only cost 11,000 dong (USD0.65). Excellent stuff.

00464

And last of all was one of the best bits of being in Vietnam – having ca phe sua da (ice coffee with condensed milk). Trung Nguyen was everywhere and I dropped in often to get my coffee fix. It was here that I had the most expensive cup of coffee in my life – civet cat coffee, which was strong, intense and cost me a pretty USD7. It would otherwise have bought me a whole day of gluttonous eating. A pity that the coffee was so strong it started giving me palpitations and I couldn’t finish it.

00460

Perhaps a fitting metaphor for my experience in Vietnam. Goodbye Vietnam of the bittersweet memories.

July in Vietnam: The Cao Dai Holy See

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

From Mui Ne, I moved on to Ho Chi Minh City and almost immediately found myself on a tour out to the Cao Dai Holy See. Cao Dai is a new religion founded in Tay Ninh province near Ho Chi Minh City in the 20th Century. It’s a fusion of eastern and western religions and, according to Lonely Planet, incorporates elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, native Vietnamese spiritualism and Islam. Services are held four times a day at midnight, 6am, noon and 6pm. It was one of these services that my tour took me to see.

The architecture of the temple, just like the religion, had a mishmash of influences. The outlying pagodas had a pastel wedding cake feel so typical of western fairy tale castle architecture yet were unmistakeably shaped like  Chinese pagodas.

00360

The main temple building was much the same, where a Muslim-inspired dome that sat on Chinese-style tiled roofs was detailed with vaguely Baroque styling and topped with a Chinese qilin (unicorn).

00361

The oddly disjointed design was somehow unified by the pastel colour scheme.

00362

Worshippers in long white gowns were starting to stream in, a stark contrast to the colourful temple. Outside, venerated saints looked benevolently down from the pastel blue sky dotted with fuzzy clouds.

00363

I couldn’t help my amusement at how the real weather was fair more threatening than the one painted on the walls, giving the temple an even more surreal feel.

00364

And just inside the temple was a large mural with Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo and Viet poet Nguyen Binh Khiem writing out God and Humanity, Love and Justice in French and Chinese. My mind boggled trying to figure out the link between them.

00371

The tourists then herded onto the balconies along the main sanctuaries, gawking at the blue skies and fluffy white clouds on the ceiling and the dragons plastered on the pastel pink pillars.

00365

To my delight, the priests were dressed in stark primary colours, standing out brightly from the white-garbed laypeople. Each colour represented a different branch of Cao Dai.

00366

The service commenced with lots of bowing, chanting and singing.

00367

I very much enjoyed admiring the blocks of different colours and how they contrasted beautifully with the very cool floor tiles.

00368

Too soon, the signal was given for tourists to leave, and we headed out of the temple past the choir singing dreamily, accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments.

00370

The time for the surreal was over, now it was time for war tunnels and Cu Chi.

July in Vietnam: A Viet Chinatown

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

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.

00201

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.

00217

It looked amazing even in silhouette.

00216

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

00204

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

00202

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

00203

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

00205

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.

00207

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.

00212

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

00213

March in Laos: Vientiane’s Temple Architecture

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

People don’t really go to Laos for its temples. While it’s hardly Ayuthaya or Angkor Wat, Vientiane has  some lovely architecture. Siamesecat and I spent a leisurely hour exploring How Pha Kaew which now functions as a museum of art and antiquities rather than a temple.

00030

The style was a lot less formal and lacked the grandeur of other places in the region. But this gave the whole complex a rather relaxed feel, somehow as if they didn’t take themselves that seriously.

00031

I liked this wooden structure beautifully gilded with gold leaf. The inside housed many treasures belonging to the city. It was a pity that the interior was poorly lit and the exhibits were placed rather haphazardly.

00036

00033

Laotian architecture, influenced by neighbouring Thailand, pays attention to small details. I enjoyed this naga carving…

00038

… and absolutely adored the carvings on the eaves. I especially loved how this dragonfly was taking a breather on the dragon! Look carefully now.

00034

Inside, the door panels had ornate carvings, again coated with gold leaf.

00040

As in most Buddhist structures, there were Buddha statues all over the place. This tortoise stuck out amidst the many statues. I guess the poor guy doesn’t get much respect seeing as they had to put a “No Sitting” sign on him!

00046

August in China: Xiamen’s Gulangyu

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

I flew from Xian in the central north to Xiamen at the southern coast. The weather immediately became much more humid like at home. Even the people on the streets looked a lot more like Chinese Singaporeans, not surprising seeing as a majority of Chinese Singaporeans are from the Fujian area.

My first stop was at Gulangyu, an islet famous for its pretty colonial architecture. I crossed over in the evening by ferry. Not sure why, but it was free in the evenings. A local guy told me not to bother paying so I paid by admiring the view.

CIMG3144

The dusk view was rather pretty as there was a nice contrast between the colonial houses on Gulangyu…

CIMG3151

… and the bright neon lights of the office buildings opposite in Xiamen itself.

CIMG3157

I had a bit of a problem getting a bed initially as the most popular place on the island was fully booked. There was a bit of a red herring moment when a “friendly local” showed me a dingy room and wanted to charge way over my budget for it. Thankfully I found another less popular but still clean and decent place that fit my budget nicely. Lesson learned: always google accommodation beforehand and get the phone number of the place, it’s not always easy to find a place from its address alone. The locals aren’t always the most informative and building numbers can be jumbled.

The next morning I had a little wander around the island. There was lots of pretty though not particularly memorable architecture…

CIMG3160

… and a glimpse of the most famous site on the island.

CIMG3161

Domestic tourists like to trek up to the top of the rock where on a clear day one can see Taiwan, or more accurately, the Jinmen Islands. It had been especially popular in the past when no one at all from the mainland could set foot on Taiwan. Having lived in Taipei for two years, of course I didn’t want to crowd with the rest of the people and was content to watch from afar.

CIMG3162

After a little sojourn around the islet, I headed for the famous Gulangyu fishballs stuffed with minced pork. It was a little anti-climactic though, the fishball wasn’t bouncy and the meat not very flavourful. I much preferred the Singaporean version. I think us immigrants did far better at improving on the recipe. Oh well.

CIMG3155

August in China: Drum Towers of Northern Guangxi

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

The Dong minority is also very well-known for its drum towers, probably even more so than its fengyu qiao (wind rain bridges). Every village must have at least one of these structures. Rising above each village, it serves multiple functions. It’s a community centre, a meeting place, a town hall, a fire alarm and all-purpose emergency service.

cimg2545

Each of them is unique, a variation on a theme. Count the number of tiers and observe the carvings and you’ll notice that each drum tower is completely different from its cousins in the neighbourhood.

cimg2582

Each is so much a centre of village life that shops open only in the vicinity of a drum tower. Here, they even build a small basketball court in front of the tower. It’s since been converted to a good space for drying rice.

cimg2606

It was lovely to watch how grandparents congregated in the drum towers with their grandchildren. The sandwich generation was away working the fields, or in recent times, had already moved to the cities for work, leaving their children in the care of the elders.

cimg2535

This place was almost like a childcare centre, until we realised that the caretakers weren’t really the grandparents.

cimg25311

It sure looked like the grandparents ran the show, but it was really the TV that got everyone in here.

cimg2532

August in China: Chengyang Bridge

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

In Guilin, I met Willy, a Spanish fella who wanted to go off the tourist loop and see some real villages. We took off after lunch and headed up to Sanjiang (where?) in hopes of getting to Chengyang Bridge before nightfall. It was not to be. The minibuses had stopped by the time we rocked up and we had to take this modified tuk-tuk. It looks a lot sturdier than it feels and of course this photo opp was only possible because of a fuel stop.

cimg2518

Chengyang Bridge is one of the most famous symbols of the Dong minority group. They are famous for their skill in carpentry, particularly in building bridges and drum towers. The bridges are called fengyu qiao (wind-rain bridges) and are very elaborate structures that look like several pagodas joined together. This is the lovely sight that greeted us.

cimg2652

We were lucky to arrive so late because the entrance fee was something crazy like ¥100! For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t know exactly how much it cost. We called our inn on the other side of the bridge and the lady-boss came over to get us. She instructed us not to give in if anyone demanded payment and to tell them that any receipts would be at the inn. I guess this shows that the admission fees weren’t going back to the community!

Nonethelss, the fairy lights on the bridge were magical at night. Thankfully, the lights were switched off at 11 pm so it was relatively good for the environment.

cimg2654

The bridge was also pretty darn good-looking in the day time. It was charmingly rustic and weathered. It was too bad that we couldn’t walk back across the bridge for fear of having to pay the dreaded entrance fee on the way back.

cimg2527

Luckily, the complex of villages was on our side of the bridge and there was so much else to explore. We walked across several equally impressive bridges, none of them demanding entrance fees. However, all of them asked for a small donation in exchange for having your name carved on a stone tablet as a benefactor. Posterity for ¥10 sounded like a good deal, but since Willy had walked ahead and declined the offer, I didn’t bother and didn’t have the chance to ponder the consequences of donation and stone tablet.

cimg2544

I thought this bridge was especially spectacular. It was a lot quieter and rose majestically above the fields. I guess it’s less famous for the simple reason that it was further away from the main road.

cimg2557

One of the bridges led to the market and of course this was the most popular with the locals, especially the elders. It was a great place to hang out as it was breezy and there was a good view of the river. Some people played cards and dominoes while others just snoozed. What a great lifestyle choice.

cimg2561

On this bridge I found a little niche housing the gods of the bridge. It was pretty old but well-tended. Cute.

cimg2560

Quite serendipitously, we met this man who asked us what we were up to and invited us to his house for a cup of tea. Turned out that he was a great bridge builder who had done many projects in the big cities and even as far as Shanghai and Beijing. He showed us cut-out newspaper features on him and sheaves of architectural plans of bridges he’d drawn. He had shelves of models of bridges and drum towers all over his house. It was too bad he didn’t allow us to photograph those because he had plans to set up a museum featuring them. He was quite pleased to oblige us with a photo with him though.

cimg2556