A Whirlwind Work Trip: Sightseeing Milan’s Duomo and Other Escapades

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As it happened, we had a weekend off and spent a glorious summer Saturday enjoying Milan. First was a revisit of the Duomo I last saw 10 years ago. Then, it was grey and swathed in scaffolding. Now, it’d been restored to a beautiful white and tan.

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The hotel was just round the corner and I was too lazy stand far enough back to get a good shot of the Duomo in all its glory. You’ll just have to imagine what it looked like with the sun starting to shine hotly down its spires.

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The inside, while pretty awe-inspiring in its sense of space, was pretty grey like the last time I saw it.

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Nonetheless, the rose window was a beautiful sight to behold…

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… as were the many minor side nooks…

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… and the beautiful stained glass.

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I stood for ages admiring the rich colours of the religious scenes.

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But the roof of the Duomo beckoned too. I paid a few euro to get some exercise climbing up the stairs. It was lovely to see the skyline with all the old buildings, not a skyscraper in sight.

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On the roof, there were delicate carvings on the flying buttresses repeating themselves over and over again.

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And more of them framed the brands of the shops down below.

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It was time to answer the call of commercial Milan and go shopping! And right next to the Duomo stood Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, apparently the world’s first shopping centre.

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It was beautiful inside, with a lovely glass ceiling and big shopfronts, rather unlike modern shopping malls.

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Then the photos stop because I started shopping. I walked the entire Quadrilatero, those few streets housing the biggest fashion brands in the world. It happened to be the first day of the sale and outside the major brands like Gucci, Prada and Miu Miu, long lines formed just to go in. I had to take a break after a while and ended up in Cafe Cova eating the most expensive wild strawberry tart I’ve ever had. To be fair, it was rather big, but paying something like €20 for a piece of confectionery made me blanch.  At least it was really yummy before the bill came!

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July in Vietnam: A Ho Chi Minh Finale

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

July in Vietnam: A Day in Hanoi

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Hanoi on its own was fairly charming. Near the Old Town is the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and a rundown little pagoda, Thap Rua, sits on a tiny islet close to the far side of the lake.

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On the other side stood a Chinese temple, Ngoc Son Temple,  that could be reached on foot over a bridge. While fairly pretty, it seemed very generic to me, far too much like the Chinese temples at home in Singapore.

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Inside, I was fascinated by some ornamental statues, like this rather spaced out looking phoenix.

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I thought it was pretty cool and almost cartoon-like. What do you think?

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I wandered the streets till I found an appetising looking place, striking gold when I stumbled across this stall selling spicy pork noodles. It came with a whole host of different pig parts, from mystery sausages and pork balls to intestines, tendons and other unidentifiable parts. I was very pleased to findwhat I later discovered to be the de rigueur pile of herbs and vegetables that I liberally added to my noodle soup.

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Needless to say, it was wonderful and I had to get a picture to commemorate the occasion of Enjoying Good Food.

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And I was off to wander round the Old Town, but not before gawking at this rather odd Communist sculpture, the Martyr’s Monument. I suppose it’s saying that technology is the best (from man holding plug in centre), if not guns are good too (man at side), failing which the women would wipe everyone out with swords. I’m still puzzling over the gender implications of this. If anyone could translate the words at the base of the statue I’d be grateful!

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The Old Town consists of a warren of streets, each having its own specialty product. There’s a street of nothing but stainless steel kitchen fittings, another of mirrors, a third of traditional herbs and medicine, yet another of lanterns, and a mind-boggling array of others.

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I was a little wary of the watchful eyes on me and didn’t get any good pictures of each street. A pity. However, the sight of these two trees being trucked to goodness knows where was a surprise find. It drew the eyes of everyone on the street, including motorcyclists peering round to check that they weren’t about to topple.

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And then there was the St Joseph cathedral. It’s a bit surprising to find a lovely cathedral in the middle of Communist Hanoi, but there it was! I thought the Gothic structure was pretty cool…

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… as were the sober grey granite walls on the side.

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Inside, the breathtaking view from the nave.

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It’s wonderful how they managed to get the stained glass so beautifully done I almost felt like I was somewhere in Europe.

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After all that wandering in the almost unbearably humid weather, I needed a good dinner. This came in the form of Cha Ca La Vong, labelled grilled fish on the menu, but really fish fried in turmeric oil together with local vegetables over a charcoal brazier. It was delicious and also very oily.

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There wasn’t a great deal to see in Hanoi but it was a good introduction to the rest of the country. Next stop, Ha Long Bay.

April in The Philippines: Intramuros

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I spent my last days in The Philippines exploring Manila, the most interesting of which was Intramuros. It’s the old part built in the Spanish walled-city style.

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I enjoyed how faded the area looked. Somehow none of the buildings in the area looked very restored at all.

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The decay reminded me of the faded decadence of Havana.

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To me, the highlight of Intramuros was the San Agustin Church, supposedly the oldest church building in The Philippines. Its baroque facade was beautiful despite the decay and overcast day.

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The interior was even more breathtaking with its domed ceiling and trompe l’oeil paintings. It’s amazing that this cathedral is still in daily use.

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There were other nooks in the place with more beautiful decorations, like this side chapel.

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What impressed me most was the area towards the back of the cathedral, where the organ was.

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See the huge music books on the stands? There were four of them.

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While not illuminated to the degree where it’ll be a treasure to be kept behind glass, these music books showed the art and incredible workmanship involved. Beautiful.

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April in The Philippines: Cebu City

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Visitors to Cebu City typically go to Fort San Pedro and the Cebu Cathedral. We started off at the Fort, a lovely little respite from the heat built in the time of the conquistadors.

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The gardens and old guns were rather nice to look at, though I wasn’t very good at appreciating the history involved.

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It was a very handsome fort nonetheless. I wish I could have done it slightly more justice than a place to poke around in and sit with a cold drink for a while.

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We headed on to the Cebu Cathedral. I loved the baroque architecture and how it seemed so sturdy and somehow unfussy compared to famous European cathedrals. We went to the neighbouring Basilica of Santo Niño to see the Santo Niño statue and ended up queuing for 15 minutes with the locals to go in. They brought their pleas to the statue, wiping the glass casing and then their faces with a handkerchief, then kissing a special glass window, and finally crossing themselves. Most of  them wiped away tears as they prayed. It was hard not to be moved by the scene. I walked out of there feeling the spiritual and emotional power of the place. As we left the area, we realised that tourists could view the statue from the main sanctuary instead of queuing to go inside. No regrets though, as being a part of the ritual made it a far more meaningful experience.

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Last stop was at Magellan’s Cross, which didn’t seem to actually be planted by Magellan. Seems like it was planted by order of Magellan. The big deal was more that it was a symbol of Cebu. I think I liked the paintings on the ceiling of the chapel more!

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August in China: Guangzhou’s Many Places of Worship

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I blended in pretty well in Guangzhou as I look just like them and in Guangzhou people dress as they please. No one took a second look at my crappy T-shirt and loose drawstring trousers ensemble. In other towns, that would immediately brand me as a tourist.

I very much enjoyed walking the streets of Guangzhou in the early evening. There was just so much life going on: people balancing bundles of vegetables as they stopped by the market on the way home, rickety grandmas taking their precious grandsons out for an evening walk, younger people playing ball games on a grass patch.

I liked how Guangzhou had a lot of diversity in religion. There were of course plenty of temples which I skipped, mainly because of their similarity to those in Singapore.

On Shamian Island, a tiny plot of land barely qualifying as an islet, there was the Shamian Church started by the British. It was in a pretty spot full of trees, nicely isolated from the bustle of central Guangzhou.

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Then in Guangzhou city proper, Sacred Heart Church seemed to pop out from nowhere as I turned a corner. The Gothic architecture was a refreshing change from the traditional Chinese temples or modern buildings I’d seen so far.

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Last of all was something quite surprising. It’s probably quite hard to spot in the picture below, but this place is actually a mosque! I really dug how local architecture was incorporated into this place of worship.

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The accompanying minaret is supposedly ancient. It is speculated to be the oldest minaret outside of Mecca although some guide books say that dates supplied by the relevant “authorities” show that the tower was built even before Islam was founded. Go figure.

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It was fun trying to figure out from the map where the next place of worship was. It reminded me that Singapore’s religious diversity isn’t that unique after all. It was also comforting to realise that religious diversity and tolerance can occur spontaneously as happens in Guangzhou, without any artificial encouragement from the authorities.