July in Vietnam: Out on the Mekong Delta

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My next short jaunt out of Ho Chi Minh City was a tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong flows through much of Southeast Asia and is of utmost importance to the livelihood of those who live along its banks. When it reaches the sea, the mighty river breaks into many distributories flowing over the vast expanse of the MekongĀ  Delta, stretching at least a 100km along the coast of Vietnam. Even its distributories are vast, taking some effort to cross.

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At some places, the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across.

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At others, the opposite bank was a bit too far away for a bridge.

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We had to crowd with the motobikes in the ferries to get across. Aside from the usual chickens, ducks and vegetables, one even carried live fish in a makeshift waxed canvas tank.

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The river was their livelihood and people lived along the river even if it meant building their houses on stilts. No matter if there wasn’t land in the front, a hanging garden did the trick.

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Others grew their garden on the balconies, like this house with its dragonfruit cacti creeping down towards the water.

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Further away from the river were places of worship, like this Khmer temple that looked like it had been transplanted from Cambodia.

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This area being close to Cambodia, there was a significant Khmer minority here. Some of the Buddhist temples I saw in this area were of quite a different style from the other Mahayana temples I’d seen in Vietnam. This was definitely closer to the Thai and Lao style temples…

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… even down to the saffron-robed monks running the temple.

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There was also a scattering of other places of worship, like this church here. It looked a little incongruous rising elegantly from the rather scruffy stilt huts along the river.

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As part of the tour, we were taken to see some of the cottage industries. One of them was food manufacture. Here, ladies patiently worked over wood fires making rice paper by hand.

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Others tempered melted coconut sugar to make rich caramelly coconut candy.

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And men did the grunt work of pressing popped rice into blocks which would then be coated in syrup and cut into crispy-crunchy sugary snacks.

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It was lovely wandering through the little hamlets in the area, passing under gardens and other topiary.

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And also chancing on a wedding banquet, where the happy couple was happy to let tourists take pictures of them on their big day.

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There were also some quiet backwaters…

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… which weren’t so quiet when children popped out of nowhere screaming “hello hello!” at passing tourist boats.

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It was lovely to wave back at them…

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… their smiles were such a lovely lift to river experience.

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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: Puerto Princesa

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Some members of another church in Singapore were also Michael’s supporters. Knowing that I couldn’t find a room in Puerto Princesa (it was chock full because of a regional sports meet happening at the same time), a pair of ladies very kindly let me stay with them in their hotel room. Not only that, they also shared a queen size bed and let me have the other queen all to myself! It was bliss staying in a nice starred hotel with private toilets after so long.

The next day was Sunday and I went with them to visit one of the Kagayanen churches in Puerto Princesa. Apparently a lot of Kagayanens migrated to the main island and settled in Puerto Princesa.

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We attended the service in the small church…

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… and saw the fruit of Michael’s work in the hands of the Kagayanens. It was lovely to see how happy they were to have the bible in their own mother tongue, in a language that could speak straight to their hearts.

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I also went to have a peek at the Sunday School, where all the children were smiley and happy and enthusiastic.

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Of course, they were far more enthusiastic after Sunday School let out. The lechon was a huge draw for the kids, especially when the adults were hacking it up into juicy, crispy bits.

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As with church and Filippino custom, there was a sturdy table piled with an incredible array and volume of food. The lechon was the first to go as it was everyone’s favourite. Good thing they offered us some morsels first, because after the tray left it, we simply didn’t have a second chance. The rest of the food was really good too, all home made. It was such a great way to sample local food cooked by locals! Let’s see, I had some kind of offal dish, something called kare-kare which was a dish with braised banana hearts, and the usual chicken and fish cooked in unusual ways. And we couldn’t leave till we were groaning, not the table.

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The next day, we took a trip out to Honda Bay for some snorkelling and general relaxing. It was paradise-blue, amazing.

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We had a little picnic by the beach. Some of us walked on the beach, some of us snorkelled. (It was pretty amazing, I saw some razorfish and trumpetfish.)

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And some of us just lazed like these two starfish on the beach.

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April in The Philippines: The Bible Dedication

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I said bye to the diving group at Manila airport and hopped onto a connecting flight to Puerto Princesa. Just as I settled into my seat, there was an announcement asking for volunteers to be offloaded. They’d be given a nice hotel room and flown out to Puerto Princesa on the next flight out the next day. On top of that, they’d get a return ticket to anywhere in the Visayas (Cebu area) as compensation. I was very sorely tempted by that, but sadly kept my seat as I had to be in Puerto Princesa that very day for a bible dedication.

You see, my church had been supporting a missionary who was involved in some translation work for the villagers on Cagayancillo, a tiny remote island somewhere in the large expanse between Palawan and Luzon in the Sulu sea. They’d recently finished translating the New Testament and were holding a dedication ceremony to which lots of overseas supporters were invited. Now, how often do you get to witness something like this while on holiday? I stayed put in my seat.

As we walked across the tarmac to the Puerto Princesa arrival terminal, a military brass band complete with saxophonist serenaded us. Apparently the mayor of Puerto Princesa had arrived in town straight from an overseas junket just to grace the bible dedication! It was great to come in at the same time as the mayor and receive the mayoral welcome.

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Michael, our missionary-translator, was kind enough to meet me at the airport despite being one of the busy stars of the dedication. He whisked me straight to the hall where the event was held. Soon enough, the mayor himself appeared and gave a congratulatory speech.

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Then came some very touching homespun performances by the talented Kagayanens. Here’s the band playing some haunting Kagayanen melodies, complete with rain shakers and local guitars. I wish I had a proper recording of it instead of snatches of it on the video function on my crappy camera.

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After that, there was a bit of a pantomime/sketch that showed the journey of the Kagayanens and their everyday life, complete with cute props of traditional boats and cooking implements.

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I’m sure there was some sort of praying and dedication stuff happening, but I forget. The rest of the activities were lots more fun! The best part of the dedication ceremony was the end, when the band starting jamming and two by two the villagers got up to dance. It was really sweet how very soon a lot of the overseas visitors soon joined in, many pulled up to dance by an enthusiastic local.

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Later that evening, the mayor hosted the supporters (us) for a lovely dinner and cultural performance at the hotel. Now, a cultural performance put up by the mayor of the island can’t be beat. It was top notch, full of colour and talent. Again, I wished my camera didn’t let me down. This shot was the best I got because they actually stayed still to pose for pictures here. At least you can make out the colourful costumes. Moral of the story? You’ve got to be there yourself in person.

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The best part of the whole dinner party was the mayor giving out rain shakers and personally thanking each guest (including me!) for coming all this way for the bible dedication. It was a sincere gesture from someone who genuinely seemed to care about his constituents, even those in the remotest corner of his remote island.

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.