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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August in China: On the Road in Hakka Country

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The next morning,  I got to the bus terminus by hiring a motorbike taxi, riding pillion for about half an hour in the early morning to catch the first bus out. It was lovely watching the countryside wake up, seeing villagers on their way to the fields and catching fleeting glimpses of the first stalls to open in the little towns dotting the winding road. The first stalls were invariably meat stalls taking advantage of the cool morning to quickly sell their stock before it went bad in the fierce heat of the day.

And at yet another chaotic town junction masquerading as a bus terminus, I pressed onwards.

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But not before sampling some local breakfast. Here, breakfast started looking slightly familiar yet not quite the same. These fat rice noodles were called laoshu ban or mouse noodles, most likely named after mouse tails. These tasted somewhat like the Singaporean laoshu fen but were of course much more rustic (a euphemism for “coarse”). The topping was pretty normal, pork balls and minced pork together. Of course, this isn’t the regular breakfast as I’d upsized it by adding more meat balls. Normal people have only noodles and a tiny sprinkling of minced meat on top.

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Having fortified myself with Hakka msg-laden noodles, I was ready to head into Teochew territory for more msg-laden food.

August in China: Life in a Tulou

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Despite the gawking tourists, life goes in as usual inside a tulou. People move in and out of the place, though I suspect more out than in given the lures of big city lights for the young ‘uns.

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Young and old still work at the main cash crop of the area, green tea.

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They pick through the dried leaves that come out of special tea leaf dryers.

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They also raise rather cute but slightly feral puppies. These puppies were gamboling about merrily by the tulou well until a villager walked over with some bloody off cuts of meat and casually tossed it at them. Predictably, the puppies tore at the meat with great gusto. I’d taken out my camera to shoot the meat fest but by the time it turned on and focussed, all the meat was gone and all that was left was five puppies with bloody mouths. They looked at me rather hopefully but I was afraid to pet them lest they think my hand was round two of lunch!

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In another part of the tulou lay some cuddly creatures on the other end of the equation. I’m sure these cute white bunnies weren’t raised purely for the kids’ enjoyment. They were mighty adorable though. I wonder how the villagers cook them!

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August in China: Inside the Tulou

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The inside of the tulou weren’t exactly the most luxurious. Inside the packed earth walls were struts and floors made of timber planks. Each room into the circular courtyard and all rooms in use were open to let in the light. Above each door hung a lantern now for purely decorative purposes as the tulou had electricity at night.

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I especially liked the contrast of dark wood and red lantern but didn’t like it enough to stay the night in one. I opted for a modern guesthouse nearby instead as it had running water and airconditioning. Paying a small amount extra was worth it considering water was gotten from a well and there was no toilet inside!

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Things were very much back to basics here. Some areas had to be accessed by ladder instead of wooden steps because of lack of space.

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In the side alleys along the walls lay mud and starch bricks in stacks ready for repair work.

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And along the walls inside the tulou, the baskets and pots of everyday life seemed unchanged from a hundred years ago.

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Only the gas cylinder and the modern Chinese characters told of modern times…

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… as did new electric gadgets and the Mao poster.

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[Next up: Life in the Tulou]

August in China: Hakka Tulou

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One of the highlights of my trip in South China were the tulou (literally: earth apartments) in the Hakka region of southern Fujian. Here the Hakka tribes migrating down from the north some hundreds of years ago sought shelter in these tall structures made from mud and corn starch. These characteristic circular structures dotted the verdant terraced valleys, making very unique scenery.

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One rumour goes that during the Cold War, US recon planes reported these structures as missile silos!

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Getting in a little closer, it’s hard to imagine how these charming structure could have any remotely military functions.

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Some of these tulou have rather impressive front doors which are kept open all day to let the breeze in.

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On a fine day like the one I was there, the unique curved roof makes a lovely juxtaposition against white cloud and blue sky.

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Some tulou have a double circle structure. The smaller building inside is used as a temple for ancestral worship.

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Next instalment I’ll tell you more about what happens inside the tulou. Now I leave you with what happens when visitors enter: they get served local green tea and chat with the locals.

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August in China: Xiamen’s Gulangyu

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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.

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

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

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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…

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

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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.

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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.

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