Back to Tulamben: Crustaceans

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There were a whole load of crustaceans around in Tulamben. Considering that we hardly did any night dives, which is when they typically come out to play, it is again a testament to the great diving at Tulamben that we saw so manyof them.

Here’s a brightly coloured coral crab under its anemone house. It’s a wonder it doesn’t get eaten that easily, its colour is so vivid.

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Even more brightly coloured were the peacock mantis shrimp, its inquisitive eyes jutting out quizzically.

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It’s when the mantis shrimp is in side profile that one understands why it’s called that, for its tail has the pretty colours of a peacock.

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We revisited startling specimens such as this orang utan crab, something you wouldn’t typically expect of something underwater, let along a crab.

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It’s almost impossible to bring one of these into sharp focus, as it’s so hard to tell whether the fuzz is caught sharply or not.

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There were also plenty of shrimp, like this imperial shrimp. It’s amazing how transparent its body is.

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I guess the transparency is how it camouflages itself, especially when young. Check out how the young one is so much harder to spot than the full-size one.

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There’s another type of mantis shrimp, the smashing mantis shrimp that hides in its hole waiting for unsuspecting prey to go past.

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Here, I admire the bravery of these hingeback shrimp. They’re so close to the smashing mantis shrimp’s home that it’s impossible for the bigger one to catch the smaller ones. Nothing like being too close for comfort here!

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Then again, these little shrimp are so tiny it’s hard to see how they’d make a dent in any sizeable creature’s stomach.

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Still, they are very pretty and it’s fun to get in close to catch a good shot of this attractive orange shrimp.

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One of my favourites, as regular readers would know, is the harlequin shrimp and again Tulamben didn’t disappoint. We saw this adorable pair posing as orchids.

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It’s really cute how they strutted and posed about.

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There were also some lobsters and these were incredibly well-camouflaged amongst the featherstars. Check out the yellow one here…

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… and the red one here.

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It’s hard to believe how sharp Wayan’s eyes were in spotting these.

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Easier to spot but much harder to spot were the goby shrimp, who spent their days pushing sand out of burrows guarded by gobies. At any movement at all, the goby would dart back into the hole, and of course the shrimp would dart in at the first twitch of the goby’s tail.

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Last of all in this series of crustaceans is this shell of sorts. I have no idea what it is. If anyone can identify it, I’d be really grateful.

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July in Vietnam: The Imperial Tombs

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I was glad to have taken a bit of a break before going to see the imperial tombs as quite a lot of the architecture was unsurprisingly similar to that of the imperial palace. I went first to the Tu Duc tombs where lots of stuff was under restoration. It was a huge complex with plenty of atmospheric, crumbling buildings.

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This place was huge, with pavilions leading into pavilions. Here, there was a stele pavilion that housed a stele listing Tu Duc’s reflections on his life and its meaning.

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Some side pavilions were in serious disrepair and waiting for the restoration crew to arrive.

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They were appropriately marked “dangerous area” so we were warned. The building could come down any moment!

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Leading up to the tomb was a gauntlet of officials, both military and administrative, attesting to the rank of the emperor.

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Before getting to the tomb proper, you have to get past the gate. It’s designed so that the tomb can’t be seen from the outside – a stone screen protects it from prying eyes.

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And the tomb itself, a little bit of an anti-climax but still impressive with its slightly austere air. Too bad about the graffiti marring it though.

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I was too palace and tombed out to explore further and went only to the outside of the Khai Dinh tomb to have a look round. The entry gate was absolutely impressive, with its ornate carvings in the grey stone and the long staircase forcing one to stare upwards.

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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]

A Viet Gem

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We dropped by Viet Lang for a dinner with friends one weekday evening and were pleasantly surprised by how good the food was. Every dish we ordered was good, quite a change from most restaurants were there were invariably some items that were pretty run of the mill.

We started off with the imperial spring rolls, which had a filling of chicken and prawn encased in a net wrapper and seaweed of some sort, then deep fried to perfection. Wrapped with lettuce and aromatic basil leaves, then accompanied by a fish sauce based dipping sauce, the rolls tasted really fresh and had wonderfully contrasting flavours and textures.

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Next up came a dish that was awful to look at, especially in the badly taken photo below, it looked like something the dog brought home perhaps. But oh the flavour! The smokey eggplant really was smokey, which added an extra dimension to the dish, a bit like a very lovely Vietnamese take on babaganoush.

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The next dish, prawns steamed in young coconut, came masquerading as a drink. We wondered why the waiter was serving us a drink halfway through the meal but soon realised that the prawns were cooked in the coconut shell. It was very unusual because of the light touch to the flavouring. It was just delicate coconut juice, prawn and coriander that shone through, and was very, very good.

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Then there was the Hue-style grilled chicken with fried glutinous rice. The chicken was decent and quite tender, which I liked. Here, the unusual part was the fried glutinous rice. It was a bit like a cross between fried polenta and plain tangyuan (glutinous rice balls). DC loved it but I found it a bit stodgy after so much food so far.

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Then there was the Hanoi style hot pot with beef and seafood. The hot pot came with accompanying raw meat, seafood and vegetables and it was up to us to cook it ourselves.

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The ingredients were fresh and of very good quality, particularly the beef and seafood. The broth at the end was full of flavour and the glass noodles soaked it all up, showcasing the fresh flavours nicely.

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Last but not least was the pho bo. I was a bit sceptical when one of our friends specially requested for it but was amazed by how good this traditional beef noodle dish was. It beat any other version I’ve tried hands down with its lightly spiced broth and very good quality beef that melted in the mouth. A definite re-order for next time.

We didn’t have any space for dessert, but are definitely planning our return!

Viet Lang @ The Arts House
1 Old Parliament Lane #01-03
Annex Building, Old Parliament House
Tel: 6337 3379
E-mail: vietlang@wellborn.com.sg

TCM at Imperial

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Having been discharged from A&E without incident, DC decided that we needed a second opinion and he took me to Imperial Herbal Restaurant at Vivocity to see the sinseh. For $10, the Chinese physician told me that my body was weak and I needed to eat more red meat and green vegetables, and that I needed to drink tonic soup. Nothing that my mother couldn’t tell me.

Nonetheless, we got me some soup and I had the cordycep soup which was rather tasty. It was good soup done the right way and my inner Cantonese girl thoroughly approved the strong broth and pleasant herbal flavour.

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Now what I liked even more was the herbal menthol tea that the doctor provided for my persistent dry cough. The menthol was so strong that my nose cleared immediately and I had to close my eyes to avoid the fumes. It soothed my throat nicely, like a cough drop in liquid form.

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Imperial Herbal Restaurant
#03-08, Lobby G VivoCity
Tel: 6337 0491