July in Vietnam: Monkey Business

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Having been inspired by my previous Gibbon Experience sans gibbons, I figured that it would be good to at least catch a glimpse of one of these creatures on my jaunt through Southeast Asia. The entry on in Lonely Planet described a gibbon sanctuary in the middle of Cuc Phuong National Park and I knew that I had to somehow make it there. It was great that my travel agent in Sapa thought of this fantastic solution of getting me there by motorbike, giving me plenty of flexibility to linger. Or so I thought.

I started off in Cuc Phuong doing the rainforest walks. As it was mainly dense secondary rainforest, this hardly seemed any different from any other national park in the region. I’d seen this and more in Thailand and Malaysia. Nonetheless, it was a handsome patch of forest.

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Supposedly, no visit to Cuc Phuong is complete without paying homage to the Big Tree, a 1000 year old whopper so big that I couldn’t capture it on only one photo.

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Having dispensed with the formalities, I hotfooted it to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. (There was a bit of a hairy moment here with Hu as he threatened to abandon me at the National Park, but more later.) Here, primates recovered from smugglers and illegal traders were rehabilitated and slowly reintroduced to the wild.  I walked past little cages full of stick insects, marvelling at how realistic their mimicry was. These were meant for the monkeys’ meals (can’t remember which particular species). They were so finicky that they had to eat the insects live, yet another reason not to keep endangered animals as pets.

First, I saw a large enclosure with Delacour’s langurs. These were the cutest monkeys with black and white coloring patterned so that it looked like a black monkey wearing furry white short pants.

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Photos don’t do them justice, hopefully this rather low-quality video helps a teeny bit.

And then there were the douc langurs.

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I’m really sorry that I couldn’t get any good pictures as they were rather shy and it was hard to get up close to them, even while they were in the enclosure. Perhaps it’s a bit disrespectful, but with their wispy white beards they look like miniature Ho Chi Minhs.

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And most magnificently, there were the southern white-cheeked gibbons. It’s absolutely gobsmackingly amazing how the male is pitch black and the female a creamy white. I don’t know how they camouflage themselves in the forest and how they could hide from predators. But they definitely wouldn’t have any doubt at all in mating season!

Even though I spent only half an hour or so at the Centre, it left quite an impression and the images are very much still fresh in my mind.

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.

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