July in Vietnam: The Cao Dai Holy See

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From Mui Ne, I moved on to Ho Chi Minh City and almost immediately found myself on a tour out to the Cao Dai Holy See. Cao Dai is a new religion founded in Tay Ninh province near Ho Chi Minh City in the 20th Century. It’s a fusion of eastern and western religions and, according to Lonely Planet, incorporates elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, native Vietnamese spiritualism and Islam. Services are held four times a day at midnight, 6am, noon and 6pm. It was one of these services that my tour took me to see.

The architecture of the temple, just like the religion, had a mishmash of influences. The outlying pagodas had a pastel wedding cake feel so typical of western fairy tale castle architecture yet were unmistakeably shaped like  Chinese pagodas.

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The main temple building was much the same, where a Muslim-inspired dome that sat on Chinese-style tiled roofs was detailed with vaguely Baroque styling and topped with a Chinese qilin (unicorn).

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The oddly disjointed design was somehow unified by the pastel colour scheme.

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Worshippers in long white gowns were starting to stream in, a stark contrast to the colourful temple. Outside, venerated saints looked benevolently down from the pastel blue sky dotted with fuzzy clouds.

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I couldn’t help my amusement at how the real weather was fair more threatening than the one painted on the walls, giving the temple an even more surreal feel.

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And just inside the temple was a large mural with Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo and Viet poet Nguyen Binh Khiem writing out God and Humanity, Love and Justice in French and Chinese. My mind boggled trying to figure out the link between them.

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The tourists then herded onto the balconies along the main sanctuaries, gawking at the blue skies and fluffy white clouds on the ceiling and the dragons plastered on the pastel pink pillars.

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To my delight, the priests were dressed in stark primary colours, standing out brightly from the white-garbed laypeople. Each colour represented a different branch of Cao Dai.

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The service commenced with lots of bowing, chanting and singing.

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I very much enjoyed admiring the blocks of different colours and how they contrasted beautifully with the very cool floor tiles.

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Too soon, the signal was given for tourists to leave, and we headed out of the temple past the choir singing dreamily, accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments.

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The time for the surreal was over, now it was time for war tunnels and Cu Chi.

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July in Vietnam: Going Where the Locals Go

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In spite of my past experience on the back of a motorbike, I decided that it would be better to sit on the back of a motorbike than try to cycle on my home. A splitting headache from a hangover sealed the deal. I was driven through beautifully green rice fields on the way to the Japanese bridge.

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It’s a beautiful bridge in the middle of nowhere, built in the Japanese style to give shelter to the locals in the heat of the day.

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I’m not sure how true it is but legend says that a childless Japanese woman left money for a bridge to be built in her memory so that people would pray to her in her afterlife. In such hot weather I guess more snoozing than praying is done here!

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I stopped for a light and very healthy lunch at a little place along the Perfume River. The rice pancakes stuffed with herbs and pork and washed down with plenty of cold weak tea did wonders to restore me for the rest of the afternoon. The bowl of bun thit nuong, thick rice noodles topped with the usual herbage and barbecued meat did the trick to keep me full till dinner.

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And then it was off to the Thien Mu Pagoda, famous mainly for being the monastery from which a certain special monk originated. It was on a lovely bend of the Perfume River and was quite pretty to look at.

Thien Mu Pagoda, from Wikipedia

Within, there were more halls with Fun with English signs. I have no idea what a “lish” is and how it could be beaten though.

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And here is the car of the monk who drove to Saigon, poured petrol on himself and set himself on fire while meditating. All this in protest of the American interference in South Vietnam. This image was supposedly broadcast all over Western media and played a pivotal role in the anti-war protests in America.

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And then calling it a day, I went to where the locals were – flying kites in the park.

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For dinner, I walked down to Dong Ba market and sat timidly down on the miniature plastic stools surrounding a chao long lady. The rice porridge was thin but the ingredients fresh. I thought I knew my pig parts, but this was a revelation. There was the usual meat, liver, small intestine and congealed blood cube but other stuff I couldn’t identify: large intestine cut longitudinally? strange sausage? bone marrow? Accompanied by basil and a squeeze of lemon, even the blood went down nicely. That hardly made a dent in stomach, so I switched sides and hefted myself 2 metres down to the next lady selling bun thit nuong, which is grilled pork over cold bun (thick rice noodles). Yummy and incredibly cheap (5000 dong approx S$0.45).

I was full by then started to walk back towards hotel. But a chicken noodle stall tempted me and I sat down to a delightful bowl of mung bean noodles (tanghoon) in chicken stock with generous lashings of chicken shreds. Ended up ODing on chilli. While Vietnamese food isn’t particularly spicy, even its “fiery” Central cuisine, I swear their chillies are the hottest in SE Asia. Even Thai chilli padi cannot beat them. There’s a very innocuous looking big yellow chilli that tricks you into thinking it’s going to taste sweet like yellow capsicum but boy does it pack a wallop. I made the very stupid mistake of rubbing my left eye after touching the chilli, ending up crying silently into food for 10 minutes.

(Sorry no photos, the lighting was too poor for the camera to work fine.)

Still, a good foodie end to a good chillout day.

June in Thailand: Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai is probably the #2 city after Bangkok to visit when you go to Thailand. The feel of the northern capital is completely different, there’s far less of the cosmopolitan bustle and it’s a lot more relaxed and chill. The temples here are also obviously of a different architectural style from the south, and seem to be made from more rustic looking materials. Despite being pretty much templed-out, I did a quick whirl of the temples in Chiang Mai, just to complete the circuit as far as possible.

The first stop was at one of the minor temples and I can’t remember the name. I liked the sweeping curve of the roof and the graceful arcs of the protective guardians sitting on top.

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The Lanna-style temples are no less sumptuous and grand than those in the south, here evidenced by gold contrasted against the green background.

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Then there was the beautiful Wat Chiang Mun, supposedly the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. The grand wooden structure was intricately carved all over and overlaid with gold leaf.

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Check out the detail on this side door.

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On the inside, some of the doors also had lovely designs, this time of gold on enamel.

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And all this grandeur was to house a whole host of Buddha images, with the biggest one some thousand years old tafrom India, and the most revered one a tiny crystal Buddha image thought to have the power to bring rain.

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On the outside of some of the temples were interesting gates made from clay. These were rather low and small, so only one person at a time could pass through stooping.

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Again, I enjoyed how Thai craftsmen could made such beautiful works of art out of rustic materials.

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One new thing I learned was how alms were collected in some of these temples. Monks of course would do their rounds  with their alms bowls in the morning to collect food from devotees. I knew that the monks were to accept whatever was given them and not to quibble or choose. Having all the food in one bowl meant that everything was mixed up and that  one bowl would hold sustenance for the day. In one of the temples I visited, the monks’ alms bowls were laid out on tables for devotees to offer whatever they wanted into whichever bowl they chose. It was somewhat like a lottery because the monks would accept whatever appeared in their own bowl. What a way to learn not to want!

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Wat Chedi Luang was probably the most compelling temple in Chiang Mai. With its massive structure still very obvious, its former grandeur is still very apparent. It must have been even more magnificent before a 16th century earthquake took away much of the top part of the pagoda.

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It had just been restored in the 1990s, although the damaged part had been retained, probably because after so many hundreds of years, they felt it should stay as it was.

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I particularly liked the restored elephants sticking out from all four sides of the pagoda. It was grand and, to me, slightly absurd at the same time. It was a nice way to end the temple tour and get ready for the kitschier side of Chiang Mai.

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August in China: Xian the Grey

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The overnight train journey to Xian was rather uneventful. I took a middle bunk in a hard sleeper carriage and went to sleep after slurping up the pot of instant noodles I bought at the train station. When I awoke, Xian greeted me in an embrace of grey smog.

I met up with my parents who’d flown in from Shanghai. We started out viewing the few sights in the drab city. The first was the Big Goose Pagoda, apparently built by Journey to the West’s Xuan Zhang for the precious sutras he brought back.

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Next, we cabbed it to the Small Goose Pagoda where we climbed up an endless flight of stairs to reach the top. The 15 storeys seemed like they would never end as we circled up and up. Unfortunately, the view was so awful and underwhelming that I didn’t even bother snapping a photo.

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The rest of the grounds made up for it. There was a lovely garden with ivy-covered archways and a rather impressive museum too. It made a pleasant diversion for the parents in the afternoon and a good break from my usual frenetic pace.

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One thing that perked up the greyness of Xian was how domestic tourists loved to play dress up in the squares. At first I thought there was lots of bridal photography happening that day, but it turned out to be Victorian damsels and Tang dynasty maidens on a fun day out in Xian.

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The main thing that made up for the drabness of the city was its food. Xian, being at the beginning of the ancient Silk Route, has lots of Muslim and Central Asian influence in its food. Here, the cuisine is dominated more by wheat and bread than rice and noodles. There is a large Muslim population and pork is far less common in this area.

I apologise for the poor quality pictures as I was too taken by the food to take any shots of the really good stuff. Below you’ll see the stall selling what looked like pulled pork burgers. The filling is made of waxed beef, wind-dried in lots of fat and similar to how Cantonese lup cheong (sausage) and lup ngap (waxed duck) are made. It’s then stewed and pulled, then slapped into white disks of dense wheat bread. It’s greasy and salty and I’m sure it’ll hit the spot just right as a late night snack.

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There were also some misses of course. Something I just couldn’t understand was the ma hua porridge locals seemed to love for breakfast. Now I really dig the ma hua in Tianjin and Chongqing: the curls of sweet deep-fried sesame dough are so addictive because they are so crunchy and moreish. When they soak it in water and boil it into a kind of salty porridge with starch, I really don’t understand. Note that the picture below shows me before I tried it.

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I just didn’t get the lumps of soggy greasy dough sitting in a starchy goo topped with crispy fried bits and lots of pepper. It seemed like an exercise in incorporating as many types of wheat as possible into the dish without resorting to bread or noodles. Bizarre. Even more bizarre is how they save on washing up by wrapping the bowls in plastic bags first, then slopping the brew into it.

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If you’re at the Muslim Quarter, do try out the fabulous barbecue restaurants. You can either order from the menu of pick from the spread outside. I loved the perfectly charred bits of anise-flavoured lamb skewers and the same done with whole fish.

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I loved the various types of rose-flavoured desserts. There was one called jing zi gao (mirror cake) made of steamed rice flour with rose and red bean filling. It’s a bit like kueh tutu, except miles better. Another one is like a cross between a tangyuan and a donut: glutinous rice dough filled with rose-flavoured red bean paste and then deep-fried. Amazing stuff. No pictures because I gobbled it all up before remembering I had a camera. Next trip maybe.