Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lunar New Year Treats

Today, while doing my usual grocery shopping at the Fair Price, I decided to buy some intriguing looking new year's treats.  Chinese, or Lunar, New Year is coming up soon, starting on February 14th.  The holiday prep is already in full swing in most places around Singapore - my local mall and said grocery store are all decked out and everything is on sale.  And I haven't even been to see Chinatown yet, which I'm sure is much, much more ridiculous.

Anyways, the first treats I bought were these cute turtles.  I'm assuming that turtles are some sort of good luck symbol in Chinese culture, similar to carp fish.  On the outside, they look just like cute turtles...

...but when you open them up they have some sort of jelly candy inside!

The candy was quite hard and sticky.  It had a very sweet, but otherwise faint flavor - maybe coconut?

The next candies I bought were called "mochi jelly".  I have been seeing them all over in various shops and stalls.  Apparently they are from Taiwan. 

I decided to try the strawberry and orange flavors.  Here they are unwrapped:

Upon sampling these, I was actually pleasantly surprised!  They were not too sweet, and were much softer than the turtle jelly.  They also actually had real fruit in them (you can see the strawberry)!

That's it for my culinary adventures tonight.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Vietnam, Part Two: Hoi An

Alright, finally picking back up where I left off with my chronicle of the Vietnam trip.  After several days in HCM City, Chris and I caught a quick domestic flight up to Da Nang, a city in central Vietnam.  From there, it was a 30 km taxi ride south to our final destination, Hoi An.  Hoi An was a much smaller city than HCM or even Da Nang.  It was also one of the few cities that was spared from the extensive bombing during the Vietnam War.  As such, the town is full of old things like well-preserved houses and ancient temples.

Our flight to Da Nang was delayed for several hours, so we didn't arrive there until around 10 PM.  That wasn't a problem since I, savvy traveler that I am, had made us hostel reservations online before we arrived.  We grabbed a taxi and headed to Hoi An and a much anticipated bed (I know, it was only 10 PM, but we were really tired).  The problems started once we arrived at our hostel.  After being greeted by the desk clerk, he informed us that the hostel was full.  Undeterred, I whipped our my paperwork showing that we had made a reservation.  The clerk acknowledged this, but that didn't change the fact that the hostel was completely full.  At this point, things could have gotten really bad - we were in a new city, which was completely dead at getting on 11 PM now, and didn't have anywhere to stay.  Also, December/January are high tourist season in Asia, so I was guessing that most places were pretty packed.  But, we got lucky, because this hostel had incredibly amazing staff!  The clerk called up the owner of the hostel, who came right away, found us a room at another hotel, paid for it, and got us a taxi there!  Like I said, incredibly lucky.  We slept in after our late night and then moved to the original hostel the next day.  Our room had a super awesome balcony - here I am enjoying some quality porch times.

Later that day, we explored the Old Town.  We first visited a large temple.  Unfortunately, I can't remember if it was Buddhist or Taoist.  Here's the front of the temple:

Inside, as is the case with all temples, the air was smoky with incense.  This smoke came not only from typical incense sticks, but from huge incense coils that were hung from the ceiling.  They must have taken days to burn.  Each one had a special prayer attached to it by a visitor to the temple.

We actually visited several temples in Hoi An.  All of them had special boat shrines, which is probably because Hoi An is on the coast and used to be a major trading city - the sailors must have given offerings to these shrines to ensure safe passage.

After the temple, we visited an old house that had been lived in by a merchant family for, I think, about six or seven generations.  The house itself was not that remarkable, but what was remarkable was a set of watermarks on the kitchen wall.  Apparently, the river that flows through the city floods every couple years, with water coming incredibly high up into the city and all the buildings.  How high, you ask?  Well, here's a picture of me (for scale) standing by the watermarks (in white above the painting):

The house even had a hatch in the ceiling so that all the furniture from the ground floor could be hoisted up to the second floor when the waters started rising!

Another interesting visit that day was to the Arts and Culture Center, where we watched a traditional Vietnamese song and dance program.  The instruments they played were really cool and included all sorts complex looking lap harps and other string instruments.  The dances, however, were...a bit too interpretive for my tastes.  Then, they played a strange sort of bingo game where the performers would sing a song and shout out random words in the middle of it.  These words corresponded to large wooden paddles, one of which was given to each audience member.  The owner of the selected paddle won a prize.  Not a very challenging game, really. 

The next day, we headed out of town to see some temple ruins.  The temples are collectively called My Son, and were built by the indigenous Cham people between the 4th and 14th centuries.  Oddly enough, the Cham people originally hail from Indonesia, and the temples were Hindu.  It seemed really strange to be seeing statues of gods and goddesses such as Vishnu and Kali in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle!  There were several groups of temples, and each group was composed of multiple individual buildings, such as this one:

The Hindu influence was evidenced not only by the statues, but by the various inscriptions written in Sanskrit.

 A lot of the temples were destroyed by American bombing during the war.  Our tour guide kept repeating this fact, and as the only Americans in the entire tour group, Chris and I felt pretty bad about it.  In an attempt to make us feel better, some friendly Australian ladies informed us that the Ozzies don't always agree with their government's actions either.  However, some of the temples are being restored to their original state by teams of archeologists.  Here's one that they were currently working on.

Technically, the American bombs weren't the original destroyers of the temples.  The area was discovered by a French solider in the late 1800s, and teams of French archeologists soon arrived to study the temples.  They took many of the statues and smaller artifacts back to France with them.  Today, some of the statues are still missing their heads - which are now in museums or in the homes of private collectors.  More recently, many of these artifacts have been returned to Vietnam and now reside in a museum about the Cham civilization in Da Nang (more on that later). 

On our way back to Hoi An, we got to take a boat ride!  Leaving our crowded bus behind, we cruised down the river and enjoyed some lunch.  It was very relaxing, but it got quite hot in the sun after awhile.  Unfortunately, our boat was not as cool as this boat that we spotted upon our arrival back in Hoi An:

We noticed that all the boats, from super basic wooden boats to fancy alternative energy powered boats like the one above, had strangely elongated eyes painted on them.  Here's a more traditional example:

This is also found on many traditional Malay boats - I know I've seen it before in Singapore, and even knew the reason for it at some point, but now I can't remember.  Probably something to do with helping guide the boat and navigate on the right course?

On our final day in Hoi An, we took some time to see some more of the surrounding countryside.  We chanced upon an enormous cemetery, which, judging by the dates, was for victims of the war.  The monument at the front was painted with inspiring proletariat imagery.

We spent a good portion of that day wandering around on the beach.  All the local fisherman had these little round-bottomed boats that looked like turtle shells.


After some relaxation on the beach (see above), it was time to head up to Da Nang and catch our flight back to Ho Chi Minh City.  Before going to the airport, we visited the Cham Museum.  This museum contained many stonework artifacts that were carved by the indigenous Cham people.  I previously stated that the Cham people came from Indonesia originally (which was what our tour guide told us), but according to wikipedia, they probably came from Borneo.  They settled in central Vietnam and Cambodia, and had many conflicts over the centuries with both the Khmer tribes in Cambodia and the Vietnamese peoples in the north.  By the middle of the 1700s, the tribes were scattered all over Cambodia and Vietnam and the Cham kingdom ceased to exist.  Also, remember how I said they were Hindu?  Well, they were Hindu, until the 17th century.  Then, the current emperor and most of the Cham people converted to Islam.  Today, the distribution is about 80% Islam and 20% Hindu.  Today, the Cham people mostly live in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam.  According to our guide, you can tell them apart because of their curly hair. 

Anyways, back to the museum.  The carvings were very intricate and incredibly well preserved.  I guess this is due to the fact that many of the carvings had belonged to private collectors and were only recently donated to the museum. 

The second picture is a lion.  I can't remember, or maybe never knew, what the first one was supposed to be.  It was sort of a shame to see these carving in the sterile museum setting, and we tried to imagine just how much more breathtaking they would have been were they in their proper place out in the jungle ruins that we had seen the day before.  But, we also realized that the statues were so well preserved today precisely because they had been taken out of the jungle.

After the museum and a surprise dinner (surprise because no one at the restaurant spoke English; we tried to order a simple noodle soup, but instead got some fried noodles with seafood), it was time to get to the airport for our flight.  No delays this time luckily.  We spent the night back in HCM City, and flew back to Singapore in the morning. 

All in all, Vietnam was super interesting.  It was an incredibly beautiful, and incredibly chaotic, country.  Chris and I both wished that we had more time there to journey further north to Hanoi.  But, that always leaves room to go back again...

Aaaaand, now I'm finally caught up on my blog.  Yay!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Singapore in the News!

My parents tipped me off to an article about Singapore in this month's National Geographic.  More specifically, the article is about Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister and current "minister mentor" of Singapore.  After reading the article, I think that that it does quite a good job of representing the current growing pains of Singapore, and the constant push and pull between government control and freedom of expression here.  The article poses an interesting question: how does a country weigh the pros of government censorship and social control (low poverty, clean streets, safety, efficiency) against the natural cons? 

Also, apparently Singaporeans have the least sex of anywhere in the world.  Just a fun fact.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon

As promised, here's the first of my two entries about my recent trip to Vietnam with Chris.  We started our journey by flying from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City, which is still called Saigon by most locals.  Saigon is intense.  I don't think I've ever seen a more crowded and chaotic city than Saigon.  Here's a picture of some light traffic on a regular day in Saigon:

Pretty much the first thing that we realized is that crossing the street was going to be a challenge, to say the least.  There are no crosswalks in Vietnam.  To cross a busy street, you simply starts walking, slowly and at a steady pace, into the flow of traffic.  The general idea is that the motorbikes will dodge around the pedestrian, and you won't get hit unless you suddenly change course or speed.  However, this approach requires nerves of steel!  Unfortunately, the few cars that are on the road didn't seem to pay much attention to pedestrians, so there were still plenty of opportunities to get hit.  We survived, but came away from the experience with a much greater appreciation for crosswalks!

We arrived in Saigon on New Year's Eve, and it seemed like the whole city was out and about to celebrate.  Huge fairs and carnivals had been set up in all the city parks and many major streets had been blocked off.  At most of the carnivals, there were all sorts of food and drink vendors, as well as entertainment such as singers or dancers.  We enjoyed wandering around the city, sampling some cheap Vietnamese beer, and trying to figure out what was going on with the various entertainers.  We were so tired from traveling that we didn't even make it to midnight, but then again New Year's has never been all that exciting anyways.

The next day, we woke up bright and early to take a bus tour to see some sights outside of the city.  We had several moments of panic when I thought that I had lost the receipt for the tour, and when our bus/tour guide didn't show up until almost 45 minutes after they said they would arrive.  But, we eventually made it on the bus, so all was well in the end.  Also, I was an idiot and found the receipt in my wallet shortly thereafter.  Our first destination for the day was the Cao Dai  Temple complex, about 2 hours away.  Cao Dai is a Vietnamese religion that was founded in the 1920s.  Cao Dai is basically a catch-all religion - they worship everyone from traditional religious figures like Jesus, Buddha, and Brahma, to modern "saints" like Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, and Victor Hugo.  The goal of the religion is to break free of the cycle of reincarnation, to die once and for all.  I'm reading more about it on wikipedia right now, and apparently they also believe that there are 72 inhabited planets in the universe, with number one being the closest to Heaven, and number 72 being the closes to Hell.  Earth is number 68.  Here's a picture of the main temple:

Here's the inside of the temple, where we saw a daily service.  This mainly consisted of a lot of chanting and some bell ringing:

In the inside of the temple, they have statues of three of the most important figures in Cao Dai: Buddha, Jesus, and Brahma:

And here are several of the modern day saints - Victor Hugo, Sun Yat-Sen, and Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, a Vietnamese poet from the 15th century:

I think the most amazing part of all this was that this religion has over 2 million followers in Vietnam.  I guess it's sort of like the Scientology of Asia.  The other big question we had was where the money to build the temple came from.  They didn't charge admission for visitors, and the figure for the temple construction was quite astronomical (can't remember the exact number our guide told us) - sort of a mystery as to where they got all the funding for the construction/maintenance.

Our next stop on the tour was the Cu Chi Tunnels.  These tunnels were used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War as hiding places for guerilla attacks on South Vietnamese and American troops.  Although there were VC tunnel networks all over Vietnam, the Cu Chi ones were particularly significant because they were used as a base to capture Saigon at the very end of the war.  Our tunnel tour started with our tourguide showing us all the different booby traps that were built by the VC and used to injure and demoralize American soldiers.  Here's an example - a "fish trap" that would catch the foot and leg of any soldier unluky enough to step on it:

Next, we saw how the VC guerillas entered the tunnels and camouflaged the entrances.  Here's a soldier entering the tunnels:

The tunnels were incredibly small - the only way to travel through them was to crawl on your stomach.  In spite of this, people lived in the tunnels for days at a time.  We got to walk through one tunnel, which had been specially enlarged for tourists:

Yay, we made it out!  Some random Chinese guy wanted to take our picture, so I made him take one with my camera too.

Then, we had a snack of tapioca root and tea, which was a typical meal that the tunnel dwellers might have eaten.  Mmm, just look at how much I am enjoying it:

Finally, we watched an 1970s propaganda video about the Cu Chi region.  At this point, we were beginning to realize that the perspectives on the Vietnam War were very different here than the ones that we had been taught in the US.  The video portrayed the people of the Cu Chi region as hardworking, simple peasants, who were eager to do their part to contribute to the stuggle against the invading Americans.  However, this probably was true to the thinking of many of the local residents - they were just minding their own business until the Americans showed up and started bombing and killing.  So, I guess I can see where they were justified in their resistance.

We headed back to Saigon for the night and enjoyed some more wandering around the city before turning in.  Many of the New Year's fairs were still set up, so we enjoyed some more local beer and some amazingly delicious pho (beef noodle soup), before heading to bed.

The next day, we checked out several sights in downtown Saigon.  Our first stop was the War Remnants Museum, which used to be named the Museum of American War Crimes.  This former name was indicative of the sentiments of the museum.  It was pretty gruesome - especially the Agent Orange display.  The various exhibits in the museum really drove home the atrocities committed by American troops during the war, and the lasting impact that they've had on Vietnam and it's citizens.  Again, a very different perspective than we were taught at home.  I know that I'd heard about some of the subjects before, such as Agent Orange and the My Lai massacre, but they definitely weren't emphasized nearly as much as they were here.  One interesting exhibit showed the course of the war through photographs taken for newspapers and magazines around the world.  I thought this was interesting because it showed the role that the media played in the war, especially in the shaping of the public's opinion of it.

After some lunch and a refreshing coconut, we headed to a Taoist temple.

The temple had lots and lots of various shrines, but, unfortunately, no signs or explanations.  However, it was quite peaceful and had a nice garden where we relaxed in the shade for awhile:

Finally, we visited the Reunification Palace, which was the site of the South Vietnamese government.  Architecturally, the palace was really strange looking and not at all what I expected it to look like:

Much of the palace has been left as it was when the South surrendered in April 1975.  Most of the upper floors of the palace were various state rooms and meeting rooms.  The basement was more interesting, as it housed all the military command rooms which still contained lots of old technology and maps.  On the roof was an American helicopter:

Apparently, they used to let visitors out to the helicopter, so that they could have a "last helicopter out of Saigon" photo-op, but not anymore.

After that, we hurried back to our hostel and to the airport to catch our flight to Da Nang, a city in central Vietnam.  Flying domestically in Vietnam was...interesting.  When we arrived at the airport, we were told that our flight departure was delayed two hours, from 6 PM until 8 PM.  Later, I checked my email and had been sent an email telling me that the flight was delayed until 11 PM (which it wasn't).  While we were sitting waiting to board, I noticed that our boarding passes (which were actually just receipts) listed our flight time as 3 PM, so I had a bit of a momentary panic.  But, we eventually made it on the plane and to Da Nang - but I'll save that for the next post. 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

More Singapore Tourism

Chris arrived in Singapore last week, and we had a little over a day to spend in Singapore, so we had time to see a couple fun tourist sites before we headed off to Vietnam.

First, we visited the Haw Par Villa, originally called the Tiger Balm Gardens.  The inventors of Tiger Balm were two brothers, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par.  Although not originally from Singapore, the Aw brothers eventually settled here and in 1935 purchased the land on which the villa was constructed.  The gardens took two years to construct, and cost around two million (US) dollars to build!  According to wikipedia, the park "contains over 1,000 statues and 150 giant dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese folklore, legends, history, and illustrating various aspects of Confucianism".  Many of the statues in the park are supposed to teach children about traditional Chinese values and morals, especially the Ten Courts of Hell portion of the gardens.

The gardens have gone through several iterations over the years - for awhile in the early 90s, the gardens were converted into an amusement park with rides - but today they are in the process of being restored to their original state.  

Here I am getting ready to enter the Ten Circles of Hell:

The Ten Circles of Hell showed the different punishments that would befall various types of sinners in the afterlife.  The statues were incredibly gruesome, like this one!

Our favorite punishment was the one for prostitutes, who were to be drowned in a "filthy blood pond".

The rest of the statues depicted all sorts of different legends, myths, and stories.  Some had explanations posted, but for most, we were left to puzzle out what the stories behind the statues could have been.  For example, this lady with a crab head:

This rabbit vs. rat war was also one of the more confusing ones:

Also on display  was a "tiger car" owned by one of the Aw brothers at the height of their fortune.  The horn, of course, made a roaring noise!

Later that day, we visited the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, in Chinatown.  As the name would suggest, the temple contains a piece of a tooth from the Sakyamuni Buddha (this is the Buddha that most people just know of as "Buddha", but I guess there actually lots of Buddhas).  This temple is crazy!  The tooth relic is contained in a stupa (altar) made of solid gold, apparently weighing 420 kg.  There are also a total of 10,000 small Buddha statues around the temple.  Although the relic is from the Sakyamuni, or Supreme, Buddha, the temple is actually dedicated to the Maitreya Buddha, who is known as the "Future Buddha".  We weren't really sure of how this future Buddha thing worked, but we did enjoy imaginging a robotic future Buddha.  Here is the main shrine, with the Maitreya Buddha in the middle:

In the next couple posts, I'll be writing about our trip to Vietnam - but this may take while because, between Chris and I, we took several hundred pictures, so I need to sort through all those first!  But, it was a really awesome trip, and hopefully I can get all the pictures up on Picasa, and post a link here to see all of them.