August 24, 2015

Visit to KL Bird Park

Yan Yan’s kindy’s annual outing this year was to the KL Bird Park, the same place that her jiejie visited six years ago.  As I had gone through the drill with Yiu Yiu, I knew that with so many children on the trip, there’s hardly any time to really enjoy the visit, as it would be one mad rush from one place to another.  But kids being kids, she wanted to join the trip with her friends.  And so I accompanied her for the trip in late April.

Queuing to board the bus

It was a rather gloomy day…

Class photo at the entrance

…and true enough, the sky opened up not long after we arrived, and everyone had to seek shelter under the limited covered area of the park.

Sought shelter at one of the stalls

Luckily the rain was gone as soon as it came, and the children continued to walk around the park.

Soon after, everyone was assembled at the ampitheatre for the bird show.

Munching on some buns while waiting for the show to begin

The show was exactly the same as it was six years ago J

We made our way back to the buses after the show, and that marked the last kindy outing for Yan Yan at TJC.  I hope she has some good memories of the trip as a remembrance of her time with her kindy friends.

August 16, 2015

Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) – Food and market

After watching the AO Show one of the nights, we headed to Huong Lai Vietnamese Restaurant for some traditional Vietnamese cuisine.   What attracted me to this restaurant was the fact that the service staff and some of the kitchen staff are former street children, orphans and youth from very poor families, and Huong Lai provided them an opportunity to better their lives.

 In front of the Municipal Theatre after the show

We almost missed the entrance as the doorway was dimly lit.  Beyond the door, we climbed up the flight of rickety wooden stairs to reach the dining area, decorated with brick walls and white tablecloths, exuding an air of French colonial influence.

We had fried prawn spring roll, steamed tofu with minced pork and mushrooms, stir fried kangkung, stir-fried chicken in lemongrass and stewed pork in claypot.

A Vietnamese colleague recommended Ngoc Suong Marina also known as Marina Saigon Seafood Cuisine for our team dinner.  It is an upmarket seafood restaurant, with aquariums on the ground floor from which you can order produce cooked to your desire.

We started with their signature fish salad, raw fish (I think) wrapped with vegetables in a thin rice paper with a fish sauce and peanuts dip.  The other dishes we had were tamarind roast crab, barbecued spicy squid, steamed tiger prawns in coconut shell and grilled pork ribs.  We ended our meal with seafood hotpot – all in, an extremely satisfying dinner.

 Fish salad, eaten rolled up like a spring roll

When in Vietnam, must have pho :-)  I was looking for reviews of pho stalls and found one that is literally just next to the hotel I was staying so I went there for breakfast one day.

On the last night, we went to Cuc Gach Quan, located inside a French colonial house.  The d├ęcor is rutic and elegant, cluttered with recycled vintage items to “remind people of the old time”.  The restaurant focuses on traditional country Vietnamese cuisine, food typically found in a Vietnamese home.

We sat at the alfresco area

We had rice with stir fried pumpkin flowers (or was it lily bubs?), fried tofu with lemongrass and chilli, stir fried soft shell crab with tamarind sauce and sour soup with fish.  Recycling isn’t limited to re-using old items–even the straw used to serve fresh fruit juices is a stem from the water morning glory.

 Whenever I travel, I try to make it a point to visit their local market and followed a colleague to one.  Apparently there’s a special Vietnamese rice for porridge and the best one was in this market (which I have no idea where).

August 12, 2015

Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) – Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temple

The Cu Chi Tunnels, located 70km northwest of Ho Chi Minh, is an amazing complex of underground tunnels used during the Vietnam war.  Initial construction started in 1948 when the Viet Minh required somewhere to hide from French air attacks and by 1965, the tunnel complex was estimated to consist of more than 200 km of tunnels with underground hideouts, shelters, hospitals, schools, meeting rooms, kitchens and sleeping quarters.

We went to the Ben Duoc site, which contains part of the original tunnel system.  Because it is further away from HCM, it is less touristy and we practically had the place all to ourselves when we were there.

Many women were part of Viet Cong - they could be teachers, nurses, etc by day and fighter by night 

Bomb shells

Inconspicuous holes in the ground providing ventilation into the tunnels and spying above ground

Now you see it, now you don't - entry/exit points into the tunnels

Wahlah! I could fit in

The narrow and short tunnels...This is probably already enlarged for tourists but people apparently had to crawl in the actual tunnels 

Surgical bunk where the injured are treated

A strategy meeting taking place

Workshops - where rubber slippers and uniforms are made

At the end of the tour, we were served tea and steamed tapioca, a staple food in those difficult days

We then went to another site nearby where we took a shot at firing the AK-47.

We then proceeded to the Cao Dai Temple was built between 1933 – 1955.  It is the holy temple of the Cao Dai sect, a syncretist Vietnamese religious movement that incorporates aspect of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Catholicism.

The temple closely resembles a Christian cathedral in its architecture – two square towers, a long central nave with upper gallery, and side aisles.  The exterior and interior of the temple are extravagantly decorated, incorporating symbols, abstract designs and images of saints.  The high ceiling is painted sky-blue with fluffy clouds and the floor tiles have busy patterns.

The three principal colors of Cao Dai are yellow (for Buddhism), blue (for Taoism), and red (for Christianity), and these appear in worshippers' robes as well as the temple.  The most important symbol is the Divine Eye, representing God.  It is a left eye, because God is Yang, and Yang is the left side.  It has a ying-yang symbol in the pupil.

(L) - the Divine Eye; (R) - sculptures of Indian God atop one of the towers  

There are four ceremonies with chanting each day: 6:00 am, noon, 6:00 pm, and midnight.  An orchestra of 10 musicians and a choir of 20 youths lead the service in prayer and hymns.  One of the most memorable sights at the Cao Dai temple is the sea of worshippers who dress in flowing robes and assemble in orderly rows during a ceremony.  Men sit on the right and women on the left.  Visitors are welcomed to watch the ceremonies and take photos from the galleries.

Our lunch of roast chicken with baguette and raw salad.  The dip for the chicken is a mixture of chilli powder with flavoured salt

We got back to HCM pretty early and walked around the Backpackers’ Street.

August 08, 2015

Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) – City tour

I was in HCM for a work trip in May, and took the opportunity to visit the city for the first time.  My colleagues and I went two days earlier, and we explored the city on Day 1, and made a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels on Day 2.

The first order of the day – lunching like a local.  The pork chop rice was yummy.

We then explored the city on foot.

Cho Ben Thanh or Ben Thanh Market, was within walking distance to our hotel.  One of Saigon’s oldest landmarks, Ben Thanh is great place to buy local handicrafts, Vietnamese arts, souvenirs and also to sample local Vietnamese food.

Hotel de Ville (City Hall), a striking cream and yellow colonial building, was completed in 1908 by the French.  The design was based on the Paris original.  It is now a working government building, housing the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee.

Lam Son Square has always been one of the city's most prestigious addresses: today, it's the place to head for a night of culture, or a spot of shopping amongst the city's affluent residents.  In the heart of Lam Son Square is Hotel Continental, the favoured spot of French high society of the past.  Next to Hotel Continental is the Municipal Theatre – a lavish 100-year-old building that regularly hosts local and touring dance, opera and theatre companies.  We bought tickets to watch the famous AO Show.

Hotel Continental 

Municipal Theatre

Roadside barber - shaving head the traditional way

The Central Post Office is a beautifully preserved remnant of French colonial times and perhaps the grandest post office in all of Southeast Asia.    Constructed between 1886 and 1891, the interior has looping arches, intricately designed marble floors and antiquated telephone boxes; all serve as a reminder of the importance the post office played in days before email and mobile phones.  There’s a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging high above at the far end of the building.  It is still a functioning post office, with free postcards available for visitors to send back home.

(L) A Vietnamese girl in aodai posing at the counter; (R) A Malaysian girl posing next to the phone booths

Next to the post office is the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Built in the late 1880s by French colonists, it was formerly called Saigon Church.  The name Notre Dame was given after the installation of the statue ‘Peaceful Notre Dame’ in 1959.  In 1962, the Vatican conferred the Cathedral status as a basilica and gave it the official name of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica.  It is a popular place for pre-wedding photography, as evident by the many pairs of newly weds taking their wedding shots when we were there.

The iconic Reunification Palace made its name in global history when in 1975 a tank belonging to the North Vietnamese Army crashed through its main gate – thus signifying the end of the Vietnam War.  The palace is like a time capsule frozen in 1975 with two of the original tanks used in the capture of the palace parked in the grounds.

The War Remnants Museum once known as the ‘Museum of American War Crimes’ first opened to the public in 1975.  It is a shocking reminder of of the long and brutal Vietnam War.  From eerie bomb remnants and first-person accounts by war veterans to a bloodied guillotine and photographs of horrific napalm burns, disfigured bodies of locals exposed to Agent Orange, this is a chilling reminder of life not-too-long ago.  Not for the faint-hearted, I’d say.