VietnamDiary 7 – Hop on-Hop off Bus Tour

The Hanoi Hop on-Hop off Bus Tour starts from the Old Quarters at 900 hours and there is a bus every 30 minutes. There are a total of 13 stops where you can hop on or hop off and the tour ends at the starting point.

We got on to the bus from The Temple of Literature and covered the following Hanoi attractions. The rest of the attractions, we did it on our own.

Hoa Lo Prison

This prison was in use during the French occupation of Vietnam and was mainly used  to house the political prisoners. Later North Vietnam used it for U S Prisoners during the American War. Ironically in those days the Americans called it the Hanoi Hilton.

Layout of the prison.
Pictures and drawings of the prison in those days.
The main Gate.
The Cell D – for male prisoners designed for 40 prisoners. But sometimes it even had up to 100 prisoners.
Cachot area – “hell of the hell:, meant for prisoners who broke prison laws.

The name Hoa Lo in Vietnamese means the fiery furnace as there were lot of stores selling wood stoves and coal fire stoves on that street. In fact this was the village which produced earthen home appliances such as kettles, teapots and portable stoves.

In those days the prison occupied an area of 12,908m making it the largest fortified prison in IndoChina. It was later demolished in 1990 except the gatehouse, which is now the Museum.

Opera House

The Opera House is modeled on the Palais Garnier, Paris as it was built during 1910-11 by the French. Various cultural programmes, performances, concerts and Government functions are held here.

The Flag Tower of Hanoi

It is a very important landmark of the city standing tall at 41 m (including the Vietnam flag). It was built during the Nguyen dynasty as an observation post to the Hanoi Citadel in 1812.

The Flag Tower of Hanoi.
Wreckage of French and American planes which were shot down.
Canons.
Wreckage of American B 52 D bomber which was shot down.

Unlike some other landmarks it was not destroyed during the French invasion as it was used as a military post. Now it is part of the Vietnam Military History Museum.

The museum houses war photographs and war propaganda from Vietnam’s war with China, France and America. Many French and American planes captured are displayed here together with structures built out of wreckage of these planes.

For the other attractions, read my next blog.

VietnamDiary 6- The Independence Palace

 On our 2nd last day in Sai Gon, we went to another very important and historical landmark of the city, The Reunification Palace, which is now known as the Independence Palace.

This was built, in 1968 on the site of old Norodom Palace surrounded by beautiful palm trees.

The Independence Palace.
The Lobby.

During the American War, Ngo Dinh Diem, President of South Vietnam worked and lived here with his family and decided to rename it to the Independence Palace.

However, just 8 years later it was destroyed by the bombing during a coup. The President later ordered the remains to be destroyed and a new palace to built in its place.

The new structure includes three main floors, 2 mezzanine floors, one terrace and one upper floor with 95 rooms each decorated in accordance with its function. It has two exhibition rooms and a 33 room Guest House. In 1975, it was captured by the Communists ending the Vietnam war. Now the Palace is used as a Museum only. The two original tanks used to capture it are parked in the Palace grounds.

While we were visiting the palace, there was a very good exhibition going on there called From Norodom Palace to Independence Palace, 1868-1966 in the two story villa, only colonial era building that stands on the ground of Independence Palace.

On the first floor of the building there were exhibits showing life in colonial Sai Gon. On the second floor, were the exhibits showing rise and fall of the Ngo Dinh Diem government, the destruction and rebuilding of the Independence Palace.

 

 

 

 

 

VietnamDiary 5 – The famous Mekong River Delta.

Another major landmark in Sai Gon, usually oversold to tourists is the Mekong River Delta. Historically this has been an important region of Vietnam right from Funan Kingdom as a trading port due to its proximity with present day Cambodia. Some even suggest that this was probably the capital of Funan Kingdom.

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The Mekong River Delta.
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The Mekong River Delta.
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The Mekong River Delta.
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The Mekong River Delta.

After Vietnam gained independence from France, this western part of Vietnam has contributed immensely to the rice production. It also supplies fruits and vegetables. It is often referred to as the “biological treasure trove” after many new animal species and plants have been discovered here. Overall it is Vietnam’s most productive region in agriculture and aquaculture. It has almost half of Vietnam’s capacity of offshore fishing vessels.

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The area is dominated by flat flood plains in the south and a few hills in the north and west. It also has a small forest region making it attractive to tour operators. However since it is low lying it is particularly susceptible to floods when the sea level rises.

Most of the people living in this area are local ethnic Viet but it is also has a the largest Khmer population outside Cambodia with some Chinese calling it home too. Life in general here revolves much around the river as many of the villages are often accessible by rivers and canals rather than by road.

In my view this region needs to be explored in leisure, however our tour operator and all others operating in this area have reduced it to taste the honey, see coconut candy being made, cruise on the water, see a temple, take a picture with a snake, see how rice paper is made and, of course, visit the floating markets. Thank you for visiting Mekong Delta.

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Coconuts shells are removed.
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Coconut is scapped.
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The scapped coconut is heated.
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The scapped coconut after heating and removing the oil is turned into a dough to make candies by rolling them in sugar.
The beans are grinded to make powder.
Coffee beans.

VietnamDairy 4 – Visit to the Sai Gon’s Cathedral and Central Post Office.

Among Sai Gon’s other important landmarks are the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica and Central Post Office. They are just next to each other so we visited them together. Unfortunately, the Cathedral was undergoing some major repairs so no one was allowed entry into it.

After the French conquest of IndoChina, the Roman Catholic church established Vietnam’s first church in an abandoned Pagoda. It was too small so a new church was built on Ngo Duc Ke Street but it was damaged by the termites as it was made of wood. As a result the prayers and other church services were later shifted to the French Governor’s Palace.

Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, SaiGon.
Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica.
Gardens outside.
Gardens outside.

During 1863 and 1880, a new Cathedral was built with two bell towers rising up to about 190 feet each and having six bronze bells each. On top of each tower, crosses were installed and with this the total height of the cathedral went up to 60.5 m.

In the front beautiful flower gardens were planted with a bronze statue of Bishop of Adran, Pigneau de Behaine. It was a bit of a dampner that we could not see the Cathedral from inside.

Next door is the Sai Gon’s Central Post Office built during the 19th century. The building is beautifully constructed with Gothic, Renaissance and French styles.

Central Post Office, SaiGon.
Inside Central Post Office.
Shopping inside Central Post Office, SaiGon.
Telephone booths inside Central Post Office.

There is an enormous portrait of Ho Chi Minh inside the post office which you see as you enter it. On the entrance are two maps, one of Saigon & its surroundings and the other is of telegraphic routes of South Vietnam and Cambodia. There are also the historic telephone booths inside which were used for international calls but have now slowly faded into the history of telecommunications. In some of these booths, cash dispeners (ATMs) have been installed. Apart from sending a Post Card to your loved ones, you can also shop for souvenirs here.

 

 

 

 

 

VietnamDiary 3 – The most popular Museum in Vietnam, War Remnants Museum.

Next day we visited the second most important and popular attractions of Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon), the War Remnants Museum. It was opened to public in 1975.

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War Renants

Vietnam has been engaged in different wars for over 100 years, first with the Chinese, then French colonialists and later Americans. This museum contains exhibits relating to first Indochina war with French and those relating to the American War.

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The Museum is operated by the Vietnamese government and was earlier called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet crimes. Later the name was changed to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression. However, subsequent to normalisation of its relations with the United States, in 1990 the name was changed to the War Remnants Museum.

There are several themed rooms and it also house a Huey Helicopter, F5 fighter, several tanks and a conventional bomb weighing 6,800kg. American troops had used these weapons against the Vietnam.
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Tiger Cages of South Vietnam, where political prisoners were kept are also displayed here. There are a number of exhibits relating to the deadly effects of Agent Orange and several award winning photographs.

Every year almost half a million visitors visit this museum and of this two-thirds of the visitors are foreigners.

This shocking reminder of the long and brutal American War is an absolute must visit place in Vietnam.

VietnamDiary 2 – Vietnamese Lacquer paintings.

Before we hit the Cu Chi tunnels, our conducted tour guide stopped on the way at Lamphat Company, which makes and sells lacquer paintings. All the artist which are employed there are handicapped and war victims. Since they are unable to be employed in regular office jobs, they have been trained in this art form and rehabilitated.

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Lacquer painting is an ancient art form of Vietnam and is part of their heritage. The lacquer is made from a resin obtained from trees native to Vietnam. Each piece of a painting undergoes a complex process of creation, from wood preparation, drawing, lining, polishing, varnishing, inlaying of mother of pearls or egg shells etc. The finished paintings then have a brilliant shine on them.

This process is better explained in the picture below.

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It was a real treat to see these handicapped artists work with such precision and dedication producing such masterpieces.

In the end we did not buy, as we thought the prices were too touristy. Hopefully in our next visit we will try and pick up a piece.

 

 

Vietnam Diary 1 Life underground -Cu Chi tunnels

Vietnam was on my bucket list for a really long time. So when my daughter asked us to meet her and her husband in Sai Gon, we jumped at the opportunity.

Her in-laws also joined us and then two set of parents then flew from New Delhi to Bangkok via Thai Airways and reached there early morning. After a layover of two hours we flew to Sai Gon (now called Ho Chi Minh City).

It was a short flight and from the Airport we headed straight to our Airbnb in District 1 of the city. It was a nice property down an small alley, on two levels. It was quite centrally located with a functional kitchen and because it was in a alley it was a quite place.

Next morning we took a conducted tour to Cu Chi tunnels by bus, a major tourist attraction of Sai Gon after the American war. You can also reach here by a boat via Saigon river, but that is a bit expensive way to travel to this site.

Map of a Viet Cong tunnel
Map of a underground tunnel. (source internet)

These tunnels, as the name suggests are in the Cu Chi district of Sai Gon and were of great importance to the north Vietnam fighters but were disliked by the Americans. Viet Cong not only used them as hiding places but as the supply routes, hospitals, living quarters and kitchen for the soldiers.

The Americans described them as “Black Echo” mainly on account of the conditions inside as they were infested with ants, venomous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin.

The Viet Cong soldiers would spend their entire day underground and emerge only during the night to scavenge  for supplies or tend their crops.

After you see them yourself, your respect for Viet Cong goes up as you realise how tough their survival was during the war specially during heavy bombing or troops movement. Sickness was rampant and malaria was the second largest cause of their death during that period.

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A trap door.
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Inside the tunnel.
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This is how the Viet Cong would go in the tunnel.
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Once the lid was closed, the leave covered the exit.

Americans launched several military campaigns during 1968 to destroy them. The top two such exercises were Operation Crimp and Operation Cedar Falls. In the first one they dropped explosives in large quantities which really turned a lush jungle into pockmarked moonscape. Eight thousand American soldiers then combed this area for any sign of life.

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A fake ant hill. Viet Cong would keep an eye on what is going outside.
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A trap.
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Another type of trap. Anybody who fell in died instantly.
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A workshop inside the tunnel.
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A workshop inside the tunnel.

 

The Government of Vietnam has preserved 75 kms of this complex tunnel system and converted into a War Memorial park. Two tunnels display sites, Ben Dinh and Bem Duoc are now major tourist attractions. Tourist are also invited to crawl inside the tunnels to get a feel.

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Casava and ground peanuts.

Here you can also sample the foods the soldiers ate, potato, cassava, peanuts and sesame salt dishes. These foods really helped Viet Cong to have lean bodies and survive in the tunnels.

I learnt one very important thing after visiting these tunnels and that is, if people are with you (Vietnam), you can never loose, it does not matter how rich or powerful your enemy is (USA).

Introduction to Chinese Hot Pot. Hong Kong Diary 6

We all love Chinese food but what I am talking about is real authentic Chinese food. It is know by the way it is cooked, Hot Pot. I tried this meal on my recent visit to Hong Kong and I instantly fell in love with it.

Hot Pot is actually of Mongolian origin and was started about 800-900 years ago. The primary ingredient in their pot was mutton and horse meat and their broth was not spicy. However, when it spread in China, it underwent a slight change.

The Chinese way of cooking is to place a simmering pot of Soup stock at your table, which also contains a variety of foodstuff and condiments. While the hot pot is kept simmering on your table, ingredients are placed into the pot and are cooked at the table. You can choose what you want, like sliced beef, lamb, goat, pork, chicken and seafood or vegetables like bok choy, choy sum, cabbage, spinach, lettuce, carrots, winter melon, bean sprouts etc. Additionally you are given condiments like sesame butter, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, vinegar (both black & white), coriander, garlic, scallions, sesame oil, pickled tofu, chili oil etc. You leave them for a few seconds there, till they cooks and then you take them out in your bowl and eat it.

It is also called Chinese fondue and contrary to popular belief, even vegetarians can enjoy this meal as there is a huge variety of vegetables and other stuff like mushrooms, tofu and corn.

You can imagine its popularity in China by the fact that last year Chinese spend over 3.5 billion Yuan (over USD 500 million) eating out.

I tried it in a restaurant called Top Grade Hot Pot in Tin Hau area of Hong Kong. Their Soup base was good and the Australian Angus Beef served to us was awesome. We also tried the Chicken which was also nice. We were a group of four, with me being the only meat eater. Being the first experience we ended up ordering a bit more. The server’s English was not good so he was not of great help. But we have no regrets as we really enjoyed our dinner. Next time for sure I will not make a mistake of ordering both Beef and Chicken together.

The Legend of Din Tai Fung – Hong Kong Dairy 5

We all love dumplings but how long are you willing to wait for them? Well, if you are at Din Tai Fung (DTF) your wait can be for even one hour. This one Star Michelin restaurant attracts food lovers from all over the world.

The story of Din Tai Fung started during the Chinese Civil War in 1948, when Yang Bingy left China and moved to Taiwan.

After working for an oil retailer for ten years, he suddenly found himself unemployed as his employer shut shop. So he along with his wife Lai Penmei started a new company Din Tai Fung and started retailing oil.

Things went fine till 1970, when oil started being sold in tins. His business suffered immensely and he had to shut half of his shop in 1972.

People waiting both inside and outside the restaurant.

He hired some chefs from Shanghai and started selling buns (Xiaolongbao). The buns were so good that he finally shut his oil business and set up a restaurant, Din Tai Fung on Xinyi Road, Taipei.

With these buns getting popular he open his first international store in Tokyo in 1996 followed by a US store in Arcadia in 2000.

Standard items on each table.
Spring roles.
Legendary Pork filled Steamed dumplings, the Signature dish.
Fried rice.
Michelin Star.
The Bill, I could not comprehend.

Since then there has been no looking back and DTF now operates in Australia, Mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, US, Thailand and UAE.

DTF is listed as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world. Their steamed Pork Dumplings with 18 intricate folds is now a legend in the world and they have been awarded One Michelin Star for their Hong Kong restaurant. Simply put, their steamed pork dumplings contain minced pork wrapped in a delicate dough which is pleated, twisted at the top and steamed. They have a minimum of 18 exquisite folds and each weighs exactly 21 gms.

It is now a must visit for people visiting Hong Kong.

 

 

 

 

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The Unsung Heroes of Hong Kong – Hong Kong Diary 4

After reaching Hong Kong on Saturday, I decided to go for walk on Sunday morning. It was a bit late in the morning when I got out and reached Victoria Park. I was surprised to see a number of South Asian ladies gathered there. They were sitting, eating, talking and dancing while some were lying down and resting on cardboard boxes. At first I thought they were protesting against something but on a closer look, I realised they were celebrating life with their friends. They are the “unsung heroes” of Hong Kong, the Helpers or maids.

Most of these foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong live with their employers. They form a very important part of the Hong Kong society and perform household tasks such as cleaning, cooking, serving and looking after their employer’s children.

There are about 340,000 foreign domestic workers from countries such as Indonesia and Philippines. More than 60 percent of them are young mothers, who have come to Hong Kong for a better future for their children and families back home.

Increasingly the human rights groups are scrutinising their working conditions and working closely with the authorities in framing laws and regulations.

During the 1970’s, Philippines passed a law legalising export of labour in the form of overseas workers. Around the same time Hong Kong started prospering more as a result of China implementing wide-reaching economic reforms and increasing trade with the rest of the world. With prosperity, came the requirement of domestic help, which was fulfilled by labour from Philippines.  So it was a win win for both countries.

A British documentary film maker, Joanna Bowers has produced a documentary on these workers called “The Helper”. Some of these women are so talented in music that it is treat to watch them perform (check out the video above). She also helped to form a choir “The Unsung Helpers”, who performed at a premier Hong Kong music event, Clockenflap.

Do check them out if you ever visit Hong Kong.