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.

 

 

Tai O Fishing Village – Hong Kong Diary 3

After you finish with the 360 degrees view of Hong Kong in the cable car, the Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery, you can either hit back home or visit a surreal fishing village of Hong Kong.

You can catch a bus from the bus terminus behind the Bug Buddha or hail a cab, like we did till Tai O, a fishing town on the western side of Lantau Island.

Tai O Fishing Village.
A eating joint in the local market.
The village museum.
The village museum.

Tai O, in Chinese means a large inlet of water as the Tai O river splits to the north (Tai O creek) and west, and this fishing village lies at the fork. There is pedestrian bridge that connect the north and west of the fork. Earlier it was a rope bridge which has now been made of steel and concrete.

When British came to Hong Kong, this village was called Tanka village and was an illegal entry point to enter Hong Kong for people escaping from China. It was also used by the smugglers due to its strategic location to smuggle guns, tobacco and people. Due to salt marshes present here, salt was also produced here.

The village museum.
The village museum.
The village museum.
Dried salted fish and shrimp paste.
Dried salted fish and shrimp paste.

Although there is a public school here, most youngsters move out of the island, on attaining adulthood. Fishing is therefore on the decline here.

There was a huge fire in 2000 on the island, which destroyed a large part of the village houses and all you see now are squatters’ huts or dilapidated stilt houses.

Looking at the current situation of the village it is difficult to comprehend that once this was called the “Venice of Hong Kong”.

There is village market where shops sell traditional salted fish and shrimp paste. You can also go for a boat ride here and if you are lucky you might see the Pink Dolphins. On stilt houses there are some eating joints where you can sample the local eats.

There is small shop in the market housing old stuff used by the village and visiting it you get the feeling a visiting a village museum.

The village market.
Stilt houses.
Boat ride showing Stilt houses.
The fork, either side is the village on stilts.
Stilt houses.
Stilt houses.
A local food vendor.
This was a rope bridge which is now been converted to a steel bride.

 

 

Po Lin Monastery – Hong Kong Diary 2

The Po Lin Monastery, I talked about in my previous blog was established in 1906 by three monks who came to Hong Kong from China. At the time it was established it was known as “The Big Hut” but was later renamed in 1924 to its current name, Po Lin Monastery (means precious Lotus).

Po Lin Monastery.

It is a beautiful monastery which houses many Buddhist scriptures apart from three bronze statutes of the Buddha representing his past, present and future.  On the ground floor, on its right is a very beautiful and old tree under which there is fish pond. You have to actually see it to believe, the size of the gold fish here.

People who come to pray burn incense sticks here.
You have see to believe the size of gold fish in this pond.
A very old and beautiful tree.
People who come to pray burn incense sticks here.
People who come to pray burn incense sticks here.

There are also large vases and  places where people burn incense when they come to pray.  There is a smaller temple which leads to the main courtyard facing the Temple Gateway. There are also some deities and guards, who protect the main gateway.

The deities and guards who protect the main gateway.
The deities and guards who protect the main gateway.
The small temple before the the main hall.

Inside is the massive hall called the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas with a beautiful carved ceiling. No photography is permitted inside.

The Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas(no photography is permitted inside).

Outside there is a Wisdom Path where series of wooden posts form a figure eight, which is used for prayers by Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians.

The day we visited it was very hot and humid, otherwise on a good day you can spend quite a lot of time strolling through the gardens.

 

 

 

 

Ngong Ping 360 – Hong Kong Diary 1

Lantau Island is one of the biggest island of Hong Kong and lies at the mouth of Pearl River. Till late 1990, it was a sleepy fishing village till construction of Lantau Link to main Hong Kong Island started. This was followed by the International Airport in 1998 and Disneyland in 2005.

In 2006, on the western side of the island where Po Lin Monastery is situated, development of a major tourist attraction, the cable car started. This was a ideal spot as there is a 34 m tall Buddha statute, looking North over the Chinese people. This can only be reached by a long stairway.

From Tung Chung Bay, a cable car started to this point, which is now known as Ngong Ping 360, as it provides a 360 degree view of the surrounding Tung Chung bay, the International Airport , the Hong Kong-Zhuai-Maccu Bridge, Ngong Ping Plateau and the Big Buddha.

The main escalator to the cable car platform.

 

The beautiful journey of 5.7 kms in the cable car starts from downtown Tung Chung and take 25 minutes to reach the traditional cultural Chinese themed Village Ngong Ping. As you alight and start walking, you first encounter a beautiful Tea House followed by various restaurants and souvenir shops.

360 degree view from the cable car. Breathtaking view of the Tung Chung bay from Tower 2B.
360 degree view from the cable car.
360 degree view from the cable car.
360 degree view from the cable car.
360 degree view from the cable car.
360 degree view from the cable car. Hong Kong International Airport. You can see a take off.
The beautiful tea house, Li Nong.
A beautiful tea pot outside Li Nong Tea House

These are then followed by the multimedia attractions, Walking with the Buddha, VR360, Stage360 and Motion360. Then you walk into a big gate which leads to the stairway to the Big Buddha on your right followed by the Po Lin Monastery further on your left.

I will talk about it in my next blog.

360 degree view from the cable car.
360 degree view from the cable car.
360 degree view from the cable car.
The Big Budhha.
The big gate before you enter the monastery and the Big Buddha.