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Saturday, January 27, 2007

In memory of Noi and Keith's wedding on 27th January 2007.

The bears, dinner favours, are rather 'Princess Hours'. If you had caught the Korean drama, you'll probably know what I mean. Perhaps I shall place them in my staff room and who knows? You may catch a glimpse of them while passing through.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Le Saigon (Day 3)
Day 3 was the dullest one in the entire tour. As mentioned in the previous post, we spent the night at Vungtau, a well-known coastal resort 125 km (3 hours bus ride!)southeast of HCMC.

As you can see from the photo, the letters "EL" are missing from the word "HOTEL". Our best guess was that the words were inadequate in withstanding the force of Typhoon Durian, which struck Vungtau 2-3 weeks prior to our arrival. Perhaps in the cover of darkness and in a haste to arrive the night before in Vungtau, we failed to notice the amount of destruction the typhoon had caused to the town. In the morning, it was clear for all to see. Roof tiles from newly constructed houses were randomly missing, leaving unsightly gaps in the roof. Trees were uprooted and fell to the ground. Even the Summer Palace of the Emperor Bao Dai were closed to visitors for fallen teak trees had to be cleared. The fortunate thing - we were blessed that we arrived after the typhoon had gone. Our family had originally intended to visit Vietnam during that time.

After a simple breakfast at the hotel, we went to the Jesus Monument, which overlooks the peninsula and the Pacific Ocean.

This is the Jesus Monument. As you can see, the monument is situated at the top of the mountain. We had to climb a total of 1000 steps in order to reach it. Ha, it was a tiring and challenging climb as we encouraged each other not to give up. As a result, Bro and I were amongst the first people to make it to the top. I was rather surprised that even Dad and Mum made it, for the climb was rather tedious.

This is the base of the monument. We had to climb many more flights of stairs in order to reach the shoulders of Jesus which overlooks the sea, perhaps the Pacific Ocean. This climb reminded me strongly of the time the CO students and I ascendeded the Great Wall of China together.

Bro's feet were made for walking.

The scenic view at the top of the Jesus Monument.

The Whale Temple was the next place we visited. Most Vietnamese are Buddhists, Taoists or Confucianists. However it was rather surprising that the majority of the locals residing in Vungtau are Catholics. Perhaps this was due to the early missionaries who come forth to Vungtau to spread the gospel. Anyway as the name implies, the Whale Temple is a temple meant to worship the whale! The whale is a sacred creature revered by the fishermen whose lives depend on their catch. In the temple itself, there is a gigantic carcass of a whale.

The 3-hour ride back to HCMC was painful. My over-active bladder was screaming since the early part of the journey so I was silently praying for a stopover. Amazingly, we did. It was at this handicraft shop that produced lacquered ware, especially those made from mother-of-pearl and egg-shells. Interestingly, although the shop is meant to equip the disabled with some form of job, I hardly saw anyone with some form of disability there.

A worker using eggshells to complete his work of art.

Lacquer ware which were priced at exhorbitant prices.

The next visit was to the War Museum in HCMC. Over at the Cu Chi Tunnels, the picture of the valiant Cu Chi Guerillas were painted. Over at the War Museum, the sufferings of the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War were for all to see. Although the Americans were portrayed as the aggressors and Vietnamese as the victims, I sensed that the display was rather prejudiced. As a mark of respect, I decided not to take any pictures of the war victims who were scarred both physically and mentally.

The traffic in Vietnam can only be described using one word - chaotic. With almost everyone in Vietnam riding motorbikes and scooters, it's pretty amazing how the driver Vic weaved his 40-seater, swerving pedestrians and motorists. Traffic lights are scarce in Vietnam. In fact, we spend many death-defying moments on the roads. Thankfully Vic has superior driving skills. We witnessed a terrible accident when a motorcyclist collided head on with a truck. I don't think the victim survived the accident. According to Hua, 12 000 motorists die as a result of traffic accidents each year. Most Vietnamese can't afford to go to the hospital when they are sick.
Our Driver Vic. He taught me to say "I love you" in Vietnamese but I can't remember how it goes already. ;(

My favourite place. Cho Ben Thanh, similar to Chatuchak, houses everything from clothes to coffee powder. Daddy bought many fake Adidas jerseys there. I tried my best to reprise my role to bargain for the best price.

Well, here's a typical conversation with the shopowners I made:

Me: Sin Cho (Hello in Vietnamese)
Seller: Sin Cho
Me: How much? (in a weird accent)
Seller: USD or dong? (payment in dong is usually cheaper because of the exchange rate)
Me: Dong
Seller: *** dong
Me: Ma Qua! (Expensive in Vietnamese) Lower... Lower *finger points to the floor*
Seller: Give me another price
Me: *** dong

and the bargaining continues.

It was rather surprising to find that like the Chinese, the Vietnamese too, value the first and last customers of the day for they believe that a good start/end makes a difference.

The traffic situation after shopping for merely one hour.

We had our dinner on board a cruise ship. Nothing fantastic though.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Le Saigon (Day 2)

My hotel room at Winsor Plaza Hotel, a 5-star accommodation. One of the newest hotels built in Ho Chi Minh City, Winsor Plaza Hotel is the first 5-star hotel built by a Vietnamese. The best part? There's a shopping plaza and wholesale market just a walking distance away from the hotel itself! Sadly, there was hardly any time for us to shop.

Ho Chi Minh City(HCMC) - where I made my first million!

Actually, one million dong is peanuts in comparsion to the Singapore dollar. For the un-informed, one million dong is actually equivalent to $100 Sing. Haha, the exchange rate is probably one reason why many Singaporeans are flocking to Vietnam for shopping. Anyway that was all I spent in HCMC but the bulk went to buying presents for my gfs.

This was the first place where we spent our dong on the second day. As you can see from the picture, it's called Rice Paper Village, a place which makes and sells rice paper (used to make the famous Vietnamese Spring Rolls). You can even d-i-y! There even make fried crackers made of rice and sesame seeds which almost taste like the Singaporean version of prawn crackers.

This was also where we spotted some grotesque-looking objects. Upon closer examination, we discovered that there are in fact bottled rice wine soaked with creatures like snakes, pythons, geekos, scorpions or even seahorses supposedly to boost a man's virility. This came as an initial shock to us but after some time, we realised that snake wine is as common to the Vietnamese as chicken rice is to Singaporeans.

As with all Singaporeans whose favourite occupation is shopping, this tiny shop in the middle of nowhere successfully managed to occupy the 31 of us for at least 30 minutes. This was because we seized the opportunity to visit the toilet at the shophouse before we reached the Cu Chi tunnels.

I managed to snap a picture of the funky looking toilets (the tour guide calls them 'Happy House'). My best guess is that the cubicle on the left is for taller ladies and the one on the right is for the vertically challenged.

Not funny?


For those who are interested, I went to the left cubicle. Hehehe...

Soon the bus arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels, a MUST-GO for all visitors in HCMC! The visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels turned out to be an educati onal adventure in itself. It was hardly surprising that I was able to pick up more historical facts and general knowledge than any book or encyclopedia about Vietnam. "The Tunnel Network represents the undaunted will, intelligence nd pride of the Cu Chi people. It is also a symbol of the revolutionary heroism of the Vietnamese people. Due to this, Cu Chi has been bestowed the title of 'The Steel Land and the Bronze Citadel'." (Cu Chi Tunnel Brochure)

As you observe from the photo, this is an entrance to an underground hideout. The opening is only slightly larger than my Acer TravelMate laptop, which is already pretty small. These tunnels, accessible by the smaller-built Vietnamese are well-camouflaged and usually inconspicious to the naked eye. It was rather comical that my brother managed to squeeze himself into the tiny hole but could not fit his arms in.

This tall, dark and handsome man happens to be our tour guide, Hwa for our entire trip. Oozing with boyish charm, Hwa made us laugh throughout the entire trip. From him, I learnt how to speak English tinged with an Vietnamese accent.

Hmm... I wonder if there are any more tall, dark, handsome and funny men around?

But the way, in the photo above, Hwa was describing the way the Vietnamese outsmarted the Americans in the Vietnam War through the ingenious use of readily-available materials from the nearby jungle. In fact, simple devices like booby traps were created not to kill the American soldiers but most of the time to render them immobile or paralysed. It's rather shocking to learn the primitive devices used were more effective than the heavy artillery used by the Americans in the forested area.

What lies beneath?

Look before you leap!

The self-made weapons gallery was an eye-opener in itself. Using bamboo or steel for spikes, these traps had a variety of fanciful names like rolling trap, klipping(spelling error?) armpit trap, window trap, folding chair trap and even see-saw trap. I was intrigued by the fact that the Vietnamese could engineer such simple yet incapitating devices even in times of war. Trust me. Either you end up crippled or dead. Though amazed, I couldn't help but shudder when I imagined the number of American soldiers who were killed becaused of these traps.

The many booby traps.

These were the footwear worn by the Vietnamese guerillas during the war. Crafted entirely out of tires, these sandals were light-weight, allowed the soldiers to move about silently and lasted up to seven years! These were the sandals worn by Mr Ho Chi Minh (the Father of Vietnam) as well.

The tunnels were of course the highlight of the day. We were given the guerilla experience when we journeyed into the tunnel. Cold, dark and narrow. These adjectives aptly describe the Cu Chi Tunnels. Though the tunnels were enlarged for the foreign tourists, it was a rather eerie experience being down on all fours, groping your way in the dark when you couldn't even see your hands in front of you. Although we went into a 40m tunnel, the journey felt like it was never going to end. Perhaps in my anxiety to get out of the tunnel, I crawled a little too fast and kept bumping into an unknown auntie's buttocks in front of me. Gross!

Cu Chi Tunnel - definitely not a place for the claustrophobic! We were all very much relieved to see light streaming in from the other end of the tunnel. I cannot imagine that the guerillas had to spend days and nights in the tunnels itself, hiding, plotting and even living in the tunnels!

The day's journey was largely occupied by the bus journey itself. In fact, we spent almost 9 hours on the bus, shuttling between HCMC-Cu Chi Tunnels-HCMC-Vungtau (Sammy Hotel).

Vietnamese Coffee. Thick, aromatic brew that has a hint of vanilla and even cocoa.

We had our dinner at VungTau and were grateful to arrive in one piece (will explain in the next post) for dinner and eventually at Sammy Hotel (a 3-star accommodation)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Goodbye 2006, Hello 2007!
To those who made my 2006 more memorable and enjoyable - Thank You!
To those who uplifted me with your words of encouragement - Thank You!

2006 has been a good year. As Pastor E put it, 2006 was a year of favours. For I've received much blessings and can bless others in return. I'm looking forward to 2007, a year where new doors will be opened.
Goodbye 2006!

Hello 2007!