Tuesday, December 22, 2009

From the Hanoi Press Club

From Bhaya Cruises

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The absolute wonders of Cham Culture

This was an unexpected surprise, as we were looking for things to do in Nha Trang, aside from the beach since we had the entire day unplanned.

In the picture to the left, worshipers are getting ready to enter one of the temples, with their offerings for the Gods. Before entering, there is a receptacle which holds burning incense. I am wearing a light lavender dress, and I am to the right of the entrance, as I decided to join the faithful inside.

You are bound to hear about the Cham while in Vietnam. They are an ancient civilization that had its influences mainly in Southeast Asia, particularly in Vietnam and Cambodia. Their domain was called Champa, and their architecture and art style is unmistakable. Though we did not see My Son, it is reported that the finest examples of their architecture is to be found there. The Cham were influenced by the Khmer, who, in turn, were influenced by India’s Buddhism, so that one can easily make the connection between Angkor Wat and the buildings found in My Son and Nha Trang. The Cham ruled Vietnam for 10 centuries.

Absolutely amazing was our cab driver who did not know the Po Nagar Cham Towers. Initially, he stopped at a restaurant bearing that name. Add heat to this frustration and you get the meaning of potboiler. 

This is the Xom Bong Bridge you will cross to get to the Towers

Essentially, you need to cross the Cai River via the Xom Bong Bridge, and then you will have arrived. Once again, you are at the bottom of a hill looking up, and don’t be surprised if your jaw drops a few inches as you do. But first, you must buy your ticket (VDN5000), as all good tourists must. If you come here to worship, then it’s free.

There are carvings of Brahma, Shiva, and other symbols of Hindu religions

The first pillars you will see will be in two rows under the main tower. At one time, they enclosed a meditation hall. The burnt orange color of the brick and terracotta monuments are very distinctive, and you will recognize many of the elements of Hinduism sculpted into the towers, such as the Brahma with his four arms and four faces and his wife Saravasti. 

Shiva, with the third eye in his forehead, has many wives, and Vishnu (a sculpture of this god is found on the northernmost tower, with Sanskrit writings on the sides of the entrance arch), whose wife is the goddess of beauty, holds an object in each of his four arms. The mythical Garuda is also present and was prominent during our travel to Bali’s temples.

Inside the temple is a veritable feast of offerings, things that glitter and shine, strong Hindu colors, especially reds, fuchsias and marigolds. Bows of fruit are everywhere and the smell of incense is intoxicating. 

As you scale a circular stone stairway, the splendor of the towers comes into view. They are dedicated to the Hindu goddess Po Nagar (don’t pronounce the "r," because no one will understand you). Only four towers remain of the original seven, and we had an opportunity to enter one of them along with the worshippers; the Vietnamese are not really Buddhist, but observe a combination of three different principles, including Taoism and Confucianism. 

a woman prays
an offering rests in a pink hat: dragon fruit, a rose, and
 a apple protected by netting

It was fascinating to watch as one woman on her knees was rubbing the statues knees and praying. Incense joss sticks are lit and placed in one of the outer urns, and you must leave your shoes at the entrance. The dark interior corridor leads to the main room, where the likeness of a gold Buddha sits in lotus pose. Everyone worships differently and prays for different phenomena. There are magnificent views of the river.

Even nature has sculpted its trees a little differently here at the Po Nagar Towers

Bougainvillea flower everywhere

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Highlights Of Nha Trang

Watch more Nha Trang videos at tripfilms.com

Let's break for the beach for a change of pace...

It's amazing that there are still people in the United States that believe Vietnam is a vast swampland, and that its inhabitants are waiting around the corners for Americans so they can shoot them. How do I know this? As the U.S. agent for Aurora Travel, I have had the pleasure to speak to countless numbers of people traveling to Vietnam who need help in either designing a tour, or are curious, and we talk about my experiences. The ones that have gone ahead with their plans were positively ecstatic about their visit. It's important to remember though, that aside from a vigorous city life, Vietnam also has a quieter, more languorous side to it, and it is evident in its seaside resorts which are located north of Saigon.

We only scratched the surface of this aspect of Vietnamese travel when we stopped in Nha Trang. We arrived there by train from Hue, and really did not know what we would find except for what I had read in the 'guide books'.  The photo at the top is taken at dusk, and what you're seeing is the South China Sea. There are treasures that await you here, especially if you scuba dive or snorkel. Unfortunately, I do neither...But I grew up in a culture that considered the seashore part of its everyday life. Thus, it is no wonder that no matter which corner of the globe I find myself in, the radar is always on for palm trees, balmy breezes, and white sands.

Let's start with our hotel...appropriately called the Green Hotel, the outside is a bit deceiving.  The color may not sit well with many people, and even myself, a lover of green, was a bit curious upon arriving. However, having arrived at night, the color is more subdued.

Getting to the hotel itself was an adventure. What should have been no more than a 5-minute ride from the station turned into an excursion with our driver, who stopped in front of a very formal-looking, deserted building. Caution: if you are not where you need to be, don’t get out of the taxi, as it may take forever to find another one, especially in a blind alley. Our taxi driver had expectedly gone through all of his “OK, OK, OKs”, which at this point meant zero, as the number of the building was not even the same as our hotel. Eventually, we did get to the right place!

yes, rattan, but with an Oriental flavor all its own; the room was cool
and made up for the very uncomfortable heat outside.

The heat and humidity were relentless, even at 11pm, and were alleviated by the delightful icy air blowing out of the overhead unit above the sliding glass doors of our room. This was luxurious indeed, and the first king-size bed I had seen on this trip before our return to Saigon. The room was appropriately furnished in rattan in traditional Vietnamese style; the parquet floors were spotless. We were recommended to this hotel by VietnamStay.Com,  and frankly, it was better than either one of us expected. I was already beginning to regret that we were here for only a day, but already we knew that this country had not seen the last of us, so there was some consolation on that end.

Twenty-four-hour room service is available here from the Jasmine Restaurant, where we had delicious food. We were on the fifth of seven floors, so we were able to enjoy an extended view that borrowed some pieces of the ocean. Direct dialing can be arranged from your room, where you can also enjoy satellite TV if you have the time. There is also an in-room minibar, electric water heater, and yes, a hair dryer, along with the extra toothbrushes and paste. All the amenities are wrapped in green!

The people at the reception desk are amongst the most courteous we encountered; they can arrange for any tours and book air and train tickets for you, should you require it. Safe deposit boxes are also made available.

The gift shop downstairs also has Internet stations, but I don’t recommend them, as the connection is slower than molasses.  For the tired and weary, massage, Jacuzzi, steam baths, and sauna are to be had right in the hotel. For the business-oriented traveler, they have a center downstairs as well that offers photocopy machines, secretarial and typing services, translation, and interpreters.
 if you look very closely, you can see through the glass one of the
diners in the huge Jasmine restaurant
In-house function hall and summit rooms make meetings possible on the premises. Taxis are usually available during the day, as they are parked directly across the street from the Green Hotel. Otherwise, the staff will make the call for you. I truly loved this place!

Now, for the beach goer, you have about 7 kilometers of coastal water for your pleasure. But the unexpected pleasures we found were even more delightful than the beach. Extraordinary examples of Cham culture awaited us and we also, inadvertently, saw a mass in progress in honor of the late Pope John Paul II. Ten percent or so of the Vietnamese population is catholic.

And the Art Center...to do it justice, I would have to show you every single piece of artwork shown there; but we did one better! We actually got to see the ladies laboring over these huge cloth stenciled patterns with their silk threads and needles. So little time, yet crammed with activity.

A fine example of Cham architecture, and the whole
story is forthcoming, so hang in there.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The War Remnants Museum in HCMC

A mural of a dove welcomes the visitor to the War Remnants Museum

The Vietnamese don't dwell on the American War nor do they hold any grudges as one might expect after all the suffering and years of bombardment, and the fact that today, one can still see on the streets of Saigon war veterans that are maimed, or the lucky who can wear prosthetic limbs. 

Agent orange (dioxin) is not through yet with the catastrophic deformities, cancers and other calamities it wrought on its victims. I wish we were as frank about the legacies of war as I found this to be. Most telling is the plaque on the wall entitled "Historical Truths". It begs for recognition. The Museum has assembled a permanent collection of U.S. war materiel in a plein air fashion; among the stars are 3000 lb. bombs, an A37B Attack aircraft, land shaking bombs, guns, artillery, and a framed stone representing the image of Buddha, which was given to Viet Nam by Hiroshima in the name of peace. It stands guard as a silent protester on the outside war arsenal display.

It is worth noting that former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara lamented in a book he penned in 1995 titled "In Restrospect - The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam" :

Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why
The Vietnam War, as it is known in the States, did not serve as a lesson to our leadership. Maya Lin's memorial does not begin to tell the story to our citizens of what really happened in Vietnam. It pays hommage to those who gave their lives in yet what seemed to be another desperate attempt to stop the spread of communism. However, the war killed 3 million Vietnamese and wounded another 4 million. We lost 58,000 Americans. For what?
One cannot know the whole story without hearing the other side. I urge every traveler and tourist that makes Vietnam a destination to see the War Remants Museum. I found that I learned more about the war during my visit here than at any other time. And of course, throughout the country, there are constant reminders of the destruction, especially in Hue, the former Imperial capital, where single walls are left standing, reminding us that they once formed a complete building.
 There are solidarity posters in the museum from all those countries that condemned the war, including France, who sent the above from its own communist party. Ironically, the French occupied Vietnam for almost a century.
When you enter the Museum, you will receive a pamphlet written in English and Chinese. The photographs are not very clear, mostly black and white, and perfectly capable of conveying horror. Next to each photo are data and facts. No opinions, no judgements. One of the most poignant displays is from an American soldier, Sgt. William Brown. He donated his medals, uniform and tag to the people of Vietnam for this museum, with a plaque bearing the words: "To the People of a United Vietnam, I was wrong, I am sorry".
the reflection from the glass did not help with the quality of the photos
The open air section is first as you enter the site. One is immediately faced with a barrage of weapons, bombs of various weights and sizes, shown below:
A37B Attack Craft
Left: the 'seismic' bomb weighed 15,000 lbs. and can destroy everything on the ground within a radius of 100 meters, and violently shakes up and down within a diameter of 3.2 kms. 
The description of the seismic bomb is found in the pamphlet and has much more detailed information on the blue plaque next to it at the Museum. 
A few feet further, you will see a CBU-555B (below) described as a sophisticated bomb produced by the U.S. When exploding, the bomb can destroy oxygen in a radius of 500 meters. It was used at Xuan Loc, Dong Nai province on April 9, 1975.
Did we ever get the low down on exactly what was utilized, how much of it, where, etc..? Here are some sobering facts:

6.5 million men were sent into combat
22,000 US plants and factories supplied the war machine
7,850,000 tons of bombs (all kinds) were dropped over Vietnam, including 75,000,000 liters of defoliants (incuding dioxin) that were sprayed over crop lands, farmlands, forests and villages in the Southern part of the country.
According to the figures made public by the US government, US$352 billion was the cost of the Vietnam war.
In the North, 2923 schools were either destroyed or heavily damaged; 1850 hospitals, 484 churches, and 465 temples and pagodas.
Then there was napalm. Look it up.

Fascinating is the collection of photos taken by international photographers as a reminder of the pivotal role they played in archiving the war at a time when real-time news was not at our disposal. Particular homage is paid Bun’yo Ishikawa of the Japan Press. His Nikon camera, camouflage outfit and an anti-war poster are under glass.

Some of the photos are familiar, having appeared in our own national publications, or having won prestigious awards. They are nonetheless horrific. I learned that world opposition to this war was far greater than imagined: posters in French (they warned us to stay away), German, Danish, Japanese, and many in English from the US asking for an end to the hostilities.

Several buildings comprise the exhibit, but they are numbered, and you can follow the sequence, if order is something you need. You will find facsimiles of the tiger cages (building # 3), which were built by the French in 1939 and later used by the US to house "non-combatants". If you are not familiar with these structures, please visit this link . And as expected, the entire exhibit is told from the perspective of the Vietnamese; I would not imagine any country in the world that was being invaded to do it differently. Some things strike more than others: the quasi-methodical manner by which the American War arsenal is described – factual, historically accurate, to the point. One simply cannot ignore some of the "writings on the wall" literally. At the end of one exhibit, I photographed the following:
"We would like to thank the communist parties and working class of the countries of the World, national liberation movements, nationalistic countries, peace-loving countries, international democratic organizations, and progressive human beings for their wholehearted support, and strong encouragement to our people’s patriotic resistance against the US for national salvation".
Stone carving received from Hiroshima

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Continental Hotel is still the jewel of Saigon

Sure, there are hotels that are more 'posh' and modern, but if I wanted to have those, the US can drown me in them...actually, now that I think of it, so can Abu Dhabi. However, no matter if you stay at a five star, or a two-star, you need at least a weekend at the Continental. There is an atmosphere in the place that makes you want to talk to the walls, as they'd probably have so much to say.

 The Venezia Restaurant has replaced the old "Cafe de la Musique" in this dated picture

The Continental Hotel earned its place in history, as its former terrace café served diplomats and journalists during the American War. If you saw the movie “The Quiet American,” then you might remember that the Continental Hotel was the locale for part of the story. If you didn't see the movie, go ahead and rent the DVD. It's a great and romantic love narrative and you'll get acquainted with Saigon.

 The hotel tells you its age: since 1880

As you walk in, you can almost feel the history envelop you and beckon you to stay. It didn’t take much convincing actually, as we had established a silent dialogue between us that said we’ve got to experience this.

The hotel itself is situated in the heart of District One in Saigon, where anything worth its weight is located. In fact, most of the hotels I mentioned are within walking distance of each other. The Caravelle sits right across the street, only separated by the majestic Opera House. One of the entrances is on posh Dong Khoi Street, facing an amazing bookstore called Fahasa, which deserves its post. I had gone in there, and was thrilled by the selection of French books, something I had not seen since the Librarie de France shut down in Rockefeller Center.

 inside courtyard where you can dine al fresco

On one of the other corners, construction is going up fast and furious, and we learn a new mall is coming. Shame, since Dong Khoi has a string of fantastic boutiques of silk and mother of pearl crafts, lacquered items that are positively bewitching, embroideries, art and more.

We were shown a room prior to our booking during our first phase of the trip in Saigon , and we were awestruck. The room we finally did get was no less regal. We did not have decent photos of the room, which was humongous, so to get a feel for the interiors, I am giving you a link to the hotel's website. When you begin the see the layout of the rooms, and all the wood carving, you'll understand what I'm trying to convey. It looks exactly as the photos. We had one huge king size bed instead of the twin beds that appear; other than that, everything is identical.

 We were able to share the balcony with large potted palms in the evening, as the air was less humid. As we arrived in the room, the living area, which is larger than my own living room at home, was so very welcoming with an assortment of those gorgeous fruits, from the Mekong Delta undoubtedly. The hot-water container was there, with the magical white coffee that became our addiction. The ceilings were so high and adorned with exquisite woodwork that continued from the entrance hall and turned into wall-length closets with plush, white robes and straw slippers for the bath. A king-size bed anchored the room, separated by a built-in wooden room divider with some lovely, typical Vietnamese sculptures.

Behind that were carved benches and sofa for “entertaining,” and one could conceivably have a party here for six or more people quite comfortably. I later realized this is very typical of luxury rooms, as we had a similar arrangement in a deluxe room in Hanoi, at the Hong Ngoc Hotel. Room rates range from $100 to $170, exclusive of VAT and a 5% service charge. A fabulous breakfast is included in the room rate.

 how's that for a welcome?
 Facilities include a banquet, conference room, bar, and fitness center. On the ground floor, you will find the executive business center and a concierge (they call it public relations). The hotel has its own website , and I encourage you to check it out. The folks at the reception area are very polite and accommodating. There are historical pictures on the walls of the hotel from as far back as the 1880s.

The morning breakfast spread is an eye opener...exotic fruits rule one long buffet style table; pho is de rigueur and then there will be cheese, yoghurts, tea and coffee...just lovely.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Venice in Saigon....really!

A couple of days following the food poisoning episode, which you will learn about later, I felt well enough to go exploring again. I was annoyed that two entire days of my vacation had been ruined by having to rest in bed and drink salty water. But, here was a new day, and a chance to get to know Saigon. So, with my trusted yellow cap securely on my head, off we went.

The Venezia Restaurant, which is located on the street level of the Continental Hotel, saw us more than once during this trip. This was the first time, as we made our way from the Indochine Hotel and stopped in for lunch. What an ideal way to escape the midday heat! The atmosphere is more Italian than anything else, as you catch a glimpse of the white-and-red-checkered cotton tablecloths (by day only; at night, the linens change to pure white). Dark wood doors and wood trim frame the room. Huge windows give the diner an eagle’s eye view of one of the busiest intersections in Saigon. Luckily, both times, we had window tables.

Italian all the way....

I couldn’t help but notice a huge, well stocked bar near the rest rooms, which were impeccably clean. And then, there are several bottles on a tabletop in the middle of the restaurant just waiting to be "plucked". Each table had two menus: the regular lunch menu and the pizza (8 varieties) menu. Chef Leonardo Lanfranconi and his staff bring Venice to your door; no kidding. Small touches, like two sets of glasses, way too many forks and spoons, and a small vial with a fresh flower on each table adds to the mood. 

Since they serve Vietnamese food as well, they required chopsticks and Oriental soup spoons--spoon rests are all there. It is obvious that someone knows how to turn linen napkins into birds or some such thing. We digressed from Vietnamese food that day and indulged with pasta, Bolognese for me, with clams and white sauce for Chuck. White wine and water drowned some of the garlic, but rest assured, the plates hardly needed to be washed after we were done. It is positively amazing how well spaghetti is prepared in Vietnam. We had it at the City View Cafe in Hanoi, and it was superb! Again when we went to Sapa a year later, and it was heavenly. 

Service is extremely courteous, and dangerously slow, but it’s a great reminder that hurry is not the order of the day. When the bill comes, be prepared to see a letter-size invoice with your damages in dong and U.S. dollars. Still, I can't help but giggle to see 80,000 anything for two dishes of pasta. 
There was a wedding party going on that evening at the Continental Hotel

Our second visit to the Venetian was our last night in Saigon as we regaled ourselves with a yummy Italian dinner just before we went for cocktails at the Saigon Bar across the street at the Caravelle Hotel. Now that we were hotel guests, we were quickly recognized and given a wonderful table. Live music filled the air, now that the piano had a human sitting in front of it, and three ladies accompanied him, one with a guitar, a cellist, and a violinist. Unfortunately, the pictures of the musicians, and of the restaurant were dreadful, as they were blurred, and off-color. The only ones I could save are what you see right here. This probably means another visit is required...
A large group from France was gregariously enjoying their dinner, and I never heard English until an American couple sat next to us.

The wine came to our table chilled, and I suggested we do the pizza del padrone, which had cheese, tomato sauce, and spinach with the tomato and mozzarella salad. Bread and butter are always present, and I do try so hard to ignore that. In summation, it seemed that no matter what we ordered, it was always excellent. Compliments to the Chef. 

la pizza del padrone