Monday, October 30, 2006

Hanoi City Tour: Meet Uncle Ho

Woke up at 5 am to the constant sound of horns blaring outside. We thought we were fortunate enough to get a room with a balcony which opens out into the street below. Oh well, at least we got a wake-up call, albeit two hours early.

It's amazing that people were honking non-stop as they made their way through the early morning Hanoi traffic. What's more amazing was that the traffic was 90% motobikes! According to our taxi driver, Hanoi is a city of 3 million people and 2 million motorbikes! And all of them seem to be on the road at the same time never stopping nor slowing down.

Since the city tour wouldn't begin for another three hours, we decided to go out and get some breakfast. Which wasn't very difficult as there were roadside stalls everywhere selling fruits, sweet pastry and desserts, steamed tapioca, pho and even crunchy deep-fried crickets. The hygiene level was quite suspect, as the food was just left uncovered and strewn all over the busy sidewalk, so we decided that the omelette back at the hotel restaurant would be a better idea.

This is Hanoi's biggest roundabout. And also the busiest. Motorbikes zoom past as if there's no one else on the road. Poor old lady crossing the street? HONK! Car going too slow? HONK! Poor tourist trying not to fall into the ditch? HONK! Out of my way! Coming through!

The first stop on our city tour was the Ho Chin Minh Mausoleum. It's a huge concrete building that is surrounded by guards in white uniforms and as the name suggests, houses Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body a la Lenin and Mao Tse Tung, even though he requested to be cremated and his ashes buried in urns on three Vietnamese hilltops, each in one of the three main regions of Vietnam (North, Central and South). According to the guide, every few years, his body has to be sent to Moscow to be reconditioned to maintain its pristine nature.

Just a short walk down the road lies the Presidential palace. It is a grand mansion of european architecture, and quite rightly was built with the then French governor in mind. When the Vietnamese army finally gained power, they offered "Uncle Ho", as he is affectionately known, the stately home, but being the humble man that he was, he declined to live in such a grand manor while his countrymen were still suffering in poverty.

So they built him another house, this one was 'less opulent' but still befitting his stature as the leader of the country. It is now a museum showcasing his life and his achievements. We were shown his study, his small and simple bedroom as well as the dining hall. It also has a centre courtyard complete with a badminton court.

They've even restored his car and true to fashion, it was a vintage Peugeot 404. The guide said that the car was in such good condition, it still retained its original coat of paint. Hmmm....

It's interesting that although Uncle Ho was the founder of communism in Vietnam (which isn't exactly the most popular ideology here), he is still very much revered by the people, to the point of preserving just about everything he ever touched, worked in, sat on or had affection for. Take the peacock for example. Apparently, because he had a thing for the multihued fowl, the authorities decided that there shall always be a peacock to roam the grounds; just like the way it was when Uncle Ho was still alive.

Ho Chi Minh spent his final years in this house called the House-on-Stilts. It is a simple yet comfortable two-storey wooden house with an open-air ground level while the upper floor was supported only by wooden beams (stilts). This is where the man preferred to spend his time reading or indulge in recreational activities like chinese chess. He also maintained a well-tended garden and is still maintained today with all kinds of fruit trees interspersed with flower bushes.

Everything is preserved as it was as on the day Uncle Ho died, on September 2nd 1969. One can see a white chair that was a gift from Fidel Castro as well as the entrance to a personal bomb shelter made during the American war (or the Vietnam War, depending on which side you are talking to). The view from the balcony was breathtakingly beautiful, overlooking a serene jade coloured lake and a tidy garden of fruit trees, palms and shady canopy. What a wonderful way to spend one's twilight years.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hanoi Day 1: Nightscape

Hanoi is a charming Indochinese city that is still very much untouched by the breakneck speed of development Vietnam has experienced since opening up to free-market economics twenty years ago. It's the capital city of Vietnam and is the commercial and cultural heart of northern Vietnam. Often called the Grand Dame of Asia, this is a city of contrasts. From shady tree-lined boulevards to narrow alleyways, from serene Hoan Kiem Lake to chaotic traffic in the Old Quarter, and from flavourful bowls of pho to aromatically strong Vietnamese coffee, this is Hanoi!

I went on a last-minute very expensive holiday to Hanoi during the 5-day Deeparaya holiday. It was supposed to be a diving trip off southern Thailand but that plan got scrapped because my friend's parents freaked out when they found out about it. To put it in his own words, "they were worried I would get killed by either the terrorists or the tsunami!"

Anyway, back to Hanoi. We got on the 5.00pm Airasia flight from KLIA, wondering what was up with the completely silly flight time. Well, like they say, when you pay peanuts.... :-) However, I would like to say that I'm glad they've finally put the tuna sandwich back on the in-flight menu. I know, K, I need to get a life.

Arriving in Hanoi at 7.00pm local time, it was already dark. and we were tired. And extremely hungry. So, the moment we got checked in at our hotel, we hit the streets of old Hanoi to find some of the famous 'pho', the vietnamese noodle soup.

The hotel receptionist recommended us to go to a rather posh restaurant that served western dishes. But looking through the menu, there was not a 'pho' in sight. So we politely declined the maitre d' and hopped across the narrow street into a half-lit alley and promptly found a stall where everyone was squatting down busily chowing down on some delicious soup noodle. Well, we were hungry and what a great way to appreciate Hanoi - through her food. Bon apetit!

It's been called the dish that built a nation. It's made of the local version of kuay teow called 'bahn pho' which is thin and long. It is doused in a hot and tasty broth filled with onions, garlic and slices of beef or chicken. Some of the locals would ask for extra ingredients like bamboo mushrooms, innards and liver. Me? I just stuck to good old fashioned Pho Ha Noi - the chicken meat variety. No gizzard for me, merci.

With our stomachs now satisfied, we decided to take a walk around the Old Quarter since it was such a lovely cool evening. We promptly found ourselves in a street market which was a bit like our pasar malam, except its way way bigger and loooonger. I think the entire length of the market was two to three kilometres long - which was fine by the female members of our touring group.

Anything and everything you can think of is sold here. From the usual suspect like t-shirts, handbags and shoes, and hawker food like Hanoi kebab and fresh fruits to more unusual ware like Russian hats and tattoos, it's all here.

Speaking of t-shirts, if you think Petaling Street was the epitome of cheap knockoffs, you ain't seen nothing yet. There is this entire section in the night market here that is devoted to all things branded. Adidas, Nike, LV, Chanel, even local brand Samuel & Kevin is not spared as you see their logos on t-shirts, pants, handbags and even phone pouches. Hmm... I didn't know Giorgio Armani made bras.

My favourite stall was this one manned by this lovely young girl who spoke very little English. She was not shy and was eager to communicate with us using whatever means possible, be it in writing, a calculator or grabbing the resident translator next door. I think my friend was smitten with her. He ended up buying a whole bunch of stuff from her. And he's never one to splurge on trinkets.

She sells small homemade souvenirs that are very unique and colourful. The one that caught my eye was this wooden little souvenir that looked like a dragonfly that balances itself on its erm... beak. It was exquisite and was available in many colours, designs and sizes.

One of the ladies in my group decided to get her portrait drawn by a street artist who I thought was extremely talented. He only needed to look at his subject once and and in fifteen minutes, sketched out a very lifelike and graceful picture that brought out the best in her.

After a full two hours of walking and browsing and spending money, Yeoh suggested that we try the local coffee, which he said was world famous. So we went to a very nice al-fresco restaurant at the balcony of the top floor of a colonial french building. It was great to wind down after a long day, sipping aromatic and sweet Vietnamese coffee amongst good company.

Vietnamese coffee is served in a small glass with the coffee still dripping from a metal strainer perched on top of the glass. Basically you had to wait for at least fifteen minutes for the coffee to slowly percolate down into the glass before you can enjoy it either black or au lait. And enjoy it, we did. Very aromatic and very strong. Oh great! I haven't slept since six this morning, and now I can't sleep. Well, at least there's CNN on TV. And that never fails to put me to sleep. Bon nuit!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri

I went to Hanoi for the long DeepaRaya holiday, so I missed out on lots of Raya and Deepavali open houses this year. Luckily, my childhood friend held his balik kampung open house today, so I popped over to his place for some good old Raya cheer and also to chow down on my favourite Raya goodies.

Quite frankly, my favourite thing about Raya would be the opportunity to visit friends and of course the Raya food. I would usually have a whole list of friends to visit, most of them would insist on me coming the first day of Raya, as it's the only day cooked food like rendang and ketupat is served. Come on the second day and all you get are cookies and Sprite.

Zai's wife, Lina had been slaving all day preparing the feast while Zai was busy looking after the kids. They have two boys and a girl. As she was proudly bringing out the fruits of her labour, I could smell the sweet aroma of beef rendang wafting through the air and filling the dining hall. Mmm....what a perfect way to whet one's apetite for what's to come.

This year, they've decided to make nasi empit to complement the meat dishes, which quite frankly I can never get enough of. And by the looks of the neatly cut cubes of steaming white rice nuggets, I could see they were prepared with much tender loving care. Oh my stomach was really growling!

Also, not forgetting Zai's mom's speciality, dried sambal kacang that is filled with lentils, peanuts and shrimp. She usually makes this only on Raya One, so I really appreciate her preparing it today, which was Raya Four. This is her family's secret recipe, one that has been in her family for four generations. I hope Lina has managed to procure it from her, otherwise I just might have to steal the recipe for myself. Oh, the lengths I'll go to for delicious food.

And finally, the piece de resistance, the coconut lodeh, a mixture of potatoes, shrimp, rice vermicelli and cuttlefish cooked in a fresh coconut santan broth that is the perfect foil to the heavy meat dishes. Can we eat now?

The beef rendang was delicious. Tender and exquisitely aromatic, I just know that the taste shall linger in my memories long after the last bite. Caving into temptation, Zai joined me for his 'second helping' of lunch, and we both had a wonderful time feasting on his wife's culinary marvels and chatting about old times. Before long, I too was going for seconds... and thirds. I can't remember having eaten so much for a long time.

Lina then had to step out with her mother-in-law to go visit an aunt across town, but not before imploring me to save some space in my stomach for the Raya cookies that has been laid out in the verandah. Wow, more food. This must be why Zai seems to be putting on the pounds lately.

Zai flatly denies having gained weight, and insisted that he had actually lost a few pounds these past few months, as he munches on his fifth jam tart. As mouth watering as those tarts were, I could only allow myself to take one.... ok, two.

Then Zai proudly showed me his 'contribution' to this year's Raya goodies, mini anchovy spring rolls. They were fried golden brown, crispy, and very tasty, I must say. I was quite impressed with him, till he accidentally let it slip that most of the 'rejects' had been sifted out (and into his stomach, I'm sure!)

So many different cookies to choose from, so little time. My lunch hour was almost up. I decided that to do justice to all of their hard work in preparing these Raya goodies, I would taste one of each. I am such a good friend. Hehehe.

All too soon, I had to go, but not before him giving me some of the delicious spring rolls to bring back home. (Actually, according to his daughter, he only sat there frying the whole lot in a huge wok, making sure they don't get burnt.) I can already see myself happily munching away these crunchy morsels of delight while watching CSI tonight. Sigh, there goes my diet. :-)


Maaf Zahir Batin

Sunday, October 22, 2006

How A Girl Buys A Camera

Step #1: Gets an idea in her head that she needs a new camera. She then thinks about it for two whole months and then decides that she really wants to get one.

Step # 2: Browses through the internet to look at what the critics are recommending. After a full hour of that, she gets even more confused.

Step #3: Decides to take the easy way out of the whole mess by calling a photography enthusiast to pick his brain and also to help her make a 'learned decision'. Actually, she just wants to find someone to pin the blame on in case her choice of camera turns out to be a wrong one.

Step # 4: Drives to the mall and spends the next half hour trying to find a parking lot in the crowded, jam packed carpark just because said friend recommended one particular shop there where she can get a discount if she mentions his name.

Step # 5: Finds "Ah Keong" at the shop and swoops in on the exact model of camera that was mentioned by the 'learned' friend, even though Ah Keong tries to help her make the best choice based on her needs and capabilities.

Step 6: Gets her poor but ever helpful brother to meet her at the shop to take a few test shots..... and also to help her bargain for a better price should her attempts at flirting with the semi-cute Ah Keong fail to bring any positive results.

Step #7: Asks a thousand and one questions about the camera and digital photography in general just to prove to the shop assistant that she knows what she's talking about. Of course, both of them don't.

Step #8: Tries to persuade her poor brother to foot the bill.... or at least half the bill..... or at least a quarter of the bill..... and also does the same thing to all the other members of her family, even though she can very well afford to pay for it in cash if she wanted to.

Step # 9: After getting corporate sponsorship from the FAMA* foundation, she happily decides to buy the camera, much to the delight of Ah Keong & co. However, she's not too happy about having to pay a 3% credit card "service surcharge". (In fact, she mulls over that for about half an hour, thus giving the sales assistant some time to grab a quick bite and also call her boyfriend for a chat.)
* FAMA refers to Father & Mother; and not the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority.

Step # 10: Finally, after much bargaining and negotiating, the sale is done. Mission accomplished......not!

Step # 11: Rewards the poor but ever helpful brother by giving him a treat at a fast food restaurant. And not at the new Tony Roma's Steakhouse as suggested by the poor but ever helpful brother.

Step #12: Stuffs the poor but ever helpful brother's mouth with food before he has any chance to complain to her parents about the ill-treatment he is receiving.

Step # 13: Fantasises about all the great photos she will be taking, especially since she will be taking photography lessons together with the really cute guy at the Youth Centre in her church.

Step #14: Allows the poor but ever helpful brother take the camera for a spin. Smiles like she is the next Malaysian Top Model.

Step #15: Gives the poor but ever-helpful brother her world-famous death stare when she finds out she's the subject of this blog entry.


Friday, October 20, 2006


Amazonman: Hi, Russ. You called?

Russ: Yeah, wah... now you very action already ah, call you also you dowan to answer.

A: Nolah, brother, I was having dinner at a rather noisy place when you called. Didn't even hear it ring.

R: Ya ka? Oklah, I just wanted to say hi since we haven't talked in quite a while.

A: Hmm... yeah. How long has it been? Six months..... no, wait, the last time we spoke was at your Christmas party at your parent's place.... wah, it's been almost a year lah!

R: Yeah. I still remember we were supposed to plan for a trip to Redang...

A: Yeah, what happened to that? Oh, I remember. You were supposed to call me to confirm the suitable dates because you weren't sure you could apply for leave.

R: Sorrylah brother. I kinda forgot....So how are you man?

A: Ok. Still the same. You leh?

R: Sure or not? When are you making your next million?

A: Erm.. first million still not yet achieve, how to get second million? You must be thinking of Ron lah, not me.

R: No lah, He's a businessman, different. You, big time dentist, surely you are minting money.

A: I'm comfortable, yes. But definitely not like what you say, "minting money".

R: You don't have to be so humble leh. I am not going to ask you for a loan, don't worry.

A: Hahahaha. no lah. You are doing so much better than me, I should be the one asking you for money...... by the way, how's Lisa? And your two boys?

R: They are doing fine. Very fine in fact. Lisa's gone back to work at her old firm. And Jon has just started his taekwando class.

A: Wah, starting him early... how old is he now? Seven?

R: Eh hallo, Jon is already ten lah.

A: Whoa, already Standard ... Four?

R: No, he's in Standard Five. He skipped one grade last year.

A: Wow. Another Einstein in the making, eh?

R: Nolah... got five people in his class who jumped a grade. It's actually quite common these days.

A: Really? hmmm..... must be the food they're eating. hehehe

R: Yeah, lots of Big Macs and Whoppers.

A: Hahaha.

R: So when are you getting married? I heard my mom say you going out with someone?

A: Really? Well, please ask her who that person is, cause I'd like to know too.

R: Aiyoh, don't like that leh. You mean you still don't have girlfriend meh?

A: No I don't. Old and bald... where got people want?

R: No lah you are too choosy lah. Eh, better not wait too long; wait have to start using Viagra, susah.

A: Hehehehe. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

R: Don't you wanna settle down and have kids? As it is, by the time you retire, your kids still in school. It's not easy, you know.

A: Aiyoh. Not yet got girlfriend, you're telling me about kids and retirement. Relaxlah. I myself am not kan cheong, you pulak kan cheong for me. Hahaha

R: Well, sometimes, you get so comfortable where you are, you don't want to change things.

A: Well, I am in my comfort zone right now. ... Look, it's not that I don't want to get married, I just don't want to get married for the sake of getting married. That would be silly, right?

R: True. but I hope you meet someone nice and get married lah. Wait so long also not good.

A: Yes, mother.

R: Ok, ok. I will stop. I get the hint.

A: Hehehehe. Good.

R: Ok. So i guess I'll be seeing you at the class reunion next month?

A: Oh yeah. Thanks for reminding. I forgot to RSVP Ram.... Yeah, I will be going... alone. So don't ask me again. and don't try to set me up again.

R: Ok hehehe I won't. I have learnt my lesson. Ok then, hey, it was great to catch up with you again. Call me anytimelah to chat. Don't have to wait for Christmas or Chinese New Year to talk, right?

A: Yes. I will. thanks for your call, by the way. I really appreciate it.

R: Ok. cool. See you soon, buddy. And take care.

A: Yes, you too, Russ. Send my regards to Lisa and the kids. Bye.

R: Bye.

* All names have been changed for reasons only Ph... erm...Russ will know.
** Conversation was in Malaysian English, often known as Manglish.