Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hanoi 2007: Enter The Dragon

One of the excursions that I failed to participate the last time round was a trip to Ha Long Bay, which is a natural wonder of limestone islands set in a narrow bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, about 170km from Hanoi. So this time round I made sure we found some time to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site.

We booked ourselves on a one-day trip to the bay via our hotel, and early the next morning, we were herded into a large van with about ten other tourists from other hotels. The journey took about 3 1/2 hours through the northern countryside which afforded us some really beautiful vistas of padi fields, pineapple stands and duck farms.

From one crammed space to another: upon arrival at the jetty, the guide shepherded us through a narrow and precarious route along wooden planks, concrete steps, and boat alleyways to our very own junk which would ferry us to the bay area.

Slowly but surely, the captain manouvered the junk deftly through the traffic jam of various boats, yachts and junks, and before long, we were sitting on the sundeck enjoying the cool spring breeze as the boat lazily made its way around the rocky mounds and limestone islands.

Ha Long Bay literally means Bay Of Descending Dragon. According to local legends, the Gods sent a family of dragons down to help the locals fend off the Chinese invaders. As these heavenly creatures descended, they spat out jewels and jade which turned into the limestone islets dotting the bay, creating a barrier against the invaders. After having succesfully defended the land, the dragons settled in the bay and today it is believed that their descendants reside in the murky depths of the bay in the form of the mythical creature, tarasque.

The bay is also home to many fishermen and thier families who work and live in floating villages. We were brought to a fishery where sea creatures of every kind were either caught or reared. It is said that there are over 200 species of fish and 450 molluscs living in the bay, prompting the Vietnamese government and UNESCO to set up a joint effort to conserve this natural and rich marine habitat for generations to come.

There were also a number of locals selling various kinds of fruits in small sampans in the fishery where we had lunch. Unfortunately they were more more than willing to cheat us poor tourists as some offered to sell us a handful of rambutans (no more than ten) for US$5!

Later, we stopped by one of the islands where we had to climb a rather steep flight of stone steps to enter an extensive network of limestone caves that was, oddly enough, lit with multicoloured lights, creating a rather creepy "Phantom of The Opera" atmosphere. The stalactites and stalagmites formed very unique and sometimes funny shapes, including one mound which was very imaginatively named Penis Rock!

In any case, our brief foray into mountain climbing was worth the huffing and puffing for at the very top, we were treated to a breathtaking view of the island as well as the entire bay.

Before we knew it, it was time to set sail for home. As the evening sun peppered the dark blue waters with tiny flecks of golden light, the silhouette of the junks floating aimlessly into the horizon reminded me of the scene where our very own Michelle Yeoh famously assisted (read: seduced) James Bond on a not so leisurely cruise down these waters during one of their escapades in 'Tomorrow Never Dies". Vodka martini, anyone?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Hanoi 2007: Church Street

I recently went on a five day tour of Hanoi with a few good buddies of mine last month. As this was my second trip to the city in six months, I was initially a bit weary, fearing that it might get a bit boring to revisit the same sights again. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Firstly, this time, F had the good sense to arrange our trip in lovely spring weather (20ÂșC all day long) which meant we could walk the whole day sightseeing and not break a sweat - perfect for a profuse sweathog like me.

Secondly because I was the only one who been to Hanoi, the gang made me plan the itinerary. This meant I could decide to go to places I had missed the last time around and revisit the sights I loved previously.

And thirdly, the company was great. Four of us close buddies, having travelled together previously, knew each other's characters and idiosyncracies well enough to not step on each others' toes (literally!).

We stayed in Church Hotel this time around, a charming 3-star boutique hotel named after the St. Joseph's Cathedral which was situated in a small square just 200m down the road. The staff were very friendly and ever willing to help us, be it with directions to various sights, arrangements for taxis and day tours and even recommendations on the best places to eat and what to avoid.

St. Joseph's Cathedral (Na Tho Lon) offered us a glimpse into the bygone era of French Colonialism. It was built in 1886 during the earliest days of colonial rule, after the Nguyen King officially handed Hanoi over to the French.

The cathedral stands over the ruins of the demolished Bao Thien pagoda and is built in European Neo-Gothic style not unlike Paris' Notre Dame.

Speckles of light still dance through stained glass work, reported to be original 19th century masterpieces of French artists and glass makers, leaving a kaleidoscope of color on the towers, which stretch toward the sky.

The church holds mass twice daily for the scores of Vietnamese Catholics who throng the square every morning and evening as the church bell tolls signalling the beginning of service.

Call it luck, call it good timing. We found ourselves in Catholic Hanoi, in the middle of Easter Weekend with all the celebration and pomp that it entailed. The church was gaily decorated and lit (at night) and was a place for many a photo-op for the thousands of tourists, yours truly included.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Case for Sanjaya

Up till now, American Idol 2007 has been rather lacklusture, both in terms of the quality of the contestants as well as the level of hype and buzz generated. There seems to be a lack of , to quote Randy Jackson, the 'wow' factor in most of the singers and their performances. Even viewership has suffered, dropping about 10% from last year's peak.

One has to wonder whatever happened to the Carries, the Bos and even the Taylors this time round. Has the proverbial well dried up after six consecutive years of relentless mining of talents? Surely in a country of 300 million, there must be more than just a handful of undiscovered budding Fantasias and Kelly Clarksons, just waiting to be honed and shined up in the spotlight of national TV?

Well, actually there is. Meet the recently ousted Sanjaya Malakar. He of the exotic Indian-Italian American heritage. The one who brought to the world the 'Ponyhawk' and that 100 megawatt smile brandishing his perfect white teeth that would make his orthodontist proud. Ok, sure, he can't sing as good as Melinda or thrill us like Jordin nor has he an unique talent like beatboxing Blake . What he has, in truckloads, is quite frankly, the 'wow' factor. Why do I say this?

Consider these evidence:

1) His name is the #1 search item in Google and Yahoo - garnering more hits than all of the other Top 12 contestants combined.

2) More people know of him than say, La Kisha, who as you may remember, wowed everybody with her rendition of the Jennifer Holliday classic "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" way back in the semifinal round. She has bucketloads of talent, but is as dull as a dishrag.

3) Every report, every editorial, every critique of the show, be it on paper or in the electronic media so far has been centered on how and why he is still around, and why he shouldn't be.

4) He has received the backing and support of just about every celebrity in town including the notorious radio DJ Howard Stern and even Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has jumped onto the Sanjaya bandwagon, using him as a shining beacon of the glory of democracy.

5) has crowned him the most 'successful' and most popular Idol contestant ever, based on the number of hits the site has received since the site made him their anointed one (close to ten million hits a day)!

Even Carrie Underwood, arguably the most successful of all the Idol winners, could not generate such media hype and activity with her best farmbot performance. Ok, so the poor boy can't really hold a tune consistently and his sense of style is at best awkward, but hey, it is exactly just that blend of teenage confusion, arrogance and self assurance that is appealing to many a voter's heart and fingers, enough to send his fans to the phone dialing in their votes by the droves each week.

One may say that his fans are tone deaf and consist of just pre-pubescent teens who have too much money and time on their hands. Well, just in case you didn't realise yet, these pre-pubescent teens are the ones who will go out and buy their idol's Cds and collect the merchandise and attend the concerts. Not the more discerning adult who actually understands what 'pitchy' really means and is able to remember when they first heard "I Who Have Nothing" on the radio way back when; no, they would much rather just sit back and be astounded by the atrociousness of Sanjaya and then do nothing about it except maybe send hatemail to FOX whenever their 'favourite' contestant (whom they never bothered to vote for in the first place) gets booted out instead of poor Sanjaya.

So I say, in the spirit of democracy, flower power and all that is quirky and fun, let Sanjaya have his day. Let him sing. Let him show to the world all that he can do. It's not like he can't sing. He can, just not as good as some of the other more experienced and accomplished contestants. I'm sure we haven't seen (or heard) the last of him, not by a mile. And American Idol is the poorer for having lost this cheerful, effervescent young man. I mean, after all, would you rather tune in to find out what old forgotten standard Melinda will belt out next, or do you find Sanjaya's hair-raising antics more worthy of your TV viewing?

Let's face it, we are all living in Sanjaya's universe, yes, even dear old Simon Cowell.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Of Sushi and James Earl Jones

"Hey, you're a guy, right?"

Meet May, an old school friend who was an "almost-girlfriend" of mine from school times. We kept in touch and now I'm her agony uncle.

"Erm.... last I checked, I am, yeah." I said, sporting a cheshire cat grin.

"Ha ha. Please, be serious. I need your opinion on this guy I've been seeing."

Oh no. Here we go again. Why is it that girls always come up to me asking me for relationship advice, like I'm their personal Dr. Phil? Me, someone who has had more failed relationships than a cat has lives.

"What's he like?"

""Erm.... see, that's the funny thing," she went gingerly, while her hands played absentmindedly with the straw of her iced lemon tea. "I'm not quite sure."

"What do you mean, not quite sure?" I can just see a train wreck coming.

"Thing is, I only know him by his voice...."


"Ok. here's the story... and don't interrupt my story!" she warned. Oh dear. Here we go again with one of her almost boyfriends tales.

"See, Jeannie (one of her ultimate best-friends in this universe and the next) decided to set me up with this guy who's a friend of her former uni-mate. She gave him my number, with my permission, of course, so that...


"I said, don't interrupt and let me finish!"

"Ok, ok." Sheesh, no wonder she still can't find a decent guy.

"So, anyway, Patrick, that's his name, by the way, calls me up one fine day a couple of months ago. My first impression was, wow, what a nice voice. I mean, he's got this manly, deep booming voice that just begs to be listened to. You know what I mean?"

"You mean, ... like this?" I lowered my voice one octave.

"Ha ha. Actually that's not too bad. Yeah."

You can just imagine my eyes rolling to the back of my head if they could.

"So anyway, we talked for quite a bit, and exchanged the necessary info about each other, like what do we do for a living, where we studied, what kind of food we liked - he likes sushi, just like me, hehehe,- and what kind of music we listen to, that sort of thing. He was very attentive and seemed genuinely interested."

"In that manly voice of his, of course?" I wondered if I wasn't being sarcastic enough.

"Yes. In that manly voice of his. " she added, smiling in spite of herself.

"Gosh, May, you girls are such a bunch of suckers...."

"Did I say you could interrupt?" And she went on without waiting for my answer," We talked for about an hour and finally arranged to meet for coffee the following Sunday, as he would be out of town until then. "

"So did you guys meet then?"

With a sigh, she said," That's the thing. I didn't hear from him at all that whole week, and then on the Saturday before the coffee thingie, I texted him to ask him about it, and four hours later, he replied saying that he couldn't make it 'cos he's got to go back to his hometown to help his mom do some renovation negotiations with the contractor."

"Awww... that's so sweet!"

The death stare I got from her could cut through steel.

"So, anyway, I thought, well, he was busy, so I forgave him. A few days later he called me and we started talking again, this time about the movie I saw recently...."

"Which was...?"

"It doesn't matter lah! Look, do you want to listen to my story or not???"


"So, at the end of that phone call, he made a date with me to meet the following Saturday night, but this time he said he would call me to confirm."

"OK, that's mighty erm.. responsible of him. So then what happened?"

"He didn't call. Saturday came and went without a single beep from him."

"Why didn't you call him back to confirm like you did the previous time?"

"What, and appear desperate?" she said as if the whole premise wasn't wretched enough as it was.

"So anyway, he called to apologise a couple of days later, saying that his boss suddenly unloaded a ton of files for him to work on throughout the weekend and he was sorry that the date flew out of his mind"

"Those were his exact words, 'flew out of his mind' ?" This was beginning to sound really familiar. And dreary. And sad.

"Well, he did say he was sorry...." as if that would atone for everything.

"So then what happened? Did you finally meet up with him or not?"

Her eyes looked down at her half drunk glass of tea, now more lukewarm than iced.

"Erm.. no, not yet. See, we tried to arrange to meet up a few more times after that, but every time was the same. He couldn't confirm beforehand and as the date aproached, something always came up. He had to fly to Jakarta, his friend needs him to pick him up at the airport, etc. etc."

"And you're still hung up on this guy because...?

"He's a really nice guy. Really. He's genuinely interested in meeting up. And he's got such a nice voice! " That's her, arguing her case before me, the relationship judge.

"So all this frustration and anxiety you're feeling now is over a masculine voice???" I said with incredulity dripping off the corner of my mouth.

"Ok, it sounds silly when you put it that way."

"That's because it is silly. You know it, you just need someone to tell you so." Honestly, I love this girl with all my heart, but at that moment, I wished I could just kick her ass and knock some sense into her.

"So, what do you think?" She looked at me with those hopeful eyes, beckoning me to expound some deep and profound secrets of the male psyche, all in the hopes of justifying her current beau's behaviour.

"Look, here's the verdict. This guy ...what's his name?"

"Patrick," she reminds me, slightly indignant as to how on earth I could forget that name.

"... right, Patrick, calls you up, sweet talks you into meeting up with him for what was essentially a blind date and then promptly 'forgets'. Then he comes back to apologise, you accept his apology, and he does the whole shebang again. You then start to make excuses for him not meeting his end of the bargain and give him chance after chance after chance. In the end, it's been, what, two months of fruitless near-rendezvouses and you still have no idea who this guy actually is, other than that he likes Japanese food and he has a manly voice. Is that about right?"

All was quiet on the female front. Crickets start to creak.

This was gonna hurt but someone had to give her the awful truth.

"Ok. You wanna know what I think? Honey, I hate to say this but he's just not that into you. For all you know he could be married and is just having fun flirting with poor little girls who're just a bit lonely and also a bit desperate. I am sorry. Be nice to yourself and delete his number from your handphone.... and you can tell Jeannie to never ever do any matchmaking deeds 'cos she sucks at it!"

The shocked look on her face was priceless.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mysterious Gift

I saw this sign at the checkout counter of a local supermarket in Melaka. There's just so many things wrong with it. Firstly, since it is a 'Baby Fair', why aren't infant formulas eligible for the gift? And while we're at it, I am just dying to know what the mysterious gift is? Something bizarre? Something ....queer? I got nosy and asked the checkout girl: A lousy packet of Maggi Mee. Kari Meletup flavour, no less!