Three Meals

16 08 2016

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Expensive but elegant Vietnamese cuisine at Garcon Saigon, off Star Street.

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A disappointing meal at Yunnan People restaurant. The rice noodles with tofu were tasty, but I had come all the way to the dreary industrial suburb of San Po Kong for the restaurant’s menu of imported-from-Yunnan bugs: fried crickets, grubs and beetles, none of which were available on the rainy day I visited. Oh well.

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And finally, new Kennedy Town favourite Orchid Veggie, with its sea grapes, tasty fried eggplant, mushroom platter (below) and durian cupcakes.

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Suoi Tien

30 07 2016

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Suoi Tien is one of the highlights of – I would say – Southeast Asia. It is a vast and bizarre fantasyland of gaudy Buddhist sculptures, neon shrines and concrete oversized fruit, dancers in monkey suits, a water park with a wave machine, houses-of-horror and live crocodiles (which you can buy and take home!) and dolphins jumping through hoops of fire. It is also, inexplicably, not mentioned anywhere in the Vietnam Lonely Planet guide. Really? Someone should really get fired for that, as it is hands down one of the most bizarre, mind-boggling sights on the planet and an absolute “must-do.” Read more on my previous visit here.  To get there, just hop on the number 19 bus opposite the Ben Thanh market. It takes about an hour and drops you right at the door which is marked by a gigantic frog, and therefore unmissable. When the city’s subway is up and running it will get a stop nearby so it will be even easier.

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The aerial drone video below should provide some more inspiration to visit (if that could possibly be necessary) although ignore the misleading claim that the park is “abandoned”  – it was just filmed after closing time, I would say.





Mixed-up world

30 07 2016

District Three, a brief walk from the Reunification Palace, is a neighbourhood of local middle class shopping, street noodle vendors, raucous markets and a big hospital. It is also here, away from the gaze of tourists, that a small local hipster scene is starting to blossom. As well as as an ‘Analog cafe’ and some vintage stores set up in peoples’ living rooms, a small alley hosts one of the city’s prime hipster hangouts, Liem Barbershop.

Modelled after Chicano gangsters, in a craze itself imported from Thailand, the barbers here represent Saigon’s globalised counter culture spirit  – and the place is consistently packed out. Its the kind of place I didn’t know existed in Saigon and perhaps an interesting peek at where the city is heading?





Museum of History

30 07 2016

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The National Vietnamese History museum sits in a 1920s Orientalist fantasy at the entrance to Botanical Gardens. Ceiling fans whir above the high-faulted chambers and breezes blow through the corridors and courtyards, and birds coo outside in the branches of huge rainforest trees. The rather dusty collection contains agricultural tools, dioramas of Vietnamese military victories over the Chinese and the Mongols and the Mummy of District Five, the preserved body of an aristocratic woman who died in 1868 and was unearthed in the city in 1994, as well as memorabilia of the vanished Vietnamese royal houses.

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The highlight is probably the sensuous collection of Khmer and Champa stone scupture, but my favourite piece was this hauntingly elongated and androgynous two-metre figure of Buddha. Carved out of weathered wood and starting some two metres tall, the faceless figure stands serenely, looking for all the world like a member of some benevolent alien race, about to bestow his or her wisdom on our benighted planet – if only we would listen.

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Love on the …brain?

11 06 2016

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Above, Juan Sebastián Peláez’s Ewaipanoma (Rihanna) on show in Berlin, apparently inspired by pre-colonial Colombian myth and a paparazzi shot of the bathing “goddess”, and below – the singer in action.





The otherworldly island

4 05 2016

I recently read about Ascension Island, a remote British outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. Today it is home to a tiny population, much of it servicing the island’s secretive satellite spy base, and governed by an Orwellian figure in London referred to only as The Administrator.

The island’s history has been bizarre from the outset.

When first discovered in the sixteenth century it was uninhabited by humans, as well as any land animals larger than a crab.

It was also dry, a desolate rocky island in the South Atlantic which rose, parched and empty, to a craggy volcanic peak.

It was here that Dutch sailor Leendert Hascenbosch was left marooned by his passing ship in 1725 – condemned to a lifetime of thirst and solitude in punishment for his crime: homosexuality.

British sailors visiting some years later found his tent and diary – which made references to drinking the blood of sea turtles  but not, sadly, of the freshwater spring in the centre of the island. Of Leendert himself there was no sign and the investigators concluded he had died, if not from thirst then from suicide.

The British also kickstarted the next strange chapter in the island’s history. Under scientific advice they planted seedlings on the island’s mountain top, hoping to grow a cloud forest which would trap condensation and change the whole climate of the island. Then they could grow food, gather wood for repairs and use the island as a useful staging post.

The extravagant plan worked. Today the island is lushly forested and green with introduced plants – perhaps the nearest man has yet come to “terraforming” his environment and perhaps a precursor to our further adventures in the stars.





The mystery of the turtle lake

3 04 2016

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Hanoi is dotted with lakes, big and small. It’s traditional centre is the Hoan Kiem Lake, circled by trees and colonial buildings, it’s whole circumference joggable in thirty or forty minutes. In the mornings, the lake shores boom with techno music, colour-runs and Herbalife rallies. People take pictures with selfie sticks and practice ballroom dancing under the banyan trees. In the evenings, its banks are partly lit up and given over to strollers and gay cruising. A pleasant cafe sits on a terrace looking over the water. And traffic swirls around it day and night. But even with all of this, the lake maintains an aura of calm – its waters calm, grey and serene.

In a small island in the centre of the lake stands the Turtle tower, commemorating the lake’s greatest mystery, the strange giant creatures which perhaps still inhabit its grey depths.

These turtles became symbols of the city in Vietnamese myth after one of their forebears supposedly retrieved a magical sword lost in the lake. In fact the species, which can weigh up to 250 kg per specimen, was considered a myth itself until a turtle surfaced in the lake – in the very heart of a major city – in 1998.

That specimen has since died, and lies embalmed in pride of place at the Temple of the Jade Mountain, on a small island in the lake’s Northern reaches, connected to the city by  vermillion bridge thronged with local day trippers.

Another specimen was found floating dead earlier this year, leading to an outpouring of grief in the city and speculation as to the meaning of this omen.

Whether there are others in the lake still, or this was the very last of its kind, is not yet clear.