Saigon

The night before I left Phnom Penh, I came down with a rather horrible cold which I am still feeling the effects of now. This made travelling to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as locals still call it, a rather miserable affair but aside from a slight delay at the border it was mercifully an uneventful journey.

Two stores in Ben Thanh market, both selling suits for the best price.

My first stop the next day was the Ben Thanh market which was still setting up. However, this did not stop the calls of “miss, miss you want to buy T-shirt” following me around. It was fun to look at the souvenirs and some of the lacquerware was quite lovely. Grateful for my blocked nose as I passed through the butcher section of the market, I continued my walk up to the Siagon Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral. These were both excellent examples of the French colonialist architechture that Vietnam is so famous for but there is little to see inside the post office and the cathedral is closed to visitors during its renovation so they were both quick stops.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

The War Remnants Museum was where I next ventured and is, by all accounts, a must visit in Saigon. Unlike many museums that cover a specific war, the War Remnant Museum focused more on the aftermath of the “American war” rather than the timeline and individual events that occurred during the war. To walk through it in the intended order, one starts on the second floor and moves down towards the ground floor. The top floor was mostly about different photographers on both sides of the conflict who lost their lives or went missing. Information about American war crimes and massacres appear on this floor and the ond below with some very chilling quotes.

A poster about the charity MAG. I still remember their visit from when I was in primary school.

The first floor had a large exhibt about the defoliator agent orange and the long lasting negative impacts it has on the environment and more tragically, on the people who were exposed to it and their children. Seeing the wide range of mental and physical disabilities the dioxin containing chemical causes was disturbing given how liberally the Americans sprayed it on areas of Vietnam. From talking to other people, I think it is widely agreed that this was the hardest floor of the museum to visit. The final ground floor talked of the bombs dropped and the efforts to clear them as well as showing posters and articles from different countries in support of Vietnam.

This tank was outside of the Independence Palace. The chain didn’t seem to be doing a very good job, especially when people started climbing on it.

My last stop of the day was the Independence Palace which was fun to look around even if the explanatory plaques disappeared after the first couple of floors. I think I manage to see all the bits that were open to the public however with so many staircases leading to different sections it is hard to be sure.

Roof of the Independence Palace.

The next day I had booked onto a tour to go and see the Cu Chi tunnels. These tunnels were inhabited by southern Vietnamese rebels during the war years and stretched for over 250 kilometres on three different levels. Our toilet break on the way to the tunnels was at a lacquerware workshop for disabled artisans. While a lot of the artwork was beautiful, what was more impressive were the prices; one set of panels I saw cost over £2000. When we got to the tunnels, our guide reminding us not to lose our wives (a favourite joke of his), we disembarked and began the walk around the museum grounds.

Bolt hole at the Cu Chi Tunnels. It looks small but is surpridingly easy to fit into. 

Our guide was a veteran who had fought with the Americans but seemed to enjoy telling us of all the ways he had tricked them into doing stupid things and reminding us how fat we all are in comparison to the Vietnamese. This was particularly apparent when he told us of a woman who had go stuck in one of the bolt holes used in surprise attacks. While he revelled in stories I did find myself wishing for a more factual approach in some areas, such as the traps. Of these he was rather dismissive, saying how they could only wound a soldier and not kill them, instead of discussing their strategic uses of forcing troops to bunch up as they tried to rescue a comrade and how the points were barbed and covered in excrement to slow removal and encourage infections.

An array of traps utilised by the south Vietnamese rebels.

I elected not to have a go at the shooting range halfway around the grounds, instead trying to rehydrate and replace some of my electrolytes. Going through the tunnel was the last stop at the museum and being short proved to be an advantage as we passed through a stretch of it that had been widened for us western tourists to pass through. The air of the tunnel was so hot and humid, that exiting could almost make one feel like they were entering a temperate climate. The bus back stopped at a “very cheap, very good” restaurant for a late lunch with everyone too hungry to disagree. While the food tasted good, even with my blocked nose, I had paid less the day before for lunch at a mid level cafe.

A section of the Cu Chi Tunnels.

My last proper day was extremely relaxed and I spent a large portion of it at the hostel before venturing out to the Loft Cafe for an early lunch. The decor of the cafe was a well balanced blend of industrial chique and quaint rustic, I was particularly taken with the repurposing of bird cages for lamp shades. While my food was about average the lime juice was excellent and I had to restrain myself from buying a second glass.

A little motorbike chaos. Apparently around 95% of vehicles in Vietnam are of the two wheel variety.

From there I went to see the Ho Chi Minh City Museum which was almost deserted and in a lovely old building. It was enjoyable to potter through the exhibits and learn a little more about the history of the city and surrounding area. I was rather amused by the regular occurrence of the phrase “the American Diem puppet regime”. While I fully understand and respect the sentiment and history behind the phrase, I have never quite got used to the blatant propaganda some cultures employ, being far more used to the subtler hand of my preferred media outlets.

A diorama at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Aside from the hostel’s free evening food tour, which I attended every night of my stay, and a somewhat roundabout route back to the hostel, the museum concluded my forays into Saigon and the next day I set out to catch the bus up to Hoi An.

A Day in Melaka

View of the Malacca River from the bridge into Dutch Square.

Arriving in Melaka the evening before, I eventually resorted to getting a taxi to my hostel instead of the bus as it seemed the majority of buses had stopped running for the day. Another thing that seemed to close extremely early was the majority of restaurants, which all seemed to be closed by six. Fortunately not everywhere closed and I had some noodles in a little cafe on Jonker’s road. The rest of the evening was spent chatting with other guests and the staff on the rooftop of my hostel, a group of mostly solo travellers making for a sociable crowd.

The Clock Tower in Dutch Square, Melaka
Christ Church in Dutch Square, Melaka

Breakfast devoured, I set out into Melaka. It was something of a false start as about five minutes later I found myself huddling in a five foot way sheltering from a sudden downpour. A chapter of my book later and the rain cleared so I was able to resume my exploring. There is not a huge amount of things to see in Melaka, unless one has a deep and passionate love for all kinds if museums, so I very quickly saw the key sites which were of interest to me.

A fountain to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
The remains of a fort just off Dutch Square.

Not yet willing to return to the hostel, I went to the Maritime Museum. This was a lot of fun as the first half of the museum in a replica of the Portuguese vessel the Flor de la Mar that sank off the coast of Melaka. It was also fascinating to read about the rise of Melaka from a fishing village to a major port of trade. How the colonisation of Melaka, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British, combined with their varying religious persecutions, changed the port from one of free trade to a state monopoly of declining significance was well explained. However, the order of reading for the information plaques a little unclear in some cases.

St Paul's Cathedral
The ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A (very) late lunch of scrumptious pork satay later and I spent the rest of the afternoon reading my book before getting ready for the hostel’s cycling trip to Masjid Selat Melaka, the “floating” mosque, for sunset. On our way, we briefly stopped via a group of locals play a cross between volleyball and football with a wicker ball. Kicking the ball back and forth over the volleyball net required an impressive level of flexibility and foot eye coordination. At no point were hands used to hit the ball but there were a few well aimed headers.

The view over Melaka from St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Maritime Museum in Melaka

Watching the sun set as we sat next to the Straits of Melaka as the call to prayer rang out, was a beautiful experience. The lights of the Masjid Selat Melaka gradually strengthened as the light of day slid from the sky which faded from blue to orange to purple and finally black.

The Flor de la Mar replica at the Maritime Museum
Another view of the Malacca River.

Heading back to the hostel with a flat tire rattling my joints out was slightly less fun and mildly terrifying as all road signs were ignored by our guide and most other road users. The solo travellers from the bike tour grouped together for dinner. Electing for an Indian place the hostel owner had recommended, we all satiated the appetites we had worked up cycling with the self serve plate, none of us quite brave enough to pick something unknown off the menu. This was just as well a fish complete with heads and tails was a menu option I saw someone ordering and is a meal I intend to never eat again if at all possible.

Foot volleyball.

The day concluded with a round of beers and Cards Against Humanity on the hostel roof, so while there may not have been much to see in Melaka, there was still a great many people to meet and laughs to be had.

Sunset at the Masjid Selat Melaka

Museums and Temples in Taipei

After a lateish breakfast I set off northwards towards the Confucius temple. This was really well laid out (plenty of English) and explained the basic concepts of Confucius’ teachings as well as having amazingly intricate detailing within the architecture. The temples here seem so lavish after the relative simplicity and refined grace of the Japanese shrines. The differing architectural styles have put a new wind into my sails, otherwise I think I might be fully templed out by this point in my holiday.

Emerging from the temple, I found myself caught in a large procession, all wearing matching yellow and purple hats and following a dragon towards Baoan Temple. I have absolutely no clue what the event was and couldn’t find it anywhere online when I returned to the hostel, but it was fun to watch, even with the increasingly heavy rain.

I wanted to visit Taipei Fine Arts Museum but on arriving found that it is currently closed for renovation. Unwilling to have walked through the rain for nothing, I visited the Story House next to the museum.

Built in 1913 by a tea merchant, this quaint little Tudor-style house seems extremely out of place halfway around the world from England. Inside there was an array of different Chinese woodworking plains, which as a crafting and handiwork enthusiast I couldn’t help but admire. There were a couple of lovely art pieces made from the wood shavings and I really enjoyed looking around.

With the rain only worsening, I headed to the National Palace Museum via Cixian Temple. I ended up spending the entire afternoon here, my imagination captivate by lustrous paintings and intricate carvings. My favourite exhibit was one of the temporary ones named Story of a Brand Name and was succcinctly summed up as “The Collection and Packaging Aesthetics of the Qing Emperor Qianlong”. This brevity does not do justice to the exquisite attention to detail that Qianlong afforded his collection. In the creation of unique cases and boxes for each item, new pieces of artwork were born. Small display boxes were carefully constructed to house jade marvels, each shelf specifically shaped for each piece. All in all, a trove of beauty and the part of me that strives to create order in all things was most pleased.

A close second in terms of favourites was some of the intricately carved jade and gemstone artefacts. There were also a number of ivory pieces that were stunningly carved, including fourteen balls all contained within one another and carved from a single elephant tusk. While these displays of ivory were undeniably amazing, the killing of elephant and rhinos is much less so and I was most pleased to see the following sign:

A visit to the Shilin Night Market concluded the day and left me pleasantly full with delicious street food.

Taipei, First Impressions

My first though on seeing Taipei through the train window is “grey”. This was mostly likely because of the rain and a severe lack of sleep. Walking to my hostel to drop of my luggage, I was once again struck by the lateness that everywhere opens at in East Asia. Despite it being almost nine, the only open cafe I passed was a Starbucks and so my breakfast consisted on a cinnamon roll and the largest feasible sugar and caffeine monstrosity. After recovering from some minor brain freeze and dropping of my luggage I made my way to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

The huge square in front of it was almost deserted, the early morning and light drizzle deterring most tourists. An amusing observation was seeing so many people in winter coats even though it was somewhere around 18 degrees, practically shorts and T-shirt weather after the biting temperatures and wind of Japan. I dread having to readapt to Singapore’s humidity in just over a weeks time. The art exhibition halls within the memorial building were very nice, I particularly liked the information they had about other museums and memorials that remember the darker events of the 20th century.

The little I could see of the changing of the guard (aren’t tall people annoying?) was very impressive, almost perfect synchrony without a word spoken and lots of guns twirling. There were also a couple of pieces of snazzy footwork where I could hear the K-pop music playing.

I next had a look around the 2/28 Memorial Museum. This gave a really good explanation of the events that took place in 1947 between the people of Taiwan and Mainland Chinese. The English signage was limited but the museum provides a free audio guide so it is still worth going. The only downside was the length of each audio clip meant one was left awkwardly hovering around waiting to move on.

After the museum I wondered around a little more of Taipei, visiting a couple of temples, notably Longshan Temple with appropriately cool dragons on its roof, and looking around the historical Bopiliao block and Dihua Street with its huge bags of dried mushrooms, fabric shops and a few souvenirs. I also visited the red house which showcases a number of local artisan stall ranging from melted bottles and leather work to jewellery, clothes and homemade soaps. It was very stylishly put together and would be a could place to by something for an alternative souvenir.

Visiting the War Memorial of Korea

Most people have heard of the Korean war, a war that started in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea on 25th June 1950 and ended in an armistice on 27th July 1953. It was a war between communism and democracy that not only irreparably tore apart a nation but also its people and their families. Entering the grounds of the War Memorial of Korea, one is immediately greeted by the Statue of Brothers.

I cannot give a just explanation to the full symbolism of this moving piece so will give only the text of the accompanying plaque and allow the reader to reach any further conclusions:

“The Statue of Brothers is an 18 meter wide and 11-meter high symbol of the Korean War. It consists of the upper part, lower part and inner part. The upper part of the statue depicts a scene where a family’s older brother, an ROK officer, and his younger brother, a North Korean soldier, meet in a battlefield and express reconciliation, love, and forgiveness. The lower tomb-shaped dome was built with pieces of granite collected from nationwide locations symbolizing the sacrifices made by our patriots. The crack in the dome stands for the division of Korea and the hope for reunification. Objects inside the dome include a mosaic wall painting that expresses the spirit of the Korean people to overcome the national tragedy and a map plate of the 16 UN Allied Nations that dispatched troops to the war. The links of iron chain on the ceiling signify the unbreakable bonds of a unified Korea.

After viewing the rest of the outdoor exhibition, a collection of tanks, planes and boats from the Korean War, I walked in laden silence through the galleries that enshrine marble slabs, each bearing row upon row of names, what will be the final footprint of those who fell as time gradually erases all else.

The museum itself was extremely interesting, detailing not only the Korean War but also some of the Korean Peninsula’s turbulent history and the events leading up to the war. Fortunately there was plenty of English explanation boards and while visiting a museum that documents wars and some of the suffering experienced during them cannot be called enjoyable, it was certainly informative and moving. To anyone else who visits my only advice would be to avoid the times when tours are being led around as they really disturb the atmosphere the museum clearly worked hard to achieve.

“In remembrance of the Korean soldiers and UN military participants who lost their lives in the Korean War, the respect towards the warriors (1,300 identification tags) has been embodied as tear drops. The iron thorns symbolise the horror, suppression and danger of the tragic war. The circle on the sand below represents the wave of the drop.”

Shaking off the cloud that had begun to form over me, I made my way to Itaewon for a late lunch and spent the rest of my afternoon looking around the various shops. I was amazed by the array of items on offer and found myself pining after a good many pair of boots. I think my favourite site though was a little street vendor that sold only scarves, knuckle dusters and nunchucks.

Two Americans, an Australian and a Brit walk into a Korean restaurent…

To finish the day I went out for a lively and enjoyable dinner with three others from my hostel. We ended up in a restaurant that served only one dish, beef on the bone in some kind of broth. It was most delicious and after some confusion over having to pay first, we were even complimented on our chopstick use (I think).