Saturday, 14 August 2010


“Home is not where you live but where they understand you.” - Christian Morgenstern

A nice restful day today… Then a wonderful evening at home, with dinner for two, candlelight, music, flowers… All the while the wind was howling outside and the cold, wet streets reflected the lights. We laughed and we kissed, oblivious of the winter night outside…

Here is an upbeat song from Russia, sung by Vitas. It is a song about coming home from foreign lands, a song about the welcoming shores of Russia, made all the more wonderful by the spring sunshine and the gorgeous scenery of the video, shot in the Ukraine not far from Kiev.

Illustration is the Swallow’s Nest Castle in Yalta, overlooking the Black Sea.

Friday, 13 August 2010


“Many of our fears are tissue-paper-thin, and a single courageous step would carry us clear through them.” - Brendan Francis Behan

It is “Black Friday” today, a dismal day in many people’s books, but depending on one’s cultural background and superstitious nature, the day could be bad, good or indifferent. In Greek, Romanian, Spanish and Latin American culture it is Tuesday the 13th that is an ominous day, not Friday the 13th. Some people consider the number 13 as very lucky, rather than unlucky. The ancient Egyptians and the Chinese both considered 13 as a lucky number. Cultures with lunar calendars and 13 months don’t associate 13 with anything sinister. However, in the USA, in some buildings the 13th floor is apparently skipped, going from 12 to 14 and some hotels will not have a room 13! In some cities a 13th Avenue does not exist, once again 12th skipping to 14th Avenue. It was rumored in the 18th Century that thirteen people sitting down to a meal together presaged that one of them would die within the year, something which is still maintained by some.

This triskaidekaphobia (irrational fear of the number 13) and paraskevetriskaidekaphobia (irrational fear of Friday the 13th) is long entrenched in the Western, Christian tradition and is long associated with the 13 people attending the Last Supper, with Judas Iscariot being the unlucky 13th person. Another dinner with 13 unlucky guests was in Norse mythology, where Loki, the Norse god of evil, started a riot when he gate-crashed a banquet at Valhalla attended by 12 gods. Witches that clearly oppose themselves to a Christian superstition, have groups of 13 known as covens.

As well as Friday the 13th, today is also International Left Handers’ Day. This reminds me of another irrational fear – sinistrophobia (fear of left side, left handedness). It was established by UNESCO in 1984 at the initiative of the British Left-handers’ Club. Left-handers account between 7% and 10% of the world’s population. Many great people were left-handers, among them Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Cesar, Napoleon, Bismarck, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Einstein and Leo Tolstoy (However, some infamous people were also left-handers, e.g. Jack the Ripper!)

For many centuries left-handers have been thwarted, ostracised, constrained and forced to adapt to a right-handed world. Although nowadays most left-handers are not forced to use their right hand, they still have to cope with the inconvenience of using implements, tools, devices and accessories that are designed for right-handers. If a left-handed option is available it is usually more expensive and not readily available.

The third irrational fear I will refer to is xenositiophobia, quite apt for our Food Friday! Xenositiophobia is an irrational fear of foreign food… Fortunately in most Western countries, this is a fear that we see less of as we are exposed to a wide variety of foreign cuisines more and more frequently in the West. We are very fortunate here in Melbourne as we are extremely cosmopolitan and there hundreds if not thousands of restaurants that offer a variety of international cuisines at a standard that often exceeds that of many restaurants in their original countries!

Thursday, 12 August 2010


“There shall be no compulsion in religion.” – Qur’an 2:236; "The Cow”

Our Muslim students are observing Ramadan presently. I chanced upon some of them making their way to the prayer room and they were talking about Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar, which began yesterday. Every day during this month, Muslims around the world spend the daylight hours in a complete fast. It is a time they see as a chance to purify their soul, refocus attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice. Ramadan is much more than just not eating and drinking, it is seen as a great opportunity to rediscover one’s spirituality and come closer to God.

Muslims are called upon to use this month to re-evaluate their lives according to the laws set down by the Qur’an. One is to make peace with those who have wronged one, strengthen ties with family and friends, do away with bad habits. It is one’s chance to clean up one’s life, one’s thoughts, and feelings. The Arabic word for “fasting” (sawm) literally means “to refrain, and this implies not only refraining from food and drink, but also from evil actions, thoughts, and words.

During Ramadan, every part of the body must be actively restrained. The tongue must be stopped from talking idly, backbiting and gossip. The eyes must refrain from looking at unlawful things. The hand must not touch or take anything that does not belong to it. The ears must stop listening to obscene words or idle chatter. The feet must not go to sinful places. In such a way, every part of the body observes the fast or restraint. Food and drink are consumed during the night, but once again restraint should be practiced and no feasting should be undertaken.

Fasting is not merely physical but rather the total commitment of the person’s body and soul to the spirit of the fast or restraint. Ramadan is a time to practice self-restraint; a time to cleanse the body and soul from impurities and re-focus one’s self on the worship of God. Ramadan is the month God chose in which to reveal the final scripture – The Qur’an. It is believed that one of the greatest ways a Muslim honours the Qur’an is by reading it. Many of the pious Muslims of the past would close all books and focus on reading the Qur’an only this month. A Muslim should strive to read the Qur’an in Arabic at least once during this month. The Qur’an consists of approximately 604 pages. This means a person can read the entire Qur’an by the last day of Ramadan from cover to cover by simply reading 4 pages after every prayer.

At the end of Ramadan, the Muslims celebrate with a great feast, Eid ul Fitr. Eid is an Arabic word meaning “festivity”, while Fiṭr means “to break fast”; and so the holiday symbolises the breaking of the fasting period. Eid ul-Fitr lasts for three days of celebration (or more, depending on the country).

Koran |kəˈrän; kô-; ˈkôrän| (also Qur'an or Quran) noun
The Islamic sacred book, believed to be the word of God as dictated to Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel and written down in Arabic. The Koran consists of 114 units of varying lengths, known as suras; the first sura is said as part of the ritual prayer. These touch upon all aspects of human existence, including matters of doctrine, social organisation, and legislation.
Koranic |-ˈränik| adjective
ORIGIN from Arabic ḳur'ān ‘recitation,’ from ḳara'a ‘read, recite.’

Tuesday, 10 August 2010


“There's nothing half so pleasant as coming home again.” - Margaret Elizabeth Sangster

We came home to a wet, grey and cold Melbourne. Winter is still around and even if we thought that we had escaped it somewhat with this trip to tropical climes. Arriving here this morning was reminder enough that we still have some of the worst ahead. Nevertheless, as we went shopping today for some groceries, we saw big bunches of daffodils out for sale. This was underlined by the changes in our garden: The primulas have started to bloom and the polyanthuses, cinerarias and the bulbs are all starting to show colour. Though it is winter, spring is just around the corner.

For Poetry Wednesday today, a poem for the changing seasons and for our homecoming.

As the Seasons Change I Return Home

A welcoming sight on one’s return home:
The spring flowers planted months ago
Beginning to burgeon forth and bloom.

A welcoming sound on one’s return home:
The windchimes playing a chord of greeting
As winter wind still blows, but with less ferocity.

A welcoming smell on one’s return home:
The linen cupboard reeking of lavender, plucked last summer
And enclosing within it sunlit, warm memories.

A welcoming taste on one’s return home:
Home cooking with sun-dried garden herbs,
Fresh lettuce, radishes, spring onions from the winter garden.

A welcoming touch on one’s return home:
Your fingers in my hand, your warmth against mine,
Your tender kiss on my naked flesh, making me tremble…


“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.” - Charles Dickens

Travelling home today, from Hanoi to Melbourne, with one transit stop in Ho Chi Minh City. As is the case with such travels, the tiring to-ing and fro-ing from one means of transport to another, the interminable security checks, the long haul flights make one wonder if it has all been worth it. At the time of the highest inconvenience, one is tempted to say “no, it’s not worth it, never again…” However, once the brou-ha-ha is over and only the good memories of the trip remain, one gets the old wanderlust returning once again.

On Thursday I go back to work, so Wednesday will be my buffer day to recover and prepare myself for the onslaught.

Monday, 9 August 2010


“You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” – Ho Chi Minh

We visited the Hòa Lò Prison today, referred to as the 'Maison Centrale' by the French. It was called the 'Hanoi Hilton' by US GIs, many of whom did time here during the Vietnam War. Once it was a massive French-built prison accommodating over two thousand prisoners at its peak. The prison built in 1886 was quite small initially, holding around 400 prisoners. It was expanded in 1913 to hold 600 but actually in reality it packed in more normally anywhere between 700 to 895 prisoners in 1916. However, during the 2nd World War it held 2000 prisoners both international and ethnic prisoners, especially South Vietnamese (see more of my photos here).

Prisoners were held either in solitary confinement or in dormitories where they would be shackled together on a raised platform bed, which sloped downwards at the foot. Diseases such as dysentery and malaria were rife among the prisoners along with little medical attention given if at all. An almond tree in the prison courtyard provided remedies in the form of wood, bark, flowers and fruits for these ailments.

The prison became notorious as the temporary home of large numbers of captured enemy soldiers and airmen, mostly American. The American prisoners of war were held in a separate wing apart from the other prisoners. The first American prisoner of war was an airman called Everett Alvarez. Many prisoners died through torture or illnesses before the Vietnamese were able to execute them. The Vietnamese denied any torture took place citing the American prisoners themselves have nicknamed the prison the Hanoi Hilton as the accommodation was as comfortable as a hotel. Prisoners were not granted any civil rights as required by the Geneva convention, but as Vietnam had never signed up to it they claimed it didn’t apply to them.

The ways they tortured the prisoners were numerous. Sleep deprivation, beatings water torture, whipping and slapping, bones broken and teeth knocked out. The Vietnamese were trying to get the prisoners to make statements saying they were being well-treated and that the American invasion was wrong. Food was in short supply and what food they were given was often contaminated with faeces both animal and human. Methods of execution included the guillotine, which was used in the prison and is still there preserved to this day. Both men and women were held in the prison but were segregated.

During the 1990s, virtually all the area was demolished to make way for a modern tower block of apartments and high rise offices called the Hanoi Towers. On the south-east corner of the site, the entrance lobby and a few of the cells have been retained as a small museum. Looking at the remnants of the prison from the opposite side of the road, the building is dwarfed to insignificance by its huge neighbour, making it difficult to imagine its gruesome history. It is well-maintained and has been elevated to a shrine for political prisoners kept here during Vietnam’s struggle for independence. The prison contains several interesting exhibits, including the heavily-used guillotine that was the centrepiece of the French judicial system in Vietnam, and is well worth a visit. The signs describing each of the exhibits are couched in a language that is rather heavy-handedly propagandist, but nevertheless, one becomes acutely aware of the hardship and inhuman conditions of incarceration here.

A 1987 film written and directed by Lionel Chetwynd, “The Hanoi Hilton” tells the story of the suffering, torture, and brutal treatment the American P.O.W.s had to deal with daily while in the Hoa Lo Prison. The film focusses on the resistance the prisoners gave to their captors and the strong bonds formed by the Americans during their captivity.

On the way to the prison we visited the “Ambassador’s Pagoda” (Chùa Quán Sứ). This temple has its origins in the 15th century when a hall was built to welcome ambassadors who came to visit the king. A pagoda was built in the 17th century next to the hall, which has since been called the Ambassador’s Pagoda. The hall was destroyed in a blaze, but the pagoda survived. Nowadays this is one of the most active pagodas in Hanoi, and since 1958 it is the headquarters for the Vietnam Unified Buddhist Association, a major Buddhist learning and research centre, with the largest Buddhist library in any temple in Vietnam. Dozens of young monks reside in the complex and study in its classrooms. Inside of the temple are many finely carved statues, some dating back to the 15th century.

When we visited we saw many young monks and nuns praying in the temple and many faithful were making offerings of incense, fruit and paper money to both the images of the gods, as well as to their ancestors. The air was heavy with the smell of burning paper and even the incense was a heavy, cloying, unpleasant smell. Many little old ladies in the courtyard were selling matches, candles, prayer books and offerings. The temple was quite a large one and more full of life than most of the other temples we visited.

Tomorrow we fly back home. The trip was short, but we packed much in and enjoyed it quite a lot. However, it is great to be going back home as the heat, dirt, noise, overcrowding and congestion has been quite an experience.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


“A sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on to canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is, in itself, a living thing.” - William Dobell

Today we visited the Chùa Trấn Quốc (Tran Quoc Pagoda), the Chùa Quan Thánh temple, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Army Museum, the Hanoi Flagpost and the Hang Be market. It was a tiring day owing to the heat and the queuing up for an hour and a half, to get into the mausoleum, which was by the far the most exhausting. Nevertheless, once again, we really enjoyed what we saw and the history, culture and local colour we absorbed was immense.

Firstly, Chùa Trấn Quốc sits on an islet linked by a bridge to the causeway between two lakes Hồ Tây and Trúc Bạch. It was founded in 545 AD during the Lý Dynasty. It was moved from the Hồng Hà's left bank (Red River) to its current location in the early 17th century. In the gardens stands a Bồ Đề (Bodhi) tree that is easily recognizable from its heart-shaped leaves, taken from a cutting of the original tree, under which Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment in India. The island and pagoda provide a beautiful backdrop, particularly when viewed at sunset. The characteristic pagoda associated with the temple is a Hanoi landmark and corresponds with most Westerners’ ideas about what a pagoda should look like…

We then visited a second temple, the Chùa Quan Thánh beyond the two lakes, just across the causeway. According to legend, this temple existed in the south of the To Lich River in the period of Cao Bien, a proconsul of the Chinese Tang Dynasty who built the citadel of Dai La (around 866). After King Ly Thai To established the capital (1010), the Temple was moved to the north-west of the capital. It is one of the “Thang Long tu tran” – four famous sacred temples honouring the Gods who guard at four main directions (East - West - South - North) of the ancient Thang Long Citadel. The Temple is dedicated to Saint Huyen Thien Tran Vu who guarded and administered the north of the country. That is why it is also known as the Tran Vu Temple. The Temple has a majestic three-door entrance, which was built on large stones with a bell tower on its top. Inside it is very ornate and decorated with gilded carved wood, statuary, has many altars and incense burners. In the courtyard of the temple there was a martial arts lesson going on, so we stopped and admired the young men and women who were practicing the ritualistic moves.

We then proceeded to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where a few nasty surprises awaited us. First, was the huge expanse of lawn criss-crossed by intersecting stone paths to the east of the Mausoleum. We attempted to walk across the path and were interrupted by loud cries of some soldiers who stood guard around the square. They motioned us off with gestures and more cries and when we approached them we could not make ourselves understood as they spoken not a single word of English. They motioned us to the south and after a couple of kilometers we finally came to the entrance of the Mausoleum, past a huge queue of people waiting to get in. At the entrance came second surprise number two: The entrance was closed firmly and the guards around (who once again spoke no English) motioned us away. Some of the locals were able to get in, but others who also tried were rudely dismissed. No English signs were around. We were rather hot and bothered and very disappointed.

Fortunately, I spied a couple – he Vietnamese, she a westerner, who were conversing with one of the locals. I enquired gently as to why the doors were closed and whether we would be able to get in. It was explained to us that because it was so crowded the gates had closed early and that we would not be able to get in. I thanked them and rather disappointed we lingered around looking sourly at the interior. I was surprised when our acquaintances came back to us and asked us to follow them. We did and going through a shop right next to the fenced off area, we were able to walk through the back door into the enclosure and the car parking area where the tourist buses were stopped. Thus entering by hook and crook we were able to join the queue of the hundreds and hundreds of people waiting their turn to enter the mausoleum.

It was hot, crowded and we were only amongst the very few westerners amongst the locals. We went through three security checks, relinquished our camera and finally we were waiting on the final stretch to enter the monolithic and highly unattractive, but nevertheless imposing, Russian-designed Mausoleum. Guards everywhere goose-stepped and showed off their guns, in order to intimidate and further build up the sense of awe of the pullulating masses. We managed to end up inside and after climbing a couple of flights of stairs we made our way through the murky and dimly lit cool chambers to the inner sanctum where the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh lay in repose as though asleep. It was brightly lit and as we were shuffled along by guards, we saw the wax-like remains of the man whose last request before his death was “cremate me” – unheeded, of course…

We went out and walking through the manicured gardens came to the “One-Pillar Pagoda” (Chua Mot Cot). The characteristic thick central pillar on which this small pagoda is built, is said to represent the stem of a lotus flower, symbolising purity. The metaphor is made stronger by the square pond in which the pillar stands. Around the pagoda there is another small temple in which is a nice Buddha image, some gardens and a small monastery. It is well worth visiting this site as it is verdant with large shady trees and provides a cool refuge for the people who queued to see the Mausoleum.

The Ho Chi Minh Museum is a large modern building immediately next to the Mausoleum and is dedicated to the great revolutionary and statesman who went on to become first the Prime Minister and then the President of North Vietnam. The common people of Vietnam are indebted to him for what he has done for their country and as a mark of their gratitude the museum was dedicated to him. The Museum in preserves everything memorable related to the great revolutionary. It consists of five extensive floors and was inaugurated on 2nd September, 1990, celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of Vietnam’s great President.

The museum has an extensive collection of military orders, mementos, photographs of the Communist Party’s achievements, the great August and October revolutions, the country’s fight against Fascism and the imperialist power and the world movement led by Ho Chi Minh. The Top floor has a beautiful centerpiece which is a gargantuan gold lotus flower, which also shelters smaller exhibits related to Ho Chi Minh’s political activities. One can make one’s way from the “Past” section to the “Future” section by following the symbols made in the shape of labyrinthine murals. The National Liberation Movements are symbolised by a "volcano", bright red in color and surrounded by national totems. The Museum is another example of Soviet architecture and so the visitor has the opportunity to take in both the exhibits and structure.

We then walked to the Museum of Military History, (as the full name of the Army museum is), located in the south-west corner of the Hanoi Citadel. A large assortment of military paraphernalia clutters up the front gardens, overlooked by a large statue of Lenin, glaring from the other side of the road. The main exhibition covers events during the war against the French colonists from the 1930 uprising to the victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The American War is described in a separate exhibition stall. There is a strong pro-Vietnam propaganda element of course, but there are rare photographs and video images of Ho Chi Minh, the legendary General Giap, the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the Ho Chi Minh Trail that makes a visit an unmissable experience for military history buffs as well as those simply interested in seeing the Vietnamese side of the conflict. A guide is essential to assist with language and contextual interpretation.

Right next door is the bonus of visiting the Cot Co Watch Tower. Apart from being of considerable interest as one of the few remains of Emperor Gia Long’s mighty edifice, the view from the top includes the whole Citadel area and its surroundings (unfortunately it was closed when we visited).

We then proceeded to the heart of the Old Quarter again and did some shopping around the Hang Be market area. A few souvenirs and gew-gaws for people back home. Nothing major and certainly nothing that we really saw and greatly admired or wished to buy for ourselves.

Now to conclude Art Sunday, a reference to the Fine Arts Gallery that we visited a couple of days ago. The enormous, fine colonial mansion that houses the museum was given an oriental-style roof when it ceased to be a residence. Nevertheless, the effect is pleasing and well-suited to what is after all, a gallery of Vietnamese art. The various collections are quite eclectic – inevitably, the Soviet inspired social realism school is well represented but is by no means dominant. Among the many reproductions, there are some fine originals. Particularly noteworthy are a delightful collection of folk art, and a good range of modern art including some excellent water colours and innovative contemporary work.

Unfortunately, the artworks that have been executed in lacquer have not stood the test of time and have discoloured very badly. The museum does not appear to be well curated, nor are the art works well looked after. We were horrified to see some of the guards sitting down and knitting, or dressing their hair or plucking their eyebrows or generally being very uninterested in their job or the visitors. There were several pieces that we liked and above is one of them, Nguyễn văn Cuông’s (born 1962) “A Fleeting Memory”, a quite large (103x157 cm) and colourful woodcut made in 1997. The artist was born in Hanoi in 1962 and graduated from Hanoi Fine Art College in 1989. Since 1990, his work has been exhibited many times in Vietman as well as in the United States, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Japan and Norway.

Most famous are his woodcuts with succinct, symbolic motifs, strangely brilliant colours and a loose but haphazard plot. Cuông’s works of art appear modern but still display traditional roots. Cuông achieves his moods through a careful choice of colours, lines and textures, describing each scene carefully with strong reds and yellows, greys, browns and blues. Cuông invites us into a world where the rhythms of the everyday are the bonds which bind each of us together.