Saturday 7 August 2010


“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Today we went on a day-long tour to Ha Long Bay in the northeastern part of Vietnam which is 165 Km from Hanoi (see more of my photos here). Ha Long Bay is often touted by proud Vietnamese as the world’s Eighth Wonder. One of the main attractions of Ha long is the bay’s calm water and the thousands of limestone formations dotting the seascape. The Bay’s water is clear during the spring and early summer. Some of the islands are quite large and there are small alcoves with sandy beaches where swimming is possible. Ha Long literally means “descending dragon(s)” and according to local myth, the story goes as follows:

Long ago when their forefathers were fighting foreign invaders from the north, the gods from heaven sent a family of dragons to help defend their land. This family of dragons descended upon what is now Ha Long bay and began spitting out jewels and jade. Upon hitting the sea, these jewels turned into the various islands and islets dotting the seascape and formed a formidable fortress against the invaders. The locals were able to keep their land safe and formed what is now the country of Vietnam. The Dragon family fell so much in love with this area for its calm water and for the reverence of the people of Vietnam that they decided to remain on earth. Mother dragon lies on what is now Ha Long and where her children lie is Bai Tu Long. The dragon tails formed the area of Bach Long Vi known for the miles of white sandy beaches of Tra Co peninsula.

This myth is in line with the Vietnamese myth of their origin Con Rong Chau Tien. This myth describes the union between a king (representing the dragon) and his bride (representing a goddess) giving birth to 100 children which are the ancestors of the Vietnamese people. The Ha Long myth illustrate the Vietnamese belief of their origin and the fact that throughout their history, they are aided by their ancestors, the dragon and the gods, in the defense of their land.

The bay has some surrealistic scenery and the limestone formations are both bizarre and awesome. Over thousands of years the base of many of the formation have corroded to a point where many seem to be balancing on thin air. The shapes and the positioning of these formations often resemble people, animals etc., hence, most are given a name by the locals. Some of the more famous are: Hang Dau Go (Wooden Stakes cave), Hang Bo Nau (Pelican cave), Hang Trinh Nu (the Virgin), Hang Sung Sot (Cave of Awe), Dong Hang Hanh, Dao Tuan Chau (Sentinel Chau Island), Qua Chuong (the bell), Con Voi (the elephant) etc. Now, about one thousand formations have names.

We finished our tour by visiting Thiên Cung cave, which is situated on the south-west side the bay, 4 km from the wharf outside of Ha Long City. The way to Thiên Cung is a steep one, covered on both sides by thick forest. After entering a narrow gate, the grotto’s 130-meter-long chamber opens up. Thousands of stalactites and stalagmites make this a veritable fairy palace. This grotto discovered about 17 years ago, is one of the most beautiful caves in Ha Long Bay. Legend has it, that beautiful young lady named Mây (cloud), caught the eye of the Dragon Prince and he fell in love with her. They were betrothed, and their wedding lasted seven days and seven nights in the very centre of the grotto.

In honour of the wedding, small dragons flew about through the stalactites and stalagmites, elephants danced together happily, snakes twined themselves around trees and two stone lions danced with their manes flowing in the wind. A large elephant, smartly dressed, waited for the bride and the groom. The genies of the south and north stars also came to attend the banquet, and the atmosphere was definitely animated and lively. All these scenes have been seemingly fossilized in the grotto. 
Arriving at the last part of the grotto, a natural gushing stream of water babbles down throughout the year. Here are three small ponds of clear water. Legend has it, that this was where Mây bathed her 100 children, bringing them up wisely and happily into adolescence.

For Music Saturday today, a traditional Vietnamese tune played on the Dan Tranh by Truy.

Friday 6 August 2010


“Rice is a beautiful food. It is beautiful when it grows, precision rows of sparkling green stalks shooting up to reach the hot summer sun. It is beautiful when harvested, autumn gold sheaves piled on diked, patchwork paddies. It is beautiful when, once threshed, it enters granary bins like a (flood) of tiny seed-pearls. It is beautiful when cooked by a practiced hand, pure white and sweetly fragrant.” -
 Shizuo Tsuji

Another full and exhausting day in Hanoi, visiting several important landmarks, but also once again weaving our way in and out of the labyrinthine streets of the Old Quarter. Two important sights we visited, were the temple of Literature and the National Fine Arts Gallery. More about these on Sunday!

The traffic, congestion, smells, thronging crowds and the exotic atmosphere are constant assailants on one’s senses. The offensive odour of an open drain mingles with the fragrance of incense burning at a small shrine in a shop; the cacophonous and never-ending beeping of car and motorcycle horns is interrupted momentarily by the jingling of bells and wind-chimes when passing a temple whose curved roof and characteristic gate invites one into the peaceful courtyard. The milling crowds and never-ending stream of motorcycles drives one crazy, and yet one may pop into the gardens of a pagoda and momentarily escape, seeping oneself in history.

One of the most amazing things we have seen is the hundreds of vendors of street food. On every sidewalk, under each awning, on every street corner, one finds impromptu kitchens often consisting simply of a charcoal burner and a pot in which cooks every sort of imaginable comestible. Noodles, rice, bits of meat, poultry, vegetables of all sorts, soups, fish, spices, herbs. Unidentifiable bits and pieces are chopped, minced, cut, dressed, wrapped, or otherwise prepared for cooking and then boiled, steamed or fried right there on the street by women who seem to have cooking under such difficult circumstances down to a fine art. Around them are small plastic stools where the customers sit and enjoy the food, which is ladled out in plastic bowls. Once they finish the washing up is done in a large plastic tub filled with suds.

Beside such impromptu ‘restaurants’ may be open drains, shops selling all sorts of goods that may not be so appetizing. Right next to one of these street food stalls yesterday, we saw two men slaughtering chickens, the blood collected carefully in little bowls once the neck was cut. No doubt, even the blood will be used to prepare some tasty recipe. Every now and then some horrible smell wafts from a sewer, or the omnipresent pollution and car exhaust fumes will intrude into the cooking smells. For a westerner to eat from these street stalls is inadvisable, however, there are more up-market eateries and restaurants to choose from. The prices are extremely cheap by our standards and the quality of the food is good.

In Vietnam, “com” (boiled rice) is eaten at the main meals of the day (lunch and dinner). Rice is eaten together with a variety of different dishes and the rice can be of different types. Typically fragrant rice is used, such as Tam Thom and Nang Huong. An ordinary meal may consist of boiled rice and the following: “Mon an kho” (meal without soup) consisting of dishes of pork, fish, shrimp, and vegetable cooked in oil, as well as vegetables, pickles, etc. “Mon canh” (meal with soup) consisting of a soup made with pork or spare-ribs, crab meat, and fish.

In the past several years, people in urban centers have begun to go out for lunch at the food stalls on the street. Consequently, there has been a proliferation of temporary food stalls along many sidewalks and public spaces in the cities. Some stalls are open until early in the morning to cater to regular customers. Around noon, owners can be seen arranging tables and benches along the pavement to form makeshift shop floors. After two or three hours, when there are no more customers, they begin to remove all of their wooden furniture, so that the place resumes its former appearance. A well-served lunch for one is very inexpensive, but once again I stress that westerners will eat in the street at their peril.

“Pho” (noodles) is the most popular food among the Vietnamese population. Pho is commonly eaten for breakfast, although many people will have it for their lunch or dinner. Anyone feeling hungry in the small hours of the morning can also enjoy a bowl of hot and spicy pho to fill their empty stomachs. Like hot green tea which has its particular fragrance, pho also has its special taste and smell. Preparations may vary, but when the dish is served, its smell and taste is very characteristic. The grated rice noodles are made of the best variety of fragrant rice called Gao Te. The broth for Pho Bo (Pho with beef) is made by stewing the bones of beef and pork in a large pot for a long time. Pieces of fillet beef together with several slices of ginger are reserved for Pho Bo Tai (rare fillet). Slices of well-done meat are offered to those less keen on eating rare fillets. The soup for Pho Ga (pho with chicken meat) is made by stewing chicken and pig bones together. The white chicken meat that is usually served with Pho Ga is boneless and cut into thin slices. You could consider Pho Bo and Pho Ga Vietnam's special soups. Pho also has the added advantage of being convenient to prepare and healthy to eat.

Thursday 5 August 2010


“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” - Pearl Buck

Hanoi (or more properly Hà Nội in Vietnamese) is the capital city of Vietnam and has an estimated population of about 6.5 million making it the second-largest city of Vietnam, after the most populous, Ho chi Minh City in the South. From 1010 until 1802, Hanoi was the most important political centre of Vietnam. The city is located on the right bank of the Red River. October 2010 marks the 1000 year anniversary of the establishment of the city (see more of my photos here).

Hanoi has been inhabited since at least 3000 BC. One of the first known permanent settlements is the Cổ Loa Citadel founded around 200 BC. Hanoi was occupied by the French in 1873 and passed to them ten years later. It became the capital of French Indochina after 1887. The city was occupied by the Japanese in 1940, and liberated in 1945, when it briefly became the seat of the Viet Minh government after Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam. But the French came back and reoccupied the city in 1946. After nine years of fighting between the French and Viet Minh forces, Hanoi became the capital of an independent North Vietnam in 1954.

During the Vietnam War, Hanoi’s transportation facilities were disrupted by the bombing of bridges and railways. They were promptly repaired and the Old Quarter was to damaged. Following the end of the war, Hanoi became the capital of Vietnam when North and South Vietnam were reunited on July 2, 1976. By 2020 the Hanoi Capital region will have an area of 13,436 square kilometres with a population of 15 million.

We spent the whole day walking today and fortunately, the weather was great - around 30˚C and fine. We started off early in the morning form our hotel, on the shore of the large lake and walked to the Old Quarter. The traffic was horrendous and small scooters and Vespas were everywhere. We were amazed not to see any accidents as even on the street intersections controlled by traffic lights, the interweaving of cars, pedestrians, scooters, bicycles, buses, was a sight not to be forgotten. Crossing streets became a near death experience, as one didn’t know who had right of way or whether one should go or stay when the walk signal came on. Oh, and by the way there are these strange black and white regions on the road every now and then… Nobody seems to know that these are pedestrian crossings and pedestrians should have priority.

The Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem lake, has the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of only about 36 streets, most of which are now part of the old quarter. Each street then had merchants and households that specialised in a particular trade, such as silk traders, jewellery, food merchants, etc. The street names nowadays still reflect these specialisations, although few of them remain exclusively in their original commerce. The area is famous for its small artisans and merchants, including many silk shops. Local cuisine specialties as well as several clubs and bars can be found here also. A night market in the heart of the district opens for business every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening with a variety of clothing, souvenirs and food.

We saw the Old Quarter and the small lake, temples, churches, public buildings and shops. Markets and historic sites, hotels and guest houses. However, largely today was a familiarisation exercise with the “flavour” of the city. One of the highlights was the visit to the Ngoc Son Temple, located on a small island on the small lake. This Temple was constructed in the early 19th century on the foundations of the old Khanh Thuy Palace, which had been built in 1739. The temple is dedicated to Van Xuong, the God of Literature, although the 13th-century hero Tran Hung Dao, the martial arts genius Quan Vu and the physician La To are also worshipped here. The island is linked to the shore by a red, arched wooden bridge, The Huc (Sunbeam) Bridge, constructed in 1875 (seen in the photograph here).

Vietnam |vēˌetˈnäm; ˌvyet-; ˌvēət-; -ˈnam| - noun
A country in Southeast Asia, on the South China Sea; pop. 82,689,000; capital, Hanoi; language, Vietnamese (official).
Traditionally dominated by China, Vietnam came under French influence between 1862 and 1954. After World War II, the Vietminh defeated the French, who then withdrew. Vietnam was partitioned along the 17th parallel between communist North Vietnam (capital, Hanoi) and noncommunist South Vietnam (capital, Saigon). The Vietnam War between the North and the U.S.-backed South ended in victory for the North in 1975 and the reunification of the country under a communist regime the following year.
ORIGIN from Vietnamese Viet, the name of the inhabitants, + nam ‘south.’

Wednesday 4 August 2010


“I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad.” - George Bernard Shaw

It is 11:11 p.m. local time here in Hanoi ( and 2:11 a.m. Melbourne time!) and we just arrived at our hotel after many adventures, delayed flights and last minute visa woes, we managed to get here, after spending about 19 hours in taxis, planes, buses, etc. The last straw was the taxi trip from the Hanoi airport to the city centre and to our hotel. The roads were crowded with traffic – cars, trucks, motor scooters, pedestrians and the city was amazingly dark. Even the houses standing like gaunt sentinels (they are so narrow, even though three or four stories high!) did not show many lighted windows. We finally worked out that everyone had their window blinds and shutters firmly closed. The few open shutters disclosed bare bulbs of low wattage that created a rather dismal mood.

The insistent beeps of the car horns and crowded roads, however, underlined the fact that this was not a sleeping city. The closer we got to the centre (and the airport is about 30 km form the centre) the more lights appeared on the side of the roads and a few neon signs advertised nocturnal haunts – “Karaoke”, “Restaurant”, “Sauna and Massage”…

For Poetry Wednesday today, something I found on the web at the airport lounge and which is fittingly Vietnamese. A 19th century woman poet, Hô Xuân Hu'o'ng (1772–1822). She was a strong-minded woman living in perilous times and while her poetry is deceptively tranquil and placid, describing ostensibly nature scenes, there are hidden meanings and a wild eroticism. She lived most of her life in Hanoi and therefore is an apt guest for Poetry Wednesday! And I quote from an excellent article by John Balaban:

“In the poetry of Hô Xuân Hu'o'ng, who wrote around 1800, near the end of the high tradition of nôm, we find poems behind poems behind poems. Almost all of her lü-shih or chüeh-chu poems, while apparently about natural landscapes or everyday activities, have hidden within them a complete, parallel second poem: a double entendre whose topic is sex. Sometimes, as in the poem below, the translator can succeed by finding words that are both true to the physical landscape she describes and suggestive of other things to the English ear: for example, "cleft," "bearded," "plunges," and "mount." Here, the translator's task is to also set up a double meaning with a single set of images.


Môt -dèo, môt dèo, lai môt dèo.
Khen ai khéo tac canh cheo leo.
Cua son do loét tùm hum nóc,
Hòn dá xanh rì lún phún rêu.
Lát leo cành thông con gió thôc
Dâm dìa lá liêu giot suong gieo.
Hiên nhân, quân tu ai mà chang...
Moi gôi, chôn chân vân muôn trèo.

Hô Xuân Hu'o'ng


A cliff face. Another. And still a third.
Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene

The cavern's red door, the ridge's narrow cleft,
The black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
Showering a willow's leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
And shaky in his knees, to mount once more?

As scholars have noted, the title "Dèo Ba Dôi" (Three Mountain Pass) would probably suggest to a Vietnamese reader the range in central North Viêt Nam called Dèo Tam-Diêp. But the poem's peculiar grotto would invite suspicion, and of course a literate Vietnamese reader would recognize immediately the pine and willow as male and female symbols, respectively. "Gentlemen" and "lords" ("Hiên nhân, quân tu") are traditional terms for the elite, mandarin class. Yet Hô Xuân Huong is anything but traditional. A woman writing in a male, Confucian tradition at the end of the decadent Lê dynasty, she only makes honorific references to men when she is being derisive.

The main aspect of the poem behind the poem (behind the poem) for Hô Xuân Huong is that she is almost always working against tradition. Behind her traditional landscapes lies sexual dalliance. Behind her pagoda walls, irreverent fools. In the widow's funeral lament, she hears infidelity. Yet all her poetic subversions are launched in exquisitely made, regulated lü-shih and chüeh-chu: verse with traditional requirements for line length, rhyme and tone placement, and syntactic parallelism. But here too she is unique and surprising, often using the word-stock of ca dao and the aphorisms of the common people where her male contemporaries are content with flowery rhetoric and stock ideas.”

John Balaban

Now time for bed!

Tuesday 3 August 2010


“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” - Aldous Huxley

Well, tomorrow morning we are leaving for a holiday. It will only be a very short one, but it turned out very well considering how quickly it was arranged. That’s one of the wonderful thing about the internet, one may browse through airline sites, hotel sites, arrange tickets, stays, look for package deals, take advantage of specials, and all that in one afternoon, in time for departure the next day! So, it was all arranged, we are going to Vietnam, to visit Hanoi! We are leaving tomorrow morning and coming back early next week.

It worked out cheaper than going North and staying in Cairns or Townsville or Broome. It’s quite sad when one can arrange an overseas holiday and spend much less than one would locally. I suppose there are many factors involving the exchange rate and cost of living, but there it is. We’ve never been to Vietnam before, but we have both heard good reviews from intrepid travellers who have been and came back with the best impressions.

Most people think of the war if one mentions Vietnam, especially people in our age group. And sure enough, there are many conflicts in its long history. However, the country has moved forward with the times and progress soon overcomes obstacles put in its way by painful history.

Vietnam was part of French Indochina and only gained its independence in 1954. Decades of internal discord, civil war mixed with external interference and tragic armed conflicts have hampered its development. The country has an area of 330,000 square km and a population of about 83 million people. It stretches along the South China Sea down a mountainous backbone and encompasses two river deltas: The Song Hong in the North and the Mekong to the South. Rice, coffee and rubber are the main crops with reserves of coal, anthracite, lignite, tin, iron ore and extensive rainforests beginning to be developed. The climate is monsoonal with moderate rainfall. The capital city is Hanoi with other major cities including Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Hué, Rach Gia, Nha Trang and Haiphong.

Stay tuned for more on the trip…

Sunday 1 August 2010


“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” - Thomas Campbell

Being Movie Monday today, I shall once again review a film that we watched recently. This was a curious film that came highly recommended by a friend of ours and which starred that darling of French cinemagoers, Charlotte Rampling. She was born in Sturmer, England, in 1946. The daughter of a British Colonel who became a NATO commander and a painter, she was educated at Jeanne d’Arc Académie pour Jeunes Filles in Versailles, France and at the exclusive St. Hilda’s school in Bushley, England. She was a model before entering films in 1965. Since then she has had numerous film roles in British and American films, but especially so in Continental ones. In 1995 she was chosen by Empire magazine as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in film history.

The film was François Ozon’s 2000 “Sous Le Sable” (Under the Sand). It is an intense, but slowly moving film, building up to a crescendo little by little like a Rossini overture. Rampling plays Marie, an English literature lecturer in a Paris university, who is seemingly happily married to Jean (Bruno Cremer) for 25 years. They have no children. They begin their usual summer vacations in the southwest of France and soon after they arrive there they decide to go to the beach. Jean leaves Marie sunbathing on the beach and goes to swim in the sea. When Marie suddenly looks at the time and realizes how long her husband is gone she looks for him, but she cannot find Jean. Has he committed suicide? Drowned? Left her? With no clue and no body to mourn over, Marie reports the disappearance to the police but continues her life, acting as though her husband were still alive. As the weeks pass, her friends try to get her to snap out of her idée fixe and even introduce Vincent (Jacques Nolot) to her who is an eligible bachelor.

This film is not for those who desire action and car chases, cops and robbers or superhero stunts. It is a quiet meditative study on a woman’s fragile psychological state following a crisis in her life. Rampling gives a magnificent performance mostly acting with her facial expressions, her gestures, her body language. What remains unsaid in the fim, or what is hinted at is important for us as we are then able to decide what actually has happened on the beach. Rampling is ably supported by the rest of the small cast. She manages to convey Marie’s initial bafflement and subsequent denial believably and with conviction. As she begins to see Vincent her awakening erotic fantasies and guilt begin to intrude into her coping mechanisms and she comes close to becoming mentally unstable.

The confrontation with Suzanne, Jean’s elderly mother (played wonderfully by veteran actress Andrée Tainsy) helps Marie to sort out her life and accept Jean’s disappearance – or does she? The mysterious last scene of the movie back at the beach where Jean disappeared is one that leaves the viewer of the film puzzled, but also free to choose the ending that he/she desires. The strange man on the beach could be there or he could not. He could be anyone: Jean, Vincent, the Lifeguard or even a stranger. Marie’s frenetic but erratic run towards the man is puzzling as she seems to run past him in the end, or does she?

This is a film that will appeal to those who wish to watch an intellectually stimulating film and who enjoy good performances. It is one that contains some nudity and sex scenes (in true French cinema style…), however, these were not offensive, but rather tastefully shown and certainly part of the story, highlighting Marie’s shifting frames of reference. The movie is available on DVD and I fortuitously found it in the sale bin of our video store for a paltry price.


“The trouble about man is twofold.  He cannot learn truths which are too complicated; he forgets truths which are too simple.” - Rebecca West

Last time I was in Brisbane I caught the exhibition of Ron Mueck’s sculptures. Mueck (born 1958) is an Australian who works in the UK and creates hyperrealistic sculpture using modern materials. He started as a puppeteer and model maker for television and films, his work for the film “Labyrinth” being the most notable. He has had no formal art training and his sculptures grew out of his work in film.

Mueck’s sculptures are hard to ignore. The scale ranges from the gigantic to the pygmy size, but life-sized figures are notably absent. The sculptor says: “I never made life-size figures because it never seemed to be interesting. We meet life-size people every day.” The technique he uses relies on chicken wire armatures covered in plaster and clay, over which are painted layers of coloured polyester resin. He also uses silicone, real and artificial hair and fur. Hairs, nails and other details are then added to give an amazingly realistic appearance to the figures.

Looking at a Mueck sculpture one is firstly awed by the sheer scale of the enormous figures, or intrigued by the amazing detail of the small figures. Secondly, there is an element of confrontation – you have to make your mind up about them very quickly. Most people like them or hate them immediately. Many people find the sculptures threatening or creepy. I did not dislike them, but would not go out of my way to acquire one, if I had the money to do so.

There is a message inherent in sculpture such as Mueck’s. The greatly realistic appearance of the sculptures forces the observer to develop a “relationship” with the figures, although their disparity in scale creates a tension and a belligerence that demands attention. The nakedness of many of his sculptures is also something that shocks many viewers and the ordinary appearance of real people that mirrors most of us has an effect that invites the viewer’s self examination and introspection.

Mueck’s art is approachable, confronting, hard to ignore. It shocks many and invites comparisons. It is the art of controversy and popularity, easily absorbed into mass culture and marketability. However, it does ask some probing questions, the most important one that it generated for me being: “What does it mean to be human?”