Archive for May, 2008

An Unlikely Pilgrimage: La Vang, Central Vietnam

May 27th, 2008

I KNEW I was in for a bit of an adventure when even the locals did not know where we’re heading. “La …Vang?” the puzzled look on Tran, a well-mannered hotel executive in Hanoi said it all.

A friend had invited me to join her on a pilgrimage to Vietnam. Not one to refuse an unusual offer, I said yes.

I’ve heard of popular Catholic pilgrimages to Lourdes in France or Fatima in Portugal, but a pilgrimage to La Vang in communist Vietnam? The idea was tantalizing enough to pique my interest.

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The quirkiness of the email from our tour guides got me even more curious.

“We’re very happy to meet you at Hue Airport. We both are old, have white hair, wear glasses, put on light blue shirts and black hats. These are our features by which you may recognise us at the airport. Now would you give us your features: dress, hat, and so on…May God Bless you in your travelling tour.”

Basilica of La Vang, VietnamNow if your idea of a pilgrimage were about visiting grand basilicas and religious monuments, buying religious souvenirs and soaking in the atmospheric presence of thousands of fervent pilgrims, you would be sorely disappointed.

La Vang was really quiet on non feast days. I saw less than a dozen local pilgrims at the marian shrine. A family of four recited the rosary in Vietnamese; a young couple lit candles at the shrine.

Only a war-battered steeple and front edifice of Our Lady of La Vang Basilica were left standing. The basilica was destroyed by a bomb during the war between the North and South Vietnam in 1972. Government authorities have yet to grant the Catholic Archdiocese of Hue permission to restore the basilica.

La Vang does not have the usual facilities for foreign pilgrims.

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There are no tourist hotels, fanciful restaurants, tour buses. You may have your meals (homecooked Vietnamese fare) at any of the two local restaurants and buy religious souvenirs from a few token shops.

For a night’s stay, you might be able to get a bed in the spartan but clean dormitories for pilgrims at the Catholic La Vang Pilgrimage Center. Or just spend the day in La Vang and head back to your hotel in Hue.

On major feast days, La Vang, the national shrine for Vietnamese Catholics in and outside the country, would be packed with tens of thousands of local pilgrims.

Our Lady of La Vang Marian shrineThe Marian shrine in La Vang was a grim reminder of the communist persecution of Vietnamese Catholics from 1798 to 1886 where 117,000 Christians were killed. Many from the nearby Quang Tri village fled to the deeply forested jungles of La Vang. The Virgin Mary appeared to the Catholics praying at the huge banyan tree in the jungle and promised to heal them and answer their prayers. She told them to brew a tea from the leaves of a fern the jungle for the sick.

In 1802, a chapel was built at the apparition site. In 1962, Pope John XXIII declared the church a Minor Basilica of La Vang.

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Empty of touristy facilities, you could spend a quiet day without distraction at the Marian shrine. Or wander about the nearby village and buy souvenir momentos from a small shop run by Catholic nuns. After the walk, have a cup of the special La Vang tea in the local restaurant.

Be sure to carry an umbrella or stick with you to ward off stray dogs.

And stay away from the swarm of extremely persistent child and elderly beggars. Give them some spare change and a while later, they’ll come after you again.

Getting there

Well, you either drive there yourself or book a cab for a day trip to La Vang. The Marian shrine is 60 km from Hue.

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Travel Across Afghanistan On Foot

May 20th, 2008

THE lack of budget shouldn’t stop anyone from travelling anywhere around the world. You can travel to far flung places without ever setting foot in the country. I spent two absorbing weeks “travelling” on foot across central Afghanistan, from the city of Herat on the west to the capital, Kabul on the east.

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I “travessed” through mountains covered in deep snow, slept in mud houses in villages with no electricity, televison or flush toilets, explored 14th century medieval forts and ruins. And along the way, met hospitable villagers and suspicious Afghan tribal elders, heroes and gun-trotting teenage soldiers.

I came home unscathed of course because I never left home in the first place and I didn’t even set foot on Afghan soil.

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I encountered the Tajiks, Aimaqs, Ghorids or the Hazaras through the eyes of a nutty Scottish guy by the name of Rory Stewart. He’s a self-styled historian who decided one day to walk across war-wary Afghanistan. Now, this crazy Scot is a prolific walker. He spent 16 months walking across Iran, Pakistan, Iran and Nepal in his earlier life.

Of the many non-fiction books I’ve read, Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between ranks very highly on my recommended list of travel books you must read in one’s lifetime. Click on the left image for some quick book reviews.

Reading great travel tales by insipid travellers is the safest way to see war zone countries without getting killed, burnt or maimed.

this is my older edition of the well-thumbed book…

Afghanistan travel book by Rory Stewart

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The Places In Between is an extraordinary brave travel journey and a wonderful, absorbing travel tale of a resilent people, the Afghans.

Get the book.

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US Democratic Presidential Nomination: The More Likeable Choice

May 17th, 2008

FOR months, I’ve been hooked on US election news, more specifically, the Clinton-Obama fight for the Democratic Presidential nomination. But of late, my interest has waned considerably. And I didn’t even remember checking my RSS feeds on the latest poll results.

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The bitter infighting has dragged the Democratic Presidential race to exhaustion.

All that needs to be reported has been reported. I think I’ve had had enough of the “Is the US election about race or gender?,” “Is the US ready for a Black or a woman president?,” “Will the nutty Reverend Wright ruin Obama’s nomination chances?”, “Is Obama Muslim?” – and finally, finally, the most dreadful one – “Who is more electable?

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The contenders: Barack Obama – the charismatic artist and great speech maker

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Hilary Clinton – the hard-nosed pragmatist who said she’s ready on day one to fix the economy.

I like to make my decision-making simple.

If you were eligible to vote (which I am not), would you choose a thin or a padded resume, a Cafe Latte or a beer? Not convincingly enough?

I’ve another yardstick for a decisive vote: Likeability.

Now, likeability is a major factor in the many choices we make in our lives. You choose the person you like to be your spouse. You choose people you like to be your best friend, soulmate, insurance agent, hair stylist, travelling mate, and of course, you only bring home the dog you like from SPCA.

So if I were to vote, I would choose the one who is more likeable and who can inspire hope.

A Cafe Latte, anyone?

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Fusion Food, Macanese style

May 16th, 2008

Portugese Dish

THINK fusion when you dine at Nga Tim Cafe, one of the “must go” dining institutions in Macao. When I was in Macao recently, I had lunch at the cafe and ordered a Portugese style pan-fried garoupa dish from the menu. The dish came as chunky sizes of fish and surprise, surprise – thin slices of dried Chinese sausage or lap cheong. Preserved Chinese sausage in a Portugese dish? An interesting fusion touch. But too bad, the lap cheong was a tad too salty and fatty. I didn’t finish it.

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Adding color and fibre to the dish were slices of green pepper, tomatoes and fried onion strips. I found the generous slices of garoupa succulently fresh and chewy.

But Nga Tim Cafe had a different kind of appeal for me. Its odd, eclectic decor was an amusing conversation starter. You know how laid back and carefree the place was from the old Christmas trimmings that still strung across the ceiling. On the wall, a pin-up calendar of Chinese opera singers looked menacingly over hungry diners. And for some unknown reason, huge swaths of white cloth were wrapped around the trunks of the two gigantic banyan trees that stood on the site of the cafe. The irreverent mix of decorative styles gave the cafe a quirky, off beat charm.

I like the ‘anything goes’ kind of spirit of the place. On a hot afternoon, Cafe Nga Tim is an affordable place for shade, an iced cold local milk tea and a view of the Coloane village square.

Getting there
8 Rua Caetano, Largo do Sao Xavier
Macau

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Cobbled Street Art of Macao

May 15th, 2008

COBBLED streets are uneven and uncomfortable for walking but a curious traveller knows they usually lead to somewhere old, somewhere historical and interesting. Think of the cobbled piazzas in Florence and the stone paths leading to the Uffizi Museum in Florence.

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My most recent escapade was closer to home – the old Portugese quarter of Macao which was a maze of cobbled streets and quaint side lanes dating as far back as the 16th century.

I found myself looking not up at the destination the ancient steps were leading me, but looking down at the fascinating cobbled street art underneath my soles. See how stones of varying sizes were forged to form an enduring work of street art.

Here is one of them:

cobbled streets of macao

Not fascinated with stones? Walking barefoot on uneven cobbled stones is good for the feet. Stimulate the feet’s accupressure points, health experts say.

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Five Other Things To Do In Macao

May 14th, 2008

FORGET the glitzy casinos when you’re in Macao. If you’re in Macao during this time, the new casino belt in Taipa is a mega construction site. Instead of throwing your year’s salary to a game of chance in the casino city, discover the gentler side of Macao with this self-guided tour.

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Five Other Things To Do In Macao

Hop on a bus tour to Hac Sa Beach

This is a self-guided sightseeing tour. Hop onto bus 26A from bus stops along Av de Almeido Ribeira on the main Macao island. Make sure you board the bus going towards Coloane island. For five MOP (Macao Pataca) dollars or less than US$1.25, you get to see the sights of Macao and Coloane in air conditioned comfort. The bus takes you on a 50-minute ride to the last stop – the famous Hac Sa Beach (‘black sand beach’).

Tour of old Portugese Churches

Don’t just stop at the ruins of the iconic St Paul’s Cathedral. The Old Quarter of Macao is littered with old Portugese churches which are still a draw for the 22,000-strong Macanese Catholics. Explore the cobbled streets and look for the Church of St Augustine, Church of St Lawrence, and the Macao Cathedral.

Stroll Around Coloane Village

Church of St Francis Xavier
No visit to Macao is complete without a stopover at the Lord Stow’s Portugese Egg Tart shop and a visit to the mustard-colored and baroque-styled Church of St Francis Xavier in Coloane Village. Bus No 26 plies between the centre of town and Coloane with stops to board at Av de Almeido Ribeira, Hotel Lisboa and New Century Hotel.

Soak in the history at Macao Museum

This is a delightful boutique museum perched on a hill opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. Sensitively restored, the interactive museum makes history fun. Try the interactive exhibits depicting the old Macanese way of life. The sights and sounds of traditional hawkers and firecracker makers come alive with the press of a button!

Delight in Street Cafe Culture

Brand name cafes have yet to invade Macao. There is only one solitary Starbucks cafe near Senado Square in the heart of town. Join the locals for coffee, milk tea and snacks at homegrown joints such as Cafe Eskimo or the Singing Cafe.

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Go Island Hopping in Hong Kong

May 13th, 2008

Cheung Chau island, Hong Kong
GET away from the teaming, madding (shopping) crowd and see a different side of HongKong by taking a ferry to one of the outlying islands – which was what I did during my recent trip to Hong Kong. For just over HKG 17, I boarded a ferry to Cheung Chau island and spent a relaxing, stress free day there.

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You know a vibrant fishing population still thrives on Cheung Chau island judging from the assortment of fishing boats parked at the ferry terminal. It gave the island a rustic, nostalgic feel.

The island is a haven for walkers.

There are no cars or buses on the narrow streets. It is but a small island so you can easily walk to the beach, take a dip in the sea, or hide under the shade of a seafront restaurant and nurse a iced cold milk tea. Or, explore life on the island by getting lost in the maze of homely streets.

I got lost and found myself at the Our Lady of Fatima Catholic church adjacent to a mission school. I was briefly entertained by kindergartern kids rehearsing their song and dance steps in the small church.

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For those yearning for an energetic workout, take a walk along the beach, pass the tallest hotel on the island and take the winding road to the Salesian Retreat Center for a panoramic view of the sea and island. The walk took about 40 mins. The friendly receptionist, Mdm Mok, told me that the hilltop retreat house is very popular with groups on retreat during the weekends.

Feeling hungry after the hike around the island? A Cheung Chau native told me the island was famous for its yu dan min or fish ball noodles (look for Cheong Kei, walk towards the right away from the ferry terminal) and dim sum (look for hiong shi hoi restaurant, walk towards the left away from the ferry terminal).

My friend and I had delicious dim sum for only HKG99, inclusive of a plate of stir fried vegetables. You picked what you wanted from the stacks of steaming hot dim sum displayed on the sidewalk, self-service style. No frills, no fuss.

To get to Cheung Chau island, take the MTR to Central and look for Pier 5. Opt for the slow ferry and the 50-minute scenic ride. The fast ferry shortens the travelling time to 30 minutes.

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Food Review: Fernando’s Macao – What A Letdown!

May 13th, 2008

ALWAYS GO where the crowds are for good food, but it turned out to be a major culinary letdown for me and a friend recently.

We’re in Macao for a holiday and we’ve read superlative reviews about Portugese restaurant, Fernando’s on Hac Sa beach. Never mind the scruffy surroundings or the indifferent customer service, the reviewer said, the food alone was good enough to justify the long wait and discomfort. So eagerly, we set off for our culinary adventure. It took us 50 minutes to bus from Macao Island to Hac Sa Beach.

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After a customary wait of 20 minutes, we were finally shown our seats behind the cashier. A grim faced Portugese waiter came to take our order. We asked for his recommendations. He looked preoccupied and didn’t offer any. Seeing that he wasn’t going to say anything helpful, we quickly settled for a Portugese classic – grilled codfish.

Fifteen minutes later, the highly-rated dish was served.

The Portugese classic was the saltiest cod fish I have ever tasted. The saltiness was so deadly that it numbed my taste buds. It was like biting into a thick clump of salt. Our meal would have been impossible to eat if not for the two slices of bread and broiled potatoes which helped to neutralize the saltiness a little. I suspected the chef must have been over zealous with his salt toppings.

It tasted so bad that I just had to risk offending the grouchy owner, Mr Fernando.

“All cod fish is salted fish,” he said, grudgingly.

“You mean, it’s supposed to taste like ‘hum yu’ (meaning preserved salted fish in Cantonese)?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Fernando abruptly, as he walked away in a huff. Business is so good that he has no reason to bother with unhappy customers.

Now, what he said was a new culinary discovery – I never knew that cod fish was supposed to taste like preserved salted fish.

For MOP/HKG 190, it’s an awfully expensive meal for preserved salted fish, even if it included two slices of bread, one broiled potato and a bowl of soup.

On hindsight, we should have be forewarned by the local taxi driver’s indifference to Fernando’s. On our way to Fernando’s, we asked the cab driver what’s so good about the restaurant. He thought for a while.

“The bread. They make their own bread,” he said.

“Anything else?” I pressed.

“…the bread, the bread is good,” he reiterated in Cantonese and continued driving.

Fernando’s Macao? I shall take heed from the locals and give it a miss the next time I visit Macao.

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Love at First Bite – Lord Stow’s Portugese Egg Tarts

May 13th, 2008

portugese egg tart
IT WAS love at first bite when I sank my teeth into the crispy pastry crust filled with a crème brûlée-like egg custard that literally melts in your mouth. The Lord Stow’s Portugese-style Egg Tart was simply divine. I had my first bite of this famous chain of egg tarts during a recent trip to Macao in May 2008. I’ve read claims about it being the “best in the world.”

Well, you never know unless you try it.

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My verdict? Yes, it tops all the other versions of egg tarts I’ve ever tasted. It tastes so goooood.

Reason? The caramelized glaze on the surface of the egg tart gave it a distinctive aroma and taste – that lingered to tease your tastebuds long after the first bite. And the pastry crust was of the right thickness. You don’t need to chew through a thick chunk of pastry to get to the delicious custard filling.

A box of six of the Lord Stow’s Portugese egg tarts cost MOP/HKG 40. I finished two boxes in two days!

Getting there:

Lord Stow’s Portugese Egg Tarts
1 Rua da Tassara
Coloane Village
Coloane Island

Bus 26A will take you there. Take the bus from Av de Almeido Ribeira, Macao Island. This is a major road fronting the Senado Square so you can’t miss it. Or, grab a taxi. Beware though, it’s terribly difficult to get a cab out of Coloane Village. Call for a cab.

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