96 HOURS

HOCHIMINH, 40 HOURS : HONGKONG, 8 HOURS : MACAU AND A WEDDING

Saigon is now HoChihMinh and was the old capital of North Vietnam. Hanoi is now the capital of Vietnam since 1975 when the North and South reunited. The Chinese were in Vietnam from the first to the 10th century, almost 1000 years while the French governed Vietnam for a hundred years and were forced out in 1954 after Dien Bien Phu fell; and the Americans were occupiers for the duration of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1973 after 10 years of conflict.

PRESENT VIETNAM

In Vietnam when one talks about HoChihMinh it is understood that one refers to the City since Ho Chih Minh, the man is simply referred to as Uncle Ho Whereas Uncle Sam is a symbolic poster figure that materialized during WWII Uncle Ho to the Vietnamese is the father and founder of modern Vietnam; the use of Uncle is a sign of respect and endearment to the point of veneration. The flag of Vietnam has one large central yellow star against a full red background, the star represents Ho Chih Minh or the country as one nation; and the red color represents courage and fortune. Henry Kissinger, while still State Secretary and was in intense negotiation during his shuttle diplomacy to end the war called Ho Chih Minh a true patriot and one of five world figures that he most deeply revered.

HoChihMinh is said to be manifestly more cosmopolitan than Hanoi. Unlike Hanoi, much of the city escaped devastation of the last war, and since much of the city is built after 1990 when the country’s economy started to move, the city gives the impression of newness; the city does not have the physical scars of a war not too long ago. For instance left unscathed is the Basilica of Notre Dame, the only existing Catholic Church in the central city and the main Old Post Office which is a block away, The points of interest that is the main historical structures and edifices in the city are within walking distance of each other and are doable in two days by walk tours. There are three inhibiting factors however, the prevailing oppressive heat and humidity (at the time of our visit), the language wall outside one’s hotel and the motorbikes phenomenon. We experienced all three.

The Motorbikes

The motorbikes are a dynamic signature of present HoChihMinh, because of their sheer number and how they are ridden as the main source of transportation. Ten percent of the 85 million population of Vietnam or 8.5 million live in HoChihMInh and 4 million of these urban residents own and ride a motorbike. Every Renaissance Hotel waitstaff and personnel that I spoke goes to work using a motorbike. The sidewalks across the hotel and elsewhere are used as motorbike parking lots. The hotel management pays for the monthly parking fees for its employees as part of fringe benefits; this amounts to 20,000 dongs per motorbike. A dollar is equal to 16,000 plus dongs, so roughly $1.25 per month per bike.

The motorbike is a hybrid between a motorcycle and a bicycle. The tires are narrower than those of a motorcycle, the bar handles, body and the rest of the motorbike smaller and lighter. The lead manufacturers of this postwar phenomenon are from Japan, Taiwan, China and also Indonesia. The price ranges from $1000 to $2000 and those made in China sell at the lower range. Honda predominates the models from Japan and befittingly so, since Honda, the founder, who was illiterate at the time and who passed away several years ago, made motorized bicycles after the WWII to help alleviate the dire need for transport. Later Honda moved on to manufacture cars. Harley Davidson or a Duccati motorcycles are nowhere to be seen as these are priced beyond the reach of local users.

In a three lane street the motorbike riders often hug two lanes and the cars one lane. The motorbikes do weave in and out from their lanes and are incredibly intrepid; they do not respect the space of the cars nor the pedestrians. The cars and even taxis seem to be afraid to venture onto their lanes. When the motorbikes come in cohorts, they attack traffic like swarms of bees not with the usual bbzzzzzzz bzzzz buzz but with interrupted discordant brrrrrrppp brrrp bbbrrppp sounds. At nighttime from our hotel windows we see them as a confluence of restless fireflies, with a few swerving in and out of the groups. While watching these clusters of lights in flux against the night, one momentarily forgets that these are actually man-ridden.

The most riders in one motorbike I have seen is four; a young son standing in front of the father,, the father controlling the bar handles, a younger sister and the mother behind, in that order. An Australian tourist told me she has seen five. On a weekend evening, it is obvious from the pairs of young men and women astride together and small families riding together that the motorbike is the convenient vehicle for a date or a family night out. A baby cuddled in the arms of a mother astride behind the father is not an infrequent picture of togetherness. Control of the bar handles is not gender dictated, still it seemed male riders predominate 6 to 4.

What I find astonishing is despite the 4 million bike riders, only a handful out of a few hundred on the rode wear helmets. Apparently in the city a helmet is not mandated by law, but yes, outside the city it is; presumably because the speed limits in the country side are more relaxed. It is not that the Vietnamese are not health concerned; I believe they are, as witnessed by a majority of riders wearing some cloth masks over their face, to obviate the direct inhalation of the farted fumes from other motorbikes or cars. The helmet, I guess to their way of thinking is an issue that is more remote, unlike the fumes which are constantly inhaled. Yet 11-12 motorbike accidents are reported each day of the week. These exclude the ones not recorded at hospital emergency rooms. Legislation for helmets is being bandied while liability insurance is required. (Paging, paging some Washington lobbyists.)

The preceding dovetails with my chance conversation with a forty-something gentleman at breakfast, who I mistook to be Vietnamese, but turned out to be Japanese based in Bangkok, Thailand; works for PPB (Pittsburgh Paint and Brush Co.) from Pittsburgh; Pa, , and sells paints and oddly enough specialized in motorbike paints to countries where there are myriads of motorbikes, like Vietnam. I said to myself now that job makes a lot of sense. Helmet makers must be drooling.

I asked many hotel staff how come they do not use buses which are available. They all said the buses are inefficient and slow because of traffic; but they may be forgetting that they are the large cause of traffic. The motorbike is now ingrained into their transportation system. I wonder how this would be extricated when many of the same riders eventually can buy cars and how will the traffic be like then?

At the boulevards and wider avenues, there are invariably men in green suited uniforms at every corner who actually escort pedestrians to cross. This courtesy is not rendered to all pedestrians; these escort officers are keen to profile tourists, who are usually tentative or overly cautious in their moves to cross the streets. The officers hail cars to slow down or stop, help pedestrians to cross and are always courteous. My initial New York mind set is that they worked for tips, but I am mistaken obviously.

A Language Wall

The Vietnamese language written or spoken is all its own. It is a very difficult language to learn period. It has no semblance to Chinese or French but somehow uses Roman alphabets in its writing. It is those little different markers, on top or under a letter, which likely modify the inflection, pronunciation or meaning of the word that further makes the language ever so inscrutable. I took home with me one new word ao dai the national dress for women. Listen to this, it is pronounced ow say. Nguyen, a common surname is Winn; My Lai is Miya Li.(short i).

The staff behind the hotel registration desk namely the cashier, registration attendant and concierge speak English as well as the waitstaff and bartenders. As you move down to the bellhops and doormen the use of English diminishes. If you go out of the door, the cab drivers and the person out in the streets it is gone. Outside the hotel there is this language wall which is practically impenetrable. This reminds me of Tokyo circa 1963 to 1965, my first and second visit to that city.

Thus our first evening in Vietnam is a comedy of chaos when we went in search of Nam Phan Restaurant which was recommended by our tour guide as an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, inexpensive and caters mostly to locals. These are enough credentials for a restaurant to be tried. The restaurant is about 35,000 dongs away or just over $2 from our hotel. Armed with the name and coordinates of the restaurant on a piece of paper courtesy of the guide, I made sure to the doorman that the cab driver knew exactly our destination. Milan and I sat relaxed are half enjoying (remember we are a bit tired from the city tour this morning) the unfamiliar night city escape, lights, stores, late shoppers, traffic, buildings and the fascinating motorbikes and their riders for almost 20 minutes.

I suspected our driver spoke no English because I asked him a basic question earlier and he replied with a smile; so I kept quiet except for occasional remarks to Milan. However, in error I remarked that I thought we just missed the restaurant which is to my right, (the guide showed us where it was earlier) and our driver quickly stopped; he took this that we wanted to be dropped off there and then. I tried to correct my mistake by pointing down at my piece of paper with the restaurant name and he kept pointing it is farther up, I gesticulated repeatedly in my manual Italian that I did understand and that he please proceed. This went on for several minutes; he turned off the tariff meter and pointed to it for his fare. Since it is of no avail I gave him 30,000 dongs for the 27,000 dong-ride and asked him one more time to turn on the meter and proceed as if this were a fresh ride. We did an immediate déjà vu with me pointing at my piece of paper and he pointing to the direction of the restaurant. No matter how hard I tried, I just could not penetrate the language wall, so in frustration we got off, thinking that the restaurant is nearby. This is a mistake. Incidentally overall he still is a nice guy. Small wonder it took the Vietnam War peace negotiators months to come up and agree on the final circular configuration of the conference table that was used during the negotiation.

The restaurant is 41/2 blocks farther up. We must have stopped six times to ask for directions because we felt uncomfortable; segments of the sidewalks are not lit. True enough the restaurant is known to the locals but their sense of distance varied a little from yours or mine. We stopped at a police station, where five young policemen suddenly materialized, all eager to come to our rescue, but none spoke English, The direction was the same, it is farther down but there is also to be a slight turn, not taken into account earlier; and this time one policeman drew it on a piece of paper. Prior to this, there is this one man as if to be emphatic pointed the direction using the full length of his arms in a karate-chop-liked position and barked some instructions in his language. Another run from across the street when he saw we are getting nowhere with a couple we stopped. Anyway after 30 minutes we made it to the restaurant which is another story; still everyone is very nice.

I showed the young lady in the elegant pink Ao Dai my piece of paper and she nodded we are at the right place. The restaurant is an old white mansion with black trimmings and pagoda motif architecture. We opted to dine upstairs where there is air-condition. We ordered a large bottle of Tiger beer, since there was no wine, and three dishes, shark fin soup with crab meat and shitake mushroom, somewhat unusual Milan quipped, sautéed eel and a steamed local fish with ginger, scallion and black bean sauce. It took a while for the orders to come, because of a birthday party at the larger dining room. Milan remarked that our dishes are all Chinese, but I assured her these are Vietnamese versions.

Back to the Hotel

Given the difficulties just experienced, we asked the lady in pink who first greeted us to get us a head start on our transportation back after we are done eating. The shark fin soup is excellent despite the shitake but the tiny slivers of eel are too well done and lost their sweet taste. At this time the pink lady came back smiling, telling us that our cab is waiting. I indicated to her that we are still in the middle of our dinner. I motioned her to release the cab and gave her this time a piece of paper with the handwritten name of our hotel for assurance. We waited at least another 15 minutes for the steamed fish. This never came because the waitress took it upon herself to cancel the dish since in her mind, we already ordered two high premium dishes and the fish in addition would be too much. While all this is happening our pink lady came back and told us that nobody knows Renaissance Hotel.

Unable to convince her to use the phone directory, I asked for the bespectacled young man, possibly the captain, who spoke some English to me on my way to the restroom. I explained our dilemma and he indicated he knows the hotel. When we got the check, despite being billed for the peanuts which we did not order, and the towels which we did not need, I did not complain but instead asked him to hail us a cab. He and the pink lady went out of their way to the streets to hail down one. After nods and apparent yeses back and forth between our man and the cab driver we got into the cab. Twenty minutes and 34,000 dongs later our driver pointed us to our hotel and opened my side door which he internally controlled. It is the wrong hotel!

Now what? Failing to understand my instructions that he ask the wrong hotel lobby staff for further direction I fumbled for the piece of paper with the hotel’s name and hoped he will look up the number and call. I hesitated to go down; because he may take it, as yes this is our hotel. He made a cell call, talked briefly and handed me the phone. The voice on the other line asked if I were on his tour that afternoon. It was our tour guide who presciently wrote down on the same piece of paper his cell number in case I needed help. Sixteen minutes and an additional 15,000 dongs later we ar happily in front of our hotel. Milan concluded: no more dinners outside of the hotel; that is our first night in HoChihMinh.

Heat and Humidity

A minor third deterrent for a City walk is probably the weather at this time of the year. The days are hot, sometime sweltering, if it did not rain; even if it did rain they are still hot and humid. I am told that October up to February is the best months to be in Vietnam. Pedestrians use umbrellas if the sun is too hot, (parasol) and when it rains, (paraguas.) This is also seen in South America as well, hence the existence of two different Spanish words for umbrella. For me, the weather is probably the least deterrent; without the first two I can ignore the last. Incidentally the motorbike riders are not deterred by rains; they wear colorful rain covers from the neck down similar to a partially opened Shirley Temple cocktail umbrella.

THE NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL

The Notre Dame Cathedral is the first Church built by the French in the Far East in 1884 and is the only Catholic Church in central HoChihMinh. That Saturday we participated in our first trilingual Mass celebration. The Mass is in Latin except for the homily which was in English interleaved with Vietnamese; the hymns are in Latin and Vietnamese. The pews, probably not the original do not have kneeling sections and there is no air-condition. The Church is modeled after the Cathedral in Paris, but it is narrower, the bricks are of a different variety and the Gothic roof wanted in the rich Tiffany glass paintings seen in the original.

It is notable that the Church is packed despite the heat and humidity. I guess this is what happens in a monopoly. There are many young children, but none whined, cried, instigated fights, and none bothered their parents who went through the one hour mass in peace. Prior to the mass, outside the church I saw four separate sets of brides and grooms doing photo shoots. Apparently this is not uncommon on a weekend. Once more, monopoly.

Old Central Post Office

Like the Cathedral, the Central Post Office which faces a side of the Cathedral is untouched by the war. It is a large one story edifice with beautiful Old French Colonial architecture built eight years after the Cathedral was completed. It is still used as a Post Office. Aside from the stamp tellers there are other vendors minding their souvenir and local produce stands.

The Reunification Palace

The Palace of Reunification has had its moments in history as chronicled by its changing names, each reflected a particular chapter in Vietnam’s many long struggles against foreign powers. Although the Chinese were in Vietnam for about

1000 years, it is the French who built the palace as the residence of the Governor General in 1868 and is initially called Norodom Palace. At all times it was the designated residence of the ruler of the time, and therefore the seat of power.

In 1945 the Japanese occupied it briefly and the French reclaimed it at the end of

WWII. In 1954 after the fall of Dien Bien Phu it became the palace residence of Ngo Dinh Diem and his family and renamed it Palace of Independence. In 1962 it was bombed by two liberation AD6 planes led by Ngo Pham Phu Quoc. It was leveled by Ngo Dinh Diem, the Prime Minister since it was not restorable. Ngo Viet Thu was the architect of the current building. Ngo Din Diem commissioned its rebuilding, but ironically he and his family never lived there, because he was assassinated along with his brother courtesy of the CIA that November. Nguyen Van Thieu, the mustachioed Captain Marvel that our government backed but considered by the Vietnamese as a totally corrupt traitor was the longest resident from 1967 to 1975.

It is renamed The Reunification Palace in 1975 when Ho Chi Minh the liberator, planted the new flag of the Republic of Vietnam on the roof of the palace replacing the three striped one and thus the unification of the North and the South took place, The Palace sat in a huge piece of real estate, it was large, and the various receiving high-ceilinged rooms were large as well but not warm or inviting. This was true of most palaces I guess. The red color which seemed to be everywhere in the rooms can be striking but was overused. There was really very little to say about the architecture. True the front garden was well kept. What I found impressive were the two tanks of the liberation army, permanently parked in the front lawn on the right to the. Liberation Tank 843 struck a side auxiliary gate while Tank 390 got through one of the two main gates but neither reached the palace.

War Remnant Museum

For those injured by the Vietnam War or remain sensitive to the issues that surrounded it, this section may be better skipped. I found this particular section most trying to put into words. Once in Vietnam however, there is no way to escape the issue, not with the locals or tourists but actually with oneself. There is the pull to see the museum and there is a push not to, we opted to visit.

Some data presented: “Three million Vietnamese were killed,(among them 2 million civilians), 2 million people injured, and 300,000 peoples missed (sic),”( missing and unaccounted to date.)“Over 2 million hectares of forests and agricultural lands were destroyed by chemicals” are accompanied by photos previously published by international papers. There are 134 war reporters killed from eleven nations during the Vietnam War and who have left a legacy through their large body of works; photos are exhibited in the museum. “During the Vietnam War, the USA used 14 million tons of bombs and shells (20 times more than used in the Korean War, and 7 times that used in WWII) more than 70 million liters of toxic chemicals, inclusive of 44 millions liters of Orange Agent. BLU 82 Seismic bombs that destroy everything within a radius of 100m and CBU 55B bomb lethal within a radius of 500m were used. The United States lost about 60,000 lives in the war.

There is a group that is angry, bitter and unforgiving, (Probably small because two layers of generations have been peeled off by time.) There is a group that accepts and is resigned to the writings of history. (Possibly a third.) There is the third group who wants to let go and move onward to the future. In time the last always prevails. I danced around the issue for a while but later asked the guide how he feels. He is in his thirties born just after the War and he said he is in the third camp. Perhaps that was what he thinks I want to hear, but his kinesics says otherwise.

At the museum foregrounds are guerre materiel either captured or abandoned on display. Tanks, small war planes, helicopters (reminiscent of MASH), unexploded bombs, and a variety of weaponry are exhibited.

After such a visit, unfortunately the ugly graphic horrifics of war persists to scorch ones soul. There is the young Viet Cong a quadruple amputee survivor, not from land mines or bombs but the result of methodical partial serial amputations of his limbs as part of an interrogation process. The guillotine, blade still shiny, but the wood contraption that holds it shows its age and use is displayed in a stark room. Next to it is a large loosely rectangular basket used as a temporary depository of the heads harvested. This particular guillotine, undoubtedly a legacy of the French traveled considerably to countless villages during the Ngo rule to rid the villages of dissenters and insurgents. Even Mr. Guillotine I do not think intended his killing machine to travel such distances to carry out its purpose.

The Tiger cage and the torture equipment used are beyond belief. To make the point more poignant, the cage can be viewed at eye level as well as from atop the perch of an eagle. A torture consisting of the partial shaving of the head of a suspect, tie him down to unable him to move any body part and let a drop of water hit the shaved patch continuously from a height is said to elicit the most excruciating of pain, each drop feels like a ton of steel when it hits the same shaved spot. A round bamboo wheel when turned is used to stretch the body and limbs of a tied down suspect in every direction.

There are photos of My Lai, showing bodies of children, women, and old people slaughtered from the village; a South Vietnamese General (?Giap) using his revolver executing a VC suspect, ( now this executor is a successful restaurateur in Washington DC), the little naked crying girl running in fear in a napalm bombing, that even Munch’s Scream pales next to it; (the victim is now a peace activist in Washington DC) she wears the badge of that event in the form of scars covering most of her body; photos of endless hectares of land rendered useless by toxic chemicals by carpet bombing; the children on their fours now adults born of parents who suffered Agent Orange; even Dali’s surrealism does not capture these living human relics of anomalies of man’s inhumanity. The list can go on but let me stop with the colorful uplifting drawings of the children who painted hope and peace as if they were something tangible.

The same people who suffered their own edition of holocaust have been in less than two generations comfortably making beautiful lacquer wares as described below.

Lacquer Wares

The Vietnamese artisans make beautiful lacquer wares. At the outset lets separate their craft from the ones that make their way to souvenir shops and are made elsewhere like Japan or maybe China. In the latter crafts these are meant for use and are painted on after lacquered background has been processed. This can be any color but is usually ebony black. The lacquered layer in time may flake.

We visited a lacquer ware factory. There are three levels of lacquer ware making based on the intricacy of the desired work. At the minimum there are seven steps undertaken. The wares produced at this factory are primarily focused on art and this is what makes them interesting, at least to me.

An optimum piece of wood that has been pretreated so that it does not warp is a first given. It is polished impeccably, washed, polished again and in a sense primed like a canvass. Whatever piece of art that is painted, this is then dried, shellacked, washed and fine touched. Between the shellacking and the finish piece the artist may opt to or at the outset planned to do inlays. The inlay materials are either pieces of duck egg shell or pieces of shells of mother of pearl. The duck egg shells are easier to inlay because they are usually just poured to the area desired and the shell pieces are more delicately or intricately placed because they are of larger pieces. After the inlays are done, the shellacking and washing and the finishing touches are repeated.

Factory visits are SOP of tour guides anywhere to supplement their day take.

BEN THANT MARKET, TAX CENTER, AND SUPERMARKETS

Ben Thant Market is about 75 cents by taxi from our hotel. It is a large spread out building with French colonial architecture that has become the right of passage of every tourist who visits HoChihMinh. It is probably the most inexpensive shop mart for any clothing item or household needs and a lot more are sold here all at bargains. If you enjoy haggling and have the wherewithal to do it this would be your kind of place. Off the cuff my cousin Dolores and niece Kimbo would enjoy this type of a setting. Otherwise stick to the fixed-price government owned stores that have signs that say so, and the vendors wear official uniforms. Your third choice is arrange for a local to shop with you and she’ll do the haggling, I have seen this done, by many tourists mostly from Europe and Australia.

The Tax Center is a multilevel shopping mall on the main commercial boulevard and a dollar by cab from our hotel. I do not know how it got its name but I know the local name is difficult to pronounce. Locals consider this on the expensive end, but you can get bargains. Within the mall is a supermarket not your typical supermarket because it carries more non-grocery goods than groceries. Prices are fixed, but you can get locally well-made clothing, pocketbooks, and luggage, all at very reasonable mark ups. Be prepared to part with your shopping money when you are in Vietnam.

HONG KONG

A Prologue

It is almost embarrassing to write that I had not visited Hong Kong for over 10 years. This also meant that I have not seen my only living Aunt, from either side of my family who lived in Hong Kong since the early 60s. So this brief visit was also very personal. A lot obviously has happened. The month of our brief visit was July the month HK was celebrating the 10th anniversary of its handover to China by the British after 156 years of rule.

The narrow landing strip of the old airport with waters and mountains on one side and modern buildings and skyscrapers on the other had been replaced by a modern and larger airport. There was the completion of a second wider tunnel between Hong Kong and Kowloon during this period. The SOHO had a beautiful makeover. The Ocean Park had expanded and recently was the recipient of a pair of pandas as gifts from Mainland to celebrate the 10th year anniversary of the establishment of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR),

Comparative data was provided recently by CityLife, a monthly gratis magazine for tourists published by the HK Hotels Association. The population increased by over half a million and the working professionals by 250,000. The HK Stock Exchange is now the 7th ilargest in the world whereas there was the East Asian Financial crisis in 1997. The IPOs went from 10 billion US$ to 43 billion. Cathay Pacific the only HK based airline had zero flights to China now makes 400 per week. The number of hotels increased 35% and the number of hotel rooms by 20,000.

Whereas I could not find a Modern Art Museum in my last visit, it now has a large Cultural Center complex including a modern art museum at Tsim Sai Tsui, walking distance from ShangriLa in Kowloon. This is completed 9 years ago. This included a complex devoted solely to a well-supported Performing Arts. There are also galore of new galleries for contemporary art promoting works by Asian artists particularly Vietnamese and Chinese from Mainland as well as locals. The one significant change, perhaps not easily quantifiable but clearly palpable is the absence of anxiety for the future which lingered before the handover. Hong Kong is the first beneficiary on China’s policy of ‘one country, two systems.’

Some things that have not changed; the city is vibrant as ever, you can feel the energy immediately on your queue through Immigration and Customs in the enthusiasm and confidence of youth. The returning visitors are youthful and the visitors are relatively more senior. I asked the staff at the registration desk of Shangri La for the median age of employees at the desk, my guess is 30, she said just above 25. They are aware, alert, always available to deal and adapt. A majority of the youth is trilingual which includes English. All positive superlatives used in describing restaurants, shops, jewellery, night life, hotels, entertainment and the likes are justified.

I venture to say that every cuisine in the world haut or otherwise, specialized or simple are represented by diversified restaurant scene. As for Chinese there is every regional cuisine represented. Hong Kong remains a gourmet’s as well as a shopping paradise; it is said that if you want something in Hong Kong and it was not available, it is not available. It is therefore almost a sacrilege to visit Hong Kong and not shop; but this admittedly we did, only because it was a final leg of the trip and the extra baggage of an additional new second luggage on this trip is unrewarding. Ironically Hong Kong has a Shopping Festival from June 6 to August 31, 2007 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the handover. Yes, celebrate an anniversary by shopping.

My Aunt

We visited with my septuagenarian Aunt the following mid-morning and did lunch with her, my cousin and her young son who is on school break from Canada. Contrary to my expectations biased by prior news from relatives she is lucid and oriented but appeared less voluble. I could not help but admire her erect posture, her gait with some token arm assistance and the overall serenity of that mien. The facial furrows and lines, that I remembered, reminders of past travails and struggles on her way to the shores of Hong Kong with her two small sons are not as easily discernible/ I did review her three daily medications and none impacted on any concern of import but are mere health supplements. Her appetite is excellent and I got a kick out of her non-stop picking of the fried peanuts starters on the table. On this visit this encounter is a separate joy all by itself. If one aspired to be 85 and able to hold that mien of serenity, then indeed on a net net it is a beautiful life fulfilled.

MACAU

Introduction

The old name of Macau is OU MUN meaning ‘trading gate’ because it is at the mouth of the Pearl River that tracks to Guanzhou, the old province of Canton The first known settlers are seafarers from Fujian province and farmers from Guangdong. Residents from Hong Kong still refer to the old name.

Ou Mun to the locals is also known as A MA GAO (‘place of A MA’) in honor of the Goddess of Seafarers whose statue is seen at the entrance of the Inner Harbor. The Portuguese reached the shores of Ou Mun in the beginning of the 1550s and kept the name which eventually evolved simply to Macau.

Since the December 30, 1999 handover to the Peoples Republic of China, Macau remains a Special Administrative Region similar to Hong Kong. Mainland’s modern administrative building is in a large gated compound with a guard at the gate always at full attention; the colors of the Republic are flown, marking its unmistakable palpable presence. Macau’s three islands are: Macau Peninsula, the largest and connects to the Mainland, Coloane and Taipa. The much desired reclamation area of Cotai is in Taipa and site of soon to be opened Venetian Macau.

First Ferry and Turbojets

The First Ferry and Turbojets are boarded at the Ferry Terminal from the Hong Kong or Kowloon side and are the main water entry to Macau. The ride takes about 45 minutes and both run every half hour. A visa for visitors is needed and there are immigration and security checks each way; the lines for visitors are comparatively slower than that of the locals who merely present a resident card for entry. The ferry ride is smooth and comfortable and drinks and snacks are available.

The population of Macau is over half a million. Chinese and Portuguese are the official government languages but English is used in tourism, commerce and trade. Chinese is either Mandarin or Cantonese the latter being more widely spoken. The currency is Pataca (MOP$). One pataca is 100 avos. HK $ 100 is equal to MOP$103.20 or about 8 US $.

Ivy, my ever energetic cousin hired a cab for us to cover the islands of Macau in under three hours’ time; there are slowdowns but stops. This has given us an overview of the islands. A building boom is highly visible as evidenced by many ongoing concurrent constructions. There are 26 casinos in operation and within this year there will be 35. The casinos are diverse in their architecture, designs, décor and theme and have unlikely names as President, Great Waldo, Fortuna, Jai Alai,

Kampek Louvre, Mocha Slot Lounge, Babylon and Marina, just to mention some.

Brief Gaming Background

The original Lisboa, owned and operated by the local gaming magnate monopolist for scores of years, Stanley Ho has been redone and it spawned the ephemeral and majestic Grand Lisboa. This casino in my opinion is the ground zero landmark of everything else to come, because of its sheer history and longevity as a symbol of gaming monopoly. Stanley Ho and Sheldon Adelson both octogenarians forged a partnership to open Sands Macau, the first Las Vegas connected casino in Macau. Adelson is the largest shareowner of Las Vegas Sands and de facto owner of Venetian. Not to be upstaged, Stanley’s daughter Fanny Ho have joint ventured with Steve Wynn to open Wynn Macau.

Casino winnings in Macau are taxed 18% as opposed to 38% in Vegas. It is natural that the expansion and development that is on-going follows the scent of money. Two big players from Las Vegas,the MGM Macau and Venetian Macau will open at the end of the year. The people I met proudly remind that the total casino take in Macau has surpassed Las Vegas last year, after having been in operation for only two years. The MGM Macau Casino, soon to be completed has distinct metallic scheme of gold, silver and copper, demarcating the highrise into three equal contiguous horizontal segments. The hotel is distinctly striking especially from afar. Where Venetian is more spread out, the MGM structure scrapes higher to the skies. The Venetian is an intended replica of the Vegas one, but appears less in many measures; still it has the bridges and rivers, likely primed for gondola rides which have become a signature in the original.

The building frenzy is not confined to Casinos and hotels, but extends to high rise condominiums, commercial buildings and infrastructures including a new international airport. Already, highly profiled branded concerns whether be it cars, high fashion, jewelry, specialty boutiques, restaurants, etc. are here and accounted.

Inside Some Casinos

After dinner at the Afrikaan, a self-styled African barbecue buffet restaurant, we meandered leisurely and visited some casinos. An abbreviated security check through the now familiar rectangular framed arch is mandated in all casinos. I wonder how this would play in Las Vegas.

The Afrikaan is busy for now, because it is still a novelty. Judging by the food left on the plates, I doubt if it would remain so. To run a successful buffet the staff must be alert in replenishing and tidying up the serving plates, here they did not and are notches away from being trilingual.

The Babylon is a small perfectly circular casino with ornate Middle Eastern motif; it did not appear particularly busy that evening. There is no craps table. Not one. Instead there are many tables the size of craps table called Big and Small that used three dice on a plate that shaken in an upside down bowl. Judging from the numerous numbers of tables this is a most popular game. When a table is empty, the three dealers extend their right arms in unison at an angle downwards as a soliciting sign to players. Solicitation is a big No, No in Vegas.

If the Wynn Macau is an attempt to replicate the Vegas Wynn, it is short in size, décor, and details. The outside blinking and streaming neon lighted marquee that enhances the facade, is not bad. The Japanese restaurant Okada II, the gourmet Chinese Wing Lei, and the noodle restaurant Red 8, are copies of the ones in Vegas. The other fine dining restaurants in the original are not represented (yet.) There is a VIP lounge, which I wished I did a peek-in. The floor including the walk corridors are sparsely carpeted. The mosaics are standard and minimal. The restroom I used is clean, adequate and ordinary. The black jack, baccarat, Big and Small, pai gow tables, and some slots are busy, but also no craps table. The ventilation control is good. There are red Wynn buses that bring in guests and players from the Ferry Terminal. Wynn Macau is right across Lisboa, which I believe is the one to beat.

The Grand Lisboa

The Grand Lisboa is at the heart of Macau, The structure is a huge perfect sphere perhaps the height of a 20-storey building nesting on hand-like gold-rimmed petals that are equidistantly spread. The surface of the globe is fully covered by millions of small silvery lights simulating a magnificent pearl. Just as a pearl would reflect its surroundings, these reflections are represented by small dynamic specks of ruby or aquamarine colors that appear, disappear, and reappear, on the pearly surface. At times the sphere sparkles more like a diamond than a pearl, except forits shape. Whatever the lighting architect had in mind, he/she has achieved it.

I presume the entrance is at the base of the pearl because we used the up escalator to the second level. In keeping with the pearl theme, there is a muted color scheme of white to off white to beige to slightly yellow colors with some sharper accentuations on the floors. The chandeliers appear to be strung like multiple stretched pearl necklaces went from one end of the dome like ceiling to the other, running parallel to the escalators. The place is busy, the tables are humming. To the locals this is a landmark and a benchmark, and perhaps justifiably so.

Ruinas de S. Paolo

The Ruins of St. Paul consist of the façade of the Church of Mater Dei built in 160216o2-1640 but is destroyed by fire in 1835, the ruins of St Paul’s College, which is adjacent to the Church and is the first Western-style university built in the Far East, and the Mount Fortress built in 1617 to 1670 is the city’s main military defense structure. These are all built by the Jesuits.

Despite price escalation of prime real estate, someone in the zoning and building department has the foresight to preserve the ruins at their original sites. A large and beautiful modern amphitheatre equipped with state-of-the-art audiovisuals evoking the ruins of Rome’s Coliseum is built and incorporated into the Ruinas de S. Paolo. This is a singular stroke of genius by the planners. If this space has not been saved it would have been the site of just more crass commercialism devoid of aesthetics. For sure the temptation to commercialize this space was there. The collective presence of the silhouetted real and faux ruins when subtly lit at night are sheer glory and grandeur that perhaps was Rome. I remember well the ruins during my first two visits, the façade of the Church of Mater Dei particularly, which stood alone, isolated but proud; now it is alone no more but still proud. There is a scheduled performance when we visite and the red amphitheatre seats stood as a clear contrast of modernity. A question comes up, since this was an open theatre, I am sure provisions had been made for when it rains.

Macau which is comparatively small area wise has a lot to offer besides gaming. It should be experienced for a couple of nights, not for its gaming tables but for itself.

RESTAURANTS

Nam Pha (HoChihMinh)

The name means ‘empty dreams.’ The name alone is inviting and I scouted it before doing lunch since it was less than two blocks from the hotel. This is an upscale Vietnamese owned by Khaisilk a local conglomerate. I was determined to have some good authentic Vietnamese cooking in Vietnam. This is to be it, since it came highly recommended by the hotel concierge.

The ambience is all Feng Shui oriented, a rectangular pond, with a small fountain in the center, guarded by local stone statues and the dining tables arranged around it. Beautiful calligraphies on one wall, statues of three Vietnamese ladies North, South and Middle regions of the country on the opposite.

The soft shell crabs are small and overly battered and greasy but peel able like a pancake; Noodletown Restaurant in Chinatown New York does them infinitely better. The sample rolls platter is adequate but the fried rolls too greasy. The scallops with Lieng Ty flowers, a local vegetable, are very good. Prices hard to justify. Service excellent but New York restaurants can do better.

Kabin (HoChihMinh)

This is a find, an excellent Chinese restaurant in our HoChihMinh hotel. We ate two separate great meals. Half order of Peking duck, crispy, not fatty, moist in-house bread to wrap, modified by slivers of carrots along with the standard cucumber and scallions. Half suckling pig minus head but with fore and hind legs, presented in squared pieces on a small oval plate. Skin very crisp, not fatty, served same way as Peking duck. Shark fins soup excellent. Varieties of appetizers and side dishes, reasonably priced and excellent; include spicy marinated jelly fish, pig cheeks and snouts, pig knuckles, and oxtails and local greens. Tempted but did not do the 68 varieties of all you can eat Dim Sum at $16 a head. Dim sum plates not rolled on carts but are individually tick to order. The Hong Kong chef is forty-something. Overall price reasonable. Service excellent but staff tends to push because of inclusive 10% service charge. Familiarity of wine selections could be improved.

Antonio’s (Tagaytay)

Tagagtay is a beautiful highland mountain resort, 20 degrees cooler and 90 minutes from Makati. This destination restaurant is an old vacation house with large open verandas that invite in the cool breeze of summer; aside from the inside dining room there is a beautiful garden, with dining tables. The lamb chops from New Zealand are perfectly grilled; just a notch above pink and the local mustard based sauce did not detract. The appetizers of foie gras, a generous slice sat on juliennes of fennel is excellent, so is the local calamari. The oysters from Bacolod with melted cheese and truffles are exceptional. The reasonably priced wine list complimented the menu. The cabernet sauvignon from Chile is perfect with the meal. Some local business woman whom Kristine knows came in by helicopter while we were dining.

Kamayan (Pasay City, Philippines)

The name literally means ‘using one’s hands to eat’. A row of tapayan, large local clay water pots are available for hand wash after meals. Our foursome opted for utensils. If one has to go for local cooking, in my opinion this would be one place. The lechon (roast suckling pig, Philippine style) is well worth a visit. The other dishes, pinakbet, sigsig, roasted squid, steamed shrimps, and fresh water spinach (kangkong) are typical native dishes. Some are too salty.

Seaside Seafood (Tonya’s Restaurant) (Manila)

This is a large well stocked seafood market place. It is a must for visitors to experience. You buy and haggle with the vendors; there are over a hundred stalls with a wide variety of crustaceans, shellfish, and fish. Weigh it, pay it, bring it to the restaurant of your choice literally next door (ours is Tonya’s) instruct how it should be cooked; grilled, fried, stewed, sautéed, or as a soup. The charge for the cooking is equal to the price of each item. Supplement these with local vegetables from the adjacent stalls, do the same, get some bottles of cold San Miguel and you have a great meal going. The lightly sauteed crabs (female (red roe), male and hermaphrodites (yellowish roe) are sweet, tasty and succulent as are the prawns. Squid adobo in its own ink is like I remember it to be. Grilled large sacs of fresh fish roe, eare black pompanos, and unusual variety of red lapu-lapu contribute for a memorable meal with honey clams soup spiced with young ginger as refreshing starter. The clams have a clear shell, briny and have tender tasty consistency. My oldest brother and sister-in-law Tony and Beth hosted eleven family members.

Home Cooking (San Fernando, Pampanga)

My older sister Elsie, cooked a feast when we did a day visit with her in my old hometown. The fresh ubud rolls, the egg white wrappers she made herself are incredible. Ubud is the core of a young coconut tree, but the tree is sacrificed in the harvest. The stuff female crabs are exceptional but laborious for the chef. The {hilippines arguably has the best crabs. The Maryland blue crabs are alimasag as opposed to the real crabs, alimango. Lechon kawali, lean,crisp and irresistible. Calderetta, a goat meat Spanish inspired spicy stew is always great in Pampanga. Oxtail karekare, a peanut based stew is a favorite. Sugpo (jumbo prawns) are sweet and succulent. I will let Milan write about the desserts, but they did look inviting. Elsie may still open the Santa Lucia Haute Ecole Culinary Institute. Missed my niece Kimbo, she could not leave Angeles because she was under the weather.

SHIDDHARTHA: A Musical Journey to Enlightenment

This ambitious three-hour musical produced by Buddha’s Light International Association Philippines, mounted by amateurs and privately funded is one of the surprised highlights of our Cebu stay. I stumbled on the production a day before the wedding and ,managed to receive several reserved front row tickets at the packed 1000-seat auditorium for its premier matinee.

The music is by Joseph Abella and Jude Gitamondoc and the lyrics are based on internationally acclaimed poetry works of Ven. Hsing Yun, the highest ranked Buddhist monk in the Far East. The story is based on the life of Siddhartha Gautama, a historic figure in 600 B.C. India. The musical traces the birth of Siddhartha,( later to be known as Buddha) in the strong opening scene “The King needs a Son” following the prologue; to his early adult life confined to the palace, the prophecy, pf Assitha, the disillusionment, the departure, the longing in the woods, the search for the Four Noble Truths, discovery of the Bodhi tree, enlightenment, search of Siddharta, return and reconciliation and Buddha laying instructions to his people.

The music interspersed with undertones of Buddhist chants is enchanting, mesmerizing and uplifting. The story line is classic. If someone from Broadway wants a musical based on the life of Buddha this might be it.

WEDDING IN CEBU

Our trip is piggy-backed to the wedding of Jolo, son to Tina and Philip, the latter a nephew to Milan. This is the impetus of our trip. Milan is one of ten ninangs in the wedding party, a local tradition. Elaine the bride, is tall, beautiful and radiant and with makings of a model, but has no intention to be one. The Santo Nino Cathedral wedding followed the local nuptial script closely. Music, entourage entrance, flower girls, coin bearer, ring bearer, pairs of primary sponsors then here comes the bride. Mass, secondary sponsors and their functions, wedding ceremony, homily, Holy Communion, end of mass, family photo shoots, and more photo shoots and finally exeunt of wedding party in preparation of the reception at the recently christened Cebu Convention Center, which normally is reserved for political and business conventions and functions.

There is a bubbly local TV personality who emceed, solicited audience participation and sang at the reception. Darn it, she must have mentioned her name at least four times but I still can’t recall it. Anyway she did a commendable rendition of a Chinese love song popularized by Teresa Chen with no detectable local accent. What caught me totally off guard is not her singing a Chinese song, but when Milan, seated at the dais sang the ditty when invited. I took two quick gulps off my wine glass, forgetting to save the occasion with a photo because I was so flummoxed. The banquet is a sumptuous ten course lauriat; 700 odd guests with many government officials attended.

Till the next wedding.