Over Easter, we visited Hoian. This was my first trip to Vietnam, and I’d only heard good things about Hoian. Everyone gushed about how beautiful it was, and I couldn’t wait.
It was indeed charming. Hoian used to be a trading port in the 15th – 19th centuries, and the buildings in the UNESCO-designated Ancient Town reflects the infusion of Chinese, Japanese and European designs.
The temperatures were already in the mid-thirties when we arrived early morning from Danang, and the humidity only climbed till we had to hide back in air conditioned hotel room after lunch until late afternoon for the soft golden light.
And if the narrow streets were crowded with pedestrians, bicycles, trishaws, and scooters during the day, they were positively packed at night. Everyone came out at dusk to enjoy the colorful lanterns strung overhead, and the atmosphere was festive.
We tacked on a sunrise visit to My Son, a cluster of Hindu temples built by the Champa dynasties from the 7th – 13th century, about an hour’s drive from Hoian. Pro tip – sunrise is the best time to visit, because of the (1) beautiful golden light; (2) cool temperatures; and (3) light crowds. We were the first to reach the temples, and enjoyed serene minutes just quietly taking in the brick architecture harking back to the 7th century.
Our trip to Yangon, Myanmar last weekend was somewhat spontaneous, suggested by our friend Jessie whose goal this year is to explore all the countries in South East Asia. We didn’t really know what to expect or do, beyond visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda and wander about the city. But we had a most wonderful time, and felt like we’d stepped back into the past, seen what Singapore could have been like in the 60s and 70s. Men still selling betel nuts and leaves by the roadside and hawking them on trains. Electric lines still criss-cross the streets, most of which still have no traffic lights, so everyone just brazenly jaywalks. Dozens of monks and nuns, dressed in their saffron or pink robes, walk around barefoot, carrying their aluminium tiffin carriers.
Our first day wandering around the city, we found the bridge to the Bogyoke market closed. The bridge was across some train tracks, and to get around them, we had to take a long detour – another 30 minutes under the hot sun. Later, when we decided to take the train that circled Yangon to get a better feel for the local life, we realized how blasé people were with the tracks. People were leisurely strolling along the tracks, or had pulled up plastic stools to sit right alongside the tracks – their version of people watching perhaps? And they didn’t have any qualms jumping off or flinging themselves onto the cars even when the trains had started to pull away from the stations.
We weren’t quite as brave. The “circular” train route we took turned out to be under construction, so the train was only running partway. We didn’t realize this of course, when we bought the tickets, not knowing any Burmese. An hour after we’d pulled away from the station, the train rolled to a stop at some random station near the airport, and most everyone jumped off, save a couple old men who sat unconcernedly on. After 10 minutes of waiting around, we got off to discover that the locomotive pulling the train had already been detached. Nobody we asked seemed to understand English either. Since we had time to spare, we decided to wait it out. Then a train came alongside ours into the station, heading back towards Yangon Central Station, where we’d gotten on. The conductor peered into our car at us, and motioned for us to climb onto his train. But it was already starting to pull away at the time!
Eventually though, the workers brought around another locomotive and reattached it to our train, in the direction of Yangon Central Station. So all’s well that ends well. Haha.
We were quite taken with these little nuns going about their business, in search of their evening meal, and followed them down the street.
From what we’d read online, one of the bustling areas in Yangon is Chinatown, the area roughly bounded by streets 18th through 24th. In the evenings, the streets are lined with rows of plastic tables and chairs and hawkers grilling meats along the sidewalk. We went right before the peak period, around 4pm in the afternoon, so while there were some hawkers set up on the street corners, some of the streets we walked down were almost eerily quiet. We walked by shuttered store fronts, and gates with faded and peeling paint that had seen better years.
The architecture dredged up memories of Chinatown in Singapore about 30 years before, before the government had revitalized the area by tearing down some of the older structures and repainting the remaining in vivid bright hues. My grandmother had lived in one of those 3rd storey apartments with the dim naked bulbs, steeply sloping eaves, and wet kitchen with its ever-present inch of water that refused to drain away. Even then though, I remembered the streets as being cleaner. Still, it felt like we had walked back in time.
A short two days, but it felt just right. The next time, we want to hit up the countryside, especially Bagan, with its over 2000 pagodas and stupas and lush greenery.
Time flies, has zipped by this year. We’ve been in Singapore now for a tad over three months.
To be honest, I’d thought it would take me much longer to settle down, become reacquainted with the sticky heat and concrete jungle. But it’s been a much easier transition, helped in large part to my brother, who selflessly helped us project manage the minor renovations and fit out of our new condo, so we could move in a short week after getting our keys. And my mum who generously stops by every once in a while with groceries and food already marinated and waiting to be popped on the grill. There’s wholesome and hearty home cooked food at my parents’ too, should we want to make the short scooter ride through the park for dinner.
But it’s also thanks to old friends here who make the effort to catch up over lunch, even if their family life make post-work meals difficult to schedule in. No matter, our own work schedule is pretty packed in already anyway, and we fill in those free nights with laps in our condo pool, and weekends sweating it out on the water in outrigger canoes and kayaks.
I’ve been enjoying life in London and its surrounds, with mini excursions during the week and explorations further afield on the weekends. For most of trips, I’ve been content to leave my bulky DSLR behind, trusting instead in my much less conspicuous phone camera to capture the memories.
The delightful thing about the UK, however, isn’t so much the photo opportunities, but the ability to immerse in whatever period of history catches my fancy for the day, and to explore in-situ the architecture and read about events of the past centuries that have so shaped current affairs today.
One of my favorite day trip was to Hampton Court Palace, where Henry VIII consorted with (and then disposed of) his many wives. It’s beautifully kept through the centuries, and expanded upon during the Stuart, and Georgian periods.
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