Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Turning 30+

Tu's birthday at Viola's house

It's nice to be 30+ but from now on, I think I will get older and older quicker than I thought. When I was a little boy, thinking about turning 30 years old, it seemed a really long way to go. Looking back from yesterday, Oh my, I'm a few years over it now and it is starting to get scary! Que sera sera is one of my favorite old songs and I suppose there's not much I can do about it.

Tu - Cong - Sam - Khai

Anyway, I made a nice beef hotpot with some different mushrooms at home with my close friends for lunch. My friends seemed to enjoy my cooking and we took a few photos at home. I appreciated their coming and some gifts which I told them not to bother about. It was very nice of my friends Sam, Cong and Khai.

Salmon with dill and cheese

In the evening, Viola, another friend who lives near me in Hanoi invited me and some friends over her house to have home made Canadian food for my birthday. It was really nice and quite a surprise for me. I received some gifts and Viola brought a very nice birthday cake and sang birthday songs in different languages. I got a happy shock as I didn't expect that much of a big deal. Thank you very much for making my birthday even more memorable with great food, excellent company with funny stories. I had a great evening.

Roasted pork with chilli, risotto and veggies

I was spoiled a little bit but I love that!!!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Interviewing Mr Minh/ Ty

Mr Minh, Artist in Nha Trang

Craft and cottage industries receive quite a lot of attention in the media in Vietnam. Documentary programs and newspaper articles on the various artisans’ communities and villages around Hanoi are common. Artists who paint images of unisex beings suffering mental and physical torture do not get much press. For many years I had no idea that one of the guys I had been playing tennis with is an accomplished artist.

Mr Minh, Artist in Nha Trang

Born in 1960, Mai Hoang Minh, originally from Hue but currently living in Nha Trang, has produced over 500 paintings in the past 7 years. Minh is a self-taught painter who has not only studied his craft but also the theory and history of art. For 20 years, art has been his passion. A few years ago when I saw his paintings, I thought they were quite difficult to understand and confronting but life is complicated and as I get older I know that people experience all kinds of difficulties in their lives. I suppose Minh's paintings could represent that.

Mr Minh, Artist in Nha Trang

I met him again in Nha Trang recently.

How well-known are you in Vietnam?

My paintings are not as popular in Viet Nam but western people seem to enjoy collecting them. This is probably because I paint very abstractly and Vietnamese generally prefer realism in their art. In Vietnam, art is not emphasized in the education system unfortunately, and visiting art galleries here is mostly a pastime for foreigners.

What media do you work in?

Mostly oil on canvas.

When did you start to take a different direction with your work?

I started painting more abstractly in 2000 to set myself apart from other artists. I wanted to break away from the norm, to make my work stand out. I wasn’t sure how well it would be received as I know my abstract work can be confronting. When I first started painting this way, I knew it would take a while for people to take it seriously. Some people say it is depressing.

Some of the images are quite dark and disturbing. Do you set out to shock people?

No, not at all. I think it is more about awakening. The language of art makes people feel and perhaps face things from their pasts, to maybe realize what is missing. It is true that some people may be shocked and may look for a message or some meaning. I don’t paint with a message or cause in mind – that is more the realm of the people viewing the paintings. Their reactions are individual reactions, not collective ones.

You talked about art as a subject in Vietnam’s education system. What are your views on how art is taught here?

I think the teachers are very much holding onto old methodology and ideas. In art classes here, the teachers force students to follow old rules, to paint old concepts of beauty, like rural scenes and street scenes. But art and the world are things that are constantly evolving and changing. We all view the world in a different way, experience beauty in different things. Creativity needs to be encouraged and rewarded, regardless of traditional concepts of beauty.

What advice would you give to young students currently studying art?

My advice would be to embrace and learn all of the technical knowledge and skills that they can from school art classes but be bold enough to break the rules to follow their individual creative paths. It may take longer to succeed but persistence is necessary, particularly in the arts.

You mentioned that your work receives attention from foreign art lovers. Can you talk about that?

Well, I’ve been lucky enough to exhibit outside Vietnam on several occasions. I’ve had individual shows in California and Colorado. In France, too, in a town called Valenciennes in the north. At the moment I have several paintings in a show at the Fresno Discovery Museum in California.

Mr Minh, Artist in Nha Trang

Minh’s work can be viewed at his studio in Nha Trang (4 Nguyen Thien Thuat St).
Minh's website:

Monday, December 08, 2008

Pre-wedding Photos

Sam and Nghia

Now that summer is over, Hanoi’s unofficial wedding season is noticeably underway and most wedding photographers are busily snapping pictures at their favourite locations around town.

Pre wedding photo

The wedding season in Hanoi encompasses autumn through to spring. While weddings are occasionally observed in the summer, the heat makes them pretty uncomfortable for all concerned. Lucky wedding days recommended by fortune-tellers are determined by complicated equations involving the lunar calendar birth dates of the couple and other family factors. In addition, certain days are simply considered bad luck. The result is that, throughout the season, there will be days when no-one gets married and days when it seems every one is. Cars covered in fresh flowers, unusually shaped pink and white balloons, busy hotel function rooms, woman dressed in ao dai (long dress) and rented blue tents adjoining houses are the symbols of these days.

Sam and Nghia

In Vietnam, unlike in the west, the wedding photographs are taken in advance of the wedding, not on the actual day of the ceremony. Young couples approach a ‘one-stop-shop’ wedding parlour where gowns and suits can be rented and photographs taken. There are studios with romantic back-drops or the couple may choose to go on a shoot to one of several popular locations. On the steps of Hanoi’s Opera House is perhaps the prime location. Sometimes there are several couples posing in the vicinity at the same time. Hanoi’s crumbling French colonial buildings provide also provide an aura of rustic charm. Other popular spots for wedding photographs include gardens, parks and lakesides.

Nghi Tam village - West Lake

In my area just near the Intercontinental Hotel at West Lake, the wedding traffic is congested from as early as 7am. There are frequently three or four couples around and once I counted eight. This does become annoying for the local residents, especially considering that each couple is accompanied by four or five staff from the photography studio. Props and costume changes also clutter up the narrow laneways. The photographers’ assistants often have the bride-to-be’s dress spread across the alley. I often wander if the dresses have ever been ridden over! I was embarrassed recently while, when taking my dog for a walk, he lifted his leg on the train of one of the gowns!

Nghi Tam village - West Lake

These shoots often involve costume changes where the woman goes from western style white to red, pink or purple to traditional Vietnamese ao dai (long dress). The fashion for the men is often very flamboyant, with white suits seemingly very popular this year. I saw one groom posing with a white violin the other day. Sitting astride a classic motorbike is another appealing prop. Interestingly, the costume changes occur just inside the gate of the pagoda nearby! There doesn’t seem to be any opposition from the monks or nuns but to me it seems a bit inappropriate.

Khai, Sam and Nghia

By the end of the day on these shoots, it’s interesting observing the general appearance and demeanour of the couples. No-one’s smiling, the hems of the dresses are grubby and the flowers in the brides’ hair are wilting.

Sam and Nghia

I’m sure the photographs are stunning but I often wander how their marriages will turn out!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Greece, Adio

Greek salad

Five weeks is definitely not enough time to discover all of Greece, a country with hundreds of beautiful islands surrounded by amazing beaches. I have so many fond memories of my time in Greece and really feel as if I've broadened my horizons. It was my first time in Europe and I really got a feeling for ancient history and the different lifestyle and culture there.


Apart from discovering new places in Greece, here are the things I'd go back for:


1. I'd love to go back to Santorini again to have a glass of local wine and see the sunset and the light against the Cycladic architecture.


2. Corfu's Old Town is definitely worth another wander around, having a pita gyros and looking around the beautiful shops.


3. I would love to return to Ithaki's clear waters and stony beaches to have a nap in the sun after eating a Greek salad and drinking a carafe of the local wine.


4. The view of Athens from the Acropolis.


5. Crete's old capital, Hania, with its restaurants and beautiful artisans shops.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tra Chanh Iced Tea

Tra Chanh - 31 Dao Duy Tu

It's hard to find a seat at Tra Chanh at noon on hot days, especially just after lunch. I'm not sure how it got to be so famous and well-patronised. Not that long ago, it was a standard kind of cafe. I finally got the chance to try this place recently.

Tra Chanh - 31 Dao Duy Tu

Most people who come here are young office workers and students. They come here during their lunch breaks for a drink and something sweet before heading back to work. Many conversations take place, ranging from lottery results to political scandals. I was sitting there for an hour listening to the customers' stories, which made me laugh, particularly the ones between girls about their boyfriends. Many of the young male tea drinkers were telling thier bad luck stories about missing lottery numbers from the draw the night before. It really gives a sense of what is going on in the minds of young Hanoians.

Che Chuoi- Consomme of Banana

Tra Chanh serves one of the most popular street drinks in the old quarter of Hanoi. There are few options to choose from iced tea, served with slices of lemon, to coffee to sweet comsomme of banana.

Tra Chanh - 31 Dao Duy Tu - Hanoi

Friday, November 21, 2008

Extra Extra

The streets of Hanoi are full of interesting characters, people not known to me personally but people I notice time and time again.

I have been intrigued by this boy for a few years but the other morning was the first time I was able to talk to him. He normally doesn't want to talk to outsiders about himself, his predicament or his family. He is a disabled boy who can't walk at all. He sits on a tricycle, using his hands to pedal and control the bike. He started selling newspapers from his bike about 8 years ago when he was 10. He really is one of Hanoi’s child entrepreneurs and even today he barely looks 18 with his baby face and contented smile.

He starts his day at 6am and sometimes ends up at about 10pm, though most days he has sold his papers before then. In the old quarter of Hanoi, that represents a really hard day’s work. The traffic chaos, the dust and pollution, the motorbikes parked every which way and the general hectic activity that he encounters there would seem like a pretty stressful way to make a living. He says he has a loyal group of customers along his regular morning route, mostly those having their morning noodles or coffee. A day’s pedaling – with his hands – brings in the rather meagre sum of 50,000VND. His custom-designed tricycle might require the occasional repair to a puncture or some grease on the chain so his operating expenses are low, thankfully. Even so, the profits of such hard labour wouldn’t leave much for the average 18 year-olds entertainment expenses.

Then, again, this boy is not the average 18 year old. I see lots of boys and girls the same age, who hang around, do nothing, constantly putting their hands out to their parents for money. This young man is the opposite. In fact, part of his earnings probably gets contributed to the family kitty to buy food and pay the bills.
Local identities like him exist throughout this city but few are as inspirational.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Here I Come

Nghi Tam village - West Lake

Every morning in my quiet neigbourhood, in an alley with no through traffic and low population density, where birds can be heard singing; I am awoken by a horn. Even here, the curse of Hanoi’s streets cannot be escaped. My neigbour, a 60ish woman who visits the market at 6.15 each morning, blasts her tinny, off- tone horn continuously as she exits our alley. At 6.35, shopping done, she returns for an encore performance…just to make sure I’m awake. There is no traffic. There are no pedestrians.

Like many Hanoians, I don’t think she realizes she’s doing it.

West Lake

Whatever the form of transport, drivers in Hanoi use their horns just as other people bite their fingernails. It is a bad habit, hard to break. Motorcyclists drive with their thumbs permanently poised over the horn, pressing it constantly to alert other road users of their presence. “I’m behind you” or “I’m going to overtake you” or “The traffic light is red but it will be green in three seconds!” are all valid reasons for using one’s horn. If a young man is riding extremely fast and dangerously, weaving in and out of the traffic, he will have his thumb permanently on the horn. In these circumstances, the horn means “I am young, stupid and invincible so get the hell out of my way.” Such a young man usually has an air horn so if he doesn’t run you off the road, the sudden piercing noise will jolt you off your motorbike.

Traffic in Hanoi

Car drivers, a growing minority taking up an increasing majority of the roads in the capital, are seemingly licensed to beep. In fact, the first rule of driving instruction in Hanoi is not stay on one’s side of the road but instead ‘Use one’s horn as much as possible… Blast the horn because your vehicle is bigger than a motorbike…blast the horn because if the motorbike gets close, it will scratch your car.’ Taxi drivers and small delivery van drivers are championship horn users. Their horns are usually ‘musical’ but worse than a bad pop-song stuck in your head. I have been known to swear particularly well and gesture threateningly when this ‘music’ is played too close to my ears!


Bigger vehicles, like trucks and buses, have the loudest horns of all. When a Hanoi bus is bearing down on you in the traffic with its horn blaring, it’s best to move aside. Their horns mean “If you don’t move, you’re going to be road kill!”

Traffic in Hanoi

For a simple boy from the countryside who learned to ride a motorbike on the sedate streets of Nha Trang, I still can’t bring myself to use the horn. However, when I saw a group of young teenagers with horns on their bicycles recently, I have vowed to add to the noise pollution.

If you can’t beat ‘em (and you won’t), join ‘em!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008



Santorini – in Greece’s Cyclades islands – is one of those places that everyone should see before they die. I know there is a book and TV series which lists such places. I haven’t read it nor seen the show. But I’ve seen this astoundingly beautiful landscape and my jaw dropped.


Also known as Thira, most travellers reach the island by taking a 10 hour ferry trip from Athen’s port of Piraeus. If time is limited, Santorini has a small international airport, reachable from Athens and other cities in Europe. The arrival by boat, however, rewards visitors with some of the most breathtaking scenes of spectacular volcanic landscapes rising out of aqua seas. From a distance, the white Cycladic houses on the island’s cliffs look, at one moment, like snow on a huge plateau and, at another moment, like white icing on a gigantic misshapen chocolate cake.

Red beach - Santorini

Formed after the world’s biggest and most destructive volcanic eruption in 1650 BC, Santorini and its smaller islets are largely barren of the olive and pine trees which thrive on other islands and over much of mainland Greece. Vines crawl along the ground but the landscape is mostly rock…of all colours. With a rental car, my friends and I visited Red Beach, Black Beach and White Beach. The geographic history of the cliff faces is also revealed in rich veins of colour. One sobering thought, which entered my mind once, is the fact that even though the volcano is considered at rest now, an earthquake in 1956 practically destroyed the main settlements and killed many residents.


The magnetic beauty of the caldera settlements of Oia and Fira quickly dispelled that thought. White washed cottages, many of which have been converted into very expensive accommodation for tourists, are seemingly carved into the cliff faces. The postcard scenes of blue domed chapels and church bells are even more pleasing to the naked eye. The cobbled lanes are vehicle free except for the occasional donkey. One highlight of many was a donkey ride down the 600 odd steps to Fira’s old port.


The highlight of each evening, except for one which was overcast, is the dramatic sunset witnessed from the caldera rim at Oia, a town of sights and scenes that words cannot describe. Hordes of travelers do gather for this ritual, lining the narrow paths of the town for a place to rest their camera. The sunlight against the town’s rustic houses and ruins together with the descending sun into the sea is well worth all of the hype.

Tu - Donkey

There is a mythical and aesthetic magic about Santorini, even a bit of fear. I really think it’s a place I’d better see twice before I die.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Iraklio, Capital of Crete


Most people wouldn't know of Iraklio on the Greek island of Crete, even though it is Greece's six largest city. The reason people know this city is because it is the gateway to the Palace of Knossos, an ancient Minoan ruin site.


But I actually like Iraklio not because it's modern and busy. I just like the look of it and there are lots of things to discover around the town. I loved walking down to the port taking photos in the afternoon then walking back to the city centre where so many people were shopping with full bags of clothes and shoes.


To get to Iraklio, we had driven from Hania further along the coast to the east. Of all the places in Greece, Iraklio was the most difficult to find accommodation. The one way traffic system didn't help as we couldn't actually stop to check out the few hotels in town. We ended up driving out the coast to the local beach at Gournes to find a hotel.


Knossos is a pretty amazing site, though I was more impressed by the Acropolis in Athens and the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi. Unfortunately, there were too many tour groups at such a small place and they all arrived at the same time and were of different nationalities. I felt like I was in the middle of the market as I couldn't relax. The tour groups took over with their tour guides explaining the site and standing in front of the ruin sites. In fact, some of the rooms required us to queue in the hot sun to get in. Like some other places in the world, including Vietnam, tourism needs to regulated in Knossos. I've never seen so many busloads of package tourists in my life.

Friday, October 31, 2008

It's Pouring In Hanoi

Hanoi flooding

When it's hot in Hanoi, I always wish for some rain every few days but I should be careful what I wish for! It rained the whole night last night and is still raining12 hours later. This kind of constant heavy rain is too much for this city which has a terrible drainage system. Many streets in Hanoi are now under water and smelly. I decided crazily to go out with one of my friends to look around but was too afraid to take the camera out. I was scared to drop it in the water.

Traffic - Hanoi flooding

Some friends of mine in Cau Giay district couldn't get out of their houses and 2 friends who are teaching in the Australian English center told me, their school has cancelled all afternoon classes as there is no way to enter or exit. The water level in West Lake is really high and I feel like it would get even higher if it keeps raining.

Hanoi, flooding

I finally made it to Hoan Kiem Lake and the water has broken its banks and is flooding over the road. This is the first time I've seen this since I came to Hanoi 7 years ago. There are lots of stupid people trying to ride their bikes very fast, which sprayed dirty water all over my clothes. I shouted at them and they laughed, such idiots. According to the weather forecast, it will keep going during the weekend plus the cold wind from the north. I hope we survive!

These photos are from Hoang Ha, Tin Nhanh Vietnam

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Corfu Town


To reach beautiful Corfu town, we travelled on 2 ferries, 4 buses and a taxi at the end to reach my friend’s house. It’s truly a beautiful house with a private beach right at the back gate. We were so happy to be there and it was worth all of our traveling trouble.


Corfu town is such an amazing place, the streets lined with beautiful old Venetian buildings, of different colors and designs. Of all the places we visited in Greece, the world heritage protected town of Old Corfu is one of the highlights. Apart from the architecture, the main activities in the town are shopping and eating. The cobbled streets are lined with jewellery and leather shops but you really need to know something about gold and the price because its confusing - so many choices.


60% of thepopulation in Corfu is of British origin. In fact, Queen Elizabeth's husband, Prince Phillip, was born on the island. Much of the tourism her caters for them - they even have their own shop, called The English Corner Shop. Of course, there are tons of English tourists around. Even though a lot of English is spoken around Greece, I felt that I could communicate and be understood best in Corfu.


Wandering around the old town of Corfu is great as it’s close to museums and historic places but the beaches on this island didn’t impress me much as they are busy and crowded all the time. I can’t really relax when the beach is so crowded.


For the old town alone, I would recommend Corfu, though. I hope to get back there some time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Viet Corner in Iraklio


While in Crete, I was wandering around Iraklio port and the shopping areas in the afternoon, the day before we left. I thought I saw something familiar from the corner of my eye and I turned my head to see an Asian restaurant called Lee's Asian Fast Food. Having been away from home almost 5 weeks, even though I was adapting quite well to feta cheese and other Greek food, what I missed the most was Asian food. I walked over toward the restaurant and sat down to order fried rice which looked really good in the photo.

Seafood fried rice

The waiter was Greek and I thought this would be a Chinese restaurant, which didn't bother me because I love Chinese food as much as Vietnamese food. While waiting, I heard someone speaking in Vietnamese behind me and I turned around. It was a little girl talking to her parents. I couldn't believe that I would meet a Vietnamese family in a place like Iraklio, so far from our homeland. I'd hardly seen any other Asians in some parts of Greece. I started up a conversation with them and it turned out they're from Tra Vinh, a southern city of Vietnam. They moved from there to Holland about 10 years ago but had moved over to Greece in the last 3 years.

Xuong Rong

Following what they told me, life in Holland was getting more expensive and hard for them, so they decided to move to Greece hoping for an easier life and they're happy with it now. Lee's is the only Asian restaurant in town(I think) so they don't really have much competition. I also noticed that most of the other customers were western people so I gathered that there are not many Asians in Iraklio. They also said that they have to buy lots of their ingredients from Germany as they don't have lots of choices in Iraklio. They had to serve fusion Vietnamese - Chinese food as not many people are familiar with Viet Nam and its food.

The food itself, fried rice and spring rolls, was actually pretty good.

Ps: I can't upload any photos from Lee's restaurant as I lost them all due to virus attack on my hard drive.