Friday, July 6, 2012

From Valhalla to Labyrinth

Cowboys 'n Injuns, Yankees 'n VCs

An iconic photo of an arbitrary execution of a Viet Cong
by a South Vietnamese Police Chief

    Those who grew up in the '60s would recall iconic photos of 'ugly' Viet Cong, the Arch Enemy of US Democracy & Capitalist Economy, by Life magazine. The world was either black or white during the Cold War - B&W newspapers, B&W photos, B&W TV screen, Smart Cowboys vs Stupid Injuns, Slick Bond vs Clumsy Russian Agents, Angelic Yankees vs Evil VCs, Us vs Them ... you get the drift. 
    I wasn't acquainted with the term 'proxy war' but able to grasp the meanings of the concept of Iron or Bamboo Curtain and the Domino Effect. The Americans were the Good Guys and those behind them Curtains were Evil Incarnate. Thus, we must fight the Russians and the Chinese to stop Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) and Southeast Asia from falling into their clutches. 
    Not unlike Afghanistan since the late 70s, 'Nam was the site of real ideological warfare between the Russian Communists and the American Capitalists from 1956-1975. USSR (United Soviet Socialist Republic) and PRC (People's Republic of China) supplied weapons to the Independence Movement led by Ho Chi Minh, a multi-lingual comrade who was educated in France and work-travelled throughout Europe.
    Historically, Vietnam was dominated by the Hans and was thus part of China for about a 1,000 years (111BC-905AD) which explained the 25 percent of Vietnamese having Chinese bloodline. She enjoyed intermittent autonomy from 905 until 1887, when the French Indochina was officially established. 
      The Japanese Invasion in 1940 sparked the fire of Independence Struggle led by Nguyễn Ái Quốc, now known as Ho Chi Minh. He arrived in northern Vietnam to form the Viet Minh Front (League for the Independence of Vietnam) in 1941. The Việt Minh Front was supposed to be an umbrella group for all parties fighting for Vietnam's independence, but was dominated by the Communist Party. The Việt Minh had a modest armed force and during the war worked with the American Office of Strategic Services to collect intelligence on the Japanese. Other non-Communist Vietnamese parties also joined the Việt Minh and established armed forces with backing from the Kuomintang. 
    Vietnam was liberated during a power vacuum in August 1945 when the Japanese was defeated by the Allies. By September 1945, Hồ Chí Minh declared Vietnam independent under the new name of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) and held the position of Chairman (Chủ Tịch). Communist rule was cut short, however, by nationalist Chinese and British occupation forces whose presence tended to support the Communist Party's political opponents. 
    In 1946, Vietnam had its first National Assembly election (won by the Viet Minh in central and northern Vietnam) and drafted its first constitution. Meanwhile, the French tried to regain power by force, the Cochinchinese formed a separate Republic, the Communist and non-Communist forces fought each other, the Stalinists purged the Trotskyists, and various religious sects and resistance groups had their own militias. In the end, the Communists suppressed all non-Communist parties but failed to secure a peace pact with France.
    The First Indochina War was fought between the Viet Minh and France from late 1946 to 1954, when France finally surrendered to the Vietnamese forces. The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation, with Ho Chi Minh's communist government ruling the North from Hanoi and the US-backed Ngo Dinh Diem's regime ruled the South from Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975).
    The Second Indochina War was popularly known as the Vietnam War (1954-1975). When it ended, the Viet Cong and the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces from the North were able to unify North and South Vietnam under Communist rule. The USSR-supported insurgents squashed the US-backed Army of the Republic of Vietnam's attempt at maintaining South Vietnamese independence. In spite of the military might of the US forces (504,000 during the height of the Tet Offensive in 1968), they had to admit defeat in 1973. 
    The 1973 Paris Agreement, which officially ended the War by calling for free elections in the South and peaceful reunification, was not abided by the North. Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was captured by the Communists and the South Vietnamese Army surrendered on April 30, 1975. In 1976, the government of united Vietnam renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the revolutionary leader who died in September 1969. The Vietnamese government in 1995 estimated that 4,000,000 Vietnamese civilians on both sides died in the war. Overall figures for North Vietnamese civilian dead range from 50,000 to 2,000,000.
   Vietnam War: Major Battles.Vietnam War: Major Battles. This map shows the locations of major battles and other actions during the Vietnam War (1957-1975), as well as major United States military bases. The war was fought mainly in North and South Vietnam. Troops also battled in Laos and Cambodia, and U.S. pilots flew missions from bases in Thailand. In the war, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces fought against Communist-trained South Vietnamese rebels and North Vietnamese troops.
An American soldier and a Vietnamese 
child two days before the Fall of Saigon in 1975 

Another iconic photo of Vietnamese children fleeing Napalm dropped by the Yankees

The US Evacuation during the Fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong guerillas in 1975

Move Aside, Miss Saigon

An Orientalist view of a Vietnamese lady in Miss Saigon, the popular Broadway Musical.
An alternative image of Vietnamese females as freedom fighters. 
Vietnam Cu Chi Tunnels
The intricate labyrinth of tunnels which served as the 'underground' base of the Viet Cong and villager fighters during the Vietnam War
    Perhaps I didn't patronise the right places, hence I didn't get to meet a real life version of a soppy Miss Saigon (which I caught on stage in Sydney in 1996). Some of the female store owners/operators at the Viet Valhalla of Cho Ben Thanh may be dressed in skimpy shorts and see-through chiffon tops but they were all tough cookies. They may have smiling faces and lilting voices but they were no-nonsense negotiators.
    I witnessed the same seriousness in Erra, the tourist guide who accompanied us to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This petite damsel from the Mekong Delta was visibly peeved by the lack of enthusiasm about her country's history among the Malaysians on board the tour bus. However, she persisted in recounting the story of the Cu Chi Tunnels when a few of us politely feigned interest about the topic.

The Cu Chi Tunnels    

    This maze of tunnels was first dug by the French-fighting Viet Minh troops beneath a French planter's estate in 1948 to escape from exploding bombs. The Viet Cong guerillas later used these tunnels as an underground dwelling units and hiding places during combat, as well as vital communication and supply routes for food and weapon caches. Dug entirely by hand, the tunnels at one time measured more than 120 miles, stretching from the Cambodian border to the outskirts of what was then Saigon.
    This rudimentary network of tunnels is undoubtedly the pivotal factor in the Viet Cong's victory over the US forces, in spite of their more advanced warfare and weapons. Countless attempts to destroy the tunnels failed and the American GIs finally capitulated and withdrew. Thus, the tunnels are a symbol of national pride to the Vietnamese.
     The tour of Cu Chi’s main site (Ben Dinh tunnel) began with a grainy black-and-white film which charted the history of events during the Vietnam War and gave a brief background on the tunnels. The tour followed a short looping path past recreated tunnel sites which were built into the ground, with canvas tops to illustrate how life was carried out underground. In the simulated kitchen, guides showed how smoke was diverted through mini-tunnels to escape far from the real tunnel itself.
Vietnam Cu Chi TunnelsThe slim and fit Vietnamese  demonstrates how his predecessors were able to hide and ambush pot-bellied, beer-guzzling American GIs
Vietnam Cu Chi TunnelsOnce the lid covered the opening, it's undetectable.
Vietnam Cu Chi TunnelsLife in the tunnels was very harsh. The tunnels were extremely narrow to prevent big sized American GIs from exploring them. The openings were camouflaged by leaves. Visitors can navigate their way through three levels of tunnels ranging from 150 to 650 feet in length. These tunnels have been widened to accommodate western tourists but they are not recommended for those who are claustrophobic, asthmatic or suffering from back or knee pains.
Above ground, you'll find mock ups of spiked contraptions hidden under trap doors in the jungle floor, craters left by bombs dropped from B-52s, abandoned U.S. tanks and models of North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas. Those who want to try their hands at shooting the AK-47s and M-16s at the shooting range may do so at USD1.50 per bullet.
Half day Cu Chi Tunnels tours are offered daily from 7am to 5pm. Admission charge costs about USD5. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Halal Food in HCMC

Costly but worth every dong!

Many Malaysian tourists, enticed by ASTRO travelogue Rasa Halal Orient hosted by one of the AF winners Farrah, would be familiar with the names of Halal restaurants like VN HALAL, Halal Saigon, Satay House and Kedai Shamsudin even before they depart for Vietnam.


VN. HALAL serves both Vietnamese and Malaysian dishes
On our first night at HCMC, we were taken to VN HALAL just around the corner from our hotel by Alex, our friendly local guide. The ambiance was quite cosy, with a spiral staircase and an open elevator to deliver food from the first to the ground floor as conversation pieces.
We discovered that these were indeed necessary distractions since the service was at a snail's pace. I had downed two tall glasses of delicious Vietnamese iced coffee and iced chocolate drink before our shared kampong, salted fish and patprik fried rice, all reasonably tasty, was served. While we savoured our dinner, we spotted a Mat Salleh who almost dozed off at his table while waiting for his order!
More reviews on VN HALAL:

Halal Saigon

Address: 31 Dong Du Street (just across the Saigon Central Mosque), District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.  
On our second day, we had both lunch and dinner at Halal Saigon, directly opposite the Saigon Central Mosque or Masjid ar-Rahman and diagonally opposite the Sheraton. The blood red facade led us to a tastefully decorated interior, with sephia-toned photos on the dark grey walls and chic black-and-white lampshades to match the ceiling.     
Halal food in Saigon 001
This brightly painted restaurant is run
 by a dynamic lady, who's also passionate 
about her pharmaceutical plant
Halal food in Saigon 002
The black and white floor tiles complement 
the blood red furniture and wall on the left 
as well as the grey ceiling and wall on the right    
Halal food in Saigon 003
The sephia-toned photos did not diminish 
the elegance of the interior decor
    The food was delicious and the service efficient, with the Malaysian lady owner herself serving the customers when it's crowded in the evening. I had Vietnamese spring rolls for lunch and yam shrimp soup for dinner, which was delightfully different.
    More on Halal Saigon:

Satay House

Address: 307/25 Nguyen Van Troi St
Phu Nhuan Ward, HCM City

On my third day, I joined a tour group to the Cuchi Tunnels. On the way back to the hotel, the tour bus stopped by an up scale neighbourhood, where we were greeted by the yellow signboard above the Balinese gate which led into the Satay House. 

As soon as we enter the colonial style house, we were confronted with a blown-up photo of the owner with Maria Tunku Sabri, the host of the popular TV3 program, Jalan-jalan Cari Makan (JJMC). 
Since lunch was pre-ordered by the super efficient local guide Erra, it was served as soon as we freshened ourselves with the sanitised wipes provided. The 'asam pedas', 'daging masak kicap', 'sambal belacan' and other dishes deserved a rating of 4/5. The chef and owner themselves made sure that the meal was agreeable to the patrons. On the way out, we stopped to admire a smaller photo of Tun Raha (PM Najib Razak's mother)  on the left wall.   
Kedai Shamsudin
Address: 445 Le Hong Phong St., Ward.2, District 10, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tel : +84.8.6271-7494

Just before we checked out of the hotel, we had packed 'nasi campur' from Kedai Shamsudin.
From the conventional taste of the 'ayam masak kicap', 'sambal belacan' and 'ulam-ulaman', I surmised that the menu suited the Malay palate just fine.

Hajjah Basiroh

This little makeshift alfresco diner is located right across the street from our hotel.  It's placed in front of a shop selling 'telekung' and 'baju kurung'. The Poh (Vietnamese noodle) was refreshingly light and the iced coffee was a good deal at RM3. Very convenient for situations when your group leader and members left you in the lurch. Do be extra patient though with the pesky peddlers and starving mothers with infants in their arms hanging around the stall. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Cho Ben Thanh is the new Geylang Emporium

Can't Buy My Love - How Advertising Changes The Way We Think and Feel


Updated 4/7/2012Can't Buy My Love - How Advertising Changes The Way We Think and Feel

“Cumulatively they create a climate of cynicism and alienation that is poisonous to relationships. Many people end up feeling romantic about material objects yet deeply cynical about other human beings. In a society in which one of two marriages ends in divorce, we are offered constancy through our products. As one ad says, “Some people need only one man. Or one woman. Or one watch.” Okay, so we can’t be monogamous – at least we can be faithful to our watches. Because of the pervasiveness of this kind of advertising, we learn from childhood that it is safer to make a commitment to a product than to a person, far easier to be loyal to a brand.”
Jean Kilbourne
As-salam, just returned home from Vietnam last night. 
The main entrance to Cho Ben Thanh
If the Emporium at Geylang Serai (GS) was the hub for Malaysian, Bruneian and Indonesian shopaholics in the 1960s, the focus has now shifted to Cho Ben Thanh in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). 
But, of course, there was that temporary relief in the Jakarta-Bandung trips before they (aspiring entrepreneurs, travel agent wannabes and fixated housewives with husbands and children in tow) arrive in droves to HCMC, mostly via Air Asia. 
Most of them put up at two or three star hotels with Vietnamese sounding names which line the filthy, narrow lanes leading to their new found Valhalla.
One of the lanes leading to Ben Thanh

Like addicts, they came primarily for the 'fix' from ruthless bargaining with beleaguered retailers, who pushed their wares in the congested market lots during the day and equally crammed stalls on Pan Chu Trinh Street at night. 
The crowd swarm in 
as soon as the gates open at 8am

Both pushers and addicts are out to get the best deal from their brief, or sometimes protracted, transactions. There's hardly compassion lost on both sides, just the adrenalin rush from intense bargaining and a 'high' from purchasing or disposing of coveted items at the most favourable prices. 
To help push sales, the desperate retailers were more than eager to pick up Malay from their regular patrons. Hence, calls of "Kakak, kakak, abang, abang, murah, murah" would be ringing in your ears long after you walked out of the marketplace. 
When night falls, both sellers and buyers thronged
 the night market outside

The Viet Valhalla

No shopper worth her salt would waste time
 on the figure at the roundabout 
facing the front entrance of Ben Thanh

The front entrance of Ben Thanh Market faces Quach Thi Trang Square, where the statue of Nguyen Han on his horse grace its area. Its rear faces Le Thanh Ton Street.  On its right is Phan Chu Trinh Street and on its left, Phan Boi Chau Street. There are four gates which serve as sirens to lure in the shoppers.  
On all its four sides, countless fix and mobile counters offer all sorts of stuff, from coconut juice to iPad covers. 
Inside, theMarket is choked with all kinds of commodities under the Vietnamese sun, from textiles to 'knock-off' handbags, shoes and clothings, souvenirs, nuts and candies, local hawker food, fresh fruit and vegetables. 
The entrance facing Phan Boi Chau Street