Monday, June 23, 2008

Erliao and Hill 308

Moon World is a classic example of a chalk badlands terrain. In geological terms it comprises highly saline limestone with a sandstone and shale structure, so that in an area of several hundred hectares no plants grow and the highly eroded ground is bare, creating a "lunar" landscape. The area is also interspersed with mudstone strata containing large amounts of natural gas that forces mud out of the ground in "mud volcanoes." In winter, moisture evaporating from the chalk leaves behind patches of powdery white salt crystals on the surface. Well known scenic spots in Moon World include Erliao Pavilion, Hill 308, Mt. Tsao Suspension Bridge, the Crocodile, and the Lion's Head. At Erliao Pavilion at dawn, when the first rays of sunshine fall upon the chalk, moisture starts to evaporate out of it to form mist which shrouds the hills, creating a scene like a Chinese ink-wash painting.

For this dreamy picture, I woke up at 3:00AM and drove about 16km on confusing foggy country roads to Erliao Pavilion where photographers have to bear the fierce mosquito attack and fight for a good spot among a bunch of tripods, and those aren't the only challenges for photoshooting in Erliao. The timing is the trickiest part, it is believed that 2-3 days after a pouring rain during May to September is the best time to make the trip: too much moisture evaporation veils the tiering hills leaving nothing but a white mist in sight; without mist shrouding the hills, the masterpiece of a Chinese ink-wash painting washes away into a barren land.

Hill 308, named after its height above sea level, is famous for its magnificent panorama over a huge area of barren, eroded soil--a Grand Canyon landscape that comprises countless gullies, ravines and peaks. The 308 meters in altitude doesn't diminish the majestic sea of clouds wafting up and down the peaks at dawn, nor make it more easily accessiable.

Sunrise in Erlaio is good practice for High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging, whereas Hill 308 is best visited in late afternoon, when the sun brings out the red orange hue of the cliffs. Open Invitation to anyone interested, just send me an email or leave a comment with your contact information, and you can join me (free ride!) the next time I plan to go.

Routes to Erliao and Hill 308

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fun HCM City

Despite the fact that I was staying in HCM City only for 3 days, I still managed to try out two restaurants in town and watched a water puppet show in a brand new theatre.

Water puppet show
The origination of the water puppet show can be traced back to the Ly Dynasty, 1010-1225. Given the geographic advantages, the water puppetry set stages on natural lakes in northern Vietnam where audiences could sit around the stages to enjoy the shows and wonder how puppeteers could breath and control the puppets under water. This unique art form has become one of the cultural heritages of Vietnam and stages can now be found not only in northern Vietnam such as Hanoi but also in HCM City.

Located at 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street District 1, the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre together with the Labor Cultural Palace form a complex recreation ground where not only water puppetry is performed; you can work out in the gym, play tennis and volleyball etc. in the backyard of the theatre. The theatre started its business in August 2007 with a seating capacity of 200. The show is played at 18:30 and 20:00 daily for a duration of 50 minutes with no intermission (VND$65,000, USD$4, 10% discount for groups). Daytime performances can be arranged by contacting the theatre at

Staff wearing traditional costumes usher audiences to their seats and give them brochures in which programmes are printed in Vietnamese, English, French, Japanese, Korean and Simplified Chinese. Traditional Vietnamese living styles, customs and fairytales are told by 17 acts that begin with raising the festival flag then, Teu, dragon dance, on a buffalo with a flute, argriculture, catching frogs, rearing ducks and catching foxes, fishing, returning to the native land after winning the first place of nationwide exam, lion dance, king Le Loi on boat tour or the legend about "restored sword", children playing in water, boat racing, unicorns play with ball, fairy dance and dance of four holy animals. 3 folk music performers on each side of the stage dub for puppets in Vietnamese and with traditional instruments that accomodate the movements of puppets harmoniously.

I don't know how these puppeteers control puppets in open areas where the water level of lakes were high back in the Ly Dynasty. I do know that in this theatre puppeteers control puppets behind dark green colored curtains on the stage with cloudy water to disguise the movements of puppets by poles and strings under water.

The Vietnam House
Located on bustling Dong Khoi street with English speaking staff, English menus with photographs for each dish and live-music performences by girls wearing traditional costumes makes the Vietnam House one of the popular foreigner gathering restaurants for Vietnmese cuisine in HCM City. The restaurant is one block from my hotel and I was invited to a free dinner by Dr. Wang from the department of pediatrics NCKUH on my last day staying in town.

This restaurant is a 3 level restored French colonial house with large French windows that allow diners to watch the bustling street from the relaxed air-conditioned room. Photographs of George Bush Sr. and Former Philippine President Cory Aquino were hung on the wall of the staircase to the second floor where a stage for live traditional instruments performence is set.

Comparatively it’s more expensive than the average Vietnamese cuisine restaurant and the food was mediocre. I wonder whether the restaurant tried to westernize the flavor of these Vietnamese cuisine to fit foreigner's appetite. I had a delicious lotus root with shimp and pork salad in Mekong Delta once and the dish here was not comparable.

Address: 93-95 Dong Khoi street, District 1, HCMC.
Tel: 8291623

The Refinery
The area enclosed by Hai Ba Trung, Le Thanh Ton, Thi Sach and Nguyen Sieu was the legal opium manufactory in the early 20th century. The Refinery was one of the prestige opium manufacturers in Saigon and the sign of Manufacture d'Opium was hung on the entrance arch blatantly. It was until 1954 when the French military retreated from Vietnam that brought a closure to the factory and now the only hint that tells its secret past is the poppy symbol of the restaurant and the metal poppy ornament on the yellowish arch.

Over shadowed by the neighboring constructions and distractions, it takes courage to walk under the arch that seperates the bustling street from a quiet atrium that hosts 3 adjacent restaurants and the refinery is the middle one. I was disappointed with decoration in the restaurant--it looks no different from a cozy bistro in Paris. The poppy symbol on block prints, napkins and T-shirts of waiters is trying to unfold the history of this venue, however, without help from other accessories such as smoking pipes or opium refiners, the message vanished in the air leaving people to wonder why the restaurant would choose this unknown flower as its symbol.

English speaking staff, English menus and delicious European dishes, the refinery is the place to go when you are sick of eating Vietnmese cuisine all the time even though the price is relatively high. It's easy to spend a half day sitting on the terrace drinking beer while surfing online via wireless connection. I ordered a pudding with melted chocolate covering the plate and with a final touch of ice cream and roasted almonds on top, for dessert. I was hoping it would taste like the Fondue au Chocolate that I had before, but the overwhelming sweetness kills all the flavor and the unique texture of the pudding that is made of almond dregs.

Address: 74 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, HCMC (across from the Park Hyatt Hotel)
Tel: 8230509

Palace Hotel
The inflation rate in Vietnam is rampant (25% in May) that's what I've been told and the impact of inflation hit when I realized that the price of hotels in HCM City has risen almost double from last year. By screening from my hotel survey posted in Hotels in HCM City and Hotels in HCM City 2, the Palace Hotel is chosen for its location, amenities and of course price. Palace hotel is one of the various businesses owned by the Bong Sen Corporation. Built in 1968, the hotel has been under several times of renovation and the latest renovation was as the end of 2006 and still going.

I reserved a suite room via their website but I didn't get a confirmation a week after the reservation. I wrote an email to the hotel and got a reply telling me that the room has been reserved, however there is no wireless internet access in a suite room. I told them on their website the WiFi is listed in the amenities of suite rooms and would like to amend my booking to a cheaper superior room which also has no access to WiFi system. The staff gave me a prompt reply telling me that they would upgrade my room to a signature superior which has wireless in room with the same price as my original booking. It's strange that nowhere could I find an electric kettle or tea bags for tea making, yet 2 tea cup sets were placed nicely in the room. The air conditioning wasn't cool enough and I didn't bother to complain that there was no bathrobes in the room as listed in the amenities.

The room was spacious and comfy. A high tech magnetic card is the key to the room. Be aware of the demagnetization; don't put the card anywhere near your mobile phone or you might ended up being locked out of the room. An open-air bar with outdoor swiming pool and gym on the roof top provides a panoramic view of Saigon river and leisure ambience for guests. The opening hours of the pool are from 6:00 to 20:00 daily. I enjoyed the cool afternoon breeze in the pool all by myself after work during my stay.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Vietnam impression

I thought my last trip to HCM City in April 2007 would be the finale, so I was relaxed and enjoyed my luxury Japanese lunch box in the Vietnam project meeting that was held 2 weeks ago. Before I could swallow a mouth full of tempura and express myself, my boss had announced that I would be going to inspect the preparation of clinical specimens and ship them back in mid-June. The news spread and I was assigned to multiple tasks including property inspector, technical specialist and a postman.

Currently, two Vietnamese are taking technical training courses in Taiwan. I wrote an email telling them my schedule in HCM City and asked if there were something they would like me to bring back to Vietnam. The next day, I got an email from a doctor who is going back to Vietnam in 2 weeks asking me to bring a rice cooker that he brought with him one and a half months ago back to his mother. An emergency document, of course; a small gift to a loved one, maybe; a rice cooker that takes half the room of a suitcase? That was something I didn't expect. I couldn't figure out how would someone ask me to bring a rice cooker to Vietnam on a business trip especially that someone is going back in 2 weeks.

On my way back to Taiwan, my suitcase was filled with sweaters, cosmetics, mosquito incense, gifts for professors in Taiwan etc., and I didn't even have room for clinical documents that concerned the project. Among all items in my suitcase, the sweaters puzzled me the most-- the last technician leaves in Sept. and it's still hot like hell in Taiwan.