Monday, September 26, 2011

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Every 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest, most of Asia celebrates the Mid-Autumn Festival. This year we celebrated with the locals in Penang.

Here is Craig with his lantern that he carried during the festival. You can see the full moon above him. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, children parade around carrying lanterns lit with candles. Craig's dragon lantern is a more traditional style, but we also saw Disney characters, Ben 10, and Angry Birds lanterns.

According to Chinese Legend, the mid-autumn festival is held in honor of several events. One of those is commemorating the story of Chang'e and Houyi. Houyi is a famous general, and an accomplished archer. Chang'e is his beloved wife. Back in those days, there were ten suns that took the form of three-legged birds. Normally each sun would circle the earth one at a time, but things got really hot when the suns decided to circle the earth together. After a few fiery scorching days, the Emperor asked Houyi to use his superior archery skills to shoot down all but one of the suns. Houyi complied, and as a reward the Emperor gave him a magic pill that would allow Houyi to live forever. The Emporer gave strict instructions to Houyi to prepare for immortality by fasting and praying for a year. So Houyi took the magic pill home and hid it. One day, Chang'e saw a moonbeam shining on the exact spot where Houyi hid the pill. She investigated, and when she found the pill, she swallowed it. Of course, once he found out, Houyi was very angry. To escape his anger, Chang'e flew to the moon, and has since become the Moon Goddess of Immortality. Once she got there, she coughed up half of the pill that granted her eternal life. She asked the jade rabbit who also lives on the moon to help pound another pill of immortality from herbs so that Chang'e could give the pill to her husband, Houyi, and they could be together again. The jade rabbit is still working on it. In the mean time, Houyi has taken up residence on the sun and only visits Chang'e once a year in autumn, which is why the moon shines to brightly at this time of year.

The Mid Autumn Festival also commemorates the day when the Chinese defeated the Mongol in the 14th century. To prevent rebellions, the Mongols did not allow the Chinese to have any gatherings or meetings which would allow them to organize an attack. So, in order to communicate with each other, the Chinese hid messages inside of mooncakes, kind of like a fortune cookie. The Mongols did not eat mooncakes, so mooncake messages became the primary means of communication. According to legend, the Chinese coordinated an attack against the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th month via mooncake messages. Thus, mooncakes have become a traditional part of the Mid Autumn Festival. Mooncakes are like miniature pies. The filling can be anything from chocolate to mixed nuts to lotus seed and bean paste. Craig likes the Disney ones, because they are chocolate flavored and have Mickey Mouse on them. I like mooncakes - but they are so sweet and rich that it's impossible to eat an entire one in the same sitting.

In addition to lanterns and mooncakes, the celebration includes lion dancing! Lion dancing is when two dancers dress up as lions and perform a ceremonial dance. Usually the dance is done to scare away bad luck. Here is Craig standing next to the lion costumes.

Another way to ensure prosperity and fortune is through dragon dancing. This dragon dances in the air, chasing a fireball. He is held aloft by 8 or so poles held by dancers. They synchronize their movements so that the dragon appears to fly through the air.

This is the Chinese god of Prosperity, who made an appearance during the celebration. He danced around with the crowd. At one point he gave away "ang pao", which is a small red envelope with something lucky inside of it.

Here is Craig standing next to some other Chinese deities. We had a wonderful time celebrating the Mid Autumn Festival.  Most of the information I cited here was told to us by strangers on the streets. I may have forgotten some of it, but I think it's fairly accurate. We are always happy to learn about the wonderful cultural celebrations that are held in Penang, and thankfully our hosts are always eager to share them with us and explain what everything means.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Having Fun in Hanoi

After a relaxing few days in Halong Bay, we were ready to tackle Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. We visited Uncle Ho, spotted a preserved turtle, walked through a Confucian university, and saw the one Hilton in the world you don't ever want to stay at. If you missed a previous post, you can use the links on the right to view them.

One of the "must see" attractions in Hanoi is Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. This is where Uncle Ho himself lies in state, similar to other Communist Party notables like V. I. Lenin in Russia and Chairman Mao in China. We weren't allowed to take any pictures inside - but it was very cold (for obvious reasons) and very solemn. The guards were all dressed in white, which is the Chinese color for death. The Mausoleum itself was built by the Soviets soon after Uncle Ho's passing in 1969. The Soviets also did the embalming, and to this day Uncle Ho makes an annual pilgrimage to Russia for unspecified "maintenance".

Near to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum is the Presidential Palace. This edifice was built by the French colonists in the late 1800's as the capital building of French Indochina. It's a beautiful building, but sadly the site was made by clearing away Vietnam's "forbidden city" where the former emperor lived. Uncle Ho lived here for a few years before moving to another location nearby. This is still used to greet official state visitors, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who helped normalize the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh was a very simple man, and wanted to live simply. This is the house that Uncle Ho built, which is a few yards away from the Presidential Palace. It is similar to the stilt houses he lived in while fighting in the jungle during World War II.

Here we are standing in front of the One Pillar pagoda. This is also near the Presidential Palace. This pagoda was originally built in the 10th century by the emperor Lý Thái Tông. The emperor was childless, and desired an heir. One night he had a dream that Buddha, while sitting on a lotus blossom, handed the emperor a son. Later, the emperor's wife gave birth to a son, so the emperor built this pagoda to show his gratitude to Buddha. The pagoda is built to resemble a lotus flower, which is why it stands on a single narrow column (representing the stem) and was built in muddy water (which is where lotus flowers grow).

After visiting Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and the surrounding area, we went to the Temple of Literature. This amazing site is actually an ancient university that was established in the 11th century. The temple is dedicated to the Chinese scholar Confucius.

These stone tablets list the names of those who graduated from the university. They are put on the backs of turtles as a symbol of longevity.

Here is Jennifer and Craig in front of the shrine to Confucius. Confucianism was brought to Vietnam by the Chinese during the time when Vietnam was considered part of China. It spread during the Vietnamese Tran dynasty to other parts of Vietnam as well. Devotees can worship the spirit of Confucius here, and maybe be blessed with a bit of the ancient philosopher's wisdom.

We also visited the Maison Centrale, or central prison, that was built by the French to house political prisoners. You probably know it as the Hanoi Hilton, where American POW's were kept by Vietnam, including U.S. Senator John McCain. This is no longer a working prison, and is instead a museum that shows the depraved conditions the French kept prisoners in. Sadly, the section of the prison that housed the POW's was torn down about ten years ago, so we only saw videos and displays produced by the Communist Party on that part of this infamous building's history. Press and information is tightly controlled by the Communist Party in Vietnam, so the information we were given at the exhibit was a bit one-sided.

Here is one piece of French influence that we found in the Maison Centrale. Yes, this is Madame La Guillotine, intended to be a swift and humane executioner, if there can be such a thing. She was used in the 1800's and early 1900's during the French occupation of Vietnam.

We also visited Hoan Kiem Lake, which is a small freshwater lake in the center of the old district. Legend states that emperor Lê Lợi gave back a sacred sword, called Heaven's Will, to the golden turtle who lives in the lake. To this day, soft shell turtles guard the sword which is still hidden somewhere in the lake.

Here is the actual turtle who took the sword back to the lake. He's preserved on Jade Island in a small shrine built to honor General Tran Hung Dao and his military success in repelling the Chinese invasion during the Yuan Dynasty. Craig wouldn't get near this old turtle who isn't nearly as well preserved as Uncle Ho.

A small bridge called the Huc or Sunrise bridge connects Jade Island in Hoan Kiem Lake to the shore. The flags are being flown in celebration of Vietnam's national holiday on September 2nd.

This is the Trấn Quốc, or "stabilizing the nation" pagoda on a small island in the West Lake in Hanoi. It's very close to the spot John McCain was captured after his airplane was shot down. This temple was built in the sixth century and is supposed to ward off invading nations. If you know the history of Vietnam and Indochina, you know that this pagoda may not have had the desired effect of keeping invaders out.

These are the golden Buddhas in the shrine in the Trấn Quốc temple. The Vietnamese practice the Mahayana version of Buddhism as opposed to the Theravada version practiced in Thailand. in Mahayana Buddhism, anyone can achieve "enlightenment" if he or she is dedicated enough to pursue it.

Like Ho Chi Minh City, the architecture in Hanoi was heavily influenced by the French. Some of these old "tube houses" on a tree lined boulevard near our hotel show the French colonial style pillars and flair from the 1800's and early 1900's. Sometimes we felt we were walking through a European city. The Communist Party flags that were hung in the street were a constant reminder of where we were, though.

We really enjoyed Hanoi. While smaller than Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi still has an Asian charm with sprinkles of colonial France mixed in. Overall, we enjoyed Vietnam and learned a lot about the history of the region.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Vietnamese Water Puppet Show

Like most of Southeast Asia, rice farming is a big part of Vietnamese history. A few hundred years ago, some creative rice farmers invented a new form of entertainment called water puppet shows. You can see the water puppets planting rice in the picture above. The puppets are made out of wood and painted with heavy lacquer. They "dance" on top of the water as the puppeteers manipulate their movements via long poles held just below the water's surface. Originally, these shows were held in the flooded rice paddies, but now they are held inside specially built theaters with waist-high water on the stage.

Given its heritage, it's only natural that the puppet show have a scene for planting rice. You can see a video of water puppets planting rice by clicking here. Of course, the rice farmer's do-everything tool is the water buffalo, which was featured in the show. This serves as further proof that everyone has got a water buffalo.

The puppet show was accompanied by a live orchestra. The instruments were traditional Vietnamese. The most interesting are the đàn gáo, the đàn bầu, and the đàn tam thập lục. The đàn gáo is a two-stringed instrument that is like a violin. The đàn tam thập lục has thirty six strings and is played by striking the strings with short mallets. These are both found throughout Asia and are very unique sounding. My favorite, however, is the đàn bầu.

The đàn bầu is a single string instrument that is found in Vietnam and southern China (although it has a different name in China). The man on the left in the picture above is playing a đàn bầu (the woman on the right is playing the đàn tam thập lục).  Despite having only one string, it can produce all the notes you could ever want, including septimal minor third and septimal whole tones. Perhaps Dr. Jessop can explain what those are the next time you speak with him. You can view a video with the đàn bầu by clicking here. The video part may be a bit choppy, but the audio is good. Be sure to to listen to at least 2 minutes of the video to get a good sample of the breadth of sounds the đàn bầu can produce.

Pyrotechnics were also featured in the puppet show. Here is a horse lighting a firework that he holds in his mouth, just before jumping through the ring of fire.

The grand finale had a goldfish that transformed into a water-spitting dragon. This was Craig's favorite part!

We really enjoyed the water puppet show. Craig liked it so much that we went twice! It was great to experience the unique culture of Vietnam through the music and puppets that we saw in Hanoi.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pirates of Halong Bay

Halong Bay is located a few hours from Hanoi in the northern part of Vietnam. It is famous for its blue waters and limestone peaks that reach out of the surface of the bay like dragon's teeth. It's also famous for "junk" cruises on wooden boats like the Halong Jasmine pictured above. Or, if you're a six year old boy, Halong Bay means a two day ride on a real pirate ship!

Our ship was built in the 1930's and had about 16 or so guest cabins. It was beautifully maintained and covered with wood. We've been on big cruise ships, and this little junk was every bit as nice as the mega ships that sail the Caribbean.

We had a balcony room - the first balcony on the left side of the picture was ours. It was wonderful to sit and enjoy a frosty cola while watching the limestone islets creep by.

The attraction in Halong Bay is definitely the scenery. These enormous tree-topped limestone monoliths are scattered as far as the eye can see.

In Vietnamese, "halong" literally means descending dragon. We found a rock here that definitely looked like a dragon had stopped to take a sip of the water.

Here are more of the limestone peaks, with a small fishing boat in the foreground.

The shallow waters are rich in nutrients, thus making Halong Bay a very good fishing location. We toured a fishing village that has existed for hundreds of years. Families live in houses that are floating out on the ocean. They have everything they need to live, including a school, a Taoist temple, and a town hall. Fresh water and food is brought in from the mainland.

Entire families made their homes in the fishing villiage. I'm sure the children know how to swim really well! We saw everything in these houses that you'd expect to see in a home built on land: dishes, laundry, toys, and some homes even had sattelinte television.

The hats are pretty cool, too.

As those of you who studied geology already know, limestone is quite water soluble (for a rock, that is). So when rain water falls on these giant limestone islets, small trickles of water eventually wash away parts of the limestone and form caves. This process takes an extremely long time, but the results are breathtaking. Here is Jennifer and Craig in front of a multi-colored stalagtite formation.

Later that night we all had dinner on board the ship, and then relaxed in our cabin in the shadows of the dramatic rocks.

Halong Bay was a lot of relaxing fun. We weren't sure Craig would like it, but he walked around the ship pretending to be Captain Jack Sparrow the entire time.Here he is, holding his pirate gold (which is actually the key to our cabin). It was a very relaxing two days, and we wish we could have had more time. But then, no one ever wants to get off a cruise when it's over!

Watch for our exciting post about Hanoi in the next few days!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Burgers, Pâté, and Phở in Vietnam

There are two types of food in Vietnam: local asian-style dishes, and French inspired cuisine. We ate lots of both, and found some really great new favorites!

As soon as Russ found out we were in Vietnam he asked if we tried phở. Phở (prounounced "fu", as in "fun") is a noodle dish invented in northern Vietnam. The broth is the main feature here, and is made by slowly simmering yummy goodies like oxtail, flank steak, charred ginger, and other spices. Here we are at Phở 24, a restaurant that serves phở 24 hours a day for just a few dong per bowl. Phở is served with bean sprouts, mint leaves, and fresh limes. I prefer the beef, or phở bo, but Craig enjoyed the chicken, or phở gà.

Mmmm! Yummy phở bo! This picture is for Russ, Leticia, Ben, Nathan, Aaron, and everyone else who enjoys slurping phở by the liter!

Jennifer and I also took a a cooking class at the Saigon Culinary Arts Center where we learned to make some local dishes, including tomato soup, spring rolls, and claypot fish. We started by learning to make a garnish out of a tomato peel. David, my brother the chef, has taught me a few tricks for carving garnishes over the years, so I did a fair job carving my tomato peel into a flower.

Jennifer really knows how to cook and cooks quite well. She doesn't need fancy cut vegetables to make her dishes taste better. But, despite being probably the most experienced student in the class, Jennifer struggled to cut her tomato and quickly became the "special" student and received extra attention for the rest of the day.

The first thing we made was the Vietnamese tomato soup. After simmering the tomatoes with green onions and other spices, we stirred in a beaten egg - with style!

Here is Jennifer with the finished product. This is a simple soup to make and is very delicately spiced. I'm usually not a huge fan of tomatoes, but I loved this soup!

Here we are rolling spring rolls. These spring rolls have sweet potato as an ingredient and are wrapped in rice paper. You eat them by wrapping the cooked spring roll in lettuce with vermicelli noodles and dipping them into a fish oil sauce. Don't be scared - fish oil is good if used properly.

Here are the finished products (except the spring rolls, which we promptly ate). The rice was cooked in its own little clay pot with pandan leaves, the soup was served with a palm wood spoon, and the claypot carmel fish was great!

Here is our culinary school graduation ceremony! Yes, even though Jennifer was the "special" student, she graduated too. Here we are with our certificates and the chef during our graduation ceremony. It's official - we are certified to cook a few simple Vietnamese dishes!

As I mentioned in the last post, the French had a major impact on Vietnam, especially with regards to cuisine. In other words, you can get wonderful French bread, exotic cheeses, prime meats, and creamy yoghurt in Vietnam. Here is Craig picking up one of his favorites, a hamburger. Although not French, this hamburger was better than most other burgers we've had in Penang.

We had a great time enjoying the unique selection of French and Vietnamese culinary delights. Craig liked the burgers. I liked the spring rolls. Jennifer liked the French bread and pâté roll ups with Vietnamese spices. We all left happy.