Monday, September 17, 2018

THE FALL OF SAIGON

Saigon fell [or was liberated] on 30 April 1975 and the most enduring images of that day are the chaotic helicopter evacuations at the rooftop of the US Embassy and a North Vietnamese Army tank crashing through the gates of the Independence Palace that was then the official residence of the South Vietnamese president.

The embassy was demolished in 1998 but the Independence Palace still stands and renamed as the Reunification Hall which is now a historical landmark and open to the public, and will be the first ever place of interest that I've visited in Ho Chi Minh. 


A short 4-minute walk away from the Reunification Hall is the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, another must-see landmark that was started to be built in 1863 and features a granite statute of Our Lady of Peace that was installed in 1959 which became a sensation in 2005 when it was reported to have shed tears. 


Unfortunately, I'm only in Ho Chi Minh courtesy of an 18-hour lay-over from the Philippine and Vietnam Airlines and that being the case, the Reunification Hall and the Cathedral are the only places I will be able to walk to considering the time constraint, although the walk from my hotel to these landmarks [5 kilometers to and from] is in itself a tour of old Saigon's colonial elegance and its transformation into a street food and street art haven.   




Midway between the Cathedral and Elios Hotel where I'll be staying for the night is the Ben Thanh Market whose story evolved from ambulant vendors converging along the banks of the Saigon River in the 17th century, the humble beginnings of a formal market that was established by the French colonial government in 1859 which in 1870 was razed by fire and rebuilt to become Saigon's largest market.  

The current market building was built in 1912 and is now a popular tourist area, the equivalent of Bangkok's Chatuchak Weekend Market but with more aggressive vendors specially in the food section which is a turn-off at least for me.


Adjacent to this tourist trap is the Ben Thanh Street Food Market that in my understanding is street food fare and stalls gathered under the roof of a food court which is not exactly my idea of what a street food is, although I relented to a banh mi [baguette sandwich], two pieces of spring rolls and a can of 333 Beer --- said to be a favorite of American GIs during the Vietnam War which the government rebranded from "33 Beer" into "333 Premium Export Beer" after the war.      




That was lunch and I decided dinner to be at the "famous" Bui Vien Backpackers' Street which is just a behind my hotel, and that turned out to be a bad decision as I found it to be a Khao San Road of sorts --- rowdy, gaudy, sleazy --- where I ended up being propositioned for a massage service every 10 meters and encountered an old man riding an old bike with an old bell clanging offering ladies for company. 

Like Khao San Road in Bangkok, fame has obviously overtaken Bui Vien Street in such a way that it has sold its soul to commercial tourism, the rustic ambience of what I can only imagine now as a homely and tame community of backpackers transformed into a circus and an outdoor pub where a herd of drunk half-naked muscular Caucasian males [must be Europeans since they keep bellowing a football chant] puke in a street corner.

I finally found a quite place managed by an elderly Vietnamese couple where I nibbled on a plate of stir-fried squid [with salted eggs, lemon leaves and chilli] and nursed a big bottle of Bia Saigon as the girls from a massage parlor across the street waved at me to come to them.      


That was how Saigon fell into my itinerary, unexpected and unplanned courtesy of the quirks of airline arrangements. 

Ho Chi Minh is however just a footnote to the reason why I was in Vietnam, in Hanoi actually where I spent the first three nights with colleagues in promoting responsible business standards at the GROW Asia Forum and the World Economic Forum on the ASEAN.


Vietnam is certainly a tale of two cities: Hanoi in the north which is subdued but thriving with real street food stalls [those with small tables and plastic chairs] where wonderful Vietnamese cuisine can be enjoyed at cheap prices, and Saigon in the south which is carefree and too gaudy and touristy unfortunately.



Saigon is a "happy city" the young lady at the reception of Hanoi's Ping Hotel told me, and it certainly is.

Monday, September 10, 2018

5 DAYS

Queen Christina of Sweden created the Order of the Amarante in 1653 in honor of Spanish Ambassador Don Antonio Pimentel whose hometown is Amarante in Spain, and was subsequently conferred to 15 other unmarried Knights "who participated in the Queen's most intimate pleasures" every Saturday evening during the "Feast of  the Gods" [Wikipedia].

It was this Order that inspired Bro. James Taylor [the Mason not the singer] to create a new Masonicaly inclined society in 1860 that Bro. Robert Macoy eventually organized into the Order of the Amaranth in 1873.


Today's Order of the Amaranth is an appendant body of Freemasonry composed of Masons and their female relatives who are all expected to prove the goodness of the Order by adhering to the Golden Rule and the virtues of Truth, Faith, Wisdom and Charity.   


Me and my wife are members of the Order and are greatly honored to be chosen by the Grand Royal Matron and Patron of the Philippines to be their representatives in Central Luzon, and thrilled to host them during their official visit to the District.

Day 1 (September 5)

With leaves of absence filed, hotels booked and the 5-day itinerary of travel finalized, we motored to Clark International Airport to receive our guests and on the way stopped for lunch at Casa Galleria at the City Mall along SCTEX where we encountered happiness in samples of their homemade ice cream although the rest of the menu is nothing great if their dinuguan [too salty] and lechong kawali [fried more than lechon] are examples of it.

Google led us to Cafe Mesa within the Clark Freeport Zone after picking Grand Lecturer Eva Panopio who flew from Davao City via Cebu, and it is a cozy place to chill actually with barista coffee, quesadilla and tacos to kill the time and warm up with our first guest, although I must admit I got distracted by the tattooed ladies who mixed and served my gin tonic. 

Finally, touchdown for Grand Royal Matron Rowina and Grand Royal Patron Solomon Soliza, our bosses so to speak, all the way from the southernmost city of Zamboanga City also via Cebu, and I'm double thankful to Google who led us to the Matam-ih Authentic Kampampangan Cuisine since what is more appropriate for a reception dinner than a spread of the local food --- pinakbet, binagoongang baboy, kare-kare, pinaupong manok, sisig, pako salad, sinigang na ulo ng salmon, patatim --- which is actually a culinary representation of Central Luzon and generally alright in terms of taste although the service is below my standards for such a highly Google-rated restaurant.  



Day 2 (September 6)

It has been agreed that the wife will stay with our GRM and GRP although our residence is just nearby, and all Royal Matrons have been advised to focus on preparing their respective Courts for the Grand Visit and nothing else.

We have taken the full responsibility of escorting our guests to ensure that we stick to the itinerary and time, and that unfortunately has taken a blow on the first scheduled visit to Nueva Ecija Court No. 31 that was delayed by almost 2 hours which is a representation of the infamous Amaranthine time. 

Aside from that, it was a good day with us Sir Knights having a photo with Rommel Padilla [Daniel Padilla's dad] that somehow tempered the three hours lost in the hotel lobby, and two skewers of karioka fuelling the next hours until the Fellowship Night at Cafe Leticia where we appointed ourselves as food inspectors and stripped the lechon to its last crisp skin before it was even served. 



Day 3 (September 7)

Despite our best efforts, Amaranthine time again ruled even before leaving Harvest Hotel for the 35-kilometer ride to Pantabangan-Bonari Court No. 46 that effectively delayed the program by two hours.

And when we started, the rain came hard too but was blunted by the warm reception of candles, bubbles and confetti showered upon the GRM and GRP, and that was how it went until lunch when the rain poured harder as if competing for attention, escorting us through the 26-kilometer ride to San Jose City Court No. 54 who welcomed us amidst a deluge which I and two other Sir Knights bravely endured to get the parking done right.


I had wet socks throughout the program which I don't mind specially at dinner when I was reunited with the half-full Johnny Walker bottle from last night night's fellowship that somehow eased the discomfort of being wet inside an airconditioned room. 





Day 4 (September 8)

This was the day we almost caught up with time until our advance party at Model Court No. 55 advised us to delay since there's just a few people in Baloc at that time.

So we made a detour to the St. Joseph the Worker Cathedral where the GRM and GRP offered the bouquets of flowers presented to her from the first three visits, was hoping to bide more time with a carabao milk-laced coffee at Milka Krema that was unfortunately still closed, and made up for that with a short tour of CLSU.

And then to an Honor Guard welcome at our home Court finally, another 2-hour delay regrettably, and to a really warm reception that was too much for some and required abbreviating the program, before the airconditioned comfort of Munoz Royal Court No. 17


By then, we were almost on time but that did not matter anymore.    





We concluded the Grand Visit with a Fellowship Night that we [me and my wife as DDGRP and DDGRM, respectively] tendered in honor of the GRM and GRM, and for the Royal Matrons and subordinate Courts of District 5 who did everything in their powers to roll out the best red carpet for our guests.

And I am one happy husband because I saw a very happy wife so I opened a bottle of Glenfiddich single malt whiskey, another bottle of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7, a case each of San Miguel Light and Pale Pilsen, and let it all out with the band. 


Day 5 (September 9)

I was still tipsy when the van picked me up at 3 am for the trip back to Clark International Airport and it was too early when we arrived to find a place for a proper breakfast so we have to make do with McDo.

Then it was time to say goodbye for the moment, relieved that everything turned out well, and thankful to everyone who supported the Grand Visit in one way or another, specially to our Mistahs who have been with us since Day 1.



We took off to the SIDCOR Sunday Market where I parted ways with my wife and our friends, them to shop and then go home to catch sleep, me to NAIA Terminal 2 where I promised to relieve the Mabuhay Lounge bar of everything it has to offer so I can sleep my way all the way to Hanoi.  


Monday, September 03, 2018

BANGKOK FOOD PORN

Hotel breakfast buffets

a bunch of roses stolen from the garden

wilting and fading in each passing day
the trick is not to eat the full spread
just bacon and oriental eggs in Day 1
congee in Day 2, chicken soup in Day 3
pork ribs and rice noodles in Day 4. 



Hotel set lunches

soup, salad, main course and dessert
announced with flair and politely served
Thai, medium lamb, baked mackerel 
a smorgasbord of fork, spoon and knife
fine dining's pretentious ceremony
which is what's paid and not the taste.


Dinners outside hotel

two big beers for the price of the hotel's one
delicate omelette and crispy fried fish
roasted pork neck, fried chicken wings
tom yum chased by a squid on fire 
nights tempered with brandy and whiskey 
fine china eclipsed by cheap plastic.



It was for the dinners that we say "kampai"!