Tribute to train travel

The first time I ever took a train was in my 20s when I visited East Asia before my final year of university. Since then, I’ve taken trains across China, Japan, Taiwan, and several other countries in Asia, as well as Western Europe. Taking the train, whether high-speed or regular or sleeper, is to me an essential part of travel. While taking a plane might be faster, it’s also too easy and too convenient. Riding a train lets you see more of the land, people, and scenery, and it can also be comfortable and pleasant. Of course, it can also be noisy and jarring if your train is one of those antique ones that shake with every turn of the train wheels and give off a loud racket incessantly. Whatever the case, I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy this form of transport that was alien to me during my childhood and adolescence.
Here, I’ve listed trains I took in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka
I took trains along the West coast (Wellagama to Colombo), then into the central highlands from Colombo to Kandy and Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The trains were either very old or relatively new but modest in speed and appearance. Finally, I took an overnight train from Eliya Nuya back to Colombo, but on a seat, not a bunk. That last ride was quite rough because the train was several decades old and provided a turbulent and noisy ride that prevented me from getting any sleep. Thankfully, it was the only bad train trip I had in Sri Lanka. All the other train rides gave me the best views I’ve ever had from a train, and the one from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya was amazing as it went up mountains and along a ridge overlooking deep valleys and tea plantations.

I took the train from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, then from that city to Penang (actually to Butterworth station then ferry). The trains were modern and clean, and the rides were smooth. They weren’t particularly fast but as the duration of both of my trips were only a couple of hours, that was ok. While Kuala Lumpur’s train station was quite large and busy, most train stations in the rural areas between KL and Ipoh were small structures that were basically platforms and covered roofs. Ipoh’s stately colonial station, built in 1917, is the most attractive train station I’ve seen. Continue reading “Tribute to train travel”


The Sympathizer- book review

Lots of books have been written about the Vietnam War but those mostly are about the US experience. The Sympathizer is a novel about the war from a Vietnamese perspective, but even this is a little complicated. The protagonist is a South Vietnamese captain and aide of a special police general, both of whom flee to the US after the fall of Saigon to the victorious North Vietnamese. But he is also a long-time mole who reports on the general and other South Vietnamese in the US for the North Vietnamese. This makes for a very intriguing novel that blends a war story with an immigrant’s tale and a suspense thriller with a bit of history and politics as well. This potent mix is why the Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 as well as several other major book prizes.

However, the story doesn’t end in the US but surprisingly returns to Vietnam, which was unified after the North defeated and overran the South, in an agonizing finale. Since I don’t want to disclose the ending, I’m being intentionally vague. I will say the conclusion comes after the general and other South Vietnamese refugees in the US plot a covert invasion of their home country, which the captain struggles to decide whether to take part in.

The book is starkly fascinating, starting in Saigon during its last days as the capital of South Vietnam, with the desperation of people to flee being especially palpable, mixed with the despair and defiance of soldiers like the general and the captain’s comrade as they contemplate futile resistance. After the captain and the general make it to the US, they struggle to make a living in vastly humbler circumstances, a common experience of many immigrants. During this whole period, readers discover the captain’s origins, being the illegitimate love child of a French Catholic priest and a local village woman, which makes him a bastard, a Eurasian and scorned by many of his compatriots. Yet it is never clear why he chooses to serve the North, other than that his village was in the north.
There is a strange interlude in the middle of the novel where the captain serves as an advisor during the filming of a Hollywood movie about the war, which bears similarities to Apocalypse Now.

Vietnam, to me, is an intriguing country whose history (both recent and past), culture, and society are often overlooked and underrepresented in Western media. The Vietnam War was a significant tragedy for the US, which can be seen in American movies, TV series and novels about the war, but this obscures the fact that the Vietnamese suffered the most, even if they were the ultimate victors. The Sympathizer can only portray a bit of the effect of the war and its aftermath on the Vietnamese, but this is more than enough to present the trauma and tensions vividly.

I found the book a little too dark and tragic to be truly enjoyable, but it is highly captivating.

Books · China

Asia’s Cauldron- book review

The South China Sea has been the biggest flash point in Asia for the past few years, even though North Korea has stolen the thunder with its provocative missile tests in the last few weeks. Surrounded by multiple nations, but heavily contested by one that is furthest away from it, the sea is a vital conduit for regional trade with over $5 trillion worth of shipping passing through it each year. It is also rich in underground petroleum deposits. The nation that I am referring to above is China, which has expended a lot of effort in claiming and occupying islets and reefs in the sea that even extend into other countries’ waters. Asia’s Cauldron – The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific looks at this potential theater of war and the geopolitics surrounding it.

Kaplan outlines China’s rising military strength and capabilities, which last week’s news of China launching its home-built and second aircraft carrier provided a reminder of. China claims over the majority of the sea, using a dubious nine-dash map (first issued by the ROC in the mid-20th century) that supposedly shows that China historically had control of many islets in the sea. While this flimsy evidence does not have much ground in contemporary international norms or laws, China has disregarded this and continues to stand by its claims.

But yet, international conventions be damned, as other than economic collapse or a significant decline, China is set to dominate the region. However, while nations like Vietnam and Malaysia are obviously too small to confront China by themselves, the US support and cooperation among those countries can ensure a balance of power. Because to ensure stability and relative peace, balance of power rather than US domination is necessary. In other words, China’s rise must be tolerated and even given some breathing space, though the US needs to remain involved.

Kaplan also says that the South China Sea is potentially to China what the Caribbean is to the US, basically its maritime backyard over which which it has total domination. The US did this in the early 20th century and China is trying to do something similar. Of course, one difference is that rather than being filled with mostly tiny Caribbean countries, the South China Sea is surrounded by larger, older countries that do not readily accept Chinese domination.

So in addition to China, Kaplan also devotes a chapter each to key countries including Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Philippines, all of which he visited. He provides interesting and insightful observations of each country on their geopolitical situation,history, military, and society. Vietnam is the one most at threat from China, but despite its small size, it is a feisty country with a long history of resistance to Chinese occupiers and attackers from imperial times, not to mention its fight with the US in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Kaplan surprisingly rates Malaysia highly, seeing it as a model Islamic nation that is also democratic and diverse. The chapter on Philippines makes for somewhat surprising and amusing reading, as Kaplan likens it more to a failing Latin American country than an Asian one, a result of its inefficient Spanish colonialism. In these country chapters, he provides a complete picture combining interviews, history and observations, as opposed to some writers who visit a country and use a few anecdotes or statistics to come to conclusions.

Robert D Kaplan is one of my favorite authors, due to his keen geopolitical views and insights on regions and conflicts around the world in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. He is famous for The Coming Anarchy, a 1994 essay that painted a very bleak picture of the world due to overcrowding, tribalism and environmental issues. But his writing is measured as opposed to alarmist or emotional. Even if you don’t agree with him, you will still learn something.

Asia’s Cauldron was published in 2014, but its topic and views are still just as relevant and vital now.


Taipei links – plane crash, mayor’s controversial interview, city ranking

Taiwan suffered one of the world’s most memorable plane crashes this past week when a plane went down in Taipei soon after takeoff and plunged into a river. There were only 15 survivors, with 36 confirmed dead and the rest missing as of today (Saturday Taiwan time).
However, what was amazing is that the turboprop plane went down and chipped a bridge, which was captured by the dashcams of several cars that were ON the bridge, before it flew into the river. The pilot had enough presence of mind to manuever the diving plane away from the bridge and nearby apartment buildings and into the river, avoiding a high number of casualties in the buildings and allowing several lucky passengers on the plane to survive. However, an investigation has shown that a “professional error” might have been made as one engine had stopped working after takeoff but that the other engine was shut off instead.

This was yet another disaster for the airline TransAsia Airways, which also suffered a deadly plane crash last July landing on Penghu. The airline TransAsia Airways flies mainly short routes from Taiwan to outlying islands, mainland China, Japan and a few destinations in Southeast Asia. To have two deadly crashes with one year, and six accidents in the last years, is far too much for such an airline and I wonder if it may soon cease to exist.

Taipei’s new mayor Ko Wen-je caused some controversy in an interview when he stated that colonization made Singapore, HK, and Taiwan better than each other and China. In a quite blunt interview, while some of his remarks were a bit politically-incorrect, some of them also made sense. He spoke about much more than just culture and colonialism, as he talked about Taiwan, relations with the mainland, the Chinese Communist party.

Regarding his comment on how colonization made Singapore better than HK (both British colonies), HK better than Taiwan, and Taiwan (which was a Japanese colony during the early 20th century up until the mid-1940s) better than China, I think his point is not about colonization being good but more about the possible problems with Chinese society. Nevertheless there are some who have perceived Ko’s comments as supporting colonization and critiqued his interview. However, it is important that Ko was speaking about specifically the four Chinese-speaking places – China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Ko never said colonization was good for African nations or India, Burma or the Philippines.
Now one can argue HK and Singapore are both city-states while Taiwan is a small island, so it stands that the mainland would certainly be more disorganized and less developed. Also, Taiwan may have been colonized by the Japanese, who built highways and institutions such as its best university National Taiwan University, but the other good aspects of its society – democracy, free media, independent judiciary, universal health insurance system – were devised and undertaken by the Taiwanese themselves. However, one can also counter-argue that Taiwan is not as efficiently run as Singapore or Hong Kong, and that some of its much vaunted democracy have been eroded in recent times, such as corruption and the local media, whose poor quality is sneered at by both Taiwanese and expats.
Even so, there is no question that society in those three places are much more open, free, and “civilized” than the mainland’s.  Answering another question, he made a hearty endorsement of the US, where he lived for one year, and its freedom.

He also said Vietnam had a better culture than China despite being much poorer. While I only have 10 days’ experience of being in Vietnam, I’d say society there seems much more laid-back, pleasant and less materialistic than China’s. Vietnam also seemed to have a more traditional society, which is not surprising given it is much smaller and more importantly, did not go through a Cultural Revolution, the period of madness when mainlanders were manipulated by the party into attacking each other and destroying many facets of Chinese culture. Of course, Vietnam also has similar problems like China – censored media, corruption and a fair share of hustlers.

Taipei, as much as I can criticize it, is a very decent city to live in, as confirmed by its placing 7th on this list of livable Asian cities done by a British consulting firm. Singapore is number one, followed by Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo and Yokohama. Hong Kong is in 6th place, while Seoul is 10th. Shanghai is 13th while Beijing is 18th. Globally, Taipei is 65th which is still alright given the firm looked at over 450 cities (Shanghai is 110th globally).


Photo roundup – airports and views from up high

I have to admit I have a few strange habits and one of them is taking pictures of certain things or places that most people probably don’t. I especially indulge in this habit whenever I fly as I take photos of airports, the skies or the places below from the plane, and even planes from time to time.

I had to fly to Taiwan last week, just months after my last visit due to the need to get a minor but important medical operation. It’s kind of a hassle to fly when it’s not for a vacation such go through security and transfer flights but it gave me a chance to take a few interesting photos. And of course, going to Taiwan regardless of the reason lets me be in a more healthier and polite society. And enjoy faster and uncensored Internet and a very open media environment.

Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport
Sunset flying over the strait, the best view of the skies I’ve even had from a plane

These photos below are from last year.
The roof of the terminal, not the lady, is what I took a photo of, though she’s a fine addition to the picture of Hong Kong Airport.
This photo of Hong Kong might look like it was taken two decades ago, but this was actually last October. You can see Kowloon on the top in the middle, and Hong Kong Island’s business districts opposite Kowloon on the other side of the channel, especially the IFC tower jutting out amid HK’s other skyscrapers (it’s also my favorite HK tower). The Occupy street protests were going on so I was even trying to see if I could spot it from the plane (I couldn’t).
Beijing airport with its distinctive red-lined ceiling
Vietnamese countryside seen on a flight to Hanoi
Northern Vietnamese mountains seen on a flight to Hanoi
View over the ocean on a flight to Johannesburg from Hong Kong
Victoria Falls seen from a plane from Livingstone, Zambia (the town next to the falls), back to Johannesburg
The Angkor Air turpoprop plane I flew on to get from Siem Reap to Bangkok

China · Taiwan

Asia links – Taiwan’s super elections, China’s latest crackdown, and Vietnam dog trade

It was a murky day outside today in Beijing, making this probably the seventh or eight straight week with terrible smog days (minus the week APEC was in town) where the skies are dark gray, there’s a faint smoky smell in the air, and the air quality index is over 400.

First off, it might be just another smoggy day in Beijing but over in Taiwan, it’s a momentous occasion as the biggest local elections took place (11,000 city, district and village posts up for grabs!). In a major result, the capital Taipei will have an independent, a respected surgeon at a top hospital, become its new mayor. It might be an upset, but it wasn’t totally unexpected since the KMT candidate Sean Lien was rather mediocre and seen as out-of-touch due to his being the wealthy son of former premier Lien Chan, a sort of Taiwanese version of the “princelings” that you have in China.
Speaking of China, the loss of key cities such as Taipei and Taichung for the KMT will have an impact on cross-strait relations indirectly. The KMT will be weakened and this will have an impact on the next presidential election in 2016. This will make Beijing a bit nervous since the KMT is the party with the pro-mainland stance and has been facilitating increased relations with the mainland since 2008.

One stupid thing about the KMT’s campaign is this ad which showed South Korea coming out ahead of Taiwan in cards, alluding to South Korea’s signing of a free-trade agreement with China recently. The point of the ad was to claim that the DPP supports South Korea, which many Taiwanese see as their main competitor, due to its opposition against Taiwan signing an economic services agreement (which the Sunflower movement quashed by occupying the legislation back in April this year). The ad is an example of the anti-Korean sentiment and paranoia among some Taiwanese, which can be silly and unreasonable, and it’s gotten criticized in South Korea and even Japan.

Meanwhile, in the latest crackdown on the mainland, puns have become the latest thing to be banned. It joins foreign TV shows, pornography, selected Western media outlets and even inauspicious horoscope forecasts of the first lady’s zodiac sign as targets of recent crackdowns and censorship. Never mind that wordplay is a part of the Chinese language and popular, as the use of tones means a word’s meaning changes when it’s pronounced differently, but, according to the authorities, puns “breach the law” plus can mislead children. Of course, the real reason for this ridiculous seeming order is that regular Chinese sometimes use puns to allude to problems in the country, especially things that are banned such as the Tiananmen protest in 1989 or even censorship itself. For example, “hexie” literally means river crab but is a way of alluding to official censorship because it sounds similar to the word for harmony, which the authorities use to justify censorship.

I liked Vietnam a lot when I went there last year, but I got to say it’s got major issues with animal treatment, such as its dog meat trade. I know it’s a cultural tradition for some Asians, such as China or Korea, to eat dogs, but the problem is the dog meat trade involves stealing dogs, fuelling lucrative black market smuggling, and mistreatment in how the dogs are kept before slaughter and the slaughter process itself, in which dogs may not be fully dead before they’re cooked. A person quoted in the article also says that Vietnam actually doesn’t have a history of eating dogs but that it started a few decades ago during famine after Chinese advisers suggested it. However, there are many Vietnamese who like owning dogs as pets, and the article mentions a couple of instances of dog thieves getting beaten and killed.


Vietnam’s anti-China factory protests- shocking and puzzling

I’m really saddened by the turbulent events that happened in Vietnam last week. I’m also puzzled, despite the frequent media coverage.
I’m referring to the violent factory protests in which Vietnamese workers attacked mostly Taiwan-owned factories, as well as mainland Chinese and even Korean and Singaporean ones, in industrial parks, and Chinese workers in these factories. At least two deaths were reported while over a hundred Chinese were wounded. Thousands of Chinese and Taiwanese have left or are leaving Vietnam, while their respective governments have issued stern warnings against the nation.
The protests have been widely reported as anti-China, with the attacks on Taiwan factories a case of mistaken identity, stemming from China’s recent placement of an offshore oil rig in disputed waters near the Spratly islands that are claimed by both China and Vietnam. There’ve been anti-China protests in cities across Vietnam in the past weeks, and resentment and mistrust of China has long existed, even going back hundreds of years.

Yet the issue is not as black and white as it seems. There have been some strange developments that I think haven’t been reported accurately.

First, the violent protests all took place in the industrial parks, while the urban protests were small and peaceful. That the workers attacked their own factories and others within the industrial parks where they work seems strange, since they’re basically putting their own jobs at risk, not to mention harming their country’s economy and reputation. However, the situation in most parts of the country, especially the major cities, is relatively stable, with absolutely no reports of mainland Chinese visitors or immigrants being attacked.

This leads to the second issue – that the main motive for the protests may not be what is being widely reported. Both Western and mainland Chinese and Taiwan media have reported these protests as being anti-China and fueled by China’s oil rig placement.
A colleague of mine, who’s rather knowledgeable about China and a lot of international affairs, said the protests were due to a mix of issues, and that workers in these factories are treated less favorably than mainland Chinese workers, who get paid more and work under better conditions.
Then, the BBC also raises the same points with this article that says the protests might be more about economic issues than regional politics. It makes some convincing points – there’s been “growing discontent” among Vietnamese workers over perceived poor treatment, resulting in dozens of strikes in recent years at foreign-owned plants over poor pay and treatment, and most recently there’s resentment over the use of mainland workers brought in by Taiwan plants. This is why despite many factories being owned by Taiwan companies, many of the workers attacked were mainland Chinese.
It doesn’t mean the workers don’t also have some anti-Chinese sentiment and anger, but it’s a fair bet that anger towards perceived unfair treatment and pay is probably what mainly drove their actions.

Third, most of the factories that have been attacked are not Chinese. They’re actually owned by Taiwanese companies, as well as South Korean, Malaysian and Singaporean.
The media has described the attacks on Taiwan factories as being due to the Vietnamese workers mistaking them for Chinese since Taiwan companies also have Chinese names and Taiwanese are also ethnic Chinese. This is especially convenient for Taiwan, since many of the attacked companies were Taiwanese and thus bear the brunt of allegations of poor working conditions and pay.
And this might be wrong, as the BBC article says. The Wall Street Journal article that I linked to above mentions possible resentment against foreigners in general, due to increasing socioeconomic gaps in Vietnam and stagnant wage increases for workers. Another factor is that Taiwan companies have been in Vietnam for a number of years, and Vietnamese workers will likely know that the plant owners are Taiwanese and not mainland China (whether they understand the complexity China-Taiwan relations is another matter). As such, it is very unlikely that the workers would mistake the Taiwan factories for being mainland Chinese. It is ironic that I saw this reason being put forth by a noted pro-Taiwan blogger on his blog.

I feel very sad because I visited Vietnam and I got to like the place and respect the people for their culture and the hardship they’ve endured since French colonisation. I’d heard of Vietnam’s rocky relations with China after the Vietnam War, but I learned that this animosity dates back hundreds of years. If there’s one country with which China might perceive as a foe who I feel sympathy and respect for, it’s Vietnam. The Vietnamese are a tough, formidable people, but they’ve got to be careful as well.
Vietnam is also very much a developing country and the protests dealt a serious blow to its industrial capability (over a hundred factories have been damaged and hundreds have stopped production), its trading relations, and its viability as a place to invest in and do business.

It’s good that the violence seems to have stopped and the government has taken firm steps to curb China protests, even small ones in the cities. I hope that they can get to the bottom of why the protests happened because I feel there’s much more to it than what much of the foreign press have reported.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Vietnam travel -Mekong Delta daytrip

On my last full day in Ho Chi Minh City, I visited the Mekong Delta on a daytrip. The mighty Mekong is Southeast Asia’s biggest river, running through several countries until it exits into the sea in southern Vietnam in the Mekong Delta.

The tour was cheap, less than US$20 and included transport, trips to a temple and then an island on the delta, activities on said island, and a lunch. It went rather well, and I unexpectedly ended up meeting 3 travel friends from the mainland. The last part of the tour had to be curtailed due to rough waters which I didn’t escape unscathed, as I and another guy got splashed by the brown river water on our boat on the way back.

On the morning, I went and boarded the tourbus outside the tour agency I’d booked the trip with on Pham Ngu Lao Street. The bus then went to pick up other people at their hotels, concluding with a bunch of Indian 50-,60-somethings from Malaysia. They took a while to get on, both because their party was quite numerous and some of them weren’t exactly in the best of shape. They were however in very good spirits and I couldn’t help being amused at the camaraderie and the cheerfulness of these oldsters. At one point, I  talked to one of them and she joked apologetically about their health ailments regarding bad knees and backs etc. It wasn’t a big deal.

The first stop was at a temple. This complex had several large Buddhas- one sitting, one lying sideways, and one standing up, and was a refuge for locals during old times when bandits or pirates used to attack. Then we made a quick restroom stop at the fanciest highway “rest stop” I’ve ever been to. It was like a small resort with thatched roof-covered restaurant and wooden lodges, and nicely-maintained lawn and garden.

We finally reached the Mekong Delta, arriving at the city of My Tho, the largest in the Delta area. The Mekong was wide and brown with forested islands in the middle, not exactly the grand spectacle I’d expected, but still big nonetheless. On both sides, there were one-story buildings and in the horizon, a large suspension bridge spanned the river. Colorful fishing boats with pointed prows and dotted eyes were moored alongside the shore and we passed a few on the water. We got onto a boat and moved on to an island in the river.

I have to mention our guide. An articulate and confident guy who spoke good English, as did many Vietnamese guides and hotel staff, and was quick to make jokes and laugh out loud. Initially I thought he seemed a bit too laidback and wasn’t really into his job, but he turned out to be quite cool.

As we approached our destination, he told us about the importance of coconut on the place. Apparently the settlement was started by some crazy guy who worshiped coconut. On that island, “everything is coconut, eat coconut, pray to coconut, get married using coconut, hehehe!” our guide blurted out.

Once on the island, we visited a coconut candy workshop, then a honey workshop and even took a ride on carts pulled by small horses through a neighborhood. On the boat ride, I’d heard some guys speaking what sounded like Mandarin. After a while, I asked one of them if they were from China and he said yes. They were easygoing and younger guys, and just like me, they’d all quit their jobs and were taking some time to explore SE Asia, having made their way down from Hanoi too. We hung together during the trip, and though we parted when we returned to HCMC, it wasn’t the last we would meet.

At the coconut candy workshop, our guide personally demonstrated how to make the candy- first he broke a coconut on a stake, then put the broken pieces into a machine that grated it into tiny pieces, then put them into another machine that formed them into a hardened blocks, which were then boiled in a giant metal cauldron (and presumably mixed with sugar or other ingredients). Finally the hardened mixture was laid out into long slabs for workers to break into square pieces and package them. The workers did this on a big table at the side while we all milled around. Besides coconut candy, there was snake wine on sale, which consisted of wine mixed with real snakes or scorpions put inside for a certain period of time (you see this in many restaurants in China too). We got to try small shots.


We moved from place to place within the island via boat, moving through the swamp-like channels. Lunch was at a restaurant nearby, on which there was a crocodile farm on the premises. There was a stream (not over the crocodiles) traversed by a narrow bamboo bridge that was the flimsiest one I’d ever crossed on. There was also an arena for weddings which had lots of dragon-entwined pillars and an altar.

At another stop (I can’t remember which), the guide brought out an actual python and let us all take photos of it. I think it was the first time I’d held such a big snake and there were a few nervy moments when the snake kept moving its head towards my face.
Not me, but one of my new Chinese travel pals, and not his daughter either, she was with a Vietnamese family on the tour.

We ended at an open-air teahouse where we had tea and fruit, and were entertained by a troupe of female singers, including a little girl who did a cute song-and-dance, accompanied by a guy playing a Vietnamese instrument. There was supposed to be a boat ride, but by this time rain was falling and the water was getting a bit choppy so that part of the itinerary was curtailed.

On the way back, our guide gave us a little speech, where he thanked us for coming and expressed his optimistic patriotism, “In five years’ time, Vietnam will be better and we’ll be number one! Sorry, Thailand!”

The guide came and talked to us for a bit, saying he used to be an engineer and then asking me what I did. When I said I wanted to work in a newspaper, he gave a sympathetic smile and said how in Vietnam, newspapers were fading away. A sad reminder that traditional media’s decline wasn’t just happening in the West.

The trip to the Mekong Delta at My Tho was quite pleasant. For a more full-on Delta experience, you can go on further to other places like Ben Tre, where you can visit sites of Vietnam War battles and even spend a full day or two.

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Books · China

Random links- Vietnam IT scene, Asian books, Indian soccer, and sleep

By now many of us have heard of Flappy Bird, the simple bird game for smartphones that became a sensation before being pulled off of app stores by its creator, who claimed the game’s popularity and the revenue it generated had made his life a nightmare. Flappy Bird’s creator is Vietnamese, and his government is intent on having more similar successes. Well not exactly, but Vietnam is trying to create its own Silicon Valley. It’s still in the budding stages though there are some interested youngsters who seem willing to be involved. Of course, the article raises at the end the not-so-insignificant fact the country is ruled by an authoritarian regime, just like China, which makes it kind of difficult to imagine facilitating enormous creativity. It’ll be interesting to see how this project turns out.

There have been some interesting books recently, such as from Indian authors. Even then, China is not surprisingly the main subject for one of these books. A Great Clamour is Pankaj Mishraj’s book about trying to understand the rise of China from a societal point of view and includes accounts of his travels to neighboring countries. Mishraj’s main mode of analyzing modern China is based on talking to moderate critics, those who don’t hesitate to call out the government but aren’t radicalized enough to be considered dissidents or put in prison. Punjabi Parmesar focuses on Europe from an Indian perspective, though the China connection is still present with the author, an Indian journalist, being a former China correspondent and her previous book being about China. From the reviews, the book doesn’t seem to be very admiring or complimentary of Europe, but blunt and critical as the following quote from the book shows:
Europe for a lot of people is like a picture postcard for holidays and I think Europe is great at holidays. However, it is in great danger of becoming an ossified museum — a place which is very pretty, has cobble stones, beautiful cafes and museums but in itself is turning into a museum.”

The Asian Review of Books, which I sometimes write for, always has a good list of book review links, in addition to its own book reviews, regularly such as this about China and Japan books.

India and football (soccer) are two things that don’t go together at all. And from this BBC article, it seems it’ll stay that way for a while despite the efforts of Pune FC and the fledgling league it plays in. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. India is crazy over cricket, and is a strong though inconsistent force on the global stage.  Which is more than can be said for China and any international team sport.

And finally, sleeping too little is harmful for us, especially our brains, but so is sleeping too much! Luckily the latter is defined as 10 hours, so I think I’m good. The article has some interesting info, specifically about how our brain cleanses itself during sleep, flushing toxins away from brain cells (the idea of toxins in our brains does sound a little ghastly, now that I think about it).

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Huế’s imperial tombs

Going back to my Vietnam trip last year, I’ve still got a few places to post about, such as Huế’s imperial tombs.

Huế is famous for being the capital of Vietnam for almost 150 years under the Nguyen Dynasty until 1945. Yet it was during that time when Vietnam slowly became taken over by the French and absorbed into their colonial holdings. Hue was also a main battleground during the Tet Offensive during Vietnam War, which caused a lot of damage including to the Imperial City, the palace of the emperor.

While the Imperial City is probably Huế’s most famous landmark, the imperial tombs are also well-known. I visited three of them on a day tour, along with the Thiên Mụ Pagoda. The tombs were the Minh Mạng, Khải Định, and Tự Đức. The tombs were all located outside the city, amid forest but in clean and impressive compounds. Two of them were in scenic outdoor settings, while one was inside a stone building. The outdoor compounds were really pleasant and featured wide open space, lakes, and forest, and it seemed. The buildings were a bit worn but had a historic and dignified aura befitting the resting place of emperors.

First, the tour went to Thiên Mụ Pagoda. Located on a small hill overlooking the Perfume River (which also runs through the city), the 7-story pagoda is attractive, but the most interesting aspect of it is the car on display on the grounds, which was driven by a monk to Saigon who protested the South Vietnamese government’s policies by burning himself to death. The two photos below show the view of the Perfume River and the pagoda. The photo of the car is far below near the end.

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Minh Mang tomb
This is located in a large, pleasant open-air compound with a lake, temples and pavilions. Minh Mang reigned from 1820 to 1841, and he was known for his opposition to the French and to Christian missionaries. He rebuffed contact from the US and other Western nations, and had an isolationist approach to international relations. However, his rule was regarded as fair and effective.
The actual tomb is located in a crypt protected by walls that visitors can’t pass. There were a series of animal and official statues, that represent guardians which accompany the emperor in the afterlife. This is similar to Chinese imperial tombs, such as the Ming tomb in Nanjing, that also feature spirit ways with statues of animals and officials. The Vietnamese statues are not as numerous, and flank both sides of a wide walkway leading up to a pavilion (see the last photo below for this tomb) whereas the Chinese pathways flanked by statues are narrower and longer.

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Khải Định tomb
This emperor ruled during the 20th century from 1916-1925 so his tomb complex incorporates both Vietnamese and French designs. The interior of the complex is incredibly opulent though in reality he wasn’t a very powerful or notable emperor. Unlike the other two I visited, this tomb is inside one large building overlooking a hill with no gardens or lake.

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Tự Đức tomb
This one had a small attractive lake as well as a pavilion and a broad walkway flanked by animal and imperial official statues. Tu Duc reigned from 1848-1883, quite a long time, but war with the French and internal rebellions weakened his reign to the point that he agreed to give southern Vietnam to the French, from which Vietnam began to lose its sovereignty and become a French possession.

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Car driven by monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon to protest the government by setting himself on fire and committing suicide.
Woman making incense at a small workshop we stopped by during the tour.