Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thien Hau- pagoda-hopping in Vietnam part 1

A smartly dressed lady weaved through the small crowd of worshippers, clutching a handful of sandalwood incense sticks. She lit and planted half of them purposely in the copper urn of ash at the central courtyard. Unhurried and unmindful of the people milling around the temple, she proceeded to the far end of the inner chamber, to the shrine of Thien Hau Thanh Mau.

Thien Hau
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/125s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 100

Thien Hau incense sticks
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/250s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 100

The goddess of the sea and patron of the sailors stood regal above two women deities in the elaborately carved wooden altar and flanked by two more goddesses in the side altars. All were ornately dressed in bright colorful garments reminiscent of pre-colonial Chinese times, still but seemingly observant.

Thien Hau altars
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/60s, f/3.5, 21mm, ISO 1600, +1/3EV

Everyday, hundreds of visitors perform acts of similar piety in the pagoda of Thien Hau. Popular among locals and tourists from mainland Chinese and Taiwan, the temple lies in Nguyen Trai Street, at the heart of Cholon, the Chinatown district of Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon).

Thien Hau offering
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/250s, f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 400, -1/3EV

Thien Hau incense
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/125s, f/5.6, 120mm, ISO 400, -2/3EV

Thien Hau became the first stop in our photographic hop of pagodas in the historical district. Richly, if not intensely decorated, this temple is arguably the most important of the Chinese temples in Cholon. Walking tours are immensely popular among visitors of Saigon, and not far from this pagoda are several other temples, all within 300 meters walking distance, and with exotic if not unpronounceable sing-song names like Tam Son Hoi Quan, Ba Thien Hau, Quan Am Pagoda and Phuoc An Hoi Quan.

Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/40s, f/3.5, 18mm, ISO 1600, +2/3EV

Photographic opportunities are not wanting inside the pagoda. The building is a series of concentric rectangles with an open courtyard at the dead center. Sunlight streams around this square where a pavillion rises on four thick wooden pillars, with ceramic tiles piled over its distinctive pagoda roofline. Lighting is dim save for the numerous shrines that are illuminated with incandescent lamps and candles of various sizes.

Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/500s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 400, -1/3EV

incense coils above
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/50s, f/4.5, 31mm, ISO 200, -2/3EV

Prayers came in different forms. Ribbons in pink with Chinese calligraphic writing fluttered on the opposite walls by the central square. Fruits spilled over plastic trays and sweets filled folded colored paper vases. Smoke wafted heavily in the air as sticks burnt onto the ash-filled jars. Incense coils hang on the ceiling rafters, billowing heavy fragrant smoke around the temple. Worshippers supplicated on padded circular kneelers.

incense coils
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/500s, f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 100, +1/3EV

lighting a coil
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/4000s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 400, +1/3EV

For 20,000 VND (1.2 USD) each, my Vietnamese friend bought a couple of incense coils. He gave me one and told me to write two names on the pink slip of paper. For good health, he said. I wrote three. He helped me tie the ribbon on the top of the cone and light the outer end of the coil. An attendant took the incense and raised it up using a long pole and hooked and hang it by the ceiling. Ashes intermittently showered on us down below. I said a prayer too and wished for my own intentions.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

living in the middle of the sea (the sandbar of Bais)

In forever tropical Philippines, heat runs eternal. The season of rains brings easy respite to the sweltering humidity but even then the coastal temperature would still hit above the mid 20 centrigrade mark. By December, in countries way above the northern hemisphere, anything above 10 degrees is a justifiably fine day and anything above 20 degrees is heaven sent. The heat that Filipinos define as oppressive is desirable to the sunworshippers seeking the warm sizzle of the infinite beaches dotting the archipelago.

Sand and sun beckon the traveler and few ring a clearer call than the sandbar of Bais in Negros Oriental.

accommodation at the sandbar is in houses on stilts
Canon PowerShot S40, 1/50s, f/2.8, 7.1mm

Imagine this- a patch of white sand in the middle of the ocean that comes and goes with the tide. Water recedes and a beach of glistening fine sand emerges, stretching up to seven kilometers from end to end. Then, in no time, the sea rises and reclaims the earth and everything around you is water.

sandbar, unexposed
at high tide, the sandbar is submerged up to 1 ½ meter
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/80s, f/22, 18mm, ISO 100

Accommodation is afforded in houses on stilts, made of rugged and basic simplicity. No TV, no traffic and not even a next door neighbor. Granted there are three huts spread on the shoal, each is spaced widely by at least a hundred meters apart.

Bais sandbar
traipsing on the sandbar of Bais-Manjuyod, Negros Oriental, the Philippines

It has been that long but since 1992, I have visited the sandbar, on business (I was involved in developing seaweed farms in the vicinity). Before, there were no commercial huts on the sandbar save for a hut maintained by the mayor of Manjuyod and the one we were using. Existential living was the order but nature has been kind to the sandbar. The natural beauty has not dimmed to this day.

sunrise in the sandbar, at high tide
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 25s, f/32, 38mm, ISO 100, +4/3 EV

getting there

From Cebu City, the most convenient route is to head south to Oslob, some 120 kilometers away. At Oslob’s Liloan port, there are numerous passenger boats which leave regularly for the short 30-minute ride to Sibulan in Negros Oriental. Or, there is another port at Bato for ferries that transport cars between the two islands.

Bais is about 40 kilometers from either port. Public buses, jeepneys and even tricycles are available by the road. The most convenient take-off point would be the Capiñahan Wharf in South Bais Bay. The sandbar is just 15 minutes away.

welcome to paradise
boat service between the mainland and the sandbar
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1.0s, f/13, 18mm, ISO 100, -2/3EV, w/ 1 ND0.9 filter


The sandbar has been a bone of contention between the town of Manjuyod and the city of Bais. While to this date, it still is popularly referred to as the Bais sandbar, the 600 hectare property otherwise identifiable as the Sumapao Shoad, has officially been determined as the territory of Manjuyod due to its proximity during low tide.

living in the middle of the sea

Because of the limited accommodation, arrangements should be made with the municipality of Manjuyod. An option would be to pre-order sumptuous seafood on season. Fish, shrimps and crabs are popular choices.

sunset over Bais, Negros Oriental, the Philippines
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/80s, f/22, 18mm, ISO 100

Security, that ever lingering doubt in today’s world, is assured. Negros Oriental is peaceful. Resort management provides a boat on call by the sandbar 24 hours. Somehow the easy sight of the nearest island, Olympia, with its round hill, also provides comfort although it is several kilometers away. While there is no electricity, car batteries run some fluorescent lighting by nighttime. And it helps that there is cellphone signal too.

Water comes steady in carboys. Such is the way of living in the ocean. Fresh water is a luxury and it is in abundance but not through the tap.

fresh water in carboys is provided for bathing and cooking
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/60s, f/8, 18mm,ISO 200, +4/3 EV


Getting bored with your book? Go watch some dolphins and whales. Their playground that is the Tañon Strait that separates Negros and Cebu is your backyard.

Early morning, right after sunrise, is the best time to visit the frolicking cetacean creatures.

morning glory
our hut, overlooking the Cebu sunrise, the Philippines
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/6s, f/9, 18mm, ISO 100, +1/3 EV

dolphin watchers
early morning dolphin watching at the Tañon Strait between Negros Oriental and Southwestern Cebu
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/1600s, f/5.6, 210mm, ISO 100

getting ready
At 5:45AM, while we were having breakfast, the boat crew arrived to pick us up for our dolphin-watching
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/2s, f/22, 18mm, ISO 100, +1/3 EV

Dolphin and whale watching is a separate 2,500 PHP (50 USD) for a boat that can comfortably accommodate 20 people. The spotters are local fishermen who are expert in knowing when and where best to catch the dolphin show.

the engaging smile of Tiboy, our contact’s son
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/60s, f/4, 27mm, ISO 100

Island folks say that sometimes, the dolphins even will approach the boat, so near that they could almost be pet by hand. In one visit, the dolphins came as close as 10 feet away, encircling our boat repeatedly. It was all we needed to break into immediate applause.

dance of the dolphins
a school of dolphins cavorts at the Tañon Strait between Negros and Cebu
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/800s, f/5.6, 210mm, ISO 100, +1/3 EV

Dolphin shows can last for hours at a time. The dolphins just went around in seeming circles, as if to entertain. Whales are typically more shy, lumbering in a greater distance in the deep.


The three huts are managed by the >local government of Manjuyod. Overnight package is around 2,500 PHP (50 USD) and day use is 1,000 PHP (20 USD), inclusive of 20-minute transfer from either Manjuyod Beach Resort or Bais Kanibul Dock. Reservations at +6335 4041250 or +63918 6486134.

Dolphin and whale season is April to September.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Asian noodle indulgence, part 2

To continue my feature on food coma-inducing noodle dishes, here are four more umami-laden selections.

bam-i guisado, Cebu, the Philippines
I grew up in Cebu and bam-i is a popular noodle dish in my hometown. This is served everywhere and anywhere- in parties, fiestas, reunions, and whatever it is that people do when they come together. Definitely a mainstay in the local cuisine and a favorite of many a people including my wife, bam-i is probably a contortion of Hokkien ba (pork) and mee (noodles). Indonesians also call their egg noodles bakmi (pronounced with an almost imperceptible “k”). To complicate the international jumble, guisado is the Spanish term for “fried” so you can tell how hybrid this dish has become. Regardless of its derivation, this staple is a mix of two noodle types: pancit canton egg noodles and sotanghon cellophane vermicelli made of mung bean (rice noodles can be a substitute but rarely used in Cebu). It is cooked in a wok and could contain any, most if not all of these ingredients: onions, garlic, preserved Chinese pork sausage, tengang daga (black ear fungus or wood ear) and other mushroom types, cabbage, carrots, baguio beans, scallions, coriander, snow peas, pork liver strips, meat balls, chicken breast and shrimp. Flavoring comes from sesame oil, garlic, soy sauce, pepper, black peppercorns and kalamansi (local lime).

Manila Foodshoppe
The Park Mall, Mandaue City
Cebu, the Philippines
105 PHP (2.2 USD)/serving enough for 6

bam-i guisado
traditional bam-i guisado of the Manila Foodshoppe, The Park Mall, Mandaue City, Cebu, the Philippines
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/250s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 200, +1/3EV

La Paz super special misua batchoy, Iloilo City, the Philippines
Batchoy is synonymous to Iloilo, a province in the central Philippine island of Panay. Often appended with the name of the town of La Paz where it was “invented”, batchoy is most probably derived from the Hokkien ba-chui which means "pieces of meat.” The noodle variety most often used is miki, an egg noodle, but there are versions in sotanghon (made from mung bean), bihon (rice) and misua (wheat) which is the one pictured below. You can choose between pork or beef but the meat items are usually innards like heart, kidneys, liver and spleen. Rounding up the ingredients are leeks, shrimps, white chicken meat or beef and crushed chicharon or pork cracklings. The soup is a combination of shrimp broth and chicken stock, with soy sauce to taste. A raw egg can be cracked and balanced on top of the soup as a final flourish, if so desired.

I was in Iloilo last summer and finally, I was able to try out Ted’s, the acknowledged premier batchoyan or place of the La Paz batchoy. I deliberately ordered the super special misua batchoy out of curiosity as this is not at all common in the batchoy versions in Cebu. (Misua is very thin salted wheat noodles.) Batchoy servings in Ted’s come with puto manapla, a small white rice cake which I rather enjoyed. I even ordered extra puto helpings, as I needed something neutral to balance the viscously rich and heartily salty soup. Because of its high fat content, I suggest to always eat the batchoy piping hot.

Ted’s Old Timer La Paz Batchoy, SM Iloilo
Iloilo City, Iloilo, the Philippines
about 50-70 PHP (1.4USD)/serving

La Paz super special misua batchoy
La Paz super special misua batchoy, Ted’s, SM Iloilo, Iloilo City, the Philippines
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/80s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 400, +1/3EV

soto ayam Ambengan Pk Sadi, Surabaya, Indonesia
As comfort food goes, the soto ayam (chicken and noodle soup) fits the bill in Indonesia. The soup is made primarily of chicken breast meat, glass noodles, slices of hard-boiled eggs, bean sprouts, cabbages and leek. It is so popular that ambulant carts roam the streets of Indonesia, from Medan through Jakarta and Bali to Bima. It took me awhile to appreciate the soup but it grows on you. (Again, the sambal chili was the clincher for me.) The chicken may come as white meat or boiled skin and adding egg is an option. The soup is yellowed with turmeric and is topped with peanut koya for additional richness. Sweating is a surefire guarantee, thanks to the spice of lombok chili, turmeric, galangal and ginger.

In Surabaya, soto ayam Ambengan of Pk Sadi, is legendary. Largely touted as having the best soto in East Java, the restaurant started as a hole-in-the-wall in the street of Ambengan by Pak Sadi (hence the name). A Chinese-Indonesian friend took me there last February of 2007, past 9PM. The eatery is still in its original spot, small, obscure and unassuming. You could not tell that there already are franchises all over the country. Parking was difficult and the late supper crowd was still bustling. Diners who just finished their meals were leaving with a smile. Soon, I did too.

Soto ayam Ambengan Pk Sadi “asli”
Jln Ambengan 3A, Surabaya, Indonesia
tel +6231 5323998
about 20,000 IDR (1.7USD)/serving

soto ayam Ambengan Pk Sadi Asli
boiled rice noodle, the main ingredient of the soto ayam Ambengan Pk Sadi “asli”, Surabaya, Indonesia
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/25s, f/5.0, 42mm, ISO 1600

pancit Malabon
Here is one Tagalog dish that Cebuanos are not so familiar until recently. The first time I tasted this was in 2005, soon after the pancit malabon franchise hit Cebu. Cebuanos are easily familiar with the pancit palabok, which uses thinner noodles and is common all throughout the Visayas. It's a different story with pancit malabon. The larger rice noodles are not available in Cebu, which is a pity.

The platter below is about 18-20" wide and is good for more than 20 persons and only cost around 750 pesos or $15. The toppings include scallions, boiled pork, cabbage, dried shrimps, soy bean curd cubes (tofu), minced fresh garlic, parsley, asian celery, crushed chicharon fried pork crackling, squid and hard-boiled eggs with kalamansi slices for extra citric flavor. Before you say that the toppings are an overkill, the meat and veggies are so thinly-sliced (using a razor blade!). The noodles are also deep but yes, I almost hate to dig into and ruin the arrangement. The next problem is to eat in moderation. One can only try!

pansit Malabon
Canon PowerShot S40, 3/5s, f/4.5, 12.3mm

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Asian noodle indulgence, part 1

I admit, I am not a noodles fan, especially egg noodles. It’s not much about the calories – the high levels of monosaturated fat and carbs certainly don’t help – but it is just preference.

However, I travel a lot and curiosity gets the best of me. In my visits then, I have checked countless of specialties featuring the ubiquitous noodles. Too bad I haven’t been diligent in photographing the dishes I’ve tried and enjoyed. Hunger takes precedence sometimes and not even my avowed proclivities in photography could hold off my determined companions in digging into the food before I had the chance to setup a shot.

Still, there are a few I managed to photograph and I am compiling here a few indulgences that I recommend.

hokkien mee, Singapore
Egg noodles and frying don’t make a good mix to me but when balanced with the heat of sambal chili, the bite of curry and the promise of fresh prawns and squid, hokkien mee becomes a possibility. There is the halal non-pork version but undeniably, I want mine with the chopped pig meat, please.

hokkien mee
Britney, a daughter of a high school friend, stretches her mee before eating, at Bugis Junction, Singapore
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/25s, f/6.3, 22mm, ISO 1600

fried crispy noodles, Cebu, the Philippines
A variant of the popular pancit canton, the fried egg noodles laden with stir-fried slivers of beans, carrots, pechay (pak choi in Chinese), pea pods, shrimp and pork. The noodles are pre-fried in hot vegetable oil and then allowed to drain and dry to brittle crispness. Upon serving, you can then pour the concentrated heated soy-based sauce over the dry nest to rehydrate the noodles as if you just came up with freshly fried chow mein in front of you. This is an experiential treat where the actual mixing on the dinner table is a significant part of the fun.

crispy fried noodles
fried crispy noodles, Big Mao restaurant, Ayala Center Cebu, the Philippines
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/40s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 200, +1/3EV

While, I am picky with egg noodles, I dig rice noodles. Still definitely carbolicious but without the incumbent fat, rice noodles come in various varieties. The flat types that I would order in a heartbeat would include the stir-fried and nutty pad thai (Thai) and cockle-rich char kway teow (Malaysian or Singaporean). Here are two Vietnamese rice noodle delights worth trying:

ban pho (rice noodles) with beef (xao thit bo), Cebu, the Philippines
This is a Vietnamese delicacy which being a dish of beef, a meat I eat but not necessarily seek, is a hit to me. The flat rice noodles come with stir-fried tenderloin of beef. The version that Lemon Grass restaurant in Cebu carries has the most tender of beef. Sprinkled with nuts and garnished with thai basil, the dish is surprisingly light and to me has a hint of fish sauce. I could be wrong but I like it.

Lemon Grass, The Terraces, Ayala Center Cebu
Cebu, the Philippines
195 PHP(4USD)/serving

ban pho xao thit bo
ban pho xao thit bo, Lemon Grass, Cebu, the Philippines
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/800s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 800, +1/3EV

ban pho (rice noodles) with crab, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
So what happens when ban pho is added to the one food I crave the most, crabs? Foodie heaven, I say. As the coup de grace in the dinner I had in my last night in Vietnam last week, my friends ordered Chinese-style steamed blue crab broken over a bed of sauteed rice vermicelli. Served in hot clay stoneware, the noodles expectedly imbibed the salty and savory flavors of the shellfish. Needless to say, the plate was cleaned up to the last morsel. Highly and truly recommended!

ban pho with steamed crabs
ban pho with steamed crabs of the Nha Hang Hoang Long (Dragon Court Chinese) Restaurant, downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/60s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 800, +1/3EV

up next: more noodle indulgences like bam-i guisado, soto ayam, La Paz batchoy and pancit Malabon

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

can’t resist ‘em Chengdu pandas

If you think about it, who wouldn’t want to be a panda? You can lounge on grass any time of the day, snack at whim and to top it all, stay overweight and still be called cute, adorable and irresistible. Granted people will probably want to poke your stomach, but life as a panda does look grand.

In Chengdu Panda Conservation Park, you can get as close as you can ever get to the pandas other than in the wild. No other zoo in the world could offer such proximity to the cuddly bears and none could match its number of panda specimens either. Although the park has its share of visitors, mostly domestic, this one has no panda-viewing queues, as what I had to endure when I visited the San Diego Zoo several years back. There are no glass barriers, only a not-so-wide moat and a low-rise concrete fence. Quite refreshing if you asked me.

Canon PowerShot S40, 1/30s, f/4.9, 21.3mm

It pays of course to be situated right in the panda heartland of Sichuan Province, considered the largest natural habitat of the black and white bears. As the leading institution in the world, the park also is the epicenter of the efforts to rear these largely unproductive bears. As it happens, nature designs the pandas to not only mate rarely but also to have a low birthrate and high infant mortality.

soul food
Canon PowerShot S40, 0.03s, f/5.6, 21.3mm

The pandas live in large patches of bamboo groves in the park but because a panda typically eat 12-38kg of bamboo in a day, keepers constantly supply them with bushels of bamboo leaves to chew and devour.

While it is easy to dismiss the pandas as lazy, eating actually is a necessary habit for the creatures. They have to devote 40% of their time "dining" so as to maintain their body weight and remain healthy.

more bamboo, please

The rest of the panda’s time is spent for defecating, sleeping and of course, the requisite play. About 20% of the day, pandas are active in recreational activities. In the park, you can see them singly or in groups, whiling their playtime in wooden platforms specially made for them. Their movements look rather sluggish but considering their heft, they are quite sprightly, being able to climb elevated scaffoldings built to simulate timberland.

balancing acts
Canon PowerShot S40, 1/160s, f/3.5, 10.3mm

Another species that are featured in the park, and living harmoniously with the giant pandas are the red pandas. Considered as the closest genetic relative of the black and whites, the red pandas are not as endangered. Raccoon-like in countenance, they are quite amusing and cute in their own right, especially with their long bushy tails. Think of them as sly-moving foxes and not as bears at all.

red pandas

As they multiply far faster than slumbering giants, the red pandas practically roam in large numbers around the park. They move quite fast and I amused myself into thinking that I can filch one to bring back as a pet in the house. (Not!)

agitated? or just curious

Fortunately, the population of the giant pandas in the wild forests of Sichuan are picking up, thanks largely to the scientific breeding programs in parks like this one in Chengdu. The ultimate goal is to introduce captured giant pandas and their babies back into the wild.

Providing them freedom to be themselves, without much intervention from human, is key to their survival. Question is, who among us can resist?

To support the panda conservation effort, visit

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

what I brought back from Ben Thanh (Saigon)

continued from Ben Thanh, part 1 in

There were several things I originally planned to do at Ben Thanh. I wanted to wake up early and shoot a long exposure of the facade at dawn – which actually is easy as Vietnam is late an hour versus Cebu time – but work got in the way. I also thought of eating at one of their food stalls which are simply brimming with steamed seafood, rice paper concoctions (a decidedly Vietnamese specialty) and fresh herbs and vegetables. Eventually, I ended up either having breakfast with a friend or elsewhere.

But busy or not, I did not miss buying pasalubong (giveaway gifts in Filipino) and souvenirs in Ben Thanh. Of course, I bought the requisite touristy stuff which my friends back in Cebu have asked me to buy- Vietnamese shirts and caps. I chose the machine-embroidered varieties over the plain ones so they were a bit expensive, ranging from $2-3.

Once I ticked the basic ones off my list, I scoured Ben Thanh for my personal favorites.

lacquerware. This is a must-have. Who can resist the shiny and colorful practicality of tempered and melded wood? I can’t. For my wife, I chose 6 pairs of ruby red bowls with matching sleek black saucers, curled elegantly at the corners. Three large nesting flat trays completed the ensemble. Although the trays are supposed to be a set of a singular color, we were able to convince the vendor to get a different tray colors for our set. I chose a combination of 2 red trays and one black. The pieces come with a dainty pair of dragonfly design inlay.
haggled prices: bowl and saucer for 80,000VND (4.7USD) a pair and a set of 3 nesting trays for 330,000VND (19.4USD)

Canon EOS 5D, 0.60s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 50

For gifts, I then proceeded to the food and candy sections. I live off exotic sweets. A plus is that the packs often have price tags already and there is practically no haggling involved. The prices are cheap!

rice papers (banh trang). If there is one item that I identify always with Vietnam it is rice paper. It is the basic and ubiquitous wrapping material of many a Vietnamese dish. The thin round paper is made of rice flour, tapioca starch and salt. Dry and brittle when packaged, it is easily moistened with water to make all sorts of food wraps.
price: 20,000 VND per pack (1.2USD)

Vietnam goodies 1108_023-1
Canon EOS 5D, 0.40s, f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 50, -1/3EV

sesame-sprinkled peanut flatcakes (keo me xung). One of my favorite sweet and nutty treats. They look like soft pancakes, only way much thinner and taste like peanut brittle. As a plus, each cake is individually wrapped in plastic. They are made of peanut, sesame, sugar, rice flour and malt sugar.
price: 30,000VND (1.8USD) per pack

sesame-sprinkled peanut flatcakes (keo me xung)
Canon EOS 5D, 0.40s, f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 50, -1/3EV

sesame-sprinkled candy squares (me xung vung). These peanut-laden sesame-sprinkled sweets are on the tough and chewy side but they are fast becoming my favorite dessert munchies nowadays. The candies are made of rice flour, barley, sugar, peanut chips, sesame seeds and flavored with vanilla.
price: 13,000VND/pack of 6 candies (0.8USD)

sesame-sprinkled candy squares (me xung vung)
Canon EOS 5D, 1.00s, f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 50, -1/3EV

Vinamit peanut candies (keo dau phong). Individually packaged in bright red foil, the candies have a thin white flaky crust which crunches deliciously to reveal a sweet peanut confection that is almost powdery. The brand is Vinamit and ingredients include barley, malt, sugar, peanut and salt.
price: 35,000 VND/500g pack (2.1USD)

Vinamit peanut candy (keo dau phong)
Canon EOS 5D, 0.80s, f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 50, -1/3EV

sesame-sprinkled crispy wafers (me xung don). Another crunchy delight that comes in a compartmentalized plastic package. The biscuit could have been made sweeter but delightfully, it is not. The sugar is tempered by the chewiness of the peanut paste enveloped between the rice flour wafers. Ingredients include sugar, peanut, sesame, rice flour, barley and vanilla.
price: 10,000 VND/pack (0.6USD)

sesame-sprinkled crispy wafers (me xung don)
Canon EOS 5D, 0.40s, f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 50, -2/3EV

rice papers with banana (banh trang chuối). I saw them being made in Cai Be (Mekong Delta) so I made sure I bought some in Ben Thanh. These are really thin ricepapers covered fully with fresh bananas slices, which when sundried, result to thin brittle pancakes. They can be fried in hot vegetable oil but I would suggest lightly tossing them in butter on both sides so that they would come out soft and “rollable” like crepes. The rich butter brings out the aromatic amyl acetate goodness of the sun-dried bananas. They are made of rice flour, tapioca starch, banana and salt.
price: 30,000 VND/pack (1.8USD)

rice paper with banana (banh trang chuối)
Canon EOS 5D, 0.25s, f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 50, -1/3EV

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Monday, November 24, 2008

haggling in Ben Thanh

Question: Which retail space commands the highest selling price in the world?

If you answer Ginza or 5th Ave, think again. The answer is Ben Thanh Market, in downtown Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. As of August 2006, a stall in this traditional market commands a staggering price of 177,000USD per square meter according to The Guardian (UK).

Ben Thanh
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/4000s, f/4.5, 18mm, ISO 400
the Ben Thanh market in Saigon

Lower those raised eyebrows and allow me to qualify. First, retail space average is ONLY about 1.5 square meters in size so in actuality, any money exchanged will not be in the tens of millions of US dollars that would be otherwise required in Tokyo or New York where property is denominated in hundreds, if not thousands of square meters. Second, retail is cheap once you get the rights. Communist Vietnam offers socialized rates. Reselling is not common hence the high demand and the inflated price.

Ben Thanh- dried goods
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/40s, f/3.5, 24mm, ISO 800, +1/3EV
With space at a premium, Ben Thanh has narrow aisles

My good friend Dinh pointed out this bit of information to me but I was incredulous. I only checked this out online today and to say that I was surprised would be an understatement.

Ben Thanh, or Chợ Bến Thành as it is locally called, is the largest traditional marketplace in Ho Chi Minh City, covering more than 10,000 square meters, with about a thousand stalls. The market is old, dating back to 1859, but it has probably moved at least twice, until its present day location in 1914 at Le Loi St. The cream-colored edifice is a plain square, one storey and is most notable for its tower with 3 clock faces. The clocks were notoriously off-timed in the past but in recent years, they have already been synchronized. While the market is still largely a daytime operation, with most stores open from 7AM up to the early evening, it is fast becoming a haven of night-time habitues who frequent the numerous food tables that are set up in the evening.

Ben Thanh- food stalls
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/40s, f/4.5, 35mm, ISO 400, +1/3EV
This is fastfood Vietnamese-style. Note how large the prawns are on display!

Not minding its humble and unassuming structure, Ben Thanh is a microcosm of what are available in Vietnam. It practically sells a little bit of everything that anyone could need, or at least in my case, bring back as souvenirs.

Ben Thanh- candies for sale
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/25s, f/5.6, 53mm, ISO 800, +1/3EV
travel tip: Ben Thanh food and candy stalls typically offer fixed prices

Like any other market in a popular tourist city like Ho Chi Minh, Ben Thanh is schizophrenic. There is a large part of the market which caters to the domestic market, from fresh produce to flowers and housewares; but there is also that portion which are for visitors, like t-shirts to trinkets and handicrafts.

Ben Thanh- shoes and slippers
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/25s, f/3.5, 28mm, ISO 800, +1/3EV
Vendors use the lower market traffic in the morning to dust off and segregate displays

Price tags are practically non-existent and for non-locals, expect an inflated price. Haggle to kingdom-come. While this turns off many Westerners, we Asians think of bargaining as a local sport. Generally, I would start with 25-30% of the price and would consider myself successful if I get a price near 50%. I would suggest check out the prices in the bigger malls or stores with fixed prices to get a bearing on what prices to settle. Be willing to walk away if you don’t think you are getting a good deal. One never loses a face in coming back later. I’ve heard too that there is a secret color coding of the shopping bags given out by the vendors to broadcast to the rest of the marketplace whether you are a good bargainer or not. These are all part of the game.

Ben Thanh- haggling for dried shrimps
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/50s, f/5.0, 38mm, ISO 400, +1/3EV
Haggling at a section selling dried shrimps

And did I mention that vendors often know samplings of most other languages? While English is generally spoken, there are some mumblings of French to Chinese. I often am received with a greeting with Malay or Bahasa Indonesia and if they are really observant, Tagalog. (My native tongue is Cebuano but being welcomed in Tagalog is good enough for me.)

Ben Thanh- fruit vendors
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/50s, f/3.5, 18mm, ISO 800, +1/3EV
Every morning, vendors would slice fresh fruits and package them in convenient plastic boxes.

I still have to meet a market with lady clerks more flirtatious than in Ben Thanh too. All is fair in love, war and I guess, shopping.

Le Loi
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/50s, f/6.3, 40mm, ISO 100, +1/3EV
typical busy traffic at Le Loi St where Ben Thanh is located

part 2: what I brought back from Ben Thanh?

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