June 29, 2006

Hanoi (3 of 3): HaLong Baby!!

HaLong Bay is what drew us to Vietnam. There are no words to describe this vast expanse of jade green waters and over 1600 limestone cliffs. It was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1994 and in Patricia Schultz's acclaimed 1000 Places To See Before You Die.

HaLong Bay is about 170 kms east of Hanoi (roughly a 2.5 hour drive). We booked a day trip through one of the many Sinh Cafes in Hanoi. The package costs only $18 and includes transportation to HaLong Bay, cruise, lunch on the boat, and a visit to 2 caves. You may opt for an overnight (which I wish we had time for) or a 2N/3D tour package.

The van picked us up in the hotel around 8:30 am, and along with some other travellers we headed east. Once there, we boarded one of the junks that would take us on this most memorable journey. Lunch was served on board, and consisted of vegetables, spring rolls, fish, rice and fresh fruit.

With us were a couple of Australian ladies, a French man, Ethan from New York, and 2 Korean girls. We lazed around on the sun deck, enjoying the breeze and the breathtaking scenery, as we passed more islands, fishing villages and secluded coves. Ethan and the Australian ladies jumped in for a refreshing dip in the cool waters before we made our way to Thien Cung (Heavenly Palace) Cave.

The vast Thien Cung grotto is a vision of color and beauty, like nature's art gallery. The stalactite formations on the walls and hanging from the cave's ceiling are a vision to behold. A lot of the formations remind me of jelly fish.

According to legend, it was in this grotto that the Dragon Prince married May, the lady who caught his eye. Their wedding was celebrated for seven days and seven nights.

Near the exit of the cave, a natural spring fountain gushes water all year round.

Hanoi (2 of 3) : A gastronomic adventure

Eating out in Hanoi had to be one of the highlights of my trip which I thought deserving of a post of it's own.

Because Hanoi was a French colony once upon a time, here you get the best of both worlds. Naturally, it boasts of excellent Vietnamese streetfood which can be had at ridiculously cheap prices. However, Hanoi is perhaps better known for its many mid-range and fine dining French restaurants.

Top row from L to R:

Fried egg rolls, shrimp and vegetable spring rolls wrapped in rice paper (both from Little Hanoi) , yummy Vietnamese coffee (also called Vietnamese 'drip') (from Old Hanoi).

Middle row from L to R:

Pho noodles (Pho24) , Fig's fritter with Gorgonzola cheese served with serrano ham ( to die for!); Scallops cooked with galangal roots and lemongrass juice, balsamic caviar dressed on a checkerboard of pumpkins and aubergines (both from Green Tangerine)

Bottom row from L to R:

Shrimps marinated with orange flower essence, crusted with orange peel served with a poached apple in Curracao liquor (Green Tangeine); cha-ca (Cha Ca La Vong); pork fillet rolled in blackcurrant and "ngo"herb served with sliced pumpkins cooked with homemade cereals.

Restaurants and cafes worth checking out:

The Green Tangerine at 48 Hang Be (left) is a quaint and charming French fusion restaurant in the Old Quarter. I vowed I wouldn't leave Hanoi without dining here.

We walked through the gates into a romantic courtyard that literally took my breath away.

They take their food styling seriously here as you can see in the pictures above. It wasn't all aestehtics either, the food was superb. I highly recommend the Fig's fritter with gorgonzola cheese.

The Tamarind Cafe at 80 Ma May is the perfect place to take a break from all the shopping and sight-seeing. We lounged on throw pillows while we sipped smoothies and coffee, and ordered cake and ice cream, all to share of course.

Meat lovers be warned: it only serves vegetarian meals. This cafe best known for it's smoothies and fruit juices offers free wifi internet access and guide books on Vietnam are also available for browsing while you dine.

Cafe des Arts on 11b Ngo Bao Khanh is a French bistro cum art gallery. It is quite reasonably priced and if you want to get value for your money, you can choose to order a set menu which includes an appetizer, a main course and dessert all for only $10.00.

I opted for the set menu ordering the Chef's pate, the steak with frites and creme brulee. I couldn't restrain myself though from ordering the Brie de Meaux ( my favorite cheese in the world, no wonder it is the king of cheeses) which was excellent!

Cha Ca La Vong on 14 Cha Ca is the oldest restaurant in Vietnam - since 1871- spanning five generations. It is so famous, the street was even named after it. Cha Ca is a fish and noodle dish cooked with tumeric, dill, noodles, spring onions, peanuts and the special Vietnamese sweet sauce all of which you throw in and mix yourself. It was excellent and a trip to Hanoi is not complete without a visit to Cha Ca La Vong.

The only drawback was that the hot coals made us feel like we were frying along with the fish, and when we turned the electric fan above us on, it blew ash everywhere. So we had to endure the heat , but the entire experience was well worth it!

Written on the back of their business card:
Cha Ca, a special dish, first made by the family Doan in Hanoi
Cha Ca La Vong restuarant has been open through five generations for over one hundred years and has now become very famous at home and abroad.
Cha Ca has been so appreciated that the street is named afterwards.
Cha Ca La Vong is the only three restaurants to serve authentic Cha Ca in Vietnam and has no branches.

For upscale dining, head on over to Wild Rice at 6 Ngo Thi Nham where the service is superb. The decor is decidedly unique, a blend of Zen chic and homey- a stone fireplace surrounded by tall bamboo trees behind glass walls and stark white walls displaying exquisite art. Wild Rice offers contemporary Vietnamese cuisine served in a straight forward manner. We all loved the soft shell crab.

Up Next: Ha Long Bay

Hanoi (1 of 3) : Hanoi Heaven

Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower), in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake

What started out as an idea casually tossed in the aromatic air of Ziggurat (one of my favorite restaurants in Manila) during one of our many GNOs, became a reality last weekend when my 4 girlfriends and I checked into the Thien Thai hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam.

We had been wanting to take a trip together somewhere in Asia, and preferably somewhere none of us had been to yet. This was tough considering we all love to travel and have all separately been to many places in Asia and we were limiting ourselves to this continent for budget reasons. In the end we decided on Hanoi in June.

At that time all I knew about Hanoi was that it was the capital of Vietnam located in the northern part of the country and the only mental images I had were from online travelogues I frequent which were of the breathtaking limestone cliffs and jade green waters of Ha Long Bay.

I expected Hanoi to be a small provincial town with nothing much to do or see and figured it would be a lazy weekend with some sightseeing and a lot of R and R. Boy, was I in for a surprise!

I made my own 10-page travel guide listing all the places we should see, restaurants to try - a good mix of fine dining, mid-range and hole-in-the-walls-, shopping bargains, and other general tips. I compiled them from various testimonies of fellow travellers, most of which I got from the trusty Virtual Tourist. Satisfied, I printed it out, tucked it into my handcarry and off we went on our adventure.

Basically our itinerary went something like this:

Day 1: Checked into Thien Thai hotel at 8:30 pm, Dinner in Pho24, Walked around Hoan Kiem Lake

Day 2: Vietnamese coffee at Old Hanoi; Booked our Ha Long Bay Tour and van for the day at one of the many Sinh Cafes; shopping; Lunch in Little Hanoi; visited the Temple of Literature; recharged in Highlands Coffee by Ho Tay Lake; did the round of temples and pagodas: Tran Quoc Pagoda; One Pillar Pagoda; Ngoc Son Temple; St. Joseph's Cathedral; more shopping; back to the hotel for a quick shower, then off to celebrate our friends birthday with a dinner in Wild Rice; and then finally a nightcap in La Salsa.

Day 3: Visited Uncle Ho at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum; rented motorbikes and honked our way around the bohemian roads of the Old Quarter (this was a blast!); Lunch in Cha Ca La Vong (where I had my favorite meal of the trip, well one of); shopping again; coffee and ice cream at the Tamarind Cafe; Dong Xuan Market; dinner in Green Tangerine (probably the most charming French restaurant I've ever been to).

Day 4: Ha Long Bay baby!; then dinner in Cafe des Arts back in Hanoi

Day 5: Checked out and boarded the plane back to Manila via Hongkong.

Feeling like a millionaire: the currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND) and the exchange rate is 16,000 VND to $US 1.00. I changed $200 at the airport and the man behind the window handed me over 3 Million Dong, bundles and bundles of what looked like monopoly money clipped together by the hundreds of thousands. US currency is accepted anywhere and everywhere in Hanoi though, so there's no need to change money.

Hot and Humid in Hanoi: Both CNN's weather center and the Weather Channel forecasted 5 days of thunderstorms so we packed jackets and closed shoes aside from flip-flops, jeans and shorts which I was determined to wear, the creature of comfort that I am. Imagine our surprise and delight (despite the fact I was cursing the humidity and feeling like a walking soaked sponge with streams -not drops- of sweat oozing out of my every pore) when what greeted us was bright sunshine.

Although the heat and humidity were unbearable for the most part, we wouldn't have been able to do as much as we did had it been raining. Should you decide to go to Vietnam, I urge you though to plan it during the cooler months (maybe around Nov-Mar).

The sights: A visit to Hanoi is a step back in time. It is steeped in history with pockets of rich culture visible in the temples that dot the city, the galleries and cafes that line the streets of the Old Quarter and the museums and monuments amidst a landscape of serene lakes and pagodas.
French colonial architecture provides the backdrop for locals peddling fruit and flowers either on foot or on bicycle; with yuppies and old folk alike cruising the town on their motorbikes. Crossing the street can be quite a challenge as the motorists don't seem to bother stopping for pedestrians, it reminds me of that old Atari game Frogger.

Top row from L to R:
spring rolls, one pillar pagoda, courtyard in the temple of literature

Middle row from L to R:
silk dresses, statue guarding a temple in the old quarter, opera house

Bottom row from L to R:
bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake, vietnamese masks, entrance to the temple of literature

You will likely spend most of your time in the labyrinthine streets of the Old Quarter. Walking through this area is a feast for the senses with it's cacophony of street sounds (not a little of which is from incessant honking of horns), the smell of incense wafting from the temples, the colorful facades of trendy cafes and chic boutiques nestled behind old banyan trees, and a general feeling of quiet pride and contentment from the locals.

Shop like a millionaire:
Well, a millionaire in Vietnamese Dong at least. Hanoi is a shopping haven, even being touted as handbag central. Colorful beaded or embroidered handbags can be found everywhere. There are also dress shops where you can have anything displayed tailor made to your size and liking, which they will gladly deliver to your hotel the next morning ( it is a good idea to do this early in your trip to allow ample time for adjustments).

Probably the most sought after shopping items though are silk, lacquerware and dainty
embroidered linen. They are all beautifully handcrafted. Go ahead, indulge! Everything is wonderfully cheap so you won't get that guilty feeling, besides it's healthy retail therapy!

Even if you aren't a shopper, you will be seduced by the countless chic boutiques in Hanoi, not unlike those in Paris. The favorite was the sought-after and uber-funky Ipa-Nima (59G Hai Ba Trung/14 Phan Boi Chau)
whose main claim to fame are the handbags designed by Christina Yu.

The Locals: The Hanoians have got to be the most peaceful, kind and polite bunch of people I have ever met! I'm not sure if I was expecting otherwise, but their gentle characters struck me the moment I set foot on their soil. Though their limited or non-existent knowledge of the Engligh language can prove to be difficult, their smiles and genuine willingness to help more than make up for it.

Even the taxi drivers were very entertaining. There was the one taxi driver who seeing that we were looking around for a bar to have some drinks and probably wanting to put us in a party mode , popped Dragostea Din Tea by O-zone into his CD player and when we started to sing and dance to it, he turned it up full blast, grinning at our kookiness.

Then there was Mr. Rotten McTeeth who would mumble incoherent phrases to us and then just spontaneously erupt into fits of laughter. At first we found this amusing, laughing along with him, until he transformed into Count Touchy Von Feely rubbing my arm as he laughed until my friend in the backseat told him to stop, which he did at least.

I love how their names translate into names like Moon (the lady who took my measurements at the dress shop) , Flower Lily (we met at least 2 Flower Lilys) and River (our guide in Ha Long Bay).

But my favorite was Too (I'm guessing it's spelled this way), the girl at the Sinh Cafe where we rented our motorbikes. She was just adorable! When we tried to explain to her that we needed to load gas into our bikes and she couldn't understand what we were saying, she turned and ran screaming into her shop shouting "Choy Oy!!" (Oh my god!), then quickly came back out after she calmed down a bit. After another round of charades, she eventually got it.

Night Life and the lack of it: There isn't much to be said about night life in laid-back Hanoi. The few bars that are open cater mostly to expats and the few locals found in cafes and bars are there to watch World Cup football. The streets though are filled with young people on motorbikes who seem to endlessly drive around the city until very late at night. Where do they go? Do they just drive in circles? Seeing the motorists that have accumulated at a stop light and then watching them rev up after the light turns green can be quite overwhelming. It's like the attack of the Vespas!

Getting Around: One of the smartest things we did in Hanoi was to hire a van with a driver to take us around from any of the travel agencies scattered around the Old Quarter. We booked ours at the Sinh Cafe where we booked our Halong Bay tour. It was a 16-seater van which we had all to ourselves, came with a full tank of gas and a friendly driver, all for $40 for the entire day, or $8 each because there were 5 of us.

(You can find more info and photos about this trip in my Hanoi pages at Virtual Tourist).

Up Next: Gastronomic Adventure in Hanoi

June 15, 2006

The Return of a Legend: Kublai's Rock

Kublai's Rock on Jupiter St. was the place to be in the late 80's. I was barely 14 years old (yes I was a super early starter) when my friends and I started to hit the bars regularly. At that time, it was not so much to get wasted every weekend but to hang out with friends and enjoy good music (yeah right haha).

Kublai's was famous for it's all-you-can-eat Mongolian buffet, but even more famous during after-hours. My brother and his friends hung out there, my sisters and their friends hung out there, my friends and I hung out there, and occasionally if you went in early enough you would catch some of our own folks during the cocktail hour as well.

Along with other places such as Roxy's, Las Conchas and Rufo's (for that 4 am breakfast of tapsilog), Kublai's was the backdrop for many of the most memorable events in our lives back then. Here friendships were made, hearts were broken, business deals were closed, noses were broken, tables were danced on, cheeks were slapped, drinks in fish bowls were guzzled down, vices were formed, crushes were developed, crushes were divulged, sloshed patrons were carried out, girls became girlfriends, girlfriends were cheated on, boyfriends were dumped......

When it closed down we were crushed, to say the least. Where would we go? What would we do? We mourned for a long while after that. Wary of venturing into other bars, feeling almost as if we were cheating on a lover, albeit a lover who upped and left us. But we moved on, mostly to San Mig where we picked up where we left off.

Now after almost 2o years, Kublai's Rock is back! The original owners and manager together with some of my friends are reviving the legend. Though at a much much smaller site, they are doing their best to keep with what worked before: the mixed drinks such as the Double Side of Khan which was served in a fish bowl - to be shared of course!, the black interiors, Rock & Roll music, the all-you-can-eat Mongolian buffet, the plasma TV's showing the World Cup live, and the favorites on the menu.

If you remember the old Kublai's then you will recognize the sign in the Magallanes Commercial Center. Just look for the lifesize picture of Kublai Khan holding his electric guitar.

The placemats still tell the same tale of this famous Asian emperor:

Kublai Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan, & first cousin of Rod Stewart, was the undisputed master of Mongolia, Lord of all the people dwelling in felt tents, and Chief of the Hells Angels of California.

Kublai completed the conquest of China after attacking the Sung Dynasty in South China around the late 1200's. He then founded the Yuan Dynasty, and the Beach Boys Fan Club of Mongolia, and established the Mongol Capital at Canbaluc, the site of present day Peking, near the house of Bruce the Boss.

As a leader, Kublai Khan courted Madonna & Cindy Lauper and had a reputation of being tolerant to his people. He permitted the existence of various religions and enlisted the services of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Taoists and the original Flower Power sect. He accepted Confusianism and Chinese political ideas, and was an avid fan of Mick Jagger. He avoided having too many Chinese in high government offices as well as records and posters of Dolly Parton.

The Mongols, under Kublai's rule were ruthless warriors, especially when they watched exciting rock operas, but lacked experience in administration. So they relied upon foreign people to look after the affairs of their empire, as well as to teach them how to play synthesizers and electronic drums. This eased reliance on Chinese administration.

The Mongol officials even went to the extent of temporarily suspending the Chinese civil system, to have their version of the Woodstock rock festival and to allow foreigners to assume government positions. However, a corrupt and incompetent admnistration resulted in a cancellation of the Beatles' tour and dissatisfaction toward the Mongols.

When Kublai died in his empire broke up into several parts which resulted in the Birth of the Disco epidemic. A revolution in China in the 1300's became the fall of Kubali's Yuan Dynasty & his Beach Boys Fan Club. This restored Chinese rule in the form of the Ming Dynasty.

For 200 years, the Khans ruled Asia. In 1986 Kubali's came to Jupiter, now 20 years later returns to Earth, and Rock and Roll is here to stay at Kublai's Rock.

* Kublai's is located in the Magallanes commercial center , right below Dencio's and in between Herrick's and Brother's Burger. Call 851-6086 for reservations.

June 14, 2006

Viva España!

Tonight is Spain's first game of the FIFA World Cup 2006! I can't wait to watch it. Obviously, this is my chosen team and always has been, with Portugal a close second and then Argentina and Italy in that order. These are the teams I always root for.

I love football (no not that sport where they throw the ball around and barely use their feet yet call it football *rolls eyes* :) ). I grew up with this game, watching my brother and cousins play since I was a little girl. My brother, Woody, is quite the fanatic. His room was full of football posters (of Pele and Maradona mostly), trophies, medals hanging on more trophies, plaques, etc.

My dad was also a footballer during his time and so was his dad and his dad's dad. I guess it's in the blood. I couldn't help getting into it as well. And if I just had a tad more discipline in my bones, I would have tried out for the college team. But the practices at 6 am stopped me. No thanks. I don't love it THAT much. I prefer being on the stands watching.

In the picture below taken after one of Woody's games,you can see how I couldn't wait to run out to him. I must have been about 4, and my brother about 15 and I thought he was the coolest thing out there. You really don't know any better when you're young. :D

Since it only comes once every 4 years, I have no qualms about losing sleep just to watch the games. Since this year the games are being played in Germany which is 8 hours behind us, that means to watch the games live would be watching at 9pm, 12 midnight and 3am. Luckily, most if not all my friends are fanatics as well so there's always a football party somewhere to go to watch the game live while having some beers or rum cokes. Whether in a bar or the den of someone who was willing to shell out the money for pay per view.

I used to be quite anal about the WC. I'd have this notebook where I would list all the teams in their respective groupings, plot the results and tally the scores and standings, and see who gets to play who in the quarterfinals, semis and of course in the final game.

When I was in Madrid for work some 6 years ago, I had the unexpected delight of seeing many of the Spain team's players including Raul, my favorite. I was at a deli buying lunch with some people from our office there, and there was a commotion outside. When we ran out to see what was going on, there were cameramen everywhere. Then we saw the team coming out of a nearby school where they had just had an interview/public appearance. What a thrill!

P.S. (added June 15, 2006) Woohooo Spain won vs the Ukraine 4:0 !

June 13, 2006

Cupcakes by Sonja

Pictured here: Lemon Drop, Vanilla Sunshine and Mocha Motion

Cupcakes are one of life's sweetest pleasures. They're adorable to look at, fun to make, and of course deliciously sinful. When I first heard of the Magnolia Bakery, home of New York's most famous cupcakes ( even featured on Sex & The City) , I knew that I had to visit the West Village one day if only to sample their treats.

So imagine my delight when I met Sonja Ocampo and discovered her cupcakes last Christmas through a mutual friend. She worked at the Magnolia Bakery and now makes her own cupcakes in Manila. I ordered boxes and boxes to give away as presents and to satiate my own cravings as well. They are just heavenly!

She accepts orders and will also be opening her first bakery soon at Serendra. You can choose from a variety of flavors:

Vanilla Sunshine*

Magnolia Bakery’s #1 Cupcake! A Classic and Fluffy Yellow Cake
topped with either Vanilla or Chocolate Buttercream

Chocolate Surprise

Valrhona Chocolate Cupcakes topped with either our signature
Vanilla Buttercream or Creamy Chocolate Frosting

Red Velvet Vixen

Traditional Southern Cake made with Belgian Cocoa and Cream Cheese Icing

Lemon Drop

Delicious Vanilla Cake smothered in our Signature Lemon Buttercream Frosting

Bunny Huggers Carrot Cake

Very Moist Cake made with Fresh Carrots and Walnuts and topped with Cream Cheese Frosting

Peppermint Patty

Rich and Delicious Chocolate Cake topped with our signature Peppermint Frosting

PB & J’s

Concorde Grape Jelly Filled Chocolate Cupcakes iced with Creamy Peanut Butter Frosting

Mocha Motion

Moist Chocolate Cupcake dolloped with a perfect frothy Mocha Buttercream Topping

German Chocolate Cup*

A Twist on an all-American Favorite. Classic Chocolate Cupcake
with a gooey filling of Coconut, Macadamia and Bananas

Strawberry Shortcake*

Pure Strawberry Cake with Fresh Strawberries and Whipped Cream Icing

Cupcakes by Sonja: Cellphone: 0917-8453800

June 5, 2006

Miss Piggy and friends

last week we went to the twins' first birthday party. i was told it was going to be en grande and that there would be all sorts of baby animals. my eyes widened in excitement, i love animals and here was a chance to be up close and personal with them. wheeee!

there were more animals than i expected. there were snakes of all lengths and colors. the biggest one was an albino snake, it was yellow in color and seemed to weigh a ton! i put it around my neck for a photo op and noticed that it had a very wierd odor. like week-old sweat.

then i saw the horsey! oh my god what a cutie pie! she was one of those full grown horses that were short. her owner (whose partly seen in the picture at right) let me feed her cotton candy, which she loved.

there were also bearded dragons, what looked like baby porcupines, miss piggy who looked fabulous in her little pink dress, a tiger cub, a baby monkey who came in nothing but diapers, a very old beautiful turtle, a sheep etc.

these poor animals, they were getting ogled, petted, and carried all over the place. fortunately for them, their keepers made sure they were being handled carefully and had their rest periods often so they wouldn't be overwhelmed.

aside from the mini zoo, there were clowns on stilts, a big inflatable slide and a jumping castle, pabitins (bamboo frames from which goodies are hung) , various games and tons of prizes, a wide variety of food booths, and the biggest rotating cake i've ever seen.

all the kids had the time of their lives (and so did we!) .