Sun Setting over Ho Chi Minh City
The classic Level 23 Wine Bar at Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers is a great place to round out a day’s exploration of Vietnam’s old southern capitol, and to watch the sun set over the expanding contemporary city.
It was a name familiar to those of us who grew up in the West: first as an exotic part of France’s colonial empire, until – as Saïgon – it achieved a hard-won independence in 1955, and then as a component of the evening news for its pivotal role in the Vietnam War; the city now known as Ho Chi Minh (HCM) has been at a crossroads of history and culture for centuries. It started life as a small Khmer fishing village long before the expansion of colonisation by Vietnamese settlers in the 17th century.
The city today reflects this very mixed heritage: it is the most populous metropolitan area in Vietnam, and the county’s fast-growing economic centre. But, it still looks to the past, with magnificent French architecture rubbing shoulders with Asian street food and traditional temples, and reminders of the terrible legacy of the Vietnam War share space with tributes to “Reunification” under the current regime.
The last time I was in HCM, I was only overnighting en route to the Mekong Delta, and I had virtually no memory of the city itself. So, it was with interest that I mapped out a day’s walking-tour for my husband and myself.
I was pleased to find that there was still a roof-top bar at the Sheraton Saigon, as mentioned in my very ancient Lonely Planet guide; watching the sun go down in style over a mojito was a nice reward after a lot of walking!
Join me for some of the sights of old Sài Gòn.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon
Our shuttle drop-off and pick-up point was outside the amazing Nhà Thờ Đức Bà, officially called the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception. Built between 1863 and 1880 to service a growing Roman Catholic community in Saigon, all the materials used in its construction were imported from France. The two 58 metre (190 ft) bell towers were added in 1895.
The bright red bricks of the cathedral’s exterior were imported from Toulouse. Today they are ‘graffitied’ with sponsors’ names, and provide a colourful backdrop for happy wedding photos.
Font Area inside Notre Dame Cathedral
The stained glass in the cathedral is from Chartres province in France.
Merci à Notre Dame
Countless tiles inside the cathedral give thanks to Our Lady (Tạ Ơn Đức Mẹ ; Merci à Notre Dame). Although the original tiles were all from France, many new ones have been locally made to replace those that were damaged during the war.
Built in neo-Romanesque style, the interior of the cathedral is quite elegant.
Our next stop was at the Independence Palace (Dinh Độc Lập) or Reunification Palace.
Inside the Reunification Palace
Built between 1962 and 1966 on the site of the former Norodom Palace, this Vietnamese-designed building was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam and Chairman of the National Leadership Committee, General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, during the Vietnam War.
Guide in the Reunification Palace
Tours through the palace recount the long and troubled history of the war years.
Vietnamese Visitors to the Reunification Palace
Fortified rooms under the palace are where the South Vietnamese managed their war effort …
Communication Centre in the Reunification Palace
… until a North Vietnamese tank bulldozed through the main gate on 30 April 1975, bringing the Vietnam War to an end.
War Remnants Museum
Located in what was the US Information Service building, this is a challenging, but important museum.
Tank – War Remnants Museum
Originally called the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, presentations inside the building illustrate the brutal effects of war, especially on civilians. Horrifying experimental weapons are on display, as are sobering photos documenting the effects of US bombing and napalming. One section, the Requiem Exhibition, compiled by legendary war photographer Tim Page, is devoted to the works of photographers from both sides, who were killed during the conflict.
Ho Chi Minh Streets
We needed some time out after the harrowing War Remnants Museum, so set off on a brisk 2 kilometre walk across the old city …
Jade Emperor Pagoda
… to the Chùa Ngọc Hoàng, the little temple built in 1909 by the local Chinese community in honour of the supreme Taoist god: the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang.
Inside the Jade Emperor Pagoda, it is hot, dark, and heavy with the smell of incense and oil.
Prayers and Incense
The majority of people in Ho Chi Minh City practice Mahayana Buddhism, often mixed with Taoism and Confucianism (via ancestor worship). It is not uncommon to see symbols of Buddhism in a Taoist temple like this one.
Religious practice is an integral part of daily life.
Back outside, in the courtyard of the Jade Emperor Pagoda, countless turtles – some with lucky symbols carved into their shells – clamber over each other.
Preparing “Street” Food
We got very lucky! Tired and hungry, we managed to remember the name of the restaurant we had seen opposite the Reunification Palace, and took a taxi back to Quan An Ngon 138.
It turns out that the Quan An Ngon Restaurant is known for presenting diverse regional Vietnamese cuisines in a village market style. We enjoyed our late lunch before setting off again, …
Ho Chi Minh City Supreme People’s Court
… past the courthouse …
Ho Chi Minh City Hall
… and the magnificent French Colonial City Hall …
Saigon Central Post Office
… to the Saigon Central Post Office, the most celebrated example of Renaissance architecture in Vietnam.
Saigon Central Post Office
The building, completed in 1891, was designed by the renowned French architect Gustave Eiffel. Stepping inside is like walking into the past.
Saigon Opera House
We paused briefly to admire the stylish French Colonial Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon Opera House …
Ho Chi Minh Skyline after Dark
… before ending our self-guided tour with drinks on the roof and city lights.
As I said at the outset, it was the perfect way to round out a long but fascinating day.
Until next time,
Talent runs deep in some families! Ian Neville, one of the guitars with Dumpstaphunk, and his cousin Ivan Neville, the group’s founder, represent the next generation of The Neville Brothers, the soul, funk and R&B group formed in 1977.
One of the many joys of Byron Bay Bluesfest, that annual Easter long-weekend festival of blues, roots, and just about every other kind of music, is – for me – the very range of styles packed into five days, and the depth of talent offered up on the five+ stages.
Although Americans tended to dominate the “imported” acts I saw this year, they themselves represented such divergent backgrounds and styles that the international flavour was maintained.
I’ve said before (Women Rock!) that it is a photographic challenge for me to process the photos I take under these low light settings. I was a long way back most of the time, so all the pictures included here are taken with the ISO cranked right up on my “noisy” old Canon 5D Mark II, using a 2.8 70-200mm lens without image stabilisation.
Still, I hope you enjoy!
Eric Gales (aka Raw Dawg)
Hailed as a child prodigy, blues-rock guitarist Eric Gales started playing at age four, learning an unconventional left-handed style from his older brother.
Videoing the California Honeydrops
These days, thanks to smart phones, anyone can make a recording. I came by the attached sound track legitimately!
The California Honeydrops
Laying a New Orleans style over their roots, blues, R&B and soul music, The California Honeydrops are big, bold and brassy.
Band leader and front man, Warsaw born Lech Wierzynski is an accomplished trumpeter, singer, …
… and guitarist.
Larry “Mud” Morganfield
Eldest son of legendary Muddy Waters, Mud Morganfield performs his own original Chicago blues songs …
… and reprises some of his father’s best-known numbers.
The Mountain Goats
I was intrigued by the write-up on John Darnielle, who until recently was the sum total of The Mountain Goats. Rolling Stone has called him the “Best Storyteller in Rock”: Darnielle has over 600 detail-rich songs that tell stories about the human condition. The mostly-male audience around me knew all the words to the songs from a recent concept album about wrestling; I’ll need to give them another try under clearer sound conditions.
I often marvel how wonderful it would be to make a living playing music – especially joyful music.
Ian Neville (Dumpstaphunk) looks positively transported as he plays under lights.
St Paul and the Broken Bones
Paul Janeway is the voice and face of this American six-piece soul band which took Bluesfest by storm last year. Once again, he had the crowd breathless.
… and of course, there are whole teams of people ‘behind the scenes’, making sure they all look and sound great.
The Boomerang Festival of Indigenous Performing Arts ran along-side Bluesfest for three of the five days this year. One of the invited artists was Anishinaabe poet, singer/songwriter and MC Leonard Sumner from Canada’s Little Saskatchewan First Nation. His raps about the troubled history and current difficulties faced by Canada’s indigenous people were heartbreaking and confronting.
Trevor Hall’s feel-good mix of acoustic rock, roots, folk, reggae and Sanskrit chanting cheered me up again, …
… as did watching his bass player strum.
Percussion with a Twist
Shells, prayer beads, Tibetan bells, plastic caps, chimes and a wooden box: the percussionist with Trevor Hall was a true sound-artist.
One of the many beauties of music festivals is the spontaneous combining of musical talents. Nahko Bear, from Nahko and Medicine for the People, joined Trevor Hall on stage.
We go back to retro rhythm & blues with the high-octane Vintage Trouble.
Nalle Colt with Vintage Trouble
The USA can be a true ‘melting pot’ and ‘land of opportunity’: Nalle Colt, born in Sweden, was a professional skateboarder before he picked up a guitar at age 13!
Ty Taylor and Vintage Trouble
Ty Taylor was a gospel singer from New Jersey before he formed Vintage Trouble in 2010 in Hollywood, California, with guitarist Nalle Colt.
This wasn’t Hawaiian Jake Shimabukuro’s first visit to the Byron Bay Bluesfest, but it was the first time I’d seen the boundary-crossing ukulele virtuoso. I have seen some of his re-worked classics on Youtube. His instrumental compilation including Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and Franz Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ had me in tears.
Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton
The music of “Blind Boy” Paxton builds on classic American roots and blues traditions. A multi-instrumentalist, Paxton sings old and original songs, plays banjo, guitar, piano, keyboard, fiddle, harmonica, Cajun accordion, and the bones.
Blind Boy Paxton
Paxton has a wicked sense of humour, which comes through in his patter and his original songs.
Zac Brown Band
If you want to close out your five days of music on a high, the Zac Brown Band is not a bad ways to go.
Zac Brown Band
Based in Atlanta, Georgia, and billed as American (Southern) Country-Rock, the Zac Brown Band reminded me of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Ozark Mountain Daredevels, and made us all want to dance.
And so, after five days of musical breadth and high energy beats, we danced our way out of the festival grounds and back to the car for the long drive home.
Rest assured, we bought our tickets for next year first!
Bluesfest is too good to miss.
Until next Easter,
Larch trees lay fallen like modern sculptures on the expansive steppes of central Mongolia. (Ikh-Uul Их-Уул, Zavkhan Завхан)
It looks like such a short drive:
From Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur in Tariat, Arkhangai Province, in Mongolia’s central west, it is just 203 kilometres through the Tarvagatai Mountains to Tosontsengel, in the western province of Zavkhan. That is about three and a half hours “without traffic” – and we expected none. Plus, we had the bonus of paved roads for much of our journey.
It was my third day of bumping along in a utilitarian Russian UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) four-wheel-drive vehicle organised by Within the Frame and local guides G and Segi. It was a short-driving day, considering the overall distance we needed to cover to reach our final destination, but it was off-season, and we were constrained by the availability of ger-camps in the almost deserted countryside.
It was my fifth day of living in hastily-purchased and borrowed clothing; Air China had finally found my suitcase, but they were offering no provisions to get it to me! Fortunately, our brilliant guides had connections everywhere and – at my own expense – my belongings and I should meet up by the end of the day. Even better: we had been promised ready-access to hot showers (which might be our last for several days), so it would be good to get into camp early.
We started our morning with a short hike up Khorgo Uul, a volcano in the Tariat district in the mid-western Arkhangai Province (see: Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur), then pointed the trucks west through the steppes and forest-steppes of Mongolia.
Driving is slower when you have to give way to the regular flocks of goats and sheep that wander into the roadways. (iPhone6)
Like a wild-west wagon train, we pull over and huddle the UAZs around the lunch tent at a likely looking spot in the Tarvagatai Mountains National Park. If you are looking for a shelter, the patches of larch trees are a long walk away… (iPhone6)
Larch in the Wind
There are a few more trees at our next stop: the European larch (larix decidua) is the dominant forest species in Mongolia. With autumnal yellowed needles, the few trees standing on the open steppe are bent by the wind that blows through the passes.
The twisting, reaching, trunks are very decorative with their roughly textured bark.
European larch (Larix decidua) trees live between 100 and 350 years, so I had to wonder about the dead trunks around our stop. These trees like well-drained soil, which is why there are more of them on the slopes than on the flat.
The tree bark presents a beautiful pattern.
Grasses on the Steppes
We are in the high plateaus of the Khangai Mountain Range; sparse grasses grow, and the mountains provide a backdrop.
Yaks on the Hillside
Domestic yak (Bos grunniens) somehow manage to find grasses and sedges high up on the mountain ridges.
One of our participants takes the opportunity to fly his drone across the plateau. (iPhone6)
There is not much traffic; two men in their traditional deel coats, and no helmets, smile as they pass us.
In spite of the dusty roads, our drivers manage to keep the Russian UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) four-wheel-drive trucks spotlessly clean: …
… so clean you can see yourself in them!
View from the Truck
Closer to our destination, the road gets bumpier. Rough wooden planks serve as a bridge to the next patch of gravel.
Cabins on the Plain
There is no sense of crowding at Selenge Lodge where we are camped out for the night. Pretty little cabins are located well away from the gers, …
… and away from the greenhouses which sit empty in the winter sun.
The season is clearly finished: nothing is growing inside, and the torn sheeting flaps in the icy cold wind.
The people who look after the camp are happy to pose …
… in the brightly angling afternoon sun.
The Elder Child
In the Firelight
The light falls quickly over the camp. Surprisingly, there are still enough trees for a bonfire! We all gather around it after dinner. (iPhone6)
Mother and Child in the Firelight
Boy with a Bucket
Early next morning, the son of the owners goes about his chores.
Mongolian Sheep Dog
Woman in the Kitchen
As we prepare to leave, mum at the counter …
Father and Baby
… and dad at the back door, see us off.
And so, after a feed of Khorkhog (Xopxoг – an awful lot of mutton and offal stewed with hot stones in a pressure cooker), a hot shower and a night’s sleep, we point the UAZs ever-westward and set off on another day’s drive.
May all your roads be less bumpy!
Happy travels –
Dynamite packaged in a blue suit: Irish Mythen, an Irish-born performer based in Canada, once again raised the roof of the Bluesfest tents with her soaring and passionate vocals.
With the radio cranked loud, I spent most of last week driving down New South Wales backroads, trying to not tap the beat too hard on the accelerator. The annual Easter-weekend Bluesfest music festival in Byron Bay had finished late Monday night, and I was on the way home with songs in my head and music in my heart.
I love Bluesfest!
It always takes me a while to absorb and “digest” the wonderful range of music that the five days of multiple stages offer up. But, while it is all fresh and raw, I’ll share with you a few portraits of the some of the powerhouse women, young and old, that rocked my festival.
These women couldn’t have been more different: different social and ethnic backgrounds, different experiences and ages, different musical genres and influences. But what struck was what they shared – beyond their indisputable talent and skill: they all seemed to be so very much themselves. While much of that may be stage persona, they each embodied their own personal style and commanded their performance spaces. The audiences were in their hands!
On a photographic note: I always find it challenging to process the photos I’ve taken under these low light conditions. I had trouble getting anywhere close to the action, so all the pictures included here are taken with the ISO cranked right up on my “noisy” old Canon 5D Mark II, using a 2.8 70-200mm lens without image stabilisation.
Even so, I hope they reflect some of the magnetism of their subjects.
With sparkles, flowers, and stage lights in her hair, Lucy Gallant looks as etherial as her delicate chimes. Her free-wheeling eclectic music draws on her Burmese, Russian, Irish, and Australian heritage and fuses rock, reggae, soul, latin and folk-pop traditions.
Byron-based, British-born Lucy is a singer-songwriter who plays multiple instruments. Billed as an indie artist, she’s on her way to her third Glastonbury Festival after this, her first Byron Bluesfest appearance.
A fiddler was a lively accompaniment to Lucy Gallant’s set.
The next performer on our schedule couldn’t have been more different! A fierce guitarist on her Fender Strat, Chicago-born Melody Angel …
… counts Prince and Hendrix amongst her many playing and song-writing influences. Definitely one to watch!
This is another energetic firecracker that we’d seen at Bluesfest before (see: Musical Name-Dropping) and weren’t about to miss. Called a queen of R&B soul and rock, Nikki Hill had whole the audience dancing.
Kam Franklin in the Bright Lights
Even the brightest lights in the house …
… can’t hide the exuberant and ranging soulful mezzo-soprano vocals of Kam Franklin, who fronts The Suffers as they power through their Gulf Coast Soul sound.
I loved Rhiannon when I saw her in 2016 (see: Back to the Roots), and if anything, she has grown in vocal power. Her wonderful voice ranged across old songs and originals with their heartbreaking roots in American history. The attached audio track, At the Purchaser’s Option, written with Joey Ryan, is an example.
Mavis Staples and her family were friends with Martin Luther King, Jr., and became the musical voices of the American civil rights movement. She is considered one of the greatest gospel, soul, and blues singers of all time, and still holds the audience in her her hands.
Another “elder” of the music world, Patti Smith, “punk poet laureate”, sang the album Horses and read short pieces.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and ten-time Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt looked small on the big stage in the huge Crossroads tent, but she filled the space with sound, …
The Boomerang Indigenous Arts Festival was running concurrently for three of the five festival days. With her sweet voice and sunny positivity, Emily Wurramara, singer, songwriter and musician from Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, was a treat.
Saraima Navara with Emily Wurramara
Rickie Lee Jones
There were quite a few “Living Legends” at Bluesfest this year. Everybody knows ‘Chuck E’s In Love’, but Rickie Lee Jone’s music extends well beyond that. The two-time Grammy-winner has 15 acclaimed albums to her name. I always think of her as the model for the singer Janice in the Muppet band Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem, especially as she was associated with Dr John in the late 1970s. (It has also been argued that the model for Janice was Mary Travers from Peter Paul and Mary, but I think the musical style is much more Rickie Lee.) Clearly, she is still well loved: the tent was packed with Baby Boomers who stayed long after she had performed her 1979 hit.
One of the “finds” of the festival was Laura Mvula, British soul singer-songwriter. She looks tiny on the big stage, backed by her band and surrounded in light.
With her Caribbean roots, a degree in musical composition from Birmingham Conservatoire, a personable stage presence, and a white keytar called “Nina” (Simone), Laura is a force to be reckoned with.
A multi-instrumentalist, she played a number of songs from her new album, as well as older favourites.
This year, she took to the stage twice, singing auto-biographical songs of pain and hardship …
… in her powerful rock-chick voice that has played duo with guitarists like Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa and Eric Gales.
As I said earlier, each of these women is different in so many ways. Each has had her own struggles and demons, but each has found a way forward through music.
And I am so glad they have.
I loved them, each and every one.
Until next time –
To the Music!
Taman Ayun Temple
January rains wash over the palm thatch roofs of the meru towers in the inner sanctum of Pura Taman Ayun, Mengwi, West Bali, and turn the grass in the complex a soggy green.
You are taking a chance in the tropics during the wet season!
Bali, that volcanic tropical paradise just eight degrees south of the equator, is in the path of the west monsoon from October to April, with heavy rains typical from December through March.
But, there are a lot of reasons to love Bali, any time of year. The window of opportunity for my husband and myself was in January, so we crossed our fingers and booked our flights.
Bali is known for it’s “sunset spots”, with one of the more famous being the beautiful Hindu temple Pura Tanah Lot sitting on it’s own rocky outcrop in the Indian Ocean. After consulting with my old (1999) Lonely Planet guide and a local driver, I decided that would make a romantic spot for dinner.
Bali is also known as the “Island of a Thousand Puras (Temples)”. About 83.5% of the population is Hindu, practicing a version of Hinduism that has its roots in Indian Hinduism, Buddhism, Balinese animistic traditions and ancestor worship. Wikipedia estimates that there are 20,000 temples and shrines around the island; I’m not sure if they are counting the shrines found in front of and within almost every home, but there are certainly temples everywhere, and you don’t walk more than a few feet before passing a shrine of some description.
We were staying on Sanur Beach, on the east coast – well situated for tropical sunrises over the jukung, the brightly painted outrigger canoes, that are anchored on the shallow waters. But Bali is such a small island – only 153 km (95 mi) wide and about 112 km (69 mi) north to south – that you can comfortably get from one side the other, and the meandering drive from Sanur to Pura Tanah Lot in search of a sunset left plenty of time for stops at sights along the way.
If only the rains would hold off…
Morning on Sanur Beach
Watching the Sunrise
Even during the wet season, the rains can pass quickly, …
… making for some spectacular sunrises on the east coast. The small wooden outrigger canoes known as cadik or jukung dot the shallow waters.
Pergola in the Morning
Putting out offerings to gods every day is a normal part of Balinese routine. Old offerings often lay around in piles.
Entering Taman Ayun Temple
Built in 1634, Pura Taman Ayun was the main temple of the Mengwi kingdom. ‘Taman Ayun’ means ‘beautiful garden’; the temple is set in a beautiful park with trees and ponds, and surrounded by a moat. Access is across the moat and through the Candi Bentar, the entry gateway, which looks like an intricate tower that has been split in two.
Kori Agung, Pura Taman Ayun
The access to in inner courtyard in a Balinese temple (the Kori Agung) is similar to the outer entry (the Candi Bentar), except that it is stepped and gated. It is closed to non-worshippers.
A fierce guardian (a dvarapala) statue sits each side of the entry to keep evil spirits out of the inner temple.
All around the temple, the cement is intricately cast and the stonework is beautifully carved. The lichen and mosses that grow in the humid climate only add to the beauty.
Banana-leaf trays of flowers, rice, and incense are dotted around the shrines as offerings.
Inside Taman Ayun Temple
Inner Shrines: Taman Ayun Temple
Taman Ayun Temple was built as a place to worship the royal ancestors. Meru, the multi-tiered tower-shrines, are dedicated to gods and ancestors; the tallest tower has eleven tiers and represents Bali’s second-highest mountain, Gunung Batukau.
A Barong is a mythological animal with a cat, tiger, or pig face, that is a defender of good. As symbols of the protector, they are often represented in dance.
There are several real cats – as opposed to Barong cats – scattered around the temple grounds.
Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus Hermaphroditus)
Just down the road, we stopped in at a luwak (civet) coffee plantation and outlet.
Billed as “eco tourism”, mini-plantations where visitors are shown coffee, tea, ginger, and other spice plants, are dotted all over Bali. A demonstration of hand-roasting coffee, followed by coffee- and tea-tasting is part of the brief tour.
Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus Hermaphroditus)
There is some ethical controversy over the most expensive product: kopi luwak or civet coffee, made from the beans of coffee berries which have been eaten by the civets, then passed through their digestive tracts. I was pleased that some of the civets here were loose, friendly, and appeared well cared for.
Pura Batu Bolong
Sitting on a rocky promontory jutting into the Indian Ocean, Batu Bolong Temple is a small shrine a short distance north of the famous Tanah Lot Temple.
Pura Batu Bolong
Even in the pouring rain, with the waves crashing in, it is a delicately beautiful shrine.
On another promontory just further south, Tanah Lot is one of Bali’s most venerated sea temples, and probably the most-photographed. Even in the grim January weather, tourists and pilgrims are huddled in raincoats and under umbrellas on the connection pathway.
Rain blows down and waves splash up over Pura Tana Lot. We won’t be treated to a sunset tonight, I fear.
Instead of a sunset, we make do with a serenade over dinner as we wait for the light to fall.
Even in a tropical paradise like Bali, I suppose it’s a bit greedy expecting both a sunrise and sunset on the same day!
One out of two is still pretty good –
And, we had a lovely day long the way.
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