26 August 2014

Port of Call: Ho Chi Minh City

Hi Chi Minh City's flamboyant colonial town hall.
Photo: River Cruise Insight
Founded only in the eighteenth century as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a newcomer among cities by Asian standards. Yet it has packed plenty into a short time: it quickly became a major commercial and trading centre, the capital of French Indochina, and infamous during the Vietnam War.
The country’s biggest city, with some eight million inhabitants, Ho Chi Minh City today is in the midst of a pulsating economic revival that makes it one of southwest Asia’s most exciting cities. It’s also the starting point for river cruises along the nearby Mekong River; passengers usually spend a night or two in a hotel here before boarding on the river at My Tho.
Luxury Dong Khoi shopping street in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo: River Cruise Insight
Brash and busy, Ho Chi Minh City’s new luxury hotels and office blocks sprout like mushrooms, sophisticated bars and fashion boutiques fling open their doors, and the streets are a never-ending parade of honking traffic, frenetic shoppers, street hawkers, pickpockets and trendy teenagers giggling into mobile phones.
Nothing says Vietnam like the hordes of motor scooters that buzz along its streets. The brave can join the motorized throng – and get a quintessential Ho Chi Minh City experience – by renting a motorbike for just US$5 per day from hotels or the shops along Pham Ngu Lao. (Technically you need a motorcycle license, though nobody asks.) The less confident can hire a motorcycle taxi for under a dollar. Keep your knees in tight. You’ll end up with white knuckles, a grimy face and a feeling of crazy exhilaration.
Ho Chi Minh City's colonial-era post office.
Photo: River Cruise Insight
The old Saigon is still there too, however: French-style bakeries and tree-lined avenues, ladies in silk ao dai dresses, old neighbourhood temples where incense drifts, and an impressive array of colonial architecture described as ‘tropical Baroque’ in its grandeur.
Find early morning tranquillity among the many temples of Cholon, the city’s Chinatown. This soon gives way to bustle as bird sellers, street barbers, noodle vendors and restaurant owners compete for business.

Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo: River Cruise Insight
Then stroll around central Ho Chi Minh City for a look at Reunification Hall and colonial Notre Dame cathedral and elegant Post Office building before heading up Le Duan Boulevard, with its graceful villas. It’s confrontational, but the War Remnants Museum – the city’s most popular tourist attraction – bears witness to the horrors of the Vietnam War in its photography, artefacts and searing exhibits.

Presided over by a clock tower, Ben Thanh Market offers souvenirs and knock-off fashions galore. You can have banh khoi (pancakes) or pho (noodles) for lunch here, accompanied by pitchers of beer. Finally, refresh your spirit at the Jade Emperor Pagoda, an always-buzzing Cantonese temple with elaborate roofs sporting dragons and birds, carved woodwork and a crowd of colourful gods and goddesses.

If you’ve been to Ho Chi Minh City or enjoyed a Mekong River cruise, please add your comments below. Our readers appreciate your tips and memories.

19 August 2014

PORT OF CALL: New Orleans (Part II)

Saxophone player on the Mississippi
embankment, New Orleans, USA.
Photo: NOVCB
In his last post, Captain Rivers shared his impressions of New Orleans, and why he enjoys this Mississippi port city so much. Another reason why it’s such a great place to visit: New Orleans really is a city that never sleeps. It’s also a place that knows how to have a good time, preferably helped along with generous amounts of alcohol. In fact, New Orleans is the only city in America where you can drink alcohol just about anywhere, and since there are no closing laws you can do it 24 hours a day. The drugstore where cocktails were invented is on Royal Street; one day the proprietor mixed bitters and cognac and served the result to customers in small eggcups called coquetier in French. New Orleans is still very much a cocktail town; the native Sazerac is a mix of Bourbon, vermouth, absinth, sugar and orange, best sipped on a lacy balcony as you gaze along a street of moss-covered oaks and dilapidated mansions.
Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, New Orleans, USA.
Photo: NOVCB
On the other hand, New Orleans is also a place where beer is raucously consumed by the gallon out of plastic Go-Cups. At the heart of the celebrations, Bourbon Street is a never-ending parade of youthful party-goers who gravitate towards the cacophony of the street’s nightclubs, strip joints, music bars and bizarre novelty shops. The disapproving will notice only the tottering drunks, reverberating din, drifts of trash and permissive behaviour. True, Bourbon Street is hardly the true soul of New Orleans (although some visitors barely leave its confines), but there’s a heady excitement in the music wailing from every door and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in the street. Both revolting and exhilarating, Bourbon Street is as close as you’ll ever come to a Roman bacchanalia.
Jazz band playing Preservation Hall, New Orleans, USA.
Photo: NOVCB
Of course, music lovers will find plenty of other reasons to disembark their ship of an evening. You can’t get away from music in New Orleans, which has influenced American musical culture from rhythm & blues to gospel and rock-and-roll. Most of all, New Orleans is about jazz, which you’ll hear played by everyone from street performers to the famous ensembles that pack the city’s halls. Bourbon Street has plenty of jazz and blues bars, but they’re aimed squarely at the mainstream tourist market. For a more authentic experience, head for Preservation Hall at 726 St Peter Street. The place looks like it should be earmarked for demolition, has hard wooden benches and not even a bar, but you’ll find packed audiences and probably the best traditional jazz in town.
Other legendary jazz spots include Funky Butt (714 North Rampart), the sophisticated Snug Harbor (626 Frenchmen Street) which often features the famous Marsalis family, and the tiny jam-packed Vaughan’s (4229 Dauphine Street) where you can eat free beans and rice as you sit almost in the lap of the band. At the Palm Court Jazz Café (1204 Decatur Street) you can try Creole food to the accompaniment of some of the best live music in town, and also buy jazz memorabilia and collector’s records.
If you’ve been to New Orleans and have recommendations on its nightlife, please add your comments below. Our readers appreciate your tips and memories.

15 August 2014

PORT OF CALL: New Orleans (Part I)

The paddle steamer Natchez on the
Mississippi at New Orelans, USA.
Photo: NOCVB
The air is steamy with the whiff of Caribbean spices and the Louisiana swamps. Breezes from the muddy Mississippi stir languidly down streets oily with heat. Music oozes from every building. The booze flows and the jazz bars never close. Laissez le bons temps rouler say the locals: let the good times roll. They say it in French and it doesn’t seem odd here in the middle of America. New Orleans is like Europe, the Americans claim: it was created by the French and Spanish and largely insulated from the puritan culture of the northern states. But African and Caribbean influences are strong too: voodoo beads click from darkened shops and fiery chillies lurk in rich stews.
New Orleans is unlike any other place in America: chaotic, slightly seedy, unkempt, full of character. It has a reputation for debauchery and decadence, and the people are indulgent and sensual. This is the Big Easy, steamy, seductive and occasionally shocking.
Napoleon House in the French Quater, New Orleans, USA.
Photo: NOVCB
The original heart of New Orleans, on the banks of the Mississippi River, is the Vieux Carré (Old Square), or more colloquially the French Quarter. Although the streets here were laid out by the French in the 1820s, the architectural influences you see today are largely colonial Spanish mixed with a distinctively Caribbean flavour. Its residential streets have a slightly haunted, melancholy air and are full of historical oddities and elegant houses. Garden courtyards overflow with banana trees and trickling fountains, while villas proudly display wrought-iron balconies fine as Spanish lace. As the pale morning light comes up above the river metal shutters crank up and locals come out for a breakfast of red-bean omelette just as party-goers are staggering hotel-wards. Strange smells waft out of the voodoo shops, where you can pick up Fix the Boss powder and Come to Me oil.
Jackson Square, New Orleans, USA.
Photo: NOCVB
Down in Jackson Square in the afternoon you can sit at a café table drinking chicory coffee laced with hot cream. As you munch on another sugar-coated beignet (a type of doughnut) you can watch the fortune-tellers and ‘living statue’ buskers earn a few dollars around the real statue of President Andrew Jackson, seated grandly on a horse. Later in the evening down a side street you might hear the mournful note of a clarinet playing What a Wonderful World from behind a window.
It’s easy to be seduced by the music and merriment of the French Quarter, but it would be a mistake not to head south to the Garden District before you leave. This too is an historic part of town where the architecture has been carefully preserved. In the years after the Louisiana Purchase the Garden District was settled by wealthy Anglo-Americans who displaced the Creole population and gave it a distinctively different flavour from the French Quarter. Amble around the streets and you can soak up the genteel atmosphere of the American South. Spanish moss hangs in eerie hanks from oak trees and cemeteries boast baroque mausoleums and teetering tombstones. Georgian and Italianate mansions slip into elegant decay behind gardens of jungle lushness. One the facades of these houses balconies erupt like decorations on a wedding cake, while verandas and porches offer cool shade. You wouldn’t be surprised to spot Scarlett O’Hara sitting out on a porch sipping a mint julep – and indeed one of the houses on St Charles Avenue is a replica of Tara from Gone With the Wind.
The Elms mansion, New Orleans, USA.
Photo: NOCVB
The Garden District has the sort of dilapidated grandeur and historic melancholy that has inspired generations of musicians and writers. Tennessee Williams caught its essence, and you can still ride the streetcar along the St Charles line, although it’s no longer called Desire. A pity: desire is something that coils down New Orleans streets like its summer heat. You feel it in the nostalgic hankering for history; you taste it in the rugged spiciness of Cajun cuisine; you hear it in the haunting notes of a saxophone that spills out the door of a honky-tonk bar. Sit back and absorb the magic, and New Orleans will seduce you.
Stay tuned: we’ll shortly be adding more on New Orleans, with a look at its music and nightlife.

If you’ve been to New Orleans and have something to add, please do so. Our readers appreciate your tips and memories.

8 August 2014

RIVER-CRUISING MUSING: Admiring bonsai

A Japanese pine-tree bonsai.
Photo: Wikicommons
“I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree,” American poet Joyce Kilmer famously wrote. Perhaps he had an eastern sensibility, because in parts of Asia, trees are often considered to be poems, worthy of admiration and contemplation. But not any old trees: humans must have a hand in their creation too.
Although English uses the Japanese term bonsai, miniature trees were first created in China, where they are called penjing. Both terms simply mean ‘tray planting’. The creation of miniature landscapes in shallow pots has been part of the Taoist tradition in China since at least the first century, and by the third century was a well-developed art praised in essays and poetry. I became quite entranced with these from the moment I saw them in gardens in Shanghai and Suzhou, both shore excursions on some Yantgze river cruises.
The misty landscape of Huangshan in China.
Photo: Wikicommons
Anyone familiar with some of China’s most famous landscapes – or the traditional scroll paintings that portray them – will see the inspiration for penjing. Huangshan in eastern China, for example, is the perfect blend of natural beauty and human ingenuity. Emperors and poets have lauded the mountain range’s misty landscapes, gnarled pine trees and teetering rock formations, while a thousand years of labour have gone into creating its dizzying pathways and staircases.
Although penjing attempt to capture such scenes in miniature, there’s much more to them than simple imitation. This is an art form that reflects the patience and ingenuity of the grower, and provides a source of delight and contemplation for the viewer. Some have called them living sculptures or three-dimensional poems: compact, beautiful and intended to provoke quiet contemplation. The plants are also carefully chosen for their symbolism. Pine and cypress trees are appreciated in Chinese culture as symbols of longevity and strength. Plum represents vitality and peach immortality, which is why these are common penjing fruit trees.
Bonsai maple tree.
Photo: Wikicommons
From the penjing of China two other traditions also emerged. In Vietnam hòn non bộ came to focus on creating entire miniature landscapes of mountains and islands decorated with a variety of small plants and trees, and often also containing model figures and buildings. If you’re river-cruising on the Mekong, you’ll see plenty of these at temples and gardens along the way.
Japan also developed its own sense of aesthetics and tradition. Penjing were brought to Japan as early as the sixth century, but it wasn’t until the fourteenth century that Japan was producing its own penjing and the first truly Japanese bonsai were born. Unlike the Chinese or Vietnamese traditions, bonsai focused on single plants rather than landscape settings. They were widely admired and kept by the samurai class. The oldest bonsai in Japan, a five-needle pine tree at least 500 years old, is part of the imperial palace collection in Tokyo.
Bonsai maple tree.
Photo: Wikicommons
Quite apart from their petite appearance, there’s more to the look of a penjing or bonsai than at first meets the eye. Proportions are paramount, since the bonsai must mimic the appearance of normal trees with trunk, branches and leaves in proportion to each other. It must appear natural – if wired or pruned, no visible sign must later remain. And asymmetry is favoured, so that a bonsai usually has a clearly defined ‘front’ from which it is best admired.
Bonsai are usually planted in ceramic pots and displayed at eye height, alone and against an un-distracting background. However, some indoor varieties are arranged on a little landscape that may feature a companion plant, some rocks, and perhaps an accompanying scroll painting hanging nearby. They’re designed to make the viewer pause in admiration at the sight of a beautiful branch of autumn foliage or the twisted elegance of a tree trunk. If that makes you feel a little philosophical or poetical, then you’ve understood what bonsai is all about.

Are you familiar with bonsai? Keep an eye out for them on your next Mekong or Yangtze river cruise, and let us know what you think.