Monday, June 30, 2008

Birthday cupcakes

Yesterday a friend ordered some cupcakes for her daughter who is celebrating her 5th birthday.

This is the result ......

The little girl wanted lots of pink for the girls so I made handbags .....
And for the boys, little blue caps.
Don't you think they're pretty?

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Importance of Tolerance

My husband and I practice different religions. Whenever the topic of religion crops up, people are always surprised that I have not converted to his religion. Just because I’m married to the man does not mean I have to be someone else, does it?

Fortunately, tolerance is a key word in our relationship and my husband must be credited for not forcing his beliefs on me. Respect and inter-faith tolerance is vital for a marriage like ours.

Religion for me defines the very personal relationship between God and myself. It’s so very hard for me to understand why anyone else should have any say in that relationship.

I have, unfortunately, come across many instances when overzealousness rears its ugly head whenever religion is concerned. Obviously, to these people, they are just trying to save some poor lost soul. But what if this soul does not need saving?

Every religion preaches tolerance, but how often do we really live it? If we do, why then do some people tell others that they are praying to nothing more than an idol? Or that they pray for us to come to our senses and accept their God one day. Or that our only ticket to heaven is to embrace their religion. Would they have felt insulted if we said the same of their God and religion?

In a time when religion should be the glue that binds mankind together, we’re all fighting and killing each other to stake our claim that our God is the supreme one. Does it matter that much that we’re willing to kill and maim for it?

I seriously believe that any embrace of a religion should come from the heart. It should never be coerced or forced for what good is it to embrace a religion but to not truly believe in it, live it and breathe it?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dinner at Steam King, Dataran Sunway

We had dinner at the cozy Steam King Seafood restaurant at Dataran Sunway last week. Steam King serves very fresh seafood straight out from the rows of aquariums at the back of the restaurant. It was highly recommended by my hubby’s friend so we decided to give it a try.

We ordered steamed frog with garlic sauce, Teochew-style steam fish, prawns with salted egg yolk and sweet potato leaves with belacan for 2 adults and a 7 year old.
Our orders arrived in a jiffy. The first to arrive was the steamed frog with garlic sauce. The frogs were big and juicy and steamed just right with a thick layer of chopped garlic on top. Personally I felt all that garlic was a little too overpowering for the frog.
The prawns with salted egg yolk is a personal favourite and Steam King’s version didn’t disappoint. The prawns were large and fresh and coated with a nice layer of salted egg yolk. It’s a good dish to eat with your hands!
My hubby’s favourite sweet potato leaves with belacan was the next to arrive. The stirfried vegetable was sweet and smooth but I don’t quite liked the belacan. I think it would have tasted better just stirfried with garlic.

The Teochew-style steamed grouper fish was excellent. It was very fresh and came topped with lots of cubed tofu, mushrooms, tomatoes, Chinese cabbage and salted vegetables. The fish flesh was firm yet separates at the gentlest prodding of the fork.

We were served a complimentary plate of fresh fruits and sweet barley dessert to end our meal which was a nice touch.

I found the serving at Steam King too big for 3 persons. The dishes we ordered are substantial enough for at least 5 to 6 diners. Since we couldn’t finish all the good food the leftovers were nicely packed for us in containers. We really liked the freshness of the food and plan to visit again!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Markets in Hanoi, Vietnam

Morning markets are a bustle of activity in Hanoi. They are colourful, noisy and packed with people.

I managed to squeeze in two visits to the morning markets, one of which was located just right next to our hotel on Ly Thong Kiet.

My exploration started innocently enough. There were pottery stalls outside but the real deal is in the interior of the market. The first thing I saw upon stepping in was a row of stalls selling roasted dog meat (thit cho). Dog meat is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and I’ve been told they are delicious. However, one man’s meat is another’s poison. I could not muster up enough courage to stomach these just yet, so it’s best I gave it a pass. Anyway, I'm still thinking whether I should post the photos. Should I or not?

Further down are stalls selling vegetables and noodles. The interior of the market is dark and dank with the occasional motorbike coming in or out.

At the further end of the market there are sundry shops selling instant pho and all sorts of sauces for a Vietnamese meal. I love my pho so I bought some to bring home too!
The last stalls at the market are flower and fruit stalls with huge strawberries, blueberries, custard apples and dragonfruits. The burst of colour at the fruit stalls are such a huge contrast to the stalls inside the market.

The other market I went to was one that I stumbled on in the Old Quarter. It’s an open-air market which is bright and airy. There were lots of stalls selling all types of food crowded with people eating their breakfast.

The stalls are similar to the market at Ly Thong Kiet although I don’t see any dog meat stalls here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Shopaholic heaven

Hanoi is a shopper’s haven, perfect for an incurable shopaholic like me. I’ve read up about their famous handicrafts before I arrived and was really looking forward to buying the famous Vietnamese lacquerware.

Most of the shops selling lacquerware are concentrated at the Old Quarter area. Vietnamese lacquerware products are handmade and make beautiful gifts for family and friends.

At the weekend Old Quarter night market I found these beautiful “balancing” dragonflies! They’re dirt-cheap and best of all, they keep my daughter fascinated!

The night market is filled with stalls selling souvenirs, fresh cut fruits, toys, clothing, lacquerware and even food stalls!

The stalls don’t just cater to the adults. Here’s what they have for kids! I’ve never seen so many types of lollipops at one place, let alone one stall! My daughter is very excited at the prospect of visiting this stall when we go back to Hanoi in October.
Beautiful silk ao dais (Vietnam’s traditional dress), silk embroidery, Vietnamese silk lanterns and masks are also sold in many shops at the Old Quarter.

The famous Vietnamese coffee and drip filters are also sold in the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter is a maze of shops where interesting discoveries await.
Of course, clotheshorses are not neglected in Hanoi either. I found two factory outlets specialising in jackets at amazingly low prices. Imagine a Columbia padded jacket for only USD10! I found the same jacket at a shop back home that went for USD125. The outlets carry brands such as Zara, Gap, Old Navy, Guess, Liz Clairborne and even Oshkosh & Gap Kids for kids. Sizes vary depending on availability.

I'll be planning ahead with a long shopping list for my next visit.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hanoi food paradise

A portable stall

Vietnam’s French colonial past is clearly evident in their food (think freshly baked baguettes and paté).

Vietnam street fare is full of choices and the pho is undoubtedly the best noodle soup I’ve eaten. Pho takes pride as the national dish of Vietnam. The best place to eat a bowl of hot steaming pho is, as I’ve discovered, to eat where the locals eat. That’s at makeshift stalls by the road where you sit on child-sized chairs. Thin rice noodle strips are served in a bowl of hot steaming soup topped with your choice of thinly sliced beef (bo) or chicken (ga). The soup for the noodles are flavourful due to the addition of spices.

My colleagues and I found a stall selling cuttlefish roasted on hot charcoal, literally. The cuttlefish is roasted on a small make-shift charcoal stove by the roadside and then pounded on the pavements. Then it’s wrapped and ready as food on the go!

Further down we found another stall selling homemade French fries. Potatoes were peeled and cut right on the street, then slathered with butter and fried. Hygiene may not necessarily be a priority at these stalls, but at times like this, it’s best to throw caution to the wind. The fries were delicious hot off the wok!

There are also many beer stops where one could down an ice-cold Bia Hanoi.

In the Old Quarter where we found shops that sell all types of preserved fruits. I found preserved strawberries, crab apples, apricots, ginger and lots more. I liked the preserved strawberries which was sweet and sour.

Banh Xeo

Prawn fritters

My favourite restaurant is the Quan An Ngon, an open-air restaurant with rustic stalls set around the perimeter of a large courtyard. The ambience is great and the best part is the variety of street food of every region in Vietnam is available here. It’s one of those places where we could have street fare in a hygienic environment. My Vietnamese colleague ordered some local delicacies which were utterly delicious. I’ve tried Vietnamese fare before back home but it is nothing compared to the ones here. I particularly liked the Banh Xeo which is a rice pancake with beansprouts from Ho Chi Minh down south and the squid salad with crackers. The crackers were great to soak up all the juices in the squid salad. The cha gio (fried springrolls) were crispy with minced meat fillings. The desserts were lovely too.

On the last day of my stay in Hanoi, I forgo breakfast at the hotel and set out early for the baguettes. I’ve seen folks buying these baguette sandwiches every morning and I very much wanted to try one. I found this little stall in front of the St. Joseph’s Cathedral and ordered a baguette with egg omelette, ham & paté. The freshly baked baguette was delicious, crisp outside, and fluffy inside and the paté was smooth. It proved to be a potent combination! It was so good I ordered another one for take-away!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Color blind and proud of it!

I had a most interesting discussion with the grandma of my daughter’s friend the other day. She is a feisty Malay lady while I’m Chinese. Her grandson and my daughter have been classmates for 3 years now and are best friends.

The topic of our discussion was how well the kids are getting along with each other, regardless of their race and how proud we are of this fact. Some of my daughter’s best friends happen to be Malays and Indians, so combined, they represent multi-cultural Malaysia.

The Malay lady told me how confused she was to hear politicians speak about race relations amongst us because in her opinion, we all regard each other as friends. I totally agree with her because I have friends from other races too. When I speak to them, I don’t see them as Malay, Chinese or Indians, I see them as just my friends. So why is it that our politicians are so bent of making us see our differences rather than to embrace and celebrate it?

If politicians speak about race segregation happening in national schools, perhaps they would like to spend a day in a private school. That’s because in my daughter’s school, all the races study and play together. The kids do not stick to friends of their own race because, frankly, they’re colour-blind when it comes to skin colour.

It does seem like the kids know more about race relations than the politicians. Perhaps it’s time for the politicians to go back to school.

Spectacular Halong Bay, Vietnam

We also visited Halong Bay as part of our trip in Hanoi. Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage site located in the Gulf of Tonkin. It includes 1600 islands and islets which forms a spectacular seascape of limestone karsts rising out of the Gulf. It took us about 3 hours drive from our hotel in Ly Thong Kiet.

Halong Bay is without doubt Vietnam’s most famous natural attraction and rightly so. The serene waters of the bay and picturesque scenery dotted with limestone karsts is nothing short of spectacular.

Our cruise onboard a junk took about 4 hours with seafood lunch served on board the junk. Although boarding a junk was a novelty, the real treat was standing on the top level of the junk with the wind sweeping our face to watch the beautiful scenery unfolding all around us.

I don’t believe I could do justice by describing Halong Bay’s natural beauty. It is something that has to be experienced. The geographical work of art is amazing.
Can you spot the dragon?

Our junk stopped by two caves, Thien Cung and Dau Go to afford us a short trek into the caves to see the rock formations. The short trek was worth it as we were soon rewarded with incredibly beautiful rock formations. We spotted a formation that resembled a dragon and another that resembled a lion. Kids would have fun in this cave!

Soon a seafood lunch was served aboard the junk. Unfortunately the food served was nothing to shout about.

We also stopped at a fish farm where live seafood can be bought and then cooked onboard the junk.

One very interesting aspect of cruising on the junk was that small boats will cruise up next to ours and the occupants will try to sell us fruits. Of course the prices are exorbitant but that’s a novelty for tourists, right?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Snapshots of Hanoi, Vietnam

I visited Hanoi during end of February this year. If I had any reservations about visiting Vietnam earlier, all those were quickly put to rest the moment I landed in Hanoi. My friends who had visited Hanoi a few years back had told me that there’s nothing much to see so I was always a little hesitant. However work commitments landed me in Hanoi and what an eye-opener that was! I took to Hanoi immediately, loved the landscape, loved the quirky makeshift foodstalls, loved the way the vehicles weave in and out of traffic, even loved the noise!
There’s a certain charm to Hanoi that does not appear anywhere else.

I loved the quaint little shops of the Old Quarter which is rich with over 1000 years of history. The best way to see the Old Quarter is by foot. I walked every morning from the hotel at Ly Thong Kiet to Hoan Kiem Lake (the Lake of the Restored Sword) then on to the Old Quarter and relished every single moment of it. The Old Quarter is made up of 36 old streets, each street named after the product sold such as silk, toys, lacquerware, foodstuff etc. There is a bustling night market on weekends that stretch to the very end of the Old Quarter, packed with all types of goodies. I also loved the calm at Hoan Kiem Lake, where young and old gather every morning for tai-chi or to just sit watching reflections of the city by the lake. The calm in the lake of course belies the noise that surrounds it. Yet, it is the noise that adds to the charm of Hanoi.

Morning exercise in Hoan Kiem Lake

Reflections of the Tortoise Pagoda in Hoan Kiem Lake
The serene Hoan Kiem Lake in the morning

There is something very romantic about the picturesque footbridge (Bridge of the Rising Sun) to Ngoc Son pagoda at Hoan Kiem Lake.
Directly across Hoan Kiem Lake is the very popular Hanoi Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. In the afternoons, busloads of tourists converge on the theatre to watch the water puppets show. It’s a show unlike any other and should not be missed. The puppet play is on water, showcasing the various life scenes in Vietnam. The puppetry artists are swift with their movements and the puppets come to life in front of your very eyes.
The buildings in Hanoi are reflections of Vietnam’s French colonial past. The old buildings have soul and it’s what I liked most. The grand St. Joseph cathedral, is Hanoi’s very own Notre Dame.
The exquisite Hanoi Opera House is a vision of Vietnam’s grandeur.

There are many pagodas within walking distance from our hotel. Amongst my favourite is the Quan Su Pagoda which is Hanoi’s largest and most popular pagodas. I will be back to Hanoi for a proper holiday in October, and frankly, I just can’t wait to be back.