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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Off the Shifen Old Street in Taiwan during CNY

If you are craving for a real sense of the local culture in such exotic locations all over the world, you should engage into their festivals. Festivals are truly the most memorable events scattering throughout the year in each community. Getting to see local customs and traditions can somewhat be interpreted as cracking shells of living creatures to take the hidden gems out.
I just arrived home last week after four nights surfing in Taiwan. Yes, I choose the word “surfing” but not “traveling” just because four days is like a flicker of flame with me jumping in for a few seconds then getting out real quick. However, I tried to scour Taiwan for its most enchanting places that I could hardly resist dropping by.
One of the most well-known destinations that I must highlight is Shifen Old Street located in Pingxi District. It is where Taiwan Lantern Festival, a must-see festival featured on National Geographicis annually held on the evening of the first full moon of Lunar New Year (15th of Lunar January). In 2017, it takes place on 11th of February, which is yesterday and it was such a pity that I just missed it out. This festival is marked with two significant activities clearly explained in a common short quote: “Fireworks in the South, Sky Lanterns in the North.” Sky Lanterns in the North are basically floating lanterns illuminating a vast expanse of Pingxi night sky. This eye-catching sight reminds me of a romantic scene in which Eugene and Rapunzel from Tangled watched thousands of glowing lanterns lighting up the sky.
Did Pingxi really inspire Walt Disney to bring out that scene? Who knows? haha. If you are a big fan of Tangled, you should attend Taiwan Lantern Festival and sing along with all the tunes in “See the light” to be fully in the presence with your own “Eugene” or “Rapunzel”. 😹
Although I didn’t have a chance to catch this impressive night view that is rarely seen elsewhere in the world, I was still lucky enough to roam around Shifen Old Street and see the smattering of lanterns dotted over the horizon in the rainy morning of the 4th day of Chinese New Year.
Known as a great stop along the Pingxi Branch Railway, one of the three remaining branch lines in Taiwan, and only 20-minute-walk from Shifen Waterfall on babbling brooks, Shifen Old Street is a magnificent place attracting a large number of both local and foreign visitors every year. When I got there, I felt like being sent decades into the past, back to when the Taiwan coal-mining industry flourished during the Japanese era with Shifen Railway Station originally used for transporting coals.
I reached the ancient street with two feet set on the ground loaded with gravels and coals. I hopped on and off the tracks which are just a few meters from the road on either side. This recalls the main hit quirk I discovered in Hanoi, Vietnam. It is a railway line passing through the downtown, inches away from the doors of households on either side. They are of the remaining places in Asia that we can have real human experience in putting ourselves at risk by taking the tracks as ‘playgrounds’ but always on alert. 




I was first impressed by a throng of Taiwanese people getting down the track lighting up their lanterns and watching them fly over the sky. Of all curiosity, I randomly picked a lantern store in the ocean of shops and restaurants set along both sides of the railway, and I stepped inside with the hope of exploring this interesting custom. I wish I could speak Chinese, even just a little bit but other than nihao and xie xie, good enough to communicate with the locals. With all my senses, I could feel the salesmen' warm welcomes. They were all absolutely eager to share me all the stories about CNY traditions in their region although I had no idea what those beautiful Chinese words uttered out were meant to be 😖 . I appreciated their friendliness and hospitality that they unconditionally gave me. I listened to them attentively and watched them help their customers out with the lanterns. The local family bought a huge lantern (150 TWD/one single color lantern; 200 TWD/four sided color lantern), wrote their wishes on the lantern and then went out to light them up. They posed for photos before releasing the lanterns into the air. The lanterns followed the breeze, carrying great prayers for blessings to the Gods and Ancestors.




This more-than-two-minute video below captured Taiwan’s Shifen Old Street during Chinese New Year. (Grab some popcorn and check it out! I hope it can help you picture out this cool street to some extent. I’m not a pro filmmaker though haha)

Happy New Year 2017! 😊

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Five Interesting Things in Myanmar

Mingalaba MYANMAR!
Myanmar (Burma) is absolutely one of the most must-visit and undiscovered countries in the world. I strongly recommend you should travel to Myanmar if you ever have a chance to set foot on Asia. Unlike Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam or any other countries that have been already affected by the booming of the globalization in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is truly a local destination full of mysteries unexplored. Having just connected to the outside world after 50 years isolated, this golden land is like a charming princess moving out from the castle for the first time.
This article covers the most fascinating things that I have ever seen during my adventure in this beautiful country - Myanmar. 

#1 People are deadly addicted to betel nuts
When you arrive in Myanmar, I'm pretty sure that you will be first impressed by the Burmese spitting out red saliva with their teeth stained black. Don't be shocked at it! If you drink tea or coffee, people here chew betel nuts. Betel nuts are actually betel quids which are the combination of areca nuts, lime, cinnamon and sometimes tobacco all wrapped in a betel leaf. Betel nuts are sold in almost every vendor along the sidewalks in Myanmar, so why don't you try integrating into the local culture by dying your teeth red and painting the ground red with betel stains? 

Betel chewing and mosquito hunting
Burmese monk chewing on betel nuts. Photo by Rico Schiekel via flickr.com

#2 People put an exotic paste on face 
Whenever I was asked to unfold my Myanmar travel story, I always kicked off with a wonderful Burmese cosmetic named Thanakha and never felt frustrated with digging into it millions of times. It killed me when I first saw Burmese men and women having such yellow paste on their cheeks and foreheads. An outburst of curiosity inside me was all of a sudden transformed into action. I approached the locals and finally got taken to a small house where the Burmese were continually grinding the bark of a Thanakha tree on a huge, flat and thick piece of stone called Kyauk pyin. Thanakha cream is used not only for beauty purpose but also as a perfect sun protector. It is truly a great souvenir that you can bring home.

The little girl I met in Burma. Photo by me

#3 Traffic in Myanmar is strange
To be honest, traffic in some countries in Southeast Asia is really exciting to see. If Vietnam makes you feel overwhelmed with their tons of scooters sticking around pedestrians, Myanmar will definitely get you astonished by their rule of the traffic game! Burmese people have right-hand steering since their country used to be a British colony, and they used to drive on the left side of the road; However, in these days they drive on the right side! I heard from the locals that the Prime Minister of Burma made that change because he had a dream the country could be developed after switching the directions. If it was true, it would not be so reasonable. All in all, you should be very careful if you ever have thought of joining in this confusing traffic.

Yangon city from our Millenium hotel
Yangon city. Photo by Ben via flickr.com

#4 Burmese men wear skirts
As soon as I landed at Yangon International Airport, I was exceedingly surprised at Myanmarese men wearing skirts. I could not help but stick my eyes on their amazing national costume. I loved it, trying to find out what it is, and eventually, I got the answer which is Longyi. When the men's longyi(es) were loose, I saw they quickly wrap the sheet again and bundle the knot in front tight. If Scottish men wear kilts, and Sri Lankan men tie sarongs, then men in Burma put on Longyi. Longyi is common that way. Longyi is a sheet of fabric wrapped around the waist, running to the feet. While women often have colorful Longyi(es), men choose plaid patterns. 

the longyi of burma
Burmese men wearing Longyi. Photo by David Pham via flickr.com

#5 There are giraffe women in Eastern Burma
It is exactly what Daily Mail (Dailymail.co.uk) called Kayan women in Kayah State. If you ever drop by Mae Hong Song province in Thailand - the border area with Myanmar, you could hardly forget the image of women wearing a lot of heavy brass neck bands. They are Kayan residents moving to Thailand and spreading some Myanmarese scent with a long-standing traditional beauty of the brass neck coils. There are some interesting myths I was told about this culture: Kayan girls started to wear one band at age 5 and they continued to put another one on when a year passed by. The more rings they put on, the longer their necks become. Besides regarded as a sign of jewelry, the bands are used to keep the women away from dangerous animals and men coming from other tribes. Any woman who betrayed their husband had to remove the neck rings, which is seriously a harsh punishment. I don't know whether it is true when people told me that women's neck loaded with these rings will break off once they remove them away. Sounds so scary, doesn't it?

DSC_0752
Kayan woman. Photo by Valentina Armenise via flickr.com



Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Mini Guide to Eating in Hanoi

Vietnamese cuisine offers an extraordinary cluster of gastronomic delights throughout a foodie adventure. It is an insight into an unforgettable concoction of a boundless variety of ingredients blended in the balance of sweet, salty, sour, hot and spicy flavors.
Hanoi is one of the most famous cities in the world for foodie connoisseurs. You will never go out hungry in this capital all day and night as you can definitely fill up on in different places from food street vendors, centuries old Vietnamese food stalls located in hidden corners, to unique Western-style restaurants. As a food lover, I always seek for the greatest gems in Hanoi, sticking to the list of the most distinct foods served in the best restaurants. Here are the must-try dishes I would highly recommend you dine on during your stay in this city.

#1 PHỞ

Beef pho at Pho Thin. Photo by me +Maze Vietnam
A bowl of Pho is what Vietnamese people often breakfast on. Pho is the symbol of Vietnamese gastronomy, reflecting the unique Vietnamese cuisine in the harmony of broth, rice noodles, fresh herbs and meat (beef or chicken). There is always a hidden myth behind the broth that appeals to Vietnamese people.
If you want to try a bowl of genuine Pho, go to Phở Thìn (#61 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, at Old Quarter) offering beef Pho in a rustic alleyway with such local atmosphere, Phở Thìn Lò Đúc (#13 Lò Đúc) serving stir-fried beef Pho, Phở Vân Anh with chicken Pho (#45A Mai Hắc Đế)


#2 BÁNH CUỐN
Banh cuon at Bánh cuốn Gia an. Photo by me +Maze Vietnam  
The process of making Banh cuon. Photos by Minh Nguyen +Maze Vietnam  

Banh cuon is one of Hanoians’ favorite dishes for breakfast and lunch. The process of making Banh cuon is so interesting that no one could stop sticking their eyes on the masters of the rolls. The cooks stretched fermented rice batter with a ladle over the surface of the steamer, taking a lid to cover it for a couple of seconds. After that they meticulously placed the super thin and delicate sheets with a stick onto a tray and filled them with a mixture of cooked meat (mostly pork), minced mushrooms and shallots. When you eat this food, just pick the sheets up with your chopsticks, dip them into the fish sauce and take the first bite. I sometimes eat this in one of the restaurants of the chain Bánh cuốn Gia An ( http://www.banhcuongiaan.com.vn/cua-hang/) which offers a diversity of Banh Cuon flavors.


#3 BÚN CHẢ

Bun cha Photo by me +Maze Vietnam 

Have you ever been through the sidewalks dotted with Bun Cha shops in Hanoi? Getting immersed in the aroma of Vietnamese BBQ grilled pork under the traditional charcoal will definitely urge you to stop at any food stalls you may find. Bun cha is served with a plate of rice noodles, grilled pork and a bowl of dipping sauce. What a tasty Hanoi’s food that you should not miss! Bun cha in almost all places share the same taste, so you can eat it anywhere you want. You can consider Bún chả Đắc Kim (#1 Hàng Mành) which is one of the most renowned Bun cha restaurants among Hanoians.


#4 CHẢ CÁ LÃ VỌNG

Chả cá Lã vọng. Photo by wikivietnam.net

Chả cá Lã vọng at #14 Chả cá. Photo by wikivietnam.net


It would be a real pity for any foodies if they missed out dining on Cha ca La Vong in a more than 100-year-old-restaurant (#14 Chả Cá) in the heart of downtown Hanoi. When you get to the ancient house in which this dish stem from, you don’t have to ponder what foods to pick out from the menu since there is only Cha ca La Vong offered. They will serve you a plate of rice noodles (Bun), fresh herbs, some peanuts, and a small bowl of shrimp paste (must try this once but you have to order the servers otherwise they will give you dipping fish sauce with chilies) and a little pan containing slices of hemibagrus fresh fish soaked in oil on a simple portable stove. Be careful at number 14 in Cha Ca street otherwise you will probably mistake the genuine restaurant for the fake one located right opposite. Plus watch out your head if you are told to go upstairs!


#5 BÚN ỐC THỊT

Bun oc at Bún ốc Hòe Nhai. Photo taken by Minh Nguyen +Maze Vietnam 
Bun oc thit (snail noodle soup) is a great combination of ideal broth, snails, beef and tofu along with other ingredients and garnishes. Balancing on a little plastic chair while having a bowl of snail noodle soup to try the sourness and sweetness of the broth, the tenderness of the beef and the crunchiness of the snails is one of the most wonderful things you can do in this city. Bún ốc thịt Hòe Nhai (#13 Hoè Nhai) and Bún ốc phố Hàng Chai (#6 Hàng Chai) are the two Bunocs that I recommend.


#6 BÁNH GIÒ

Banh gio at #5 Thụy Khê. Photo by Tu Vu +Maze Vietnam 
Banh gio (Vietnamese pork pyramid dumpling) is a Vietnamese cake wrapped in banana leaf and made by glutinous rice flour and tapioca starch with meat, onions, mushrooms and spices inside. This food can be eaten any time of the day. Bánh giò Kim Liên (#B16 Kim Liên, Đống Đa) and Bánh giò Thụy Khê (The largest pyramid dumpling offered in Hanoi according to Vietnamese people) (at #5 Thụy Khê) are where my friends and I usually stop by. To try out this food like a local, just take two plastic stools, getting one as a table and the other as a chair and enjoy.


#7 BÁNH MÌ

Grilled pork Banh Mi at Chua lang. Photo by Tung Pham +Maze Vietnam 

Banh mi Photo by me +Maze Vietnam  
Trust me, Banh mi must go to the top of the world’s sandwiches. It is a flawless combination of different fillings like pork pâté, fried eggs and vegetables all stuffed into a soft and crunchy baguette. The image of the Vietnamese having quick breakfast with Banh mi on the road is ubiquitous. It is never a challenge for people to get Banh mi since they actually appear almost everywhere in Hanoi.
 —
#8 CHÁO

Chao at Ngõ Huyện. Photo by me+Maze Vietnam 
Chao is a perfect choice when it comes to winter. Chao is Vietnamese Rice Congee, which is often offered with fried breadsticks made with flour, baking soda, sugar and salt. Vietnamese people often eat Chao at the start of Ngõ Huyện, Hoàn Kiếm.


#9 CHÈ, BÁNH TRÔI TÀU



 Banh troi tau at Lò Đúc street. Photo by me +Maze Vietnam 

Che and Banh troi tau are undoubtedly ranked in the top list of Vietnamese sweet desserts. Che is an explicit example of Vietnamese food’s concoction. While Vietnamese cafe can be mixed with egg or yogurt, Che can go with an abundance of ingredients such as mung beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, jelly, fruit, lotus seeds, coconut cream and so on. Banh troi tau has two main parts: balls made from mung bean or black sesame paste wrapped in a shell made of glutinous rice flour and liquid made of water, sugar, and grated ginger root and coconut. Chè 4 Mùa (#4 Hàng Cân) is where the locals come to have these desserts.


#10 XÔI
Have you ever seen any street vendors with two big baskets suspended at the end of the two poles? Some of them put xoi into the baskets to sell. Xoi is another Vietnamese dish made from glutinous rice and other conventional ingredients: mung beans with fried shallots; peanuts; momordica; and hundreds of more. It is beautifully wrapped in banana leaf in the shape of a small hand. You can eat it with spoons or straight by hands.


#11 BÚN BÒ NAM BỘ

Bun bo Nam Bo Photo by me +Maze Vietnam 
If you are in Northern Vietnam but want to give it a try with Southern Vietnam’s food, Bun bo Nam Bo is one of the right options available here. Bún bò Nam Bộ (Dry noodles with beef from the South of Vietnam) is the mixture of dry rice noodles and stir-fried beef with fresh vegetables, pickled papaya on top and sauces instead of broth like Pho. Bún bò Nam Bộ (#67 Hàng Điếu), which is said to serve the best and quick bowl of Bun bo Nam Bo in Hanoi, is where I always visit whenever my tummy needs some bun bo.


#12 NON-VIETNAMESE FOODS

 Pasta Photo by me +Maze Vietnam 
If you need a change after eating non-stop Vietnamese food, you had better dine out on other countries’ specialties. For a vegetarian or an Indian food lover, Namaste (#46 Thợ Nhuộm) is a great destination. It is owned by an Indian offering the most authentic Indian foods. For anyone who has a strong passion for Italian food, Mediterraneo (#23 Nhà Thờ) owned by a friendly Italian chef serving the real Italian food (Bruschetta, Costino, Pizza, Pastas and more) is always recommended by Italian tourists. For a Japanese food seeker, Asahi Sushi (at #288 Bà Triệu) is the most glittering Japanese restaurant in Hanoi. It is filled all over with Japanese atmosphere in the heart of Hanoi.