Tuesday, June 12, 2018

17 May 2018 - Day 6 - Ho Chi Minh City to Chennai

What does it take for me to fall in love with a country? Is it the natural beauty of the country? Is it the beauty of its buildings? Is it the history of the place? Is it the food and drink I experience? Is it the things I can buy from there? Is it the activities that I can do there? Which is it? For me, the X-factor is the people. They make all the difference. I have been to many beautiful places on this planet that are incomparable; such as Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia. I have been to Austria and France, where the grand buildings proclaim the beauty of the country. I have been to UK and Italy, where history oozes from every wall and cobblestone. In Tanzania and East Europe, I had some awesome food and drink. From China and Russia, I took home some superbly crafted pieces. I have been with friends and family to many places in Europe and US, enjoying nightlife and the innumerable activities that the cities had to offer. Yet, for me, it is all about people. It is the people that make any village, town, city or country make me fall in love with it.  They wouldn’t be anything without the people. That’s why my favourite destinations are in South East Asia.

A group of eleven countries are normally referred to as South East Asia; Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Timor, Brunei and Philippines. I have been to all of them, except the last three; Philippines being on the immediate radar. I have travelled widely in these countries too. What I have seen and experienced there and in Tanzania, about the people, have made me question the definition of development? I have come to staunchly believe that development is not about great infrastructure made by the people or the money in the hands of its people. It is the people. The happiness quotient, contentment and respect for fellow humans must define development. The human index must overwhelmingly define development. Most of the western world is developed. But, do they have the indices of happiness, contentment and respect? Doubtful. In South East Asia they have them in plenty and it is seen on the faces of people and how they deal with you.

After 7 am I went down to the reception of the homestay for coffee. Having fallen in love with the amazing cuppas of coffee that Ms. Yang made for me I picked up a few varieties of Vietnamese coffee to take with me to Chennai. The coffee this morning was glorious too. Ms. Yang confirmed with me the timing for breakfast, based on which she would get me sticky rice with chicken. When I returned to the courtyard after an elaborate bath and packing up luggage Ms. Yang’s nephew had fetched what I would have for breakfast. Having rice for breakfast is not anything new in this part of the world, but it is for me. However, I tucked into it with gusto. Sauces and dips are part of anything you eat in this city, as it was with the chicken and rice. It filled me up and I was certain that I would have to forgo lunch.

I had a few more hours to kill before leaving for the airport. Instead of idling those hours at the homestay I decided to take a peek at the An Dong Market and An Dong Plaza. It was a fair distance away from the homestay, but the Grab bike makes distances look small with their lithe movement weaving through congested traffic and making use of shortcuts through narrow bylanes. The An Dong Market is housed in a four story 17th century building. The variety of things on offer is such that all your shopping needs can be done in one place at this market. Hours will go by in the predominantly Chinese market looking for bargains and new arrivals. Overpowering aroma of foods, from food courts and stalls, dominate the ground floor of the market. The sight of shoes, sandals and chappals of all types and for all occasions slowed my progress on the next floor. The two floors above them are for clothes and handicraft. The piles of clothes in plastic are stacked high in the stalls that are brought down for inspection with cat like efficiency by young girls. I saw huge bundles of fresh arrivals being brought into the market and many bundles being done of clothes already in the stall. It looked to me as if the An Dong Market is a repacking centre for other smaller retail outlets in the city. The An Dong Plaza, the air-conditioned twin, is a few meters from the Market. The Plaza houses the Windsor Plaza Hotel and the America Discotheque. This too is a good place to shop for bargains that include even soft and hard furnishings for the house. I had spent a couple of hours gazing and window shopping. It was time to wind up, but I had just a couple of more things to do before the drive to the airport.

On the first day in HCMC I had seen 3D greeting cards being sold outside the Saigon Central PO. I wanted to pick up a few for my granddaughter, Eva, who was showing early signs of developing her mother’s craft skills. The Grab bike took me to the Notre Dame Cathedral and I requested him to wait for ten minutes, by when I was sure I would finish the selection and bargain purchase of the cards. He graciously agreed. and I took as little time as I could to choose the cards and pay for them. The biker took me to the co.op market that had become my haunt in the times I could spare. I bought some more sauces and coffee and reached the homestay.

After a wash and one final rearrangement of stuff inside the bag I lugged the large piece of baggage down the staircase. Ms. Yang had arranged for a comfortable sedan to take me to the airport and told the driver that she had made payment for it online and that I was not to be charged anything at all. A hug and a handshake and I was inside the car with wet eyes. The homestay had become a home, thanks to Ms. Yang and her sister and the people I met in this lovely city. I must return someday to this city, I quietly marked in my mind as the taxi moved away from the lovely young lady who stood there waving at me.

I was early at the airport; it did not take as much time as I had anticipated to get there. I had to wait for check in, which was about 30 minutes. Once I checked in – the luggage was within the free allowance permitted – I walked around the rather sparse duty-free outlets checking prices. I used the last few VND I had on me buying a sandwich and drink. While the Malindo Air flight to KL went off without any hassle the Batik Air flight from KL was initially a nightmare. Even though the boarding was completed in time push back was delayed and it started getting a bit uncomfortable inside the aircraft as air-conditioning was inadequate. When the aircraft was pushed back, and it started taxiing it looked as if the low-cost carrier, Batik Air, had decided to take the land route to Chennai, for the taxiing went on interminably in fits and starts! The flight was full, and passengers were getting restive over the sweet and smells. There were no announcements from the crew or the flight deck. Service request were completely ignored. After over 30 minutes had gone by a few passengers walked up to the crew and demanded to know whey had to suffer in the manner they were. Then came the announcement that they would shortly take off and air-conditioning would work well thereafter. The take off was delayed by 45 minutes and even then, there was no announcement from the flight deck. The entire matter was poorly handled by the crew and the captain of the aircraft. Service started very late after taking off and even water was not served to those in need. Passengers had to fetch it from the crew themselves! Intolerably poor service, indeed. In-flight entertainment did not work and there was no response from the crew when the deficiency was brought to their notice. When announcements were made it seemed that they were not meant to be understood by the passengers. They were so amateurish and unprofessional. Overall, the experience was extremely poor.

The flight landed in Chennai late, just as it had taken off from KL. Immigration, baggage retrieval and Customs were mercifully done in quick time. From the heat and humidity of HCMC Chennai weather felt more agreeable. But, I will never forget the wonderful people, places and foods that I experienced in HCMC. It had indeed been the most appropriate city to become a senior citizen with a contented heart.

Monday, June 11, 2018

16 May 2018 - Day 5 - Last full day in Ho Chi Minh City

This morning when I was down for breakfast Ms. Yang told me that a couple of Indians would be occupying my room from the next day onwards for three days. From the large scribble board hung on the wall near the staircase I could make out that a fair number of Indians have stayed in the homestay before. The endearing remarks on the board did complete justice to the way guests are handled by the two sisters in the homestay. When I was nearly completing an extra cheesy omelette with cut fruits I met a couple from Hamburg, Germany who were in HCMC to celebrate their honeymoon. While the lady worked in a corporate office the gentleman worked as a chimney-sweep. I shared some information about what to do in the city in three days and the kind of foods that one could feast on. I also told them that they would be surprised how far their Euro would go in the city! They seemed to be bothered a bit about the climate in the city.

I was headed to the Bitexco Financial Tower first thing after breakfast. Ms. Yang found me a Grab bike – I did not quite understand why the App on my phone refused to work. I uninstalled and installed the App many times thinking that some update may have been missing. But, nothing seemed to make it work. Therefore, from the homestay I had to seek Ms. Yang’s assistance and everywhere else I had to depend on the goodness of a kind Grab biker who would accommodate me without an App booking. The latter was quite tough especially without knowing the local language. The weather was perfect for a 360-degree view of the city from the Skydeck of the Bitexco Tower. The tower, shaped in the form of a blossoming lotus flower, is the most iconic landmark in HCMC. The landmark is the proud proclamation of the Vietnamese people of their aspirations and resurgence.

There are two entrances in the Bitexco Financial Tower. The first is the one to access the offices that are housed in the tower and the second one is the one to the Skydeck. I came to know that one can visit the cafes located on the floors between 50 and 52 without an entrance fee but must order something in the cafes to lounge around there. The prices of items sold in the cafes, again I was told, could set one back more than the entrance fee to the Skydeck. Moreover, the information that a visitor could get from the Skydeck is far more than what one would get from the cafes. I paid the VND 200,000 entrance fee and got a ticket with a stamp that entitled me to a discount at the Saigon Opera House show. Before I got to the lift that would take me to the 49th floor of the tower I was asked to pose for a photograph that would later be photoshopped with the background of your choice. I politely declined the offer. Before I could feel it, I was exiting the lift on the Skydeck. When it was inaugurated in 2010 it was the tallest tower in Vietnam. It soon lost that claim to fame but continued to wow visitors with its views and iconic engineering presence. At 860 feet it is among the coolest tallest towers in the world. Free binoculars placed at regular intervals with touch screen computers that explain each landmark help you to identify the city’s icons and gives a synopsis of the development of the city, the importance of the landmark and the architecture. I spend considerable time there reading up from the touch screens and looking through the binoculars to get more familiar with the city. Also, the photographs and videos that I could get from there warmed the cockles of my heart. One must be careful to avoid reflections from the glass, as the Skydeck is fortified by a thick glass wall all around. The well-stocked souvenir shop has many takeaways, of course at a price, that could keep memories of the visit to the Skydeck and the city alive for many moons.

HCMC is a city where you can literally shop till you drop. Having tried out the Ben Thanh market the previous day I walked to the Saigon Square market from the Bitexco Financial Tower. This is a market for bargain hunters. The air-conditioned shopping arcade is full of stalls selling fashion accessories, luggage and much, much more. Bargaining is the name of the game. Atrocious prices would be quoted, and equally atrocious bargain rates would be quoted back with no acrimony and distress. I struck deals for a few more T-shirts after scouring the markets thoroughly. Across the road from the Saigon Square market is the five-story Takashimaya shopping mall for an upscale shopping experience. This is the first Japanese store in HCMC that displays a wide range of goods from Japan, in particular, and Europe and US, in general. You name the brand and it is there, be it apparel, jewelry, ceramic, watches, toys or luggage. What fascinated me was the large food court with popular Japanese food kitchens offering quality sushi, sashimi and ramen dishes. Being close to lunch time the food court was quite active and, I am sure, that this is the place to come to see the largest grouping of Japanese in the city!

I managed to get a Grab bike after numerous appeals, since my App was not working. I got down near the homestay and looked around for some place to eat. I found a Chinese restaurant, on top of a bike repair shop, and decided to try out the fare there. As was to be expected, language was the first barrier. However, that was surmounted quicker than I had expected. When I spoke to the girl who gave me the menu in English she giggled, almost uncontrollably for a while, and called for an elder lady behind her. The sprightly lady surprised me with flawless spoken English and she helped me choose a dish comprising of sticky rice, stir fried veggies and pork. To feed the parched throat I ordered a cool drink of ginger and lime. The drink certainly gave some relief from the heat I had suffered in the morning and the food sated the hunger pangs that had begun to gnaw the pit of the stomach. The lady came again and again to ask if there was anything more I needed. Such family run businesses abound in the city and serve fresh and healthy homely food at very reasonable rates.

The evening was reserved for the AO show in the City Opera House. After a short rest to recoup the energy required for the rest of the day Ms. Yang fetched me a Grab bike for the ride to the French style 19th century building. The Opera House, built in 1897, stands in the heart of HCMC and is a fine example of French colonial architecture. I had reached well in time so as not to be disappointed about the ticket. Young boys and girls were at hand to help with the reservation. The seats for the shows are divided into three sections, Aaahh, Ooohh and Wwwoww. Aaahh tickets were the cheapest while the Wwwoww were the costliest, which were based on visibility of the stage and audio experience. A young girl explained to me that the Ooohh tickets would be just fine for me with a 20 percent discount I was eligible for with the stamp on the Bitexco Financial Tower entrance ticket. Once I bought the ticket I was ushered into the foyer of the brilliant building where a huge chandelier welcomed patrons. I was transfixed by the ornateness of the immediate vicinity, when a free tour of the theatre was announced prior to the show. The purpose of the tour is to familiarize people with the history and uniqueness of the Opera House. Moreover, as the guide told us repeatedly, taking photos and videos during the performance is a strict no-go. So, the tour was also an opportunity to take pictures and videos. Once the tour was done I gravitated to the corner where free welcome drinks were on offer. I had many cups of cold lemon mint tea. The one-hour performance was jaw dropping, to say the least. Using bamboos poles, sticks and cane baskets as props the story of Vietnam's transformation from an agrarian to a modern society was told in an acrobatic dance form with outstanding music. It was a masterpiece and I was glad that I made it to the show. When the bows were being taken, convinced that the show I come to an end, I took a few photos and when I started a video I found an infra-red light pointed to my phone from somewhere behind me. I quickly put down the phone, feeling bad about having broken an instruction that was reinforced so many times before the show had begun!

I decided to walk back to the homestay as the evening was cool and I wanted to spend as much time outdoors as was possible before curtains came down on the vacation in this beautiful city. I took a short detour and landed up in front of the brightly illuminated Town Hall, built in the first decade of the 20th century in classic French style. The Town Hall is not open to public but is a favorite with tourists, especially in the night with its illumination on. Right in front of the Town Hall is the massive statue of the great Uncle Ho, as the famous Communist leader and first Prime Minister and President of North Vietnam was referred to. The entire area was being readied for celebrations over the week with massive enclosures being set up. Performers of every age were up on the stage in batches, being choreographed for shows.

When I reached the homestay, Ms. Yang told me that she would get me sticky rice and chicken for breakfast by 8.30 am and that she would arrange a taxi after 12 noon to drop me at the airport. The fairy tale vacation had come to an end.

15 May 2018 - Day 4 - Shopping and eating in Ho Chi Minh City

Before I left for HCMC I had extensively searched for information on the internet and shortlisted places I wanted to see, foods I wanted to sample and the drinks that had to be tried. When I woke up this morning I opened my pocket book to review what was left over after the first three days in HCMC. There were many museum still left in the list, but I decided that they would be given the short shrift because the displays were mostly in Vietnamese and quite long on propaganda. I decided that I would explore the Ben Thanh Market first because it is a favourite with tourists who are interested in picking up a good bargain, besides savoring local delicacies in the numerous food stalls inside the market in a hygienic environment.

Breakfast this morning comprised of toast and omelette with juicy cut fruits. While having breakfast I checked with Ms. Yang about doing a bit of shopping for coffee, dips and the like. She told me that the cheapest and the best buys would be in the co.op market; there is a branch within walking distance from the homestay, she told me. The Grab bike Ms. Yang booked for me dropped me at the Ben Thanh market. Traffic diversions were in force near the market where subway works are in progress. The market is one of the earliest surviving structures of the city and was formed out of early agglomerations of market and trading shops near the Saigon River. The initial market was destroyed by fire and in its place a new and grander one came up in the vicinity at the end of the 19th century. Ms. Yang told me that excellent deals can be had if one had the courage and patience to bargain. She also told me that I should move around the markets and get the general pricing mood before even deciding what the fair bargain price would be. I am extremely poor at bargaining. And therefore, despite being armed with sensible advice I knew I would end up with bargains that went horribly wrong.

I was quite taken in by the cleanliness of the large market and the variety of products for sale. Majority of shops were related to readymade clothes, fabric, footwear, luggage, food articles, art and jewelry. There were rows and rows of shops packed with early morning bargain hunters and logistics personnel delivering fresh stocks. Name the brand and it was there. Skechers shoes that I bought online in India for INR 5000 plus was available in shops for less than the equivalent of INR 2000! Shops vied with one another too woo customers. In a hushed tone they would quote a price slightly cheaper than the previous shop. They were keen to strike their first deals and hence, the undercutting. Otherwise, I am told, that they are quite steadfast unless the purchase is in bulk. At a luggage store a couple of Spanish ladies checked out a couple of pieces of luggage and almost swooned when the shopkeeper told them that it would cost them VND 400,000 per piece. They kept on feeling the luggage around the edges and kept on saying, “Oh my God, just twenty bucks”. The lady who had quoted the price looked perplexed: she did not know if she had quoted more or less! Vietnam is one place where your currency goes a long way if you are from one of the western countries or from a wealthy Asian country. After looking around a bit and firming up on a couple of things I wanted to buy I decided to take a break and mentally work out the bargain I should seek.

That needed a cool head. Therefore, I headed to the food court and took a table at a shop that had a menu of all sorts of exotic drinks. I fetched my handbook from the pocket and started looking up the menu. There it was, Suong Sau. Which is grass jelly with coconut milk, a popular must-have while in HCMC. I took permission and filmed the drink being made. It was superb and the right antidote for the heat and humidity of the city. The menu made my mouth water. I wanted to have so many other stuff that were on it. However, coconut milk-based drinks are heavy. I sat in the shop taking in the drink slowly and observing customer behavior in the market. Locals shoppers are vastly outnumbered by foreign tourists. I found that locals hang around some more for better deals than foreign ones. The latter make quick mental currency conversions and strike less than optimum deals. When my turn came to pick up T-shirts and luggage I started by quoting 40% of the price first quoted. I thought the shopkeepers would snigger and ignore me. But, instead, they kept humoring me to quote a ‘better price’. Finally, after many rounds of punching numbers on a calculator I struck deals at 50% of the original quote. I bought two bags and a couple of T-shirts.

On the way back to the homestay I dropped by at the co/op store Ms. Yang had mentioned. I had wanted to pick up premix coffee, which I use for the morning cuppa back home., and a few other stuff. After spending considerable time going through the displays I picked up premix for making both hot and cold coffee, rice paper, lemon pepper salt and a few other dips and sauces that were hard to find in Chennai. I also picked up two cans of 333 and Saigon Bia. In the three days that I had been in HCMC I had not had even a drop of alcohol! That was strange, and I intended to correct that record in the night. The checkout was smooth, but I had a lot of luggage to walk back to the homestay with. By the time I reached there I was huffing and puffing and wet from head to toe with sweat. I turned on the air conditioning to full strength and changed into shorts and changed the T-shirt. I was quite keen to take another look at the bags I had bought. The first one was a large duffel with wheels and the second one was a medium casual overnighter type. I was aghast to find that the casual overnighter I had brought with me was a much smaller one than what I had bargained for. In the shop, at the last minute, I had changed my choice of colour and took the one I liked without checking if it matched what I had purchased. I had to go back to the market and try to get the bag changed. I took a Grab bike and set forth again to the market. While I reached it without much ado the job would be to find the shop where I had done the purchase. I walked around for some time and after a short search I located the shop. The lady didn’t even argue when I told her the mistake I had made. She gave me the exchange I wanted, and I left the market soon.

Back in the homestay I narrated the stories of the morning to Ms. Yang and she felt that I had bargained well for the bags. Her own estimation for the luggage was higher than what I had paid for them. She told me that by 4 pm she would get me, from a shop in one of the alleys nearby, Goi Cuon, which ranks among Vietnam’s most famous foods. Each translucent rice paper roll is packed with rice vermicelli, greens and various combinations of meat and fish. Ms. Yang was ensuring that I try as many items of the local cuisine as I could during the stay there. In some ways, I was getting embarrassed because she was spending so much money on me. Promptly at 4 pm she summoned me to try out Goi Cuon. With her sister for company I polished off four sticks of veg and non-veg rolls dipped in peanut and sweet chili sauces. That was another item crossed out in the pocket book.

The evening was reserved for Water Puppetry show at the Golden Dragon. I walked to the center and bought a ticket for the first evening show. At the counter the girl told me that she had only a seat right in the rear of the theatre. But when I was ushered into the hall by costumed boys and girls I had a decent seat in the third row from where the show could be seen unhindered. The show was novel to me because a body of water is the stage. The puppets used are made from wood and lacquered, often weighing up to 15 kgs. Puppeteers stand in water and weave stories with puppets that are manipulated using bamboo sticks and strings. The show is accompanied by instruments and vocals, two teams that sit on either side of the water stage. While I could not make out the content of the show – except that they were agrarian in context and folklore in content - the sheer energy of the show was mesmerizing. The tradition of water puppetry dates back to the 11th century rural and agrarian Vietnam, I was told. At the end of the show the puppeteers came up to the water stage and took their bows. It was indeed a fascinating experience.

After polishing off the two cans of beer I had earlier bought from the co.op store I walked to one of the outlets of Mon Hue, which is a chain of restaurants serving traditional Hue cuisine with secret recipes, close to the homestay. I chose to have Mi Quang (rice noodles with charcoal marinated pork and herbs), which was every bit as tasty as was promised. The range of foods in HCMC has been amazing cuisine and the best part is that, with hardly any use of oil and zilch masala, the foods are light and digest easily. The other thing is relish in HCMC is watching the traffic flow. There is method in the madness, is all I can say. To an outsider, other than an Asian, the scenes could be life threatening. But, I never saw an accident nor were vehicles dented and scratched. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t dare to drive in the city; Grab bikes would just be fine for me from both convenience and cost points of view.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

14 May 2018 - Day 3 - A birthday to remember in Ho Chi Minh City

The choice of Ms. Yang's Homestay 2 for the short vacation in HCMC turned out to be an outstanding choice. Besides being located near some of the 'must see' sights in the city the hospitality and personal care of the lady makes it THE place to stay in HCMC; but not if you are seeking a posh neighborhood or luxury. When I had arrived a couple of days back at the homestay I told the sisters that I was in HCMC to celebrate a milestone birthday. Ms. Yang had it firmly logged in her mind, I did not realise till I sat down for breakfast. She made me the tastiest pork filled fried dumplings as a birthday special with couple of cups of delicious Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. It touched me at the core.

Yesterday I had requested Ms. Yang to make a booking for a day tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. This was one of the main things I wanted to experience while in HCMC. She readily agreed and had informed me that the tour operator would arrive by 8 am. I was ready well in advance after breakfast and, as she had said, the tour operator for the day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels was at the door of the homestay bang on time. Phillip, the young guide, kept the small group of 9 tourists in splits with his take on the tunnels and life in Vietnam. I was the only singleton in the group. The tunnels are just about 60 km out of HCMC, but the humongous traffic makes the travel very slow moving. Prior to the tunnels the tour group was taken to the Lampat Company Handicapped Handicrafts Centre, which is operated by handicapped artisans affected by the Vietnam War. At the centre one can appreciate the various stages of the making of lacquered art objects, the ingredients that are used in each piece like egg shell pieces, powdered egg shells, bones and sand, the polishing process, etc. It was an educative tour as it was a poignant one. I was happy to note that the physically challenged ones had a source of earning. We were also told that 80 percent of the proceeds from sales would go towards the sustenance of the artisans. Therefore, even though I knew that the rates would be on the higher side I happily picked up a couple of pieces as a token of my contribution to the centre. It must be said, without any hesitation, that the workmanship is of the highest order.

From the handicrafts centre it was another 30-odd km to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels that labyrinth about 250 km was at the heart of the Viet Cong (VC) resistance between 1961 and 1975. The three-tiered tunnel network with entrances that could never admit the 'Rambo sized' opposition had elaborate arrangements to store, house, manufacture, drain, breathe and trap. However, malaria, poisonous creepy crawlies and intestinal infections affected those who lived in the tunnels. How people lived for years on end in such circumstances with bombs falling all over them is also hard to imagine. The design and construction of the tunnels was such that grenades, flooding and smoke did not affect those within the tunnel; so good was the trapdoor arrangements and the slope of the tunnel network that connected to the Saigon River. The role played by women in the resistance was crucial; a plough in one hand and a rifle in another was the call that stirred them fairer sex. The guide explained the superiority of the AK 47 used by the VC as against the huge rifles used by the American soldiers. We got a chance to get down one of the entrance hatches of the tunnel, which was a nerve-wracking experience. But the 20 metre 'crawl' through a large sized tunnel was what gave a true flavor of what would have been. Despite the guide holding a lamp and moving ahead of us to direct us along the right corner a few people lost their cool. Some started shouting and others weeping on verge of panic. Fertile farms occupied the land over the tunnels before incessant bombing and rapacious action by forces fighting the Viet Cong laid waste large tracts of land. What we were walking through were forests reconstructed with fresh trees planted to redo the ecosystem. Within the complex one can appreciate the life of the resistance forces, including how they manufactured weapons and traps out of exploded and unexploded enemy weapons, captured tanks, built the tunnels and such like. We were explained how the VC and their supporters wore chappals while their enemies wore boots. That made it easier from within small peep holes to identify the enemy. Another brilliant one was the chappal that was designed to mislead enemies of the direction in which the resistance forces were walking! There is a shooting range within the complex where one can try out AK-47 and some other heavy firepower. All in all, it was a wonderful experience which showed how the tough, small made people never gave up and took on the might of the most heavily armed forces in the world. The VC redefined guerrilla warfare and possibly epitomized the brave woman spirit.

By the time I got back to the homestay my shirt was clinging to my skin and the pant was wet too in many parts. After a short rest and shower I took a Grab bike to attend evening mass in the Notre Dame Cathedral. I had to thank God for all the graces and blessings He had showered on me in the past six decades, seek forgiveness for the many transgressions and beg for His guidance and support for the rest of my life. Being a weekday evening service, attendance was not very large. Even though the service was in Vietnamese I locked myself in prayer right through the Mass. It was a super experience. Once the service was over I walked around a bit admiring the architecture of the church and the shrines within, particularly the one of Our Lady. The lights inside the church were switched off quickly so that people would not meander. I got out just as the main door was being shut. Thereafter, I spent a lot of time before the huge statue of Our Lady in front of the church. People placed wreaths and flower bunches and lit candles at the base of the statue imploring benefaction of Our Lady. Those moments were magical. But what touched me was the scene where an old lady was being photographed by her middle-aged daughter at various places near the cathedral. The daughter requested me if I could frame them together. She told me that her mother was back at the cathedral after over 20 years. Such devotion and love.

As the light was fading from the skies the roundabout at the statue became filled with food hawkers. It was quite apparent that each of the hawkers had their designated places. I could not resist the temptation to try some of the goodies on offer there. Thus, at first it was a huge cup of tamarind juice with roasted peanuts and ice. I dwelt a lot on it watching the growing number of people who were arriving there for the hawker foods. I was fascinated by one of the hawkers making rice paper salad and spend some time filming the process. He cooperated every bit. Once the ‘documentary’ was done I bought one and it turned out to be double yummy. A couple of tourists, watching me walloping the salad, ordered their share too and I turned out to be a successful ambassador for the rice paper salad hawker that evening! Sometime later it was time to return to the homestay. On the walk back, I stopped by a roadside vendor and bought a whole cup of chopped raw mango sprinkled with rock salt. Wow, street foods in HCMC are something to die for.

The biggest surprise of the day was yet to be. I was getting ready for a shower when the younger sister of Ms. Yang knocked at my door. She held forth a large cup of Sam Bo Luong, a Chinese cold sweet soup with seaweed, lotus seeds, red jujubes, dried longans, lotus flower, Job's tears, pearl barley, sugar and crushed ice. She said that it was their birthday gift for me! To say that I was moved would be an understatement. The reason why South East Asia is at the top of the heap as holiday destinations is the humanness and warmth that you find with the peoples of these countries. What a wonderful day it had been and a great birthday heralding my senior status!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

14 May 2018 - Upon Turning Sixty

Curiosity made me wake up slightly earlier than usual from my cozy bed in Ho Chi Minh City. The reason for the curiosity was that I had turned sixty overnight. What changes would I see in me as I reached the milestone age? I lay in bed and examined myself physically. Nothing seemed different from the time I went to bed last night. So, what is the importance of getting to 60? The only thing that readily came to mind is that I had attained the status of a senior citizen. This came with some financial advantages like travel concession, income tax benefit and extra interest rate for deposits. But all these did not seem worth celebrating. I have been at a loss to understand why people celebrated the ‘coming of age’, as it were. In my own way, I accept my “Shasti Poorty” as the onset of middle age. I have been at peace with aging because I started greying at a relatively young age of 27. I keep telling myself that the age and the year of marriage being the same is purely coincidental! I remember a sunny afternoon in Chennai, standing in queue in the CLRI campus, for admission of my daughter, Maya, to LKG in the Central School. Monetary deprivation and a transferable job were prime reasons for selecting the school – if my memory serves me right, the annual school fee was a princely sum of Rs. 5! Seeing all the young parents and their lovely jet-black manes my wife got a bit upset. She told me that I would be mistaken for Maya’s grandfather! The grey hair didn’t bother me one bit, for I had heard my father say that the best thing for grey hair is a sensible head. But, to my wife my grey hair mattered. And, she has not been alone. At the age of 38 I was posted in the Claims Office of Southern Railway in the Moore Market Complex. A cheeky inspector, when he was alone with me in my office room, told me that I should dye my hair. When I asked him why I must do that, his answer was that I would get more confidence! In time, when people knew that I would not waste my time on coloring my hair, they took to saying how lovely the ‘salt & pepper’ looked on me, even though the pepper was fast being overtaken by the salt. On this day, when I have turned sixty, my hair is as grey as it was as it was the year before.

I was called “Uncle” from a very early age. Initially, that amused me because that’s the way I addressed my father’s friends. Later, I demanded being addressed that way. I have come across many officers, and more often their wives, taking umbrage at being addressed as “Uncle” and “Aunty”. My father retired from government service at the age of 58. When I was in service the retirement age for Central Government employees was raised to 60. However, not wanting to vegetate and grow roots in a comfortable government chair, I staked out into the private sector after taking voluntary retirement from government service at the age of 47. In the thirteen years since, particularly after crossing the age of 50, I have enjoyed my life to the fullest, living life on my own terms. The grey hair and physical changes did not hold me back. I learnt from one of my maternal uncles that it had to be mind over matter – a strong mind is what you need, the rest did not matter. Mid-life is when you do autopsies of your past and biopsies of the present. This is the time when significant disappointments are experienced. Disappointments in life come out of unfulfilled expectations. The key, therefore, is to lower your expectations from others and realise that you are an insignificant organism in the communities that inhabit the whole planet.

It is surprising that 60 is also the age at which one is expected to slow down. I have been privy to comments like “You are not young any more, you know?”, “Do you think you are spring chicken?”, “Are you not ashamed, you old man, to think that you are young?”, “Why don’t you be your age?” and many such. All this after you have reached the age of 60. Do I consider myself old? No, not at all. I believe that you age only when you refuse to embrace your numerical age and consider it just a number. I have a simple mantra to forever mentally young. I consider everyone above my age as ‘matured’, those beneath my age as ‘maturing’ and self as ‘mature’. Age is purely a number to count, the ‘youth’ is in your mind. As long as one gives expression to the child in him/her, age is only a statement. The more often you express the child in you the more you will enjoy life. Often, we hold back our dreams and its realization due to external pressures and the fear of failure. Throw them out of the window and start enjoying life. I have been doing that consistently over the past decade and that has made me happier.

A critical ingredient to combat the march of numerical age is to be at peace with oneself. Contentment is intangible and purely a state of mind. You can experience this, in the true sense, only if you firmly believe that the balance sheet of life is in your favour. It is normal to accept that all favourable things happen to us because we are deserving of them and all unfavourable things that occur in our life are miserable visitations that we did not deserve. This is a recipe for discontentment. “Why do these horrible things keep happening to me, and me alone?” is a common wail. When such thoughts assail you, and it is normal I reiterate, it would be worthwhile to understand that everyone on this planet, however many golden spoons they have been born into this word with, have challenges that are unique to them. We are not alone to face challenges. Believe that He will never test you beyond your strength. 

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...