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Saigon – Cute and Crazy

Saigon, renamed to Ho Chi Minh City by the communist North after they won the Vietnam War, is a city of anomalies. Beautiful French buildings are interspersed with communist concrete. Here’s Reunification hall, which used to be the palace of the President of the south part of Vietnam (before the communists took it back). The glorious 60’s live again…

Reunification Hall in Ho Chi Minh City

Amazing high-class eateries (like classy French patisseries) share space with sidewalk restaurants where patrons sit on plastic footstools. And there’s this… the rich Saigon Zoo, an oasis of calm compared to the bustle and buzz of motorbike traffic just outside its gates. (Admission: only 8000 dong, or about 40 US cents).

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Granted, the zoo is not as nice as others I’ve seen in Asia (Taipei for example). It also has its contradictions: some of the pens are beautiful and spacious, while others (like the elephant pen) are pretty depressing. Don’t let your kids wander alone in the reptile area, or they’ll happen upon dead rabbits floating in the pools near the bored (and over-full) pythons.

Friendly lizards at Saigon Zoo

They’ve taken the odd step of putting glass in front of many of the cages instead of wire: ostensibly so you can see the animals with less obstruction. But it’s sunny when you go to the zoo, so between the reflections and the dirty glass, you can barely see some of the animals (much less take photos of them). At least in a few cases where the reflections aren’t bad you can get amazing photos, like this white tiger, shot from less than a meter away:

White Tiger with blue eyes at Saigon Zoo

Even though I wasn’t in Saigon long, I got a good feel for what it must have been like in the glory days of old. It makes me wonder what things would be like there if south Vietnam had remained independent from communism. Government styles aside, it’s a beautiful place with a rich culture and heritage that definitely warrants a visit!

Posted 4 years, 10 months ago.

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Hue Imperial City

Nguyễn Phúc Ánh took control of Vietnam in 1802 and named himself Emperor. Of course, like every great man with great ambitions and hundreds of concubines, he needed a palace in his capital city! Within the Imperial City was the Purple Forbidden City, where only the Emperor’s family was allowed.

Unfortunately it was mostly destroyed during the American bombing that followed the Communists’ takeover of Hue in 1968. What can you do?

Imperial City, Hue

Here’s a short video showing a few areas of the Imperial City. Gardens with locusts/loud insects, koi ponds with hungry fish, restored (and some not-yet-restored) buildings. Oh, and I threw in a night timelapse of Hue from the top of the Romantic Hotel – you can see the city lights coming on as the clouds tower high.

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The imposing Citadel guarding one entrance to the Imperial City:

Hue Imperial City Citadel Gates

The walls themselves are guarded by a dragon. Vietnamese do love their dragons, I’d say more than any other Asian culture I’ve visited!

Hue Imperial City Dragon

I’ll leave you with one final (gold plated?) dragon guarding what look to be some Imperial living areas. Don’t mess with the Emperor!

Hue Imperial City perspective

Posted 4 years, 10 months ago.

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Da Nang Music Festival

When walking around Da Nang looking for a restaurant, we happened upon a music festival. With a restaurant across the street. Which had a free table on the upstairs balcony overlooking the festival+river. Nikon D7000 timelapse awesomeness!

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I used a mini-tripod with the Nikon D7000 and (if I remember) around a 4 second exposure, taking a photo every 5 seconds. Between the motion of the lights, the people, and the cars, it makes for a cool scene.

Da Nang, Vietnam Music Festival

Anyone have some cool crowd timelapses to share? Link ’em in the comments section!

Posted 4 years, 10 months ago.

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Phu Quoc, Vietnam

I’m just back from a 3w trip to Vietnam. Let me tell you, Vietnam is the country of adventure! It seems relatively safe, if you manage to avoid the touts, cheats, and duplicitous taxis/motorbikes.

The final stop on my journey was Phu Quoc island in the ocean off the southwest tip of Vietnam. As it had been a long and stressful trip (avoid night trains!!), this last stop was just for relaxing on the beach. The choice was Bo Resort with their long private beach.

Bo Resort Beach

It’s a bit more pricey than some other resorts, but in my opinion worth it (we paid $64/night with breakfast for a bungalow for 2). The grounds of Bo Resort are well kept, the beach is much cleaner than most areas of Vietnam (only some trash washes up from the ocean), and it’s a nearly deserted private beach belonging to the resort. There’s a limited number of guests allowed, around 40. During my timelapse videos (several hours), only 2 dogs and 4 people crossed the frame.

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(filmed with a Nikon D7000 and some filters like the Tiffen Variable ND and a circular polarizer to get 5s+ long shutter speeds in full sunlight)

One note about Bo Resort: the bungalows are open (think geckos and mosquito netting) and have no A/C. If this really bothers you, think twice. But if you’re there in a cooler season (temps *below* 30C at night), the lack of A/C wouldn’t be a big issue. When I was there it was HOT.

The Bo Resort restaurant is a bit pricey ($4-8 for most entrees which is a LOT for Vietnam), but it’s very high quality ingredients and beautifully prepared in a French-Vietnamese style. Way better than almost everything else I tasted in Vietnam. They clay pot caramelized shrimps were one of the culinary highlights of my 3 week trip.

Here’s a gratuitous distant thunderstorm with stars above the clouds… photography junkies may now start drooling…

Bo-Resort-Thunderstorm

Thanks to Bo Resort for helping to relax a bit at the end of a long adventure vacation!

Posted 4 years, 10 months ago.

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Shuni-e Fire Ceremony

The yearly Shuni-e ceremony at Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan must be one of the ancient pyrotechnic wonders of the world. Reportedly it’s been held every year since 752! And this temple complex is a world heritage site. Yes, the temple is made of wood.

According to Wikipedia, “Every night, ten select believers (eleven on March 12) shoulder large pine torches as long as 8 meters and weighing as much as 80 kilograms. Girded with swords and staves, the torch-bearers climb a flight of stairs and run along the balcony of the Nigatsu-dō, showering sparks on the public below. It is thought that these sacred sparks will protect the recipient from evil. The monks also chant, perform ritual circumambulation, and wave swords to ward off evil spirits.”

Here’s a short video of the ceremony on Mar. 11th, 2012.

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Taking photos of this is hard. You will want a VR- or IS- stabilized lens, a wide aperture (f/2.8 or wider would be nice), and a big D-SLR sensor. Times of 1/15 to 1/3 second at wide aperture can yield nice shots without having to pump the ISO too high.

Shuni-e Torch 1

Here’s another shot, with the torch-bearing monk in motion! He is running along the walkway while twirling the torch on his shoulder.

Shuni-e Torch 2 in motion

For my final trick: tell me this isn’t the most amazing shape you’ve ever seen made of glowing sparks.

Shuni-e Torch 3 bird

If you ever plan to visit Nara, the first half of March is the time to do it!

The one tip to get a good place in front of the Nigatsu-do balcony: arrive early. If you are late you will be half a kilometer away in a parking lot with a crappy view obstructed by a big tree. (To get a decent photo from there you’ll need a tall tripod and a 400mm+ pro lens costing six thousand dollars).

On this (Sunday) night, I arrived at around 5 for the ~7pm ceremony start. I had my choice of viewing position, so got an awesome spot. After a short thunderstorm (which thankfully cleared) and a nice hot coffee from a vending machine, this amazing ceremony was the reward!

Posted 4 years, 11 months ago.

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Japan in Timelapse

These timelapse videos were made with a Nikon D7000 on Dotonbori Street in Osaka, in a Belgian bar in Kobe, and from the Granvia hotel overlooking Kyoto train station. You get a little flavor of the variety of city life in Japan!

Personally: I really love how fast you can eat peanuts and drink beer at one frame every 5 seconds. (Cheers, Alan!)

Try to spot a giant crab, a Belgian monk (?), a snow squall, a Shinkansen bullet train, and an elevator dancing to the beat of my background music.

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When you are shooting a timelapse indoors, do try not to set the camera on your food+drinks table. But sometimes you have no choice… hehe. Here’s Kyoto train station at dusk…

Kyoto Train Station at Night

Posted 4 years, 11 months ago.

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Awesome Japan Stuff

Japan is a mystifying country where everything seems completely FOREIGN and new to westerners. I think that’s part of why so many of us love Japan and its (to us) oddities!

Here’s my video of a few typical crazy Japanese experiences: conveyor belt running sushi, baseball’s 7th inning stretch, the washlet Japanese toilet, and the opening of an iSetan department store where everyone bows to you as you walk by.

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For travelers: what was the oddest (but obviously most AWESOME) experience you ever had in Japan?

Octopus advertising Takoyaki

Posted 4 years, 12 months ago.

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Royal Mouriya Kobe Beef

Looking for a Kobe Beef restaurant recommendation in Kobe, Japan? Here’s my story from Royal Mouriya / MOPR on Ikuta Road in Kobe.

We originally intended to go for the lunch course at Misono, the inventors of Teppanyaki style steak. Unfortunately they allow the last lunch order at 1:30, and we arrived at 1:45. On our way south along Ikuta Road we saw the sign for Royal Mouriya and headed in for their lunch course.

From my group of three hostel-goers (that’s right, hostellers eating Kobe Beef!), two of us ordered the 7,000 yen 150g Kobe Beef lunch special (not on the regular menu; I believe it was A4 BMS 6-7 Ribeye Kobe Beef). For Americans, that’s $85 for 5 1/2 oz of ultra-prime meat. The chef brought out the steak and happily allowed me to take all the pictures I wanted:

Royal Mouriya Kobe Beef Ribeye

Here’s a closeup of the marbling in the large center section of beef:

Kobe Beef Marbling

Our chef sliced up the meat, separating out the fat (which would be cooked separately and used to make the sauteed vegetables later).

Slicing and dicing Kobe Beef

The pieces of meat were mostly put to the side to be cooked one at a time; vegetables were added to the mix on the grill. The pieces of fat from the Kobe Beef were sliced very small. Note, this is not theatrical like teppanyaki in the US. There are no flaming onion volcanoes, no flying shrimp, no egg being juggled between the knives. Just precise Japanese cooking.

Kobe Beef and vegetables

As our chef was cooking, we enjoyed a really excellent salad:

Royal Mouriya salad

At this point it got interesting. The chef served us each a ~50g piece of the steak from the center section. However, my piece (which I ordered VERY RARE) was the one which had been on the grill the longest – I estimate 6-7 minutes. Now, this is way too long for rare. And my compatriot who had ordered medium: his steak had been on the grill for less time than mine. When I asked about this, I think the chef realized the error (which I later figured out). He had misunderstood my American VERY RARE as the Japanese (stereotypical) mispronunciation of VERY WELL: VERY RERR. At least, that’s my guess.

So, what did our master chef do to save the day? He removed the mis-cooked 50g of my center section, and brought us an entire second steak. Then he sliced and diced that one along with the remaining parts of the first steak. There’s no better way to recover from a misunderstanding than to give a (high paying) pair of guests 550g of the world’s most expensive steak for the price of 300g. Here’s my VERY RARE Kobe Beef on the plate:

Kobe Beef on the plate

Sides were asparagus, salt, pepper, crispy fried garlic, and several other things I couldn’t quite name. After serving all the chunks of world-class beef, our chef mixed the (mostly cooked down) crispy fat pieces with bean sprouts and other vegs:

Kobe Beef Fat and vegetables

Overall the meal was worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wouldn’t do it often, but if I visit Kobe again in several years I’ll definitely return. Lunch specials are a great way to sample this fantastic meat without breaking the bank. Though I am sure you won’t regret it if you go for dinner and spend a bit more for a fancier, multi-course meal at either Mouriya or Misono.

Thanks to our fantastic chef and the whole staff!

Royal Mouriya Staff

Sorry for the blurred waiter; I had focused already when he joined the shot (hehe). To find the restaurant, walk north from Sannomiya Station on Ikuta Road and look for the Royal MOPR sign on the right side of the street. There’s a bit of cyrillic on the signs, I guess it’s a bit of a Russian theme.

Royal Mouriya MOPR sign

Enjoy your Kobe Beef at Mouriya, or wherever you sample it!

Posted 5 years ago.

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Yakitori Surprise

For those who’ve seen other cultures’ meat on a stick, this is not satay! Yakitori is the Japanese version of meat on a stick. Meaning, a different sauce (hehe). And generally the meat (at least in restaurants I’ve been to) is very high quality.

Octopus Yakitori

My only quandary was: what to order? To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s the daily special menu:

Torizo Menu

The standard menu was no less confusing, and had limited pictures. Fortunately the server spoke a few words of English and knew how to draw. I think I ordered squid based on his drawing, but it looked like octopus to me (photo above). It was delicious with lemon and mayonnaise. For the next course I odered “Ahh… chicken?” and this seems to be a cubed chicken leg fit onto 3 skewers: fantastic!

Chicken Leg Yakitori

Of course nothing goes with beer and grilled snacks like edamame: boiled and salted soybeans. You squeeze them out of the husk (which isn’t eaten). Edamame are the standard appetizer at all US sushi restaurants, I definitely recommend to give ’em a go.

Edamame

Also of note, there was a strange fish tank with small plants swirling inside. My only guess is it was a fresh seaweed tank. There’s always something new in the world that I haven’t ever seen! That must by why I keep traveling…

Posted 5 years ago.

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Japanese Mascots Sell

What better way to advertise than with a mascot? Japan takes that to a whole new level on Osaka’s Dontonbori street. Let’s start with Spider Man, or rather a chubby spider-Satan baby.

Satan Spider Man Ghost?

Of course, dragons are always popular… until they eat your cue ball in the middle of a billiards game. Or roast your sheep and eat your children.

Dontonbori Dragon

There are so many angry mascots that I could’ve made a post titled “Angry Sushi Chefs.” I’m not sure I’d want to eat anything prepared by this guy. Did he spit on the fish? I think so.

Angry Sushi Chef

Damn, it’s time for appetizers and I’ve got a hankering for squid. But the nearest fish joint is miles away! Never fear, Calamari Boy is here… is that a squid-based throwing disc or what?

Calamari Man?

As I remember this guy is the Ganko sushi chef. I’m not sure if he wants to serve sushi, or perform a finishing move with chopsticks. Mortal Kombat style!

Another Angry Sushi Chef

Double shot! I’ve no idea what the Japanese Elvis in the foreground is selling, but the blowfish just behind him are for Zuboraya, where I tried Fugu yesterday.

Vegas Guy

Bluto seems to lead a double life: besides fawning over Olive Oyl, he also sells curly fried thingies in Japan.

Bluto eating chips?

An octopus selling Takoyaki is like a cow advertising McDonald’s. “Eat me! Over here… that’s right. My legs, diced up in a ball of fried dough with bbq and mayo on top. What are you waiting for!”

Octopus advertising Takoyaki

Pastéis de Nata are Portuguese egg custard tarts. Makes perfect sense that a British guy is advertising Portuguese desserts in Japan. Though I must say, they were just as tasty as the ones I ate in Lisbon!

British dude selling Portuguese tarts

So, there’s today’s view of Osaka’s most brilliant shopping street. Definitely give it a try if you’re in Osaka! And be sure to eat at the most outrageously advertised restaurant you see. If the mascot is angry that can only be a good sign. 😉

Posted 5 years ago.

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