After the church camp my wife and I, her brothers -Simeon and Kenneth, and Kenneth’s wife Maggie. extended our stay in Bangkok by eight days. We stayed with Jack and Baby Lee in Bangna, about fifteen minutes’ drive from the airport. We did lots:
We went to the Amphawa Floating Market and took a boat ride.
We went to Khao Yai National Park a UNESCO World Heritage Site twice the size of Singapore, where we visited Palio Khao Yai, a Tuscan themed shopping village, the little Italy of Thailand.
We visited the UNESCO World Heritage site called Ayuthaya, the ruins of the capital of an ancient kingdom called Sukhothai.
We went to a local beach area south west of Bangkok on the way towards Pattaya. It is called Bansaen beach and is frequented by locals.
We went to a few large shopping malls around Bangna.
I had time for lunch fellowship with Leslie, the camp preacher, as he resides in Bangkok.
Whatever is charming
I reflected on the activities and it dawned on me that I enjoyed most those times when there were interesting, beautiful or unique things to see and take pictures of. That was why I enjoyed being in Palio Khao Yai, that Italian themed village in Khao Yai National Park. It was like a part of Italy landed north east of Bangkok. There were many pretty and charming spots.
Whatever is unusual
Another place was the floating market with its vibrant colour, the crowds of people, the intense humidity, and continuous rows of stalls selling food, clothes, fruits, snacks, footwear, amulets, containers, toys, beverages, stationery, bags and cutlery -anything you would need to wear, eat and drink, or use at home. There were lots of interesting scenes to video as well as take pictures of. I liked it. I love taking pics with my mobile.
Whatever is interesting
A surprise unplanned visit to the ruins of Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Sukhothai kingdom was a thumbs up for me. I could not stop taking videos and pictures and found the red and orange and brown and black of the ruins absolutely stunning . Why did this ancient city become ruins? What happened? My curiosity was piqued and I did some research afterward: Looks like a Myanmese kingdom invaded and destroyed the city.
Whatever is beautiful
And the apartment that we were staying in had all kinds of interesting household and decorative items that fascinated me. I took many photos of them. They were beautiful; they were unusual, exotic, and most were made locally and bought from local markets or given by Baby’s friends. I enjoyed photographing those items.
Capture them in pictures or buy them!
In fact, of late I noticed I have been attracted to beautiful objects like crystal cross (which I bought at half price for church use), a charming wooden botonee cross which I bought from a thrift shop for $8, and a ceramic set which could be used for Holy Communion for $15. The idea of buying beautiful items, useful or purely decorative, at a bargain price is growing on me. This is a new facet of myself I never knew. I feel like this could be another hobby! Should I be worried it grows into an obsession? Yes! Therefore, I must not get carried away. Moderation. Moderation.
Edwin and Lydia enthusiastically offered to orientate my daughter Elaine to life in Washington DC. They were the most qualified to do so being Singaporeans who have lived and worked there for more than a decade. Lydia has written a useful book about living in America. So my wife and I were relieved to know that Elaine would be in good, wise hands. She stayed with them before we arrived to stay with her in their house (another act of hospitality from the Tans). While we were there, the Tans were in Singapore. They even allowed us to use their cars -which we did!
We went for this free walking tour that gave us interesting information about the monuments. The wonderful thing is that the major monuments are within walking distance of each other. I thoroughly enjoyed and learned so much from this tour about the history, culture and values of America. Fighting for freedom is a top, top value for USA. Quite a few memorials are to the war dead: the second world war, the Vietnam war, the civil war. This country has shed a lot of its children’s blood for freedom in their land and elsewhere. I cannot help but feel beholden to them, even if they did it with “enlightened” national interest. If not for their contribution to the war in the Pacific, Singapore may still be under the Japanese, and I would be speaking Japanese, and eating Japanese food (which may not be too bad), or be second class cheap labour for Japan industry. I had lost two uncles who disappeared during Japanese army occupation of Singapore in the late 1930s, and these are memories that still embitter our older generation against the Japanese military occupation. I am rambling.
Elaine brought us out for some Ethiopian food. Washington attracts people from all nations so it is no surprise you can get authentic Ethiopian food. We enjoyed it because of its similarity with Indian food. I would definitely go for it again and again if I do visit Washington again.
THE SMITHSONIAN MUSEUMS
Its amazing that these museums do not require any entrance fees. They are wonderful large museums with interesting and sometimes spectacular exhibits. A few require payment of an entrance fee. We went to a few of the free ones over a period of two days. They are all within a grid of several square kilometres. We drove to the park and ride, and took the metro to the station nearest to the museum we wanted to go. Very convenient and accessible.
VISITING THE WORLD BANK
A friend of Elaine was able to get visitor passes for us so we could have a look at what it would be like for Elaine. Since it was on the way to the museums and her friend was willing to show us around, why not. It looks like a United Nations – employees from different countries working together, security conscious, and bound together by the one common English language. I also discovered they had several buildings all within walking distance of each other.
WORSHIPPING IN AN ASIAN CHURCH
The church my hosts attended was founded by Asians – Taiwanese and Hong Kong immigrants. So the English service I attended on that wet Sunday was full of people of Chinese descent, both young, the middle aged, and the old. The worship used familiar songs and choruses and the odd hymn, and the sermon was treading carefully around the spiritual gift of tongues. There were quite a few Malaysians and Singaporeans there too. So after the service we went to a huge reception/fellowship hall where we were hosted by the greeters. A pastor of many decades sat beside me and we had a long conversation about work, theology and life experiences. He told me that nowadays the church receives more and more Mainland Chinese converts! This gives the church fresh blood.
After the service, a Singaporean, Florence, one of the church members, brought us to a mammoth warehouse discount store. We were wowed by this megastore and the prices were also very good but you had to buy bulk. This was fun. This was my quick introduction to the consumer culture of America.
Later we went to Florence’s home and were amazed at the lovely paintings in her newly purchased townhouse home. She is a florist but painting was her hobby and she found it therapeutic. We had a dinner of salad and baked chicken before we headed for home.
Elaine was hunting for an apartment and over several days we went house viewing with her. We saw about seven apartments with her. It was reassuring to see that the surrounding streets looked safe and good. I realised there is a strong rental market (US $1,500 to $2,500 for a studio or one bedroom apartment) in and around DC. Most residents seeking work in DC would begin with renting an apartment or house. After they know that their jobs are stable, and get to know the city better, they may then go on to purchase a house or apartment. Since transience is part of the working scene in DC, rental still trumps buying a property.
MEALS WITH OUR DAUGHTER
We were together for all the meals when we were there and that was a luxury we did not have when she was living in Singapore, what with her work, ministry commitments and her friends. So the time together was precious. All the more sweeter for we knew we would be missing her for some years. This was easily the highlight of the trip.
We did a lot of walking. We had no choice. We enjoyed walking anyway. We are hikers. Therefore with proper footwear, walking is a piece of cake for us. We walked the most during our visits to the museums. We also walked a great deal while hunting for apartments and looking at the surrounding neighbourhood.
Shopping can be inexpensive in America. There are many good food stuff, household stuff and clothing and shoes that we could buy at good prices. Branded goods at the premium outlets carry shocking price tags. If I were into brands, this is Paradise. However, I bought sparingly because I am not into branded stuff. If I already have so many watches why should I get a Fossil watch just because it was cheap. If I do not need it, why buy it? Things in America: houses, cars, clothes, supermarket food and household products are inexpensive when compared with Singapore. What hits you between the eyes is the health insurance!!!
We were in Boston and had gone on a Freedom Trail walking tour. Boston has a rich and significant history. Momentous events took place there and some of the buildings and graves testify to the fundamental way America has been shaped by those events. I loved the tour and would recommend it to anyone.
We then wanted to have fantastic hot chocolate at a popular café near the park where the Freedom trail ended. On the way to the café, I spotted a statue in front of a huge church building. I went nearer to look and saw an interesting thing.
Rt Rev Phillips Brooks
It was a sculpture put up in memory of Rt. Rev. Phillips Brooks, the famous preacher whose lectures on preaching I had read when I was in seminary. Phillip Brooks gave the “Lyman Beecher Lectureship on Preaching” at the Divinity School of Yale College. The lectures now seem outdated but he had said some great, classic things about preaching. One of his often quoted sayings was his definition of preaching: “Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality.”
After tea, we went to take pictures in front of the sculpture. The sculpture was of Phillip Brooks preaching with his hands stretched out to make a point. There is a strange hooded figure behind him, with his hand on Phillip’s shoulder. Clearly the sculptor meant to indicate how Jesus anointed the preaching of Brooks, and how his effectiveness as a preacher depended on the power of the Holy Spirit.
Then we went inside the church to have a look. However, we needed to pay to go in and walk among the pews, the volunteers from church had told us. So I said, Forget it. Ping, my daughter in law, told the volunteers that I was a pastor and had read his lectures in seminary when I was young, and would love to be able to go in. That must have moved them to allow us to go in for free. Thus, we sat there inside the church, among the pews, and in silence I prayed for a fresh anointing and that I would give my whole heart to preaching.
That night I searched for a free download of Brook’s lectures on preaching and downloaded it. The next few days, I would open those pages and read them on my smartphone. I have gone back now to these lectures, but on my iPad so that I could highlight striking sentences and thoughts. God willing I will post these sayings of Brooks once I have finished reading the lectures.
My vacation has come to an end. Here am I in a cafe writing while we wait for a 6pm flight. The ending of vacation is like the aftertaste of Vietnamese robusta coffee. There is a bit of bitter aftertaste. I now wish the vacation could be extended. But work awaits me, and I preach on Sunday. I have been lifting up my heart to the Lord about the two messages I have to preach. They are embryonic form now, with skeletal thoughts in my mind. They will have to take form tomorrow!
The last few days in Hanoi has been in a single word: wet. One of the things I looked forward to was a Halong Bay overnight cruise. Sadly, it was not to be. On the morning we were about to leave we received notice from the tour company that all boats are not allowed because of a storm of a few days. What a disappointment! This government ban makes me feel secure. No money was lost. And we went for the alternative, Tam Coc or “Halong by the Bay land tour” – haha a stylish way to ease the disappointment I felt. We went for it. The tour agent started at about US$50 and when we told them we are going to explore the city, the price went down to US$35. Well we took it after the price plummeted.
It bus travel for about 2-3 hours before we had a bit of history of two Vietnamese dynasty and the Temples built to ancestor worship the two kings. Then we went on a boat ride that went under three caves and back. It took about an hour and a half of women powered rowing of sampans with their feet. We had scenic views of limestone structures similar to that of Halong Bay, only with light intermittent drizzles. Of the two the more spectacular thing to see was how the women used their feet to row the boats!
The intermittent rain did not stop us from taking a bicycle ride around the rice fields and farms with the limestone hills and mountains as a backdrop. I must admit the idea of riding my Brompton around this area flashed across my mind. Who knows?
We had some fabulous food on the extra day we had since our Halong Bay tour was cancelled. Great atmosphere and egg coffee in Hanoi Social Club; great pizza at Pizza 4P’s, a chain of profitable pizza restaurants started by a Japanese entrepreneur and featured in an article in the New York Times; and famous street pho, and local meal called Bun Cha. Guess that was a food tour. Thanks to TripAdvisor and Elaine Chee and her Friend, Joelene’s recommendations.
It was wonderful to travel with our daughter as she will be heading overseas to work. We had an estimated 24 leisurely meals together, rooming together for seven nights, and that is a lot of conversation, laughter and love. This was a good idea. A memorable trip.
I feel so thankful today for how the day turned out. We had planned to take the cable car to Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest mountain. However it was very misty and we decided to change plans and do a hike to the Cat Cat Village – a Hmong village about an hour’s hike down and two hours’ hike up on the return leg. As we walked down the street the drizzle steadily became more intense and we went into a cafe to wait the rain out. After an hour of waiting we decided it would be better to return to the hotel and rest while my daughter went for a shoulder and leg massage.
At about 12 plus the rain all but stopped and we decided to resume our planned hike. The air was pleasantly cool and fresh and there were many lovely views of the valley and its rice terraces and the mountains with their summit clouded by mists. We took many photos and about halfway down a kind Vietnamese couple signed to us if we wanted a lift to the entrance of the Cat Cat Village. We went in happily and though they did not speak a word of English, they signed to us their intentions. Ten minutes later we were at the entrance and paid about SGD $6 to enter this Hmong village. We were praising God for this was not incidental but God’s provision.
It was a route of 2 to 3 kilometres that brought us past a school, village homes, stalls selling similar tribal products, and gardens, waterfalls, a theatre with free Hmong musical and dance performances. It was interesting, engaging, and with the mobile and photo taking opportunities, the minutes passed very quickly. By the time we covered the loop it was about 4 pm and it began to drizzle again. We took a cab for SGD$6 and it brought us back to our hotel. Along the way we passed many tourists who hiked up back to Sapa town. We estimated it would take us 2 hours to hike up, with the level of our fitness and a 4 out of 10.
This was a happy day, a happy Sunday, as we saw the Lord guiding and providing for us. However what disturbed me is to see little children as young as four or five selling sourvenirs with minders, sometimes the mother or grandmother several feet away to watch them. There is obvious poverty. I would have thought that the collection of fees and tourism would have made the lives of the villagers better. It probably does but I wished more education, affordable medical care, and marketable skills could be given to the Hmong people so that they don’t have to be tourist attractions the rest of their lives.
It was a four hours bus journey from Hanoi to Sapa a town in the highlands. The Sapa Express bus seats were spacious and comfortable and the journey more pleasant than I had anticipated.
Sapa looked disorganized to my eyes. Huge buses bustling down the narrow streets with horns blaring. Cars moving at unsafe speed, turning and twisting to avoid quick motorbikes. The dirt on that covered the streets and made them brown and muddy. The fine dust stirred and hovered in the wake of every passing vehicle making mockery of the clean mountain air I hoped to find.
The hotel staff were professional and very hospitable and the room we were assigned beautifully decorated. We were recommended some places for lunch but we decided to follow TripAdvisor and made a beeline to Vietnam Emotion a restaurant frequented by Caucasians. We loved the look on the outside and the look inside and the food. Lovely place to have a lovely meal. We loved the decor and this is not the first time their cafes struck us with their original creations of interesting themes and design and decor.
There wasn’t much we could do because we arrived at around 12.30pm. So we decided to explore the streets of Sapa around the public square. We even entered to sit in silence in the pews of a Roman Catholic Church that was prominently located near the center. It is called the Holy Rosary Church or the Stone Church.
With a Google map and a data plan, there was no fear of getting lost. We walked around and found ourselves in streets away from the touristy streets, where most of the people were locals. Until we saw a hotel called Amazing Hotel with beautiful views of the Fansipan and other mountains. We decided to relax at the hotel cafe and enjoy the panoramic view of the distant mountains.
Tomorrow we hope to ascend the Fansipan but not by hiking but by the cable car.
Hanoi means “between two rivers”. I have always wanted to visit this city, the Halong Bay, and the Sapa mountains. Today my wife, daughter and I landed at a modern airport and literally Grabbed a cab to the Labevie Hotel in the French Old Quarter. We asked the hotel staff for some recommendations for the rest of the day. She recommended a restaurant nearby called Highway 4 and we had a kind of late but light lunch of a few Vietnamese dishes. Very satisfying food at reasonable prices.
Next we went to look for a lake nearby. Having found it we circled it at a leisurely pace. While it was hot and humid earlier on, the presence of trees and water and open space made the walk so much more pleasant and cooler.
Later we went to look at the Night Market about 10 minutes walk away but we were too early at 6pm. The night stalls had not set up shop yet. So we shopped along the street with its many shops selling clothes, bags, souvenirs, shoes and other stuff.
Having walked more than 10,000 steps, we felt tired and chilled out in a lovely cafe called, The Lissom Parlour. We bought bread in preparation for hunger pangs in the night and an early breakfast the next day. We will leave before the hotel breakfast is ready. We will take an early bus for the Sapa highlands from an office about 5 minutes walk from where our hotel is. I am looking forward to the fresh and cool mountain air and more family time.