Tag Archives: Can Tho

Wan Chai: Bay, Bars, Brothels and a battle

There was no way one could walk without touching another. Yet, there came an ambulance and the crowds parted like a wave, making for a video that would be watched by millions and millions. It was worth it, the world rarely gets to see such blending of anger, resistance, and compassion. The boy from Babhnan was walking, nay, marching in protest to Tamar Park, the site of the government offices of Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of China. 

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In one of the Hong Kong protests

Over 2 million HongKongers had taken to the street that day. Few knew that this would be one of the last protests in the city with people not covering their faces. One of the last ones to be peaceful too. They would soon metamorphose in pitched battles between Police firing real bullets in decades, and students replying with Molotov Cocktails, petrol bombs for the uninitiated. 

Trams, cars and pedestrians: above an underground subway.
Trams, cars and pedestrians: above an underground subway

Wan Chai was not always known for this though. The area, now one of the poshest in the megapolis has a rather interesting, colourful and intriguing history. A history that starts from a small bay and went to become the city’s first red light district and then the centre of governance. Red light district still exists, by the way, the stigma does not with everyone minding their own business. 

Very few Chinese settlers, all of them fisherfolk, lived in the area by the end of the 18th century. Almost all of them lived around the Sea God “Hung Shing Ye”‘s temple.

China’s defeat in the Opium Wars and resultant handover of Hong Kong island to the victors was to change it all. With Central being the unofficial capital of the one city British colony, Wan Chai too began to grow. Came in a British merchant Lancelot Dent, with a huge mansion around the 1840s, and the area suddenly became upmarket. Many colonials chose the area as home for both: them and their businesses. Dent went bankrupt by the 1870s and that brought in the local Chinese people. 

Sikh Gurudwara on Guruparab
Sikh Gurudwara on Guruparab

Wan Chai as we see it today was getting born with bustling businesses, shipyards and even a waterfront hospital built by the British firm Jardine’s. British royal navy bought it in 1873 and converted it as Royal Navy Hospital. Ferry piers for the sailors and soldiers followed. The Red Light district was born too by the first few decades of the 19th century. Many of the brothels displayed huge street number plates to advertise themselves so their area became known as Big Number Brothels. Decades later, US-Vietnam War would contribute even more to the sex work in area with US soldiers returning from, and going to fight in the Nam, at Fenwick Pier, now demolished. 

Former bay now, in the night!
Former bay now, in the night!

The Big Numbers did not disappear though. They just metamorphosed into shopping arcades, malls and markets in the area still carry the numbers. The City’s biggest computer market, 298 Computer Centre is one of them, perhaps. 

The curious mix of the people and activities another added layer to the area. It soon started becoming the most multicultural one in the town. Taoist temples standing next to Buddhist ones, city’s first Sikh Gurudwara built in 1901, HK’s first Hindu temple built in 1953, a church all standing next to one another!

A Guangzhou Verandah style building decorated with lanterns
A Guangzhou Verandah style building decorated with lanterns

The boy remembered the happier days in the life of the city. Into history and architecture- he would go for the heritage trail. Beginning with colourful houses from the colonial times with green, blue and yellow ones being the most famous. The trail would then take him to PAK TAI TEMPLE  built in 1862. Former Wan Chai Post Office (1912) would follow suit. Then Guangzhou Verandah style shophouses and finally the Hung Shing Temple, with “Shiwan” ceramic pottery roof decorations.

Tired, he would head to the nightlife area- now catering to both- sex workers and officegoing pub hoppers unwinding for the day. Adding to the curious mix would be families living just above the ‘nightclubs’ with having nothing to do with either! All three would keep aloof from one another. He would hit a pub, or just stand at one of the intersections seeing life go by. This is one signature thing to do in the Fragrant Harbour, aka Hong Kong.  

A slogan with a clenched fist up in the air broke his chain of thought. The march was passing by the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre- where the famous handover of sovereignty from Britain to China took place in 1997. The protestors would soon be in the Golden Bauhinia Square Golden Bauhinia Square, so named for a beautiful sculpture of the flower which is also Hong Kong’s emblem. Then the Legislative Council called LegCo. It would be a long drawn resistance. And it would win. It did!

He cannot wait to explore the area even more even if the pubs and bars are shut down. The city is not in a lockdown, you can always roam around maintaining distance and wearing mask! This weekend, perhaps! 

Vietnam: Journeys of Shiva, spices and Samar

Lord Shiva looked at the boy from Babhnan visiting him. Don’t get surprised, we all have had our journeys, long and beautiful, he seemed to have said. Both smiled amidst the heavy rains. The boy was in Mỹ Sơn, the ancient temple site of the the Champa empire that ruled what is now central Vietnam from the 4th to 18th century AD. The ruins tell a gritty tale of the journeys that brought first Shiva and Hinduism and then spices to the region.

In the Temple of Literature, Hanoi
In the Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Interestingly, Hinduism reached Champa through neighbouring states like the Khmer empire in Cambodia and Funan, or Nokor Phnom. Even more interestingly, not much is known about Funan, not even its original name, Funan is what the Chinese calligraphers and historians called this indianised state, a loose network of states, Mandala.

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Vietnam has always fascinated the small boy growing far away- actually three seas and an ocean away. He first learnt about the country through his father. His father was an ardent admirer of Ho Chi Minh, the only Asian man who militarily defeated two colonial powers, France and USA. His eyes would shine with a pride emerging from the idea of solidarity, the boy would note. He read about the country in Geography books as history ones would have little of it. Look East was yet not the official diplomatic line of the governments then- despite very friendly relations with them. India was one of those very few countries which helped the Viets in their war against the USA.

Lady Buddha, Da Nang
Lady Buddha, Da Nang

It was natural, then for the boy to run to the country, yet another soul place, on the very first opportunity. He started safe with Hanoi and was amazed at the warmth of the people and place. Countless trips to museums, including The Hanoi Hilton, as US prisoners of war called Hanoi Prison would end with the traditional Bia Hoi- gallons of freshly brewed beer served, literally, out of gallons in unassuming streetside shops. Aah, to be in Vietnam is bliss, to be in Bia Hoi just divine. Divine, the atheist boy feeling divine in a communist country sipping beer- journeys, he thought of and smiled.

Prison aka Hanoi Hilton, senator Senator John McCain is the most famous of its inmates
Prison aka Hanoi Hilton, senator Senator John McCain is the most famous of its inmates

Hanoi would take him to the The Văn Miếu , roughly translated as the Temple of Literature. It was Vietnam’s first university, built in 1070 AD and dedicated to Confucius. A university built in 1070, that too in Asia, the boy was impressed. Though no longer functional, students still come to the Temple of Literature to celebrate their graduation. 

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Halong Bay

Halong Bay was the next among countless trips taken in and from Hanoi. The bay, literally translated as the “Bay of Descending Dragons”, has thousands of limestone hills rising from the sea look like someone has built a wall on the sea! Named as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the very touristy way is a must see, go early or stay in the town to beat the crowds but do go. 

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A girl in Ao Dai

Next for the boy in the Nam was Hoi An, now overshadowed by the nearby megapolis Da Nang at the coast of East City turned into a resort city. Give that a miss though, nothing much to see or explore there. Go to Marble Mountains instead- a cluster of 5 mountains of hill and limestone with beautiful caves with temples whom Viet Minh turned into bunkers to fight first the French and then the US forces. Buddha next to bullet holes, journeys, again, the boy thought. 

In the famous Cu Chi tunnels
In the famous Cu Chi tunnels

Hoi An, a beautiful Universal Heritage city was once the commercial capital of the Champa Empire that controlled the spice trade at its zenith. The boy was back home, the land of Shiva. Hoi An, one of the world’s most important ports from the 15th to 19th century is exceptionally well preserved despite the two decade long wars Vietnam suffered. The city’s importance waned sharply at the end of the 18th century. Some believe it that Tây Sơn Rebellion opposed to foreign trade was the reason, some claim it was silting up of the river mouth rendering the port worthless. Whatever is the truth, nearby Da Nang soon became the new centre of trade and the city got almost forgotten. That was a blessing, perhaps. 

A gallon full of beer!
A gallon full of beer!

Lost among the lanterns, the boy was tired and sleepy. To get ready for Hue, another ancient capital of the Nam, a long journey next morning. Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, were the next on line. He waved his byes to Lord Shiva, promising that he would come back soon. Hong Kong is just 2 hours away, after all. 

Can Tho: Call from the Mekong Delta

The boy from the River Manvar banks was back in Mekong Delta, ditching Da Nang, the up and arrived beach destination in Asia for the second time in a row within an year. No, he had nothing against the Seas. They always fascinated him. He now lives by the sea, in Hong Kong. 

Onwards to Cai Rang Floating Market, biggest in the Mekong Delta
Onwards to Cai Rang Floating Market, biggest in the Mekong Delta

But the rivers are where the boy feels at home. Born and brought up in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the Gangetic plains also called Doaab, deltas are the place he belonged to. Places where everything revolved around the water earlier, most still does. He remembered the Monsoons: longingly waited for and scared off. Come, folk songs would plead the Gods of rains, but just enough to get us super crops, not to drown us, cut us off from the rest of the world for months. 

As it is, he had realised that at the end of the day, every travellers seeks to find the home left behind somewhere deep within. Oh yeah- a quick note on Doaab- it literally means 2 waters- do is 2 and Aab is water in Arabic. That’s why Punjab is Punjab at both sides of the border- 5 waters, meaning 5 rivers. However much borders try to divide, rivers find a way to sneak out and unite. They just know how to.

This was what had brought the small boy to Can Tho, the biggest city in Mekong Delta and the fourth largest in Vietnam. The delta, like all other delta, has a fabulous history. Prehistory, actually, as almost all of the earliest human settlements started in deltas only just like the Indus Valley one. 

The most fascinating thing about Can Tho, though, is that its past has a bridge to reach its present- a bridge called river  Hậu River, a distributary of the mighty Mekong with its floating markets just like they were 300 years ago! Okay, the boats have become motorised, the wholesale ones jetties, many of them are now electrified and there are even floating (on the boats) petrol pumps! Everything else is the same: predawn rush of the wholesalers to these real floating markets with a bamboo pole with something hanging on the top- denoting what is that boat selling. If it’s fish then fish, vegetables then vegetables and if nothing- then boat itself!!  Then come the boats selling breakfast and boats of retailers. Oh yeah and now also many tourists and some travelers too! 

Cai Rang floating market in full glory. This one is the biggest in Mekong Delta and essentially a wholesale market. Just a 15 minutes boa
Cai Rang floating market in full glory

Same are the orchards inside, well connected with beautiful, almost mystic canals shaded by the coconut and palm trees, and the villages making rice paper, and so many other things, enough for one to get lost there alone for days.

Canals linking villages, lives, economy, everything

Can Tho is not only about these floating markets though. It has equally enchanting night markets 4 of them- open all night, by the way, unlike many night markets across the word, Go and eat traditional delicacies there like a local. Or head to the cacao farms reminding you of your own mango orchards lost in the villages left behind, many even having homestays- basic enough to take you on a trip down the memory lane. 

Then there are magnificent temples, really intricate and different from one another unlike most of our run of the mill Shivalas and Mosques you can’t even differentiate from one another. 

Doing all this, you would pass by the Can Tho Grand Prison many a times. Hardy enough to believe in justice. It is for you. A backpacker drunk on youth, or a tourist which ended up there in a tour: do go, it would sober you down. 

Did I even talk about the hidden gem? Remember the 1992’s French Erotica Movie, The Lover, that took the world by storm, nay, sensuality? That helped bringing erotica inn Most of it was shot in Can Tho, in a small town some 17 kms away, in an over 150 years old house that remains the same even today!I had seen The Lover as a young adult, with the tape tucked inside my shirt smuggled into a friend’s house in 1997 or so in Allahabad. There I was in the house, I knew ever since.

This was the locale of the 1992 French Erotic classic, The Lover: It is called as Binh Thuy Ancient House, and also Binh Thuy Communal House
Locale of the 1992 French Erotic classic, The Lover: Binh Thuy Ancient House

Gosh! I forgot Ninh Kieu Wharf, I went to every single day there! Overlooked by a really tall statue Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh is called across the country? It runs parallel to the river with a beautifully decorated bridge to itself, not going anywhere, just, to walk by the river and remember your own Manvar, 4400 kms away.