A three-hour drive from Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, will bring you to the calm and charming Ha Long Bay. Located in the Gulf of Tonkin in northeast Vietnam, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has withstood the test of time, and yes, naval battles and legends. Literally translated as “Bay of the Descending Dragon”, Ha Long Bay offers visitors a majestic view of naturally-formed limestone pillars and, if you have much time to spare, over 1,600 islands and islets. A popular way to enjoy the scenery is by taking one of the numerous Ha Long Bay cruises through glass-like waters (although it was a bit too green for me!) aboard these ships that looked like the ones used back in the 1900s era (my first thought was the Huckleberry Finn cartoons!), giving it an old world feel. We spent two days and a night aboard one (and I was happy to see two very able Filipina crew managers) and although we were actually working (yep, no kidding!), in that short time, I really got to appreciate the calmness (so unlike the 2Go weather fiasco!), majesty and beauty that Ha Long Bay offers to its visitors.
When I booked my Cebu Pacific piso fare from Ho Chi Minh to Manila way before deciding to actually do a Southeast Asia trip, the driving force was to eat the noodle soup pho and the fresh vermicelli spring rolls in Vietnam.
The ignorant that I am of Asian and world history, the only things I knew of Vietnam were the food I wanted to eat and the war with America.
During the first time I set foot in Malaysia back in 2010, we only had one day and between Melaka, Genting Highlands and the Batu Caves, we decided to play with the clouds. It was only during the month-long Southeast Asia backpacking trip that I made it to Melaka and to the Batu Caves, both thanks to my fried Rajie who took time off her busy schedule to tour me, Lalai and Tetet! 🙂 Anyway, Batu Caves, as the name suggests (in Tagalog, batu, well bato, means stone), is a series of caves and cave temples inside a limestone hill. Batu Caves is a popular tourist spot and Hindu temple site around 13kms north of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. The area is surrounded by birds feeding on corn kernels the visitors throw around and by a small pond of ducks and koi fish. You’d need to climb up about 8-10 floors worth of stairs, alongside monkeys that can be pretty violent when they see food, to get inside the caves and the temples. Rajie, at the time at least, was not a devout Hindu so we were not sure whether the stories of Kartikeya (the massive golden statue at the foot of the caves to which the cave temples are dedicated to), and his family (daddy = Shiva, mommy = Parvati, brother = Ganapathi) and the peacock he’s riding, were as accurate as the scripts or just made up bedtime stories! It was quite entertaining though. 🙂 After visiting the caves, you might want to relax your legs and knees a bit and stay a while by the small pond, watching the ducks and koi fish glide and swim. Or, you can also pay a visit to Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, farther on the left.
I first ‘experienced’ Diwali in 2011, at Little India in Singapore.
I was walking around with two friends when I saw these massive makeshift arcs lining the streets of Little India. Clueless that we were, we thought these were just day-to-day decorations to the community, reflecting the Indians’ colorful way of life.
Little did we know that we were right smack in the middle of a full on Festival of Lights and a season of prosperity for Indians, particularly the Hindus.
I celebrated Diwali properly while a VSO volunteer with Yuva Rural in India, assigned in Nagpur, east of the state of Maharashtra where I was based. When I say “properly”, that means we lit up some diyas (oil lamps) and firecrackers (although I don’t really light one these days), made (well, watched how they make it for me) rangoli (colorful and beautiful designs people put by their doors or house surroundings), participated in the community events, performed the puja, and ate Diwali food!
Lights and Firecrackers
Diwali, or the Festival of Lights, is being celebrated in India for several reasons, mostly religious. Most commonly (or at least that I was made aware of), Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom in Ayodhya after saving his wife Sita from the Demon god and his exile in Sri Lanka. According to the Ramayana, Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya was welcomed by his loyal subjects and celebrated through the lighting of diyas or oil lamps, hence the “bursting” of fire crackers and lighting of fireworks.
My colleague Ratna was the chief instigator, err, organizer for the simple Diwali celebration at our office. She got this oil lamps. They’re really small!
She also played as my fairy godmother and draped me into my first saree ever!
Prayers, songs and dances
The community temple also played songs (and I guess prayers) all the time (and I mean all the time) during Diwali!
They also set-up a pandal (like a stage/platform) wherein prayers were sung and performance were, errr, performed.
I especially liked it when they had the cultural performances of several dances! Every song has meaning of course but I was enjoying too much to ask my translators — the Meshram kids and their friends!
Colors and more colors
With Diwali comes not only lights and firecrackers but of course, colorful-than-usual idols, rangoli powders and other decorations!
My friend Rahul, who happens to be from Nagpur, invited me to their home which is on another side of town. The trip was worth the wait meeting his family and seeing all the Diwali action!
I liked taking pictures of rangoli so much that I took a picture of almost every rangoli I passed by — on the street, by the gates, in a supermarket! Literally, every rangoli, everywhere!
The Puja and the Food
Diwali is also the time to perform Lakshmi puja, a prayer ritual to goddess Lakshmi (and other gods too!) for wealth and prosperity.
So, as part of the celebration, I had my fair share of firecracker bursting and fireworks lighting! And, I observed and participated in a family’s Lakshmi puja and aarti!
Of course, an Indian festival, or any other Indian occasion for that matter, is incomplete without food! I got to taste Auntie’s cooking (and Ratna’s too I think!) and that of their neighbor too!
Being a foreigner who, even after eight months of living in India by that time, remain unknowing of the many facets of Indian and Hindu culture, I consider myself lucky to have experienced Diwali in a truly Indian fashion! I even got Rs. 100 note from Ratna’s neighbor, since I was the youngest of the visiting people! I felt like it’s Christmas and all my aunts and uncles are giving me money! Hehe 🙂
For this, my heartfelt thanks to my adoptive family the Meshrams, to Datta Sir’s family, my colleagues at Yuva Rural, and Ratna’s family. I probably wouldn’t have experienced Diwali the way I did if not for y’all!
Surfing is an adrenaline-filled water sport that is increasingly becoming popular among Filipinos, not just for adventure- and thrill-seekers but also for families wanting to try something new and exciting. I never thought I’ll ever be able to go surfing because a) I didn’t realize we have it here; b) I always thought it’s expensive and c) well, I was never sure if I’ll ever be able to stand on my board and look cool like everyone on TV!