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Hungry in Hue and Hoi An

Inside a high-ceilinged, unfussy diner in central Vietnam, I waited hungrily for my lunch at a small table by the window. Nguyen Thi Loc – the 80-year-old “Banh Mi Queen” of Hoi An – was carefully preparing the next batch of made-to-order sandwiches with her daughter at a stand by the entrance. I’d made the pilgrimage to Nguyen’s stall outside the UNESCO-listed old town after reading a host of favorable reviews. Most recently, a childhood friend had paid a visit while on his honeymoon and raved about her banh mi. Read more

The Indonesia that I know

Once again, Indonesia has found itself in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Jakarta’s no-nonsense governor – an ethnic Chinese Christian and a rare exception in a sea of corrupt politicians – has been found guilty of “blasphemy” against Islam and jailed for the next two years.

I do not think the negative coverage thus far amounts to fear-mongering, nor is the global backlash entirely undeserved. I’ve watched with alarm over the past few months, as bigots and powerful opportunists have successfully manipulated large segments of the populace under the guise of religion, blending their agenda with a toxic cocktail of racism and hatred. Indonesia may have gained its hard-won independence seven decades ago, but we are now seeing a new form of colonialism: a colonialism of the mind, of thought, fueled by a virulent form of religious conservatism that favors practices and extreme ideology imported from Saudi Arabia.

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Snapshots from Da Nang

“You want to see Lady Buddha? How ‘bout Marble Mountain? The trees here are 100 years old, but there, one thousand years old!”

Outside the Museum of Cham Sculpture, a single-story French colonial building flanked by noble banyans and gnarled frangipani trees, a local tout in a worn-out cap makes his pitch. The man is presumably in his sixties, and he speaks American English with a distinctive nasal twang and a Southern-style drawl.

“There’s not a lot to see here in Da Nang,” the man says. “You’ll spend maybe half an hour at this museum. It’s small.” Read more

Bern: Switzerland’s picturesque capital

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Not long after that very first trip to Switzerland in the summer of 2000, my father showed me a picture book on the natural and man-made wonders of the Alpine country. One of the photos that stood out to me most was taken in the medieval heart of Bern, showing a cobbled street that led to the Zytglogge, a whimsical yet stately clock tower capped by a curving pyramidal roof and spire. Read more

Geneva, the crossroads of Europe

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It’s a place synonymous with international diplomacy and human rights. But despite its long history and scenic location at the southern tip of the Alps’ largest lake, the Swiss city of Geneva doesn’t register on many travel itineraries. As part of a 10-day work trip, I’m treated to a walking tour with longtime guide and resident Ursula Diem-Benninghoff, who is a fount of knowledge on her adopted home city. Read more

Kyoto revisited

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When I was nine years old, a family friend gifted me with a branch of plastic cherry blossoms. I tied it to a pin board above my bed, wrote a haiku about Kyoto in the spring (though I’d never been at the time), then drew a pagoda and cherry trees beside the poem. It was an obsession fueled by lunch breaks spent in the school library, where I returned time and again to a thick hardcover book on the Japanese city. Read more

Hong Kong for the holidays

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When I moved to Indonesia last May, I promised my parents I would be back for Christmas. But it was a strange feeling to return to a place where I’d lived for nearly 20 years. Apart from a high-rise hotel taking shape on the Kowloon waterfront, and a handful of other construction sites, it appeared that my hometown had barely changed at all. Read more

A walk in Kurashiki

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We were not meant to visit Kurashiki at all. Though I’d heard of the place and looked up pictures several weeks before our trip to Japan, it never became a priority. But that changed with a chance encounter inside a sushi bar at Okayama station, four stops down the Sanyo Main Line. Read more

Okayama and the garden of delights

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Arriving at Okayama station just before lunchtime, Bama and I are struck by the sheer volume of people passing through. Most lug a small suitcase for the long weekend; gaggles of students in uniform – the navy blue and white outfits we’ve seen in all those anime cartoons – throng the tiled corridor leading down to an outdoor plaza; suited-up businessmen and families with strollers crisscross our path. The unexpected aroma of Belgian waffles, freshly made on the griddle, wafts into our nostrils from a brightly lit stall. Turning right through a pair of sliding glass doors, we see gift boxes immaculately arranged by colour on the shelves of a department store, people lining up for lunch at a sushi bar, and a chain restaurant specialising in tonkatsu, the breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet perfected to an art by the Japanese. Read more

An Osaka stopover

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The last time I was in Osaka, nearly 15 years ago, the rows of cherry trees lining the riverbanks were in full bloom. Arriving by night, I spied walls of blazing neon through the windows of our tour bus, and a series of waterways carving their way through an urban labyrinth. By day I remember standing in the grounds of Osaka Castle, marvelling at the size of its curving ramparts and the gilded reliefs on the uppermost level of the main keep. Read more