January 2002

Comming from a mad megalopolis like Metro Manila, Saigon was a welcome repite. I mean, for a city of 7 million, it certainly felt comfortably small. The streets are buzzing with people and commerce. No overpowering flyovers here. And despite the fact that people donned masks while riding their motorcycles, Saigon didnt seem as polluted as say, taking a jeepney ride along Taft Avenue.

Among the city's 17(?) districts, my favorite is district 1, or as the locals call it, Saigon – the inner city. Think the city of Manila in Metro Manila. The historic downtown core of HCM, from which the metropolis sprang, is very much intact and still the center core of the city.

Hotel de Ville ho chi minh

Here's Saigon's charmingly ornate city hall (or Hotel de Ville as the French called it) flanked by Unclo Ho, the father of modern Vietnam. Always the first place to on a stopover in Saigon.

notre dame notre dame 2

A few steps away, the Notre Dame Cathedral. A touch of Meditteranean shade amidst the hubhub of Indo-China. Unknown to many, our neighbor across the South China Sea has the second most number of Catholics in the Asian continent.

catholic church

Yet another Catholic church, in a more local, Indo-Chinese style…


Saigon downtown. Im glad that the city hasnt (yet) caught up with mall culture, though I did see one or two, most of the city's streets are still lively, thanks to the commercial buzz and the Saigonese who hasn't abandoned their streets the for the heremetically-sealed, consumer-shoebox that is the mall.


Im assuming that Saigon has a thriving arts scene. This is her Municipal Theater, right in the heart of downtown, a far cry from Manila's Metropolitan Theater

post office post office interior

Saigon's government buildings are immaculately clean. And they're all in the downtown core. Here's the Post Office building (Bu Dien) and its Industrial age Victorian interior.

Unclo Ho looking over a Christmas tree? A sight to behold…welcome to the new Vietnam!

side walk

Tree-shaded sidewalks…a rarity in downtown Manila! Now, while Saigon's sidewalks arent exactly the best Ive seen in any Asian city, the fact that they have them and are not used for any purpose other than serving pedestrians (read: parking cars, impromptou karaoke sessions or market stalls) is something to crow about…

modern 2 modern 3

More downtown photos. All uncompromisingly modern. Best of all, theyre human-scale!

phu my hung2 phu my hung

To cap of my motorcyclo tour of Saigon, my guide Khuc suggested that we visit the new district of Phu My Hung, a Singaporean-built development housing mansions (or villas as they say) for Saigon's expat community. Personally, I would have wanted to visit Cholon (Chinatown) but
Khuc was adamant and told me that it was quite a distance from District 1. As this this wasnt…it took us about 45 minutes to get to this area from downtown!

In any case, it was interesting to see how the other half of Saigon lived. I noticed that the Saigonese have a preference for 3-storey buildings. According to Khuc, he comes here because the 'air is cleaner' and like every self-respecting Saigonese, Khuc also wants to climb up the social ladder and eventually own a home here.

Well, as for me, give me downtown Saigon anytime.


From Manila and beyond.The weekend saw me exploring and walking the streets of Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh city as the guys in Hanoi would call it) .

Admittedly, Saigon didnt conjure up grand expectations as say one would have when visiting Shanghai or Singapore(same as what people would probablly feel about Manila) but the prospect of visiting a new city is simply too much to pass up so I packed up and headed to Vietnam's economic heartland.

To cut a long story short, Saigon simply blew me away. It is certainly a small city with a big surprise. Comming from Mega-Mad-Metro Manila, Saigon was an pleasent revelation.

Here's why.

The people. For Vietnam's biggest metropolis, Saigon felt comfortably small. The streets are buzzing and the everything is in human scale. The fact that there were people and shops on the streets attested to the fact the the Saigonese have not (yet) succumbed to American-style cosumerist mall culture. Or maybe old wounds have not yet healed.

In any case, I deemed it was safe enough to do as the locals do so I hopped in a motorcyclo with my trusty guide Khuc and set out to suck-in a full-day Saigonese experience.

saigon traffic

The view from the motorcyclo and my first taste fo Saigonese traffic. Head to the left if Khuc, my trusty driver and guide.


There's no better way to pass Saigonese traffic than reading a good book. Or is he cramming for a school exam?!?


Shades of Manila…this truck was driving at our side of the lane heading towards us!

xmas tree

It's beginning to look like Christmas…this is, after all, Vietnam , the second most Catholic Asian country after the Philippines…

Frame guy

Motorcyclo balancing act…

Chit chat

And these ladies thought they were cycling in the park! My guide told me that this is one of the causes of traffic slow-down in the city, people chit-chatting on the streets!

More Saigonese delights in the next post…

Five years down and I’m still impressed!Yes, it’s been five years since I took my first walking tour of the fabulous Far Eastern University Campus conducted by the Heritage Conservation Society. I’ve been raving about it until recently. Well, I decided to check it out once more yesterday and joined a tour, this time by the Museum Foundation of the Philippines.

I’ll have the pictures speak for themselves.

To start-off, a bird’s eye view of the FEU Campus and the University belt of Manila in the University’s spanking new 9-storey East Asia College Building…

university belt roof tops

Then it was off to the Administration building, a 1940’s (?) Art-Deco structure which forms one face of the quadrangle. Streamlined Chic.

facade 1

And the lobby, you just gotta love Deco-esque interplay of geometry and colors (official green and gold of course!) Very simple yet it works.

FEU lobby

A frieze by Italian sculputor Monti depicting the Chinese arrival (followed by Spanish and American) to the country. Nice touch.

Chinese Frieze

End of the line and up via the Deco elevators of the building.


Oh, and you do the speak the King’s language do you? (Spell ‘epol’….)

English zone

Out the quadrangle and this time and on to National Artist Vicente Manansala’s sculptures. A rare treat indeed since the guy was a painter and rarely did sculptures.

Manansala sculptures

The chapel main altar and this time to National Artist Botong Francisco’s inspiring artworks…now that’s class!


An outstanding mural rendition of the Catholic Stations of the Cross….wonderful! But needs cleaning though…

stations of the cross

Back inside one one of the buildings. Climbing stairs = six-pack abs?? How inspiring!

stair sign

In any case, even if it didnt deliver as promised, the stairs of FEU are a delight to climb….see? Art-Deco to the last detail!

stair sculpture 4

The founder and builders really took a step further to imprint the Tamaraw pride to its students. This banister reads FEU!

stair sculpture 3

With stairs such as these, who’d want to use the elevator???

stair sculpture

Everything is a piece of sculpture!

stair sculpture 2

My personal favorite!

stair sculputure 3

This is the library. A funky mix of 1950’s tables(in tropical hard woods no less!) and circa Y2K furnishings! Ahh…the joys of reading….


The fully-restored theater and its ‘fools the eye’ detail that, again, proclaims FEU!


My favorite mural at the entrance to the theater. It’s called ‘Empowering the Youth’ and is a stunning stylized (Art-Deco of course!) representation that was meant to inspire the youth. Did it? I don’t know but it certainly inspired me and some of the tour participants!

art deco mural

The grand finale…a sweeping view of the huge(and recently restored!) FEU quadrangle from the rostrum outside the theater!


A truly awesome way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon…my hat’s off to the FEU management and personnel for sharing your jewel taking the Tamaraw pride to the next level!

That UNESCO Award was truly worth every bit!

baby tomb

Cemetery Musings

Ok, so it may not be everybody’s ideal walking rendezvous but truth be told, I find cemeteries to be one of those eerily fascinating places to be. Let me cite the reasons:

1. A well-tended cemetery is always a peaceful haunt. Really.

2. Cemeteries are a class unto themselves. I mean the high class and the lower end.
You know when they say that death is life’s great leveller? Well, scroll down and think again…

3. Cemeteries are oversized architectural story books. And this is the type that you’d appreciate when there’s daylight as opposed to bedtime.

Now, a great city worth its salt has to have a famous cemetery. Think Paris and Pere la Chaise, Washington D.C. and Arlington, Prague and the Jewish Cemetery. Of course here in Manila, one would immediately think of the American Memorial Cemetery in Fort Bonifacio or her equally famous sister, the Chinese Cemetery in the district of Sta. Cruz.

One lazy Sunday, I had time to kill before starting Mounds, Magnates and Mausoluems! and found myself within the confines of La Loma Catholic cemetery,the oldest among the 3 in the area (the Chinese and the North) and probally in the whole of Manila too.

What a treasure trove! Now, if you fancy historic architecture (well,the funerary variety that is) in their original setting, then head towards the La Loma Catholic Cemetery.

I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

cacho family mausoleum Cacho family mausoleum

The first big mausoleum that greets you, from the Cacho family (of publishers?) in the Art-Deco style. Can’t miss that oversized gaurdian angel.

Barredo 3 Barredo 2

Bless this favorite piece! Cute and classic Deco in all sides, from the Barredo family.

Mayorlago Santos Oriol2

Loco over Deco! The Mayorlago-Santos mausoleum, done no less by the premiere, Pre-War marble works company in the Philippines- Oriol builders- fancy!

kahn family kahn family Oriol1

The Kahn family mausoleum, gorgeous for its geometric and calligraphic simplicity. Also done by Oriol.

Gonzales-Mondragon Oriol3

Deco in all its purity at the Gonzales-Mondragon plot. Note the stylized Egypitian column so typical an Art-Deco motif in the 1920’s.

Araneta Zaragoza Araneta- Bustamante

We are family…. The Araneta Deco sisters.

Art-Deco Plot

To cap off our Deco parade, this black-and-white streamlined plot!

Lim Family 2 Lim Family

Now, let’s move on and do Neo-Gothic this time…I give you, the Lim family mausoleum.


Stylized gothic…courtesy of the Pamintuan Family.

Neo Gothic

Twin gothic (horror?) and shades of Paris’ Pere Lachaise…?


The end of the line….alas, the dead are not spared from the perils of the ‘leaving’, this sign gives a stern warning to those who dare steal the dead’s wordly goods – crosses or what have you- for they, their parents, family, wife or children will certainly be punished by the thunderous wrath of God (death!)

Now that’s scary.

When people want to have their historical fix in Manila, the first thing that comes to mind is the walled city of Intramuros.And rightly so, for Intramuros is Manila’s innermost sanctum – the place where the beginnings of the city was established. However, it’s not as old as what most people like to think.

Except for the San Agustin Church and parts of the walls, practically the whole of Intramuros is Post WWII Imeldific kitsch. If you want a glimpse (and smell!) of the real thing, check out San Nicolas district.

San Nicolas

For the armchair-traveller, San Nicolas is a part of the third district of the city of Manila. Long overshadowed by her bigger and brasher big brother (Binondo aka ‘Chinatown’ ) , parts of San Nicolas is simply known to many as Divisoria- the biggest flea market in town.

Now, unlike the Manila’s other districts, San Nicolas carries no national lore of epic proportions like those we equate with Intramuros (the old capital) and Binondo (the financial hub), instead it has slumbered in obscurity for ithe last 400 years of its existence.

To this walker’s delight(!)

In San Nicolas we have what is probally Manila’s single largest concentration of Period houses and mind you, not the ‘old-new’ (bagong-luma) wannabe architecture that characterizes much of Intramuros. This is as true as it can get.

Elcano Trio

On a personal note, I can honnestly say this district is special, not just for every true-blue, heritage-loving ManileƱo but personally for this walker who, as a child, spent his early years amidst these beautiful wooden houses, playing on the very streets while sucking in the atmosphere of commerce, dark esteros and the overpowering smell of onions.

These days, the historic properties are still there. Though diminished substantially, they still provide a backdrop of what old Manila looked, felt and smelled like in the days of our ancestors.
What revolutions, earthquakes and a world war didnt destroy, our 21st century cavalier attitude eventually will. It’s a conststant battle between the old and new, commerce and culture, development and destruction, why can’t we get these acts together?

Madrid house

It’s only a matter of time before San Nicolas looses her special quality and turns into another concrete ,streamlined , homogenised Makati. Or Alabang. Or Whatever.

But before she does, let’s give her a last look. In her last gasp.

click here.

June 20, 2005
Lutong Macao.

No, it's not something that's tasty at all.

In Filipino parlance, 'Lutong Macao' means something thats fishy or rigged. However, I'd like to think more of it than just that.

Macao (or Macau) is a charming anachronism. It's a jazzed-up piece of 16th-century Iberian Europe plopped right smack in the middle of Southern China and overlooking one of the most modern cities in the world, Hong Kong.

I have been to the place twice before but this, my third visit, just validated the reasons on why I love the place so much and never get tired of returning back.

No, Im not a serious gambler. I go there primarily to soak in the architecture.

Macanese Delight!

Like Rome, Macao is a city of seven hills. And like Manila, Macao (at first glance) is a Latino chop suey with Iberian (specifically Portuguese) inspired buildings to match her Chinese roots. Think old Binondo with pastel colored buildings.

But the difference ends in how each city value their architectural legacies. While Manila is slowly – and sadly- erasing whatever remains of her Hispanic past, Macao has pragmatically embraced her dual Sino-Portuguese legacy and is now reaping in from the fruits of heritage conservation.

A walk down Macao's time-worn cobbles reveals something why travellers ( like this fanatic!) make the effort to hop in the ferry from H.K. and spend some time in this former Portuguese enclave. Well, of course there are the casinos – and theyre getting bigger and brasher by the way – but side-by-side the Las Vegas glitz is the largest collection of Portuguese colonial architecture to be found anywhere in China.

Sao Domingo Church

Pastel colored churches such as Sao Domingo (pictured) recall the days when Catholic missionaries from afar where moving heaven and earth to convert the biggest market in the world. Well, the friars did not suceed but at least they left behind a string of charming baroque churches along the coast of China. And the Macanese, ever steadfast in keeping their identities intact ; restores these structures, turns a part of it into a museum all to the delight of history freaks like this blogger!

Ice Cream House

Heritage conservation is the byword in Macao these days. Historic architecture, be it a colonial building, a Chinese temple, plazas, theaters and even obscure little shrines (no kidding!) are all being spruced up and given a new lease of life in sync with our 21st century needs.

Macau Government Office

These unique architectural ensemble has now caught UNESCO's attention and the organization is now eyeing a select group of buildings to be included to into the prestigious World Heritage List. Macao is living example that historic buildings are not just for antique salvaging but can be an asset to the community at the same time be economically-viable in the 21st century (well of course its hard to compete with a 20-storey condominium).

When will the mayor of ManiLA (or owners of historic properties in the city) ever realize this?

Wohoo! Another addition to my five seconds of fame..now I have ten! ;op Thank you Mr. Villalon!

Pride of Place
Culture for tourists, not for Filipinos
By Augusto Villalon

Inquirer News Service

Editor’s Note: Published on page C1 of the June 6, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

Baclayon Church, Bohol

MANY Filipinos and the local tourism industry remain boxed into the old “packaged tourism destination mode,” an approach that herds tourists into buses, takes them from airport to beach resort, provides a few hours’ visit to selected “tourism destinations” that are quick pops to cultural sites or monuments, leading to a dinner-show of “native” songs and dances.

Everything is packaged, from transportation, accommodation and Philippine culture.

The tourism “destination” approach crafted sites packaged with that “WOW” tourist appeal. The destinations follow a pattern. Places are decked out in fiesta atmosphere where open-air stages present cultural shows regularly and where a network of souvenir and food stalls packed along both sides of pedestrian streets compete for attention and sales.

Commercial and artificial, the destinations fail to express what is true in Filipino culture. Nor do they offer a realistic view of both Filipino history and way of life.

Nevertheless, the “tourist destination” image persists. Many Philippine locations try to concoct either their own versions or launch tourism events. A few have succeeded.

One of the most popular festivals in the country, the “Sinulog” of Cebu, based on a local religious ritual once little-known outside the city, was launched in the early 1980’s to boost the city’s tourism industry. Twenty years later, the festival has become such a success that people think it is a centuries-old tradition.

The province of Bohol, on the other hand, took stock of its natural and cultural assets-pristine rivers and beaches, whale and dolphin reserves, colonial towns, old churches with their treasures and religious traditions still intact, the internationally acclaimed Loboc Children’s Choir, local craft and cuisine, and other resources.

The government-religious-private sector cooperation preserved the provincial heritage, promoting the uniqueness of Bohol as the basis for an extremely successful community-based tourism program.

To achieve the increased numbers of foreign arrivals has always been the government target, claiming to promote Philippines as a cultural tourism destination. Still lacking are more programs to document and preserve vanishing traditions and built heritage, for instance, to show that cultural revival and preservation is for the Filipino and not for tourism dollars.

Activities in the cultural area could learn from the Bohol cultural experience whose primary aim was to preserve the unique heritage of the province for the benefit of local residents. Tourism grew as a secondary benefit of the successful cultural preservation program.

The cultural sector has made up for the lack of cultural tourism activities with a number of creative, local-level programs aimed at establishing awareness that preserving cultural heritage should be primarily for improving the quality of life of Filipino communities and not just for tourist consumption.

Historically correct tours

Organizations such as the Committee on Monuments and Sites of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and KaiVigan have commissioned historically correct tour guide scripts and walking tour maps for Intramuros and Vigan. They have also trained locals as guides.

The Bohol Arts and Cultural Heritage Council went a step beyond historical research. It actually mapped out a walking tour of Tagbilaran and environs.

The programs have paid off. Vigan and Bohol are popular destinations primarily visited by local tourists. Both have successful tourism programs based on the conservation of their heritage that are run by the local community.

An unexpected phenomenon in heritage-based cultural tourism grew out of a walking tour project established by the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS). As an activity for stimulating heritage awareness, the HCS organized weekly walks in Manila heritage districts. First conducted by professors or cultural experts, young guides eventually took over the activity.

The young guides enlivened historical fact with humor, communicated passion for urban built heritage and commitment to its preservation, made heritage alive with costumes, anecdotes, folk history and food that related to different historic quarters in the city.

Their lively walks gained instant popularity. Manilenos and expatriate residents stopped taking Manila for granted, rediscovered the wealth of texture in the city and became aware of the need for conservation.

The two leading Manila streetwalkers are Carlos Celdran and Ivan ManDy whose tours are booked solid. They have become cult heroes, darlings of local and international media.

The Time (Asia) Magazine featured Celdran recently: “If you take time to explore it, Manila pays rich dividends. One of the best ways to get to know the city is through the half-day walking tours given by the garrulous Carlos Celdran… [who] offers up rich narratives that are by turns gossipy (his account of Imelda Marcos’ rise and fall is hilarious) and compelling (the description of a bombed-out Manila, at the end of World War II, is unforgettable). They’re also filled with the kind of insight that only a native raconteur can provide.”

Tours led by Celdran and ManDy change perceptions and alter perspectives. “I can’t change the way Manila looks,” Celdran admits. “But I can change the way you look at Manila.”

Personalized tours are quickly becoming a new trend in Manila and other Philippine cities, giving the lesson that it is easier to change tourism perceptions from the ground up.

Local individuals, rather than the government, now provide increasingly viable models for community-based tourism programs, causing a shift in the cultural tourism paradigm.

In time, hopefully the new vision could evolve into a primary activity in the country’s tourism program, one that instills a missing pride of place in the Filipino and gives the tourist a personal contact with Filipino culture.

Heritage watch

Carlos Celdran will introduce you to his idiosyncratic, vibrant, and surprising Manila. E-mail celdrantours@hotmail.com or http://www.cendrantours.blogspot.com Ivan ManDy tours you around the Chinese Cemetery in La Loma and makes Tsinoy taste come alive with food tours through Binondo. Visit http://www.oldmanilawalks.blogspot.com/

E-mail afvillalon@hotmail.com

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