Thursday, February 11, 2010

Prelude to Malaysia

As Vietnam gears up for its New Year's festivities, I am heading out. In Hanoi, the signs of Tết are everywhere - giant kumquat and peach trees on the backs of motorbikes, calligraphers lining the street beside the Temple of Literature - and part of me is sorry to be leaving during the holiday season. But it's exactly nine months to the day since I arrived, and I am as anxious for a sense of perspective on Vietnam as I am for a break from it.

The impetus to leave Vietnam is less of a drive on this trip than my curiosity to discover someplace new. In all the time I've been in Asia, I have yet to set foot in Malaysia and Singapore. The names alone conjure up exotic images of Dutch spice traders, bejeweled sultans, rogue pirates and galleons of the British Empire plying the Straits of Malacca. Alongside these histories, these countries also present parallel visions of modern Asia's economic miracle: Malaysia's Petronas Towers symbolizing the audacity of a modern autocrat's drive to place his tiny country on the global stage, and futuristic Singapore, also the scion of a modern autocrat, providing a vision of cleanliness, education, order, and wealth that much of the world continues to aspire toward.

Throughout the next 18 days I hope to explore the food, history, and politics of this region. My itinerary starts in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's major city with a population of just under two million. From there, it's down to Melaka, the former center of the Dutch spice trade, and then on to the shining city state of Singapore. From Singapore I will take a short flight to Penang, which Time Magazine's Asia edition voted as having the best street food in all of Asia (let that sink in for a minute), before winding my way back down to KL.

My travel companion for part of this journey is Hương, who my astute readers will by now recognize is more than my housing agent and cooking teacher. I am excited to see Malaysia and Singapore through her eyes, the eyes of a well-educated modern Hanoian who is experiencing her first foreign travel. I believe most Vietnamese, viewing their own country, see progress; considering Vietnam's 20th century history, it's hard not to. But what I think will be impressed upon her will be a sense of just how far Vietnam still needs to go in its efforts to become a developed nation. She and I will be together as far as Singapore; Penang I will visit on my own.

I have two main areas of interest driving me on this trip. The first is political; the second, predictably, centers on my belly.

Politically, I am curious about Malaysia's Dr. Mahathir Mohammed and Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew. The modernity of both countries bears one thing in common: they are products of the egos of two brilliant and autocratic men. Singapore, with no natural resources and few assets beyond an educated labor force, exploded from 1965 to 1990 into one of Asia's economic miracles under the single-party rule of Lee Kuan Yew's PAP. Likewise, Dr. Mahathir Malaysia took only 20 years to be transformed from a typical third-world export-based economy to one firmly rooted in manufacturing and trade. In both cases, was the price paid, in terms of political freedoms, worth the wealth? What do the locals think? What unintended legacies have they left? These are things I wish to know.

As for food, I am interested in all the cuisines of this richly multicultural region, but I am particularly anxious to sample Peranakan/Nonya food. Beginning in the 15th century, Chinese immigrants began settling in Malaysia and Singapore, intermarrying with local Malays. 500 years later, their descendents are a fascinating blend of both cultures. This blend – variously called Peranakan, Baba, Nonya, Nyonya, or Straits Chinese – is particularly expressed in their cuisine, which blends Chinese cooking styles with Malay ingredients. It has been called the original fusion cuisine.

To be sure, leaving Vietnam at this time of the year is not easy, but I have worlds to discover and food to eat, and look forward to sharing my impressions as they emerge.


  1. thanks .. and looking forward to more... enjoy the ride which I know you will and sharing your inspiring insights brightens this incredible medium

  2. Nonya Laksa and Chendol, don't miss out on the Indian offerings too, Thosai and teh tarik for breakfast is hard to beat. Enjoy New Year.

  3. Hal,

    On your way from Penang to KL, Drop in Ipoh, It has excellent food and a nice slow pace to it. Its not too touristy as well. Check this out

  4. Hi! I'm Trung from EAS2 class. I am little bit sad to know that you are leaving Vietnam during this special time. But I know you should go to Malaysia and Singapore to experience new things. The world is so large and we cannot stay in only one place. What you wrote above also makes me eager for going to these countries someday. And I also wonder about what you think about Vietnam's politics. Hope to see you again soon, my dear evil teacher!