Phan Thiet – Beach, Spa and Fish Sauce

Christian Science Monitor, 28 April 2010

In Normandy, a traveler might stop to pick up a few rounds of Camembert. In Spain, you can nibble on delicious Iberian acorn ham while standing in a forest of suspended hams at a Seville charcuterie. In Vietnam, the specialty is nuoc mam, and I was keen to sample some of this highly prized fish sauce in its purest form. My quest took me to Phan Thiet, a beach town located about 125 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. In recent years, this picturesque area has been popularized as one of Asia’s top kite-surfing destinations. But the region’s main industry – fishing and the manufacture of fish sauce – is still going strong.

The distinct – and stinky – brown liquid forms the foundation of the country’s rich and varied cuisine and is a fixture at almost every meal. Nuoc mam can be used at any stage of the cooking process – as a marinade for meat or a stock base and it can be added directly to a dish for flavor or diluted to create a light dipping sauce. It’s one of Vietnam’s proudest culinary traditions. There are about 600 nuoc mam factories of varying sizes in Binh Thuan Province, which produce a combined total of 9-1/2 million gallons of the pungent sauce a year. Phan Thiet and the nearby town of Mui Ne are considered leading sources, and an excursion to one of the local factories is an interesting, albeit overwhelming, sensory experience.

At Phan Thiet’s Fish Sauce Joint Stock Co. (FISACO), which produces more than 4 million gallons of nuoc mam a year under four brand names, curious gastronomes are offered a tour to see the process and sample some of the end products. As we stood among wooden barrels surrounded by an assortment of bottles, the aroma was not unpleasant: rich, acrid, and meaty, reminiscent of Worcestershire sauce and Bovril, the British meat extract. The caramel-colored liquid tasted salty and a bit like salmon. When used as dip, marinade, or sauce base, nuoc mam is commonly mixed with lime juice, water, and sugar. “Anchovies or salmon are best, but you can use pretty much any fish [in making the sauce],” explained the tour guide. “We collect ours from the port or market as soon as the fishermen dock every morning. The fast option is to put fish into cylindrical 30-ton-capacity wooden tanks at a ratio of 10 [parts] fish to 4 [parts] salt, or 3 [parts] fish to 1 [of] salt,” he continued. “Runoff from the fish is removed through a hole in the bottom of the tank, and put through the tank again and again. Within five days, we can take the first fish sauce.” Once the first sauce has been decanted, manufacturers will add more salt and water to produce another 16 gallons of a lower-grade product. “The other, more traditional method,” our guide explained, “is to layer fish sauce and salt in jars under the sun and wait for three months while natural hydrolysis occurs.”

This method has been used by fishing families in Binh Thuan Province for generations. Most don’t offer tours, but just mentioning my interest at a beachfront cafe was enough to secure an invitation to the nuoc mam shop belonging to the uncle of a staff member. After a short motorbike ride, I found myself in a shed along the main stretch of Mui Ne beach. Under the shade of a corrugated iron roof fringed by coconut trees, a girl squatted over a collection of bowls . Catching sight of us, she waved cheerily and gestured toward the yard out back, where immense clay jars were arranged in three haphazard rows under the midday sun. Some were topped with bamboo lids, some capped with recycled rubber tires, and all were elevated off the ground on chunks of brick. Each jar contained a mixture of rotting, fermenting fish that could singe nose hair at 100 paces.

“It’s very important to keep the temperature constantly high,” explained my waitress-cum-tour guide Nhu. “A higher temperature means better fish sauce. After a few months, you draw the nuoc mam off and filter it. Each of these jars has a capacity of 400 liters [106 gallons], and the first tapping will give 100 liters [26 gallons] of premium nuoc mam.” I decided to go in search of some of Phan Thiet’s more pleasurable aromas. About 22 miles south of the FISACO factory, I found the perfect restorative for my sense of smell. At Princess d’Annam Resort, the villas sit among sprawling gardens designed by Alan Carle, who also is responsible for the Ginger Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens I headed for the resort’s two-story, U-shaped spa, which is set right on the oceanfront. The spa manager suggested I enjoy a hot herbal jacuzzi to help soak away the stink of my day at the factory, and within minutes I was sinking beneath hot waters that bubbled with the aroma of ginger and lemon grass. Next came a deliciously cooling peppermint body scrub that blended leaves just plucked from the resort’s herb gardens. Then I enjoyed a sweet mango body wrap. My day had taken my nose from one extreme to the other, and left me feeling as though I had truly experienced the essence of Phan Thiet. How often can you say that after a single day’s exploration of a new destination?

Iron Man 2 – Cool, cool, cool

First of all, for those who haven’t watched the movie yet, don’t worry about reading this, at I will not be a spoiler. I am a movie lover, and like all mover lovers, I treasure the feeling of exploring the movie in your own way with no prejudice and no prior warning about the plot. That will significantly reduce the joy of the experience. So, I try to make this review as constructive as possible with as little revelation of the plot as possible. 😀

First of all, Iron Man 2 is a cool movie. It may not be as intense as The Dark Knight, not as fast paced as Mission Impossible, but in terms of coolness, it rivals the great action movies of its time, and Robert Downey Jr., with his charm and natural acting skill, has contributed a large part to that.

With the big shadow of the first movie, I can imagine the stress the production team had to bear. However, they were not drown, but got out alive and kicking hard. The movie was grander in scale and scope (with 2 Iron Men fighting alongside each other), but the fine details were still finely polished with great care. I love the wry humor embedded into the movie here and there, not too many as to sidetrack the plot, but just enough to make it lovely and give audience some well deserved moments to laugh, cheer, and even clap hands if they want to (although that seems scarce in Singapore cinemas. The only time I saw that was probably during the screening of This Is It)

Back to coolness, Robert seems to get cooler and cooler, but I think the coolest part of the movie is the process in which innovation took place under immense stress, and produced wonderful results. True to that spirit, in this movie, we have another chance to visit Tony’s dream lab, with his dream computers and his cool way of doing research and innovation (I bet all the researchers in the world have once dreamed of such a lab indeed :P)

The second cool thing about this movie is that Tony is a man, a real man, with all characteristics of a man. We have been too fed up with superheroes that are so super they got cut off from the real world and become something unreal. Tony is different. He is every bit as human as you and I, with sadness, stress, down moments, craziness and happiness, and that helps to connect us with the movie even more.

The third cool thing here is that this time, Tony does not have to work alone anymore. He has his comrade, his brother in arms, and that helps add depth, facets and complexity to the plot.

Speaking about action movie, we can never forget the villains. After all, a good villain helps bring the movie to new height (Thing of The Joker and his role in The Dark Knight). This time, Tony has a competitive villain to fight against, a match for his skills and talents, who is almost on par with him and knows about him very well.

Last but not least is the appearance of Scarlett as the assistant turned spy called Black Widow. She plays quite a minor role here, but that may be a prelude to a more meaty role in the third movie. Anyway, even with her limited screen time, she managed to capture attention, with her slick action scenes, smooth moves, charming beauty and huge sex appeal, especially in flowing red hair and that tight, figure hugging suit 🙂

After all, we got to see Gwyneth again, and most probably the last time in this franchise. I have read somewhere that she will not be appearing in subsequent Iron Man movies. Well, we will miss her, but not too much, given the fact that Tony has found such a helpful assistant cum bodyguard, and that her role is still quite minor, albeit having been upgraded in terms of level of importance in this part. She is still an assistant nonetheless, and she has done it well, so I have no complaint about her part, although the chemistry between her and her boss could have been emphasized a little bit more.

So, done with the review. What are you waiting for? Go, grab ticket, and watch it for yourself, and you will love it. 😉

Developers set sights on Vietnam gambling strip

So, finally Vietnam has decided to take the bold step of building an integrated resort, following the footstep of her neighbor Singapore. Bold, and risky, but good and encouraging move indeed. Once built and into operation, it will be a boost to the country’s GDP, like what the 2 resorts will do for the economy of Singapore starting from now. Hopefully Vietnam will not be too late, and the government will not be too restrictive on access to the casinos, or it will not help so much. From the design, it looks great. Really looking forward to it, while closely watching what the Singapore resorts will benefit Singapore. 😀

Associated Press 21 April 2010

A Canadian development group, backed by Philip Falcone’s Harbinger Capital Partners, has appointed an MGM Mirage executive to run the first Las Vegas-style casino in Vietnam, in the latest sign of gaming expansion in Asia. Vietnam has been targeted by developers looking to replicate the success of Macao, which attracted billions of dollars of investment from the casino industry. Vietnam has only issued one gaming licence and plans to make a resort casino the centrepiece of the $4.2bn Ho Tram strip resort complex on beachfront land 130 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City.

Asian Coast Development Limited of Canada won the licence and has appointed Lloyd Nathan, the president of MGM Mirage global gaming development, as chief executive. ACDL and MGM Mirage have struck a deal to name the new property the MGM Grand Ho Tram. “The Ho Tram project represents one of the most compelling investment opportunities in the integrated casino resort industry,” said Mr Falcone, chief executive of Harbinger, which is ACDL’s largest investor.

Mr Nathan has led MGM Mirage’s overseas efforts during a period of international expansion for the group and other gaming operators. “The Ho Tram Strip is set to become the pre-eminent gaming and leisure destination in south-east Asia,” he said, adding that Vietnam was developing a “positive regulatory framework and competitive tax structure”. Jean Chrétien, the former Canadian prime minister, and an adviser of ACDL, played a key role in putting the Vietnam project together, Mr Nathan said.

Like its rivals, MGM Mirage,has been keen to find new international markets to sustain its growth after the recession and the economic slowdown hit returns in its home US market. The group went into partnership with Pansy Ho, daughter of Chinese gaming tycoon Stanley Ho, when it invested in a Macao casino. Macao has grown rapidly and is now the world’s biggest single casino gaming market. But MGM Mirage recently pulled out of Atlantic City following a damaging report by the New Jersey Gaming Board, in which it was criticised for its links to Ms Ho. The gaming board claimed Ms Ho’s father had links to organised crime. MGM Mirage said it had “structured its business relationship with Pansy Ho to ensure the highest standards of operation and compliance with all applicable gaming laws”.

The best of Vietnamese fish sauce comes from Phu Quoc

Interesting article, and quite in-depth, given the fact that it was written by a foreigner. Reading it makes me feel curious, and want to visit Phu Quoc someday, to learn more about my country and experience the craftsmanship myself. It will be an exciting journey, I believe 🙂

The Washington Post, 21 April 2010

Old fishermen once downed a cupful to keep warm when venturing out to sea. Divers drank it before plunging into deep, cold waters. Many believe the best kind comes from only one island, where it is aged in decades-old barrels of a particular type of wood. Who knew fermented fish could be so romantic? Like wine in France and olive oil in Italy, fish sauce is the prized staple of Vietnam, where it is used in soups and marinades or diluted into a sauce that accompanies foods from spring rolls to noodles. The Vietnamese have seals on their bottles to indicate quality, the highest being nuoc mam nhi, the first extraction of liquid from fish fermented in salt: extra-virgin fish sauce, if you will. And  the best of the best, as widely agreed among Vietnamese enclaves around the world, comes from Phu Quoc, a tropical island off the nation’s southwest coast. In fact, the Phu Quoc name is so coveted and abused in the fish sauce industry that local producers have been working with the World Trade Organization to protect its appellation of origin. Curious as to what made Phu Quoc fish sauce so legendary, I made my way to the fabled island this winter to taste it for myself.

Frankly, there isn’t much romantic about the Khai Hoan fish sauce factory I visited there. About 10 feet from the factory entrance, the acrid odor hit me: a dense, stifling smell, almost like rank sweat. Forging onward, I made my way into a tall room with floating rafters, underneath which stood row after row of hulking wooden vats, each with a spigot on the bottom to drain the juices. The giant barrels were filled with the amber-colored liquid, some with a crusty orange film that had settled on top. At  the factory storefront, a worker handed me a bowl of fish sauce and a straw and motioned for me to sip. A few drops filled my mouth with a pungent, robust meatiness. The flavor was rich and complex, like pure essence of cured meat compacted and liquefied. Making the sauce requires three parts fish to one part salt, a ratio common to most producers in Southeast Asia. Anchovies or other tiny fish usually are used; larger, more expensive fish such as mackerel or sardines can be substituted but result in a costlier, less profitable product. After about a week, liquid begins seeping from the fish and is drained and circulated back into the vat every day for an entire year — long enough for it to reach concentration, but not long enough for hydrosulfuric acid to appear, which would spoil the taste.

This first extraction is the highest quality, reserved for direct consumption in dips and sauces. Subsequent extractions are produced by running sea water through the vat, which results in a weaker, lower-grade product normally used for cooking. It’s a process that hails from ancient times and is not confined just to Asia. The Romans used a similarly fermented fish liquid they called garum, which appears in nearly 350 recipes in Apicius’s classical Roman cookbook, “De Re Coquinaria.” Pompeii later became famous for its production of the condiment, and even now, a fish sauce called colatura remains a specialty of Cetara, a village on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, where locals toss it with pasta and garlic. In the East, fish sauce is likely to have come from China or Vietnam as a way of preserving fish. Some speculate that the Chinese often mixed in soy beans as filler, and because more of the population in China lived away from the coast, soy beans became more common than fish, eventually leading to the soy sauce now associated with Chinese cuisine. At the factory in Phu Quoc, the workers lined up the bottles of fish sauce by gradients of color, like tea steeped to varying degrees. The darkest-colored bottle was labeled “43°N/1L” and came from the first extraction of liquid. The others bore decreasingly lower numbers — 40, 30, 20 and 15°N/L — and came from subsequent extractions, after water had been added.

It took some digging to find someone who could explain those numbers and the science behind them. But after several phone calls, a bit of networking and a flight back to Ho Chi Minh City, I found myself walking into a squat, concrete Soviet-era-style government building, where, in a classroom full of cramped desks and chairs, I finally met my fish sauce guru. “Good nuoc mam should be transparent. You should be able to see the other side of the bottle,” said Nguyen Quoc-Thiet, a researcher at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology who gave me a personal, hour-long lecture with the intensity and expertise of a sommelier. “It tastes salty at first, but the aftertaste is sweet,” he said. Nguyen comes from An Thoi, a cluster of islands on the southern tip of Phu Quoc, where his family has worked in the fish sauce industry for three generations. His grandfather began working at a friend’s factory in the ’40s, and every time he saved enough money, he bought one of the large wooden vats, hoping to some day start his own business.

The vats back then were made from a tree indigenous to Phu Quoc and were believed to impart a special flavor to the liquid, “like oak to wine,” Nguyen explained. Known as boi loi, the tree is found only on Chua, or “God,” Mountain in the Phu Quoc National Park and has become endangered and illegal to cut down. By the time Nguyen’s grandfather died, he had 100 such tanks that he bequeathed to his 10 children.

Pursuing that family legacy, Nguyen wrote his undergraduate thesis on fish sauce and went on to receive his PhD in organic chemistry. When asked about the figures measured in °N/1L on the bottles at the factory, he launched into a dense 15-minute lecture that included hand-scrawled flowcharts and molecular formulas. What the number boils down to, Nguyen explained, is the degrees of nitrogen content per liter, a figure that denotes the concentration of fish protein in each drop. While protein is solid, the process of fermentation breaks down the protein’s amino acid bonds, of which nitrogen is a main component. “Some people say we are cheating, because they can’t do it,” he said. “Maybe because it is so hot there, over 32 degrees Celsius.” Nguyen says the unique taste of Phu Quoc fish sauce comes from a combination of weather, temperature and fish. Phu Quoc producers use only a particular variety of fish called ca com (literally, “rice fish”), or the long-jawed anchovy, from the island’s surrounding waters.

The high protein content in Phu Quoc fish sauce also gives it a strong taste of umami — that much-talked-about, elusive fifth flavor insufficiently described as savoriness or earthiness. Fish sauce is thus a great flavor-enhancer, increasingly used by American chefs, who have even begun incorporating it into non-Asian dishes to add flavor when something seems to be lacking. Others use it as an easy replacement for anchovy in dishes such as Caesar salad or pasta sauces. Dean Gold, owner of the Italian restaurant Dino in Cleveland Park, said, “I use it commonly when I’m cooking sauces that have winter or canned tomatoes to give it that extra boost of flavor.” Though fish sauce isn’t widely used in Italian food, Gold says it’s sneaking in as part of the nuova cucina movement, with chefs putting a modern spin on traditional dishes. But as the global appetite for fish sauce grows, satisfying it is proving to be no easy feat. “There’s no future for nuoc mam,” Nguyen told me in Vietnam. Despite being the eldest of five siblings, Nguyen recently left the family business to become a government researcher.

With no regulations on fishing season in Vietnam, overfishing is rampant. The shortage of boi loi wood for vats forces factories to use other trees or even concrete. Larger corporations are also muscling out Phu Quoc families. Nguyen’s family factory, for example, doesn’t have a famous brand, so it sells its product to larger companies that take most of the profit. Such difficulties have led Phu Quoc’s fish sauce production to drop from 13 million to 15 million liters in 2008 to only about 8 million liters in the first 10 months of 2009. Based on those numbers, the island’s producers point out that as much as 90 percent of the fish sauce claiming to be from Phu Quoc is probably coming from somewhere else.

Phu Quoc fish sauce is also more difficult to export than other brands, as it tends to oxidize and change flavor quickly. Vietnam Airlines won’t let it on board due to its strong odor. And because of the 19-year U.S. trade embargo imposed on Vietnam since the communist takeover in 1975, most of the fish sauce on the American market these days comes from Thailand. The Phu Quoc Fish Sauce Association has voiced the need to preserve traditional methods of making its product, in addition to protecting its name. “Maybe some of us will continue my father’s business,” Nguyen said, “but not me. I have to stay here for research. They don’t need a PhD in Phu Quoc.” But given the complexity of the problem and the growing global demand, maybe they do.

Photos: Google

31 stunning Black & White photos

Black and White photography is among one of the most striking forms. Photos sans color require an enhanced use of lighting, shadows, and subject focus. Black and white photography brings out details usually overlooked in standard color photos. Subject studies is the discipline of concentration on one particular subject. Not quite still-lifes, though they share some similar qualities, subject studies focus on one particular object in view.

Take a look below for 31 stunning black and white subject study photos on Imagekind.

Pear in Porcelain by Dawn LeBlanc

Pear in Porcelain by Dawn LeBlanc

Baby´s got Back by Andreas Stridsberg

Baby´s got Back by Andreas Stridsberg

 Ready to Bloom by Tim Zeipekis

Ready to Bloom by Tim Zeipekis

Resilience by Ari Bixhorn

Resilience by Ari Bixhorn

 Mount Rainer by Frank Melchior

Mount Rainer by Frank Melchior

Feather Study by Keith Dotson

Feather Study by Keith Dotson

Cotton-top Tamarin by Mihkel Maripuu

Cotton-top Tamarin by Mihkel Maripuu

salute to the sun by Antje Bormann

salute to the sun by Antje Bormann

Beach Ballerina by Nina Bradica

Beach Ballerina by Nina Bradica

Subtle by Terry Shuck

Subtle by Terry Shuck

Lonely Tree on a Barren Hill by Keith Dotson

Lonely Tree on a Barren Hill by Keith Dotson

Cool Chick by Dapixara Black White Photography

Cool Chick by Dapixara Black White Photography

Column by Jean-Francois Dupuis

Column by Jean-Francois Dupuis

Flower on My Bedside Table by Ricardo Segovia

Flower on My Bedside Table by Ricardo Segovia

 Pelican Model Behaviour II by Diana Claxton

Pelican Model Behaviour II by Diana Claxton

Egret by Scott Hansen

Egret by Scott Hansen

You said you loved me by Anna Theodora

You said you loved me by Anna Theodora

Elk Crossing by Santomarco Photography

Elk Crossing by Santomarco Photography

End of the pier by David King

End of the pier by David King

Sad Labrador by Justin Paget

Sad Labrador by Justin Paget

The Wait by Maggie Dee

The Wait by Maggie Dee

Giants Ring, Belfast by Chris McKeown

Giants Ring, Belfast by Chris McKeown

Wellington by Ben Ryan

Wellington by Ben Ryan

Calla Lily by Chris Anderson

Calla Lily by Chris Anderson

The Will of the King by Larry Bohlin

The Will of the King by Larry Bohlin

Stardust I by Gigja Einarsdottir

Stardust I by Gigja Einarsdottir

Wet Shaking Labrador by Justin Paget

Wet Shaking Labrador by Justin Paget

 My Lost Love by Lynsey Weatherspoon

My Lost Love by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Hunter from the Deep by Myles Teo

Hunter from the Deep by Myles Teo

old elephant, amboseli national park, kenya by Konstantin Kalishko

old elephant, amboseli national park, kenya by Konstantin Kalishko

Wild Horses by Heather Rivet

Wild Horses by Heather Rivet


How to train your dragon – Lovely ;)

So, finally, after quite a lot of hits and misses, DreamWorks have done it right, again. The movie is cute, lovely, exciting to watch, and captivating until the very end. The plot is not new, not original, but it is presented in a very interesting way, with beautiful animated characters. Even the beasts look cute enough for a kiss on their cheeks 🙂

The movie revolves around the Vikings and their struggle against the fearful dragons. Having to share the island with a lot of dragons of all kinds, it’s important for them to be on guard at all times and to prepare themselves with necessary training to self defend against the beasts. Luckily for them, they are led by a strong leader who knows what has to be done to keep them safe on the island.

Training starts when the kids are strong enough to hold their weapons. The best in the class will become a true Viking and is given the privilege to fight and kill a dragon.

However, Hiccup, the leader’s son, who was supposed to be the best, turned out to be a disaster, with his poor health, lack of movement control and  slender build. However, he is very determined to prove himself useful and not a disgrace to his leader father.

In a twist of fate, his weapon hit the fearsome Night Fury, the only dragon that has not been seen or found or killed, as it is too fast, too strong and too smart, and everything is never the same again.

He traced and found the wounded beast, but his compassion took over, and Hiccup and the beast, which he called Toothless on the fact that it can control whether to show or hide its teeth, become friend and comrade in battle. He feeds the dragon, fixes its broken tail and even teaches it to fly high again.

(This is the magical moment when the beast accepts the man and the become friends, not enemies)

To tell the truth, when I saw the trailer of the movie, I was not very impressed. It was a bit too cartoonist, the black dragon looked ugly, and I was afraid it would be something like Bee Story (A massive failure, in my opinion). However, after some friends watched and recommended, we decided to give it a try, and it was worth more than that. Toothless is very charming and lovely, and quite like my cat Mimi, with big, round, yellow eyes and flat face 🙂 It also has some behaviors and display of affection that makes me think about Mimi, such as its love to be stroked, touched on it head, padded, caressed and loved. And because we love our Mimi so much, it’s really natural that we quickly fell in love with Toothless also. It was just like a cat or a dog in the form of a dragon.

Of course, the movie will be very boring if it stops there. Luckily it did not. There were some intense moments, when the dragon fought alongside the man, and some touching moments when the man and the beasts went all out for each other. But for those who are in tears easily, I assure you that you will leave the cinema happy and comfortable, and the ending, though not perfect, tends to achieve perfection in its own way.

(This scene relives in me the magical moment of Aladdin when the poor guy and the princess flew around the world on the magic carpet)

This movie may not go into history, but I believe it will be loved, and remembered by many, and not just children alone.

Now, let’s take a look at the dragons featured in the movie

And the cast 😀

The secret world of Vietnamese workers in Russia

This story may not be new to insiders, yet outsiders may find it quite shocking and surprising. I myself find it normal. There are always risks, whatever you do and wherever you go. I feel happy that I am here, working and living in a modern city state, earning enough for a living and some savings for future days, and be exposed to the world while still keeping a deep root of Vietnamese through my network of friends and acquaintances, both online and in real life 🙂

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BBC, 4 April 2010

Three years ago, Cuong left his wife and two children in Vietnam and went to Russia in search of a job. The young man from Hai Duong province thought he could make a good living as a garment factory worker. Like many other Vietnamese illegal workers, he even changed his name – Cuong is an assumed identity – in order to avoid being detected and thrown out of the former communist state. Vietnam has a rapidly growing economy, but many people still go and work in Russia, whose ties with the South East Asian nation date back to the Cold War era. Cuong is one of thousands of Vietnamese who have left the heat of the countryside for the Russian cold to become “ghost workers” – people who are employed in factories that are not registered and do not pay taxes. Now, three years after arriving, Cuong’s dream of making lots of money has become a nightmare. It all started when he could not find work in Moscow, so had to travel to Tula 200km (125 miles) away to find a job. Cuong says from there everything went downhill.
“I had to work 20 hours a day to make just over $30 (£19),” he says. Despite working day and night, Cuong soon ended up in financial trouble because he could not earn enough money to make ends meet. “Within a few months I was in the red by more than $165.” He says his passport was confiscated by the owner and foreman to prevent him and other workers from leaving. Eventually Cuong managed to escape and found another job in a Russian construction company. Just as things began to pick up the owner of the firm withheld several months of his salary for no reason. Today Cuong is worse off than when he first arrived. He is desperate to go back to Vietnam because his mother has been diagnosed with cancer and his wife is raising their two daughters without any help from him.

Under Russian law migrant workers like Cuong and the companies they work for do not actually exist. Critics say this means employees can easily be exploited. Some factory owners told me they survive by paying bribes to rogue Russian police, tax officials and people in charge of overseeing foreign visitors. Working in these invisible factories is very risky because it is illegal and as some workers told me, they over-stay their visas and live in constant fear of being deported. Russian law bars deportees from returning for five years. But people have found ways around the system. Some workers explained that with a certain amount of money, they bought new passports with new names to come back and earn more dollars.Some Vietnamese told me, that despite the dangers, they have made money that they would not dream of earning back home.

Thanh, a young woman, comes from the same province as Cuong. She returned to Moscow for the second time in 2006. She admits that there are many pitfalls, but has absolutely no regrets. “I am lucky to have a good employer. Work is hard but I make enough to make it worthwhile.” Thanh works 12-14 hours a day in a “ghost” factory just outside Moscow and earns $700-800 a month. She does not spend any money on rent because she sleeps at the factory for free. Thanh fell in love with a Vietnamese man in the same factory. They went home to get married and returned to Russia under the names they have now. She is now seven months pregnant, but her bump is still tiny – she says the long work hours have probably taken their toll on the baby’s development. The couple have already decided to return to Vietnam for the baby’s birth. They say they are prepared to take the risk because it is too expensive to deliver the child in Moscow. Once the baby is born they will go back to Russia with their new baby and new names.

However some, like Cuong, cannot wait to get out of Russia. He obtained a document from the Vietnamese embassy in Moscow which will allow him to travel back home – a new passport is too costly. His hopes of making a living have been well and truly dashed and now he just wants to be with his family in Vietnam. The only problem is he is stranded in Russia because he does not have the plane fare to go home, and he cannot leave until his family sends the money for the flight.

Clash of the Titans – Hype and Reality

This is arguably one of the most anticipated movies of the year, and also one of the best publicized and advertised movies as well. Everywhere you go, you can see something about the movie. There are posters of the movie at the MRT station, on the streets, in shopping malls. You name it, they have reached it. Therefore, there is little wonder why people are flocking the cinemas to watch it, especially because it was released during the Easter long weekend, which proved even more strategic and well planned.

However, after watching the movie, you may, like me, feel very disappointed. Despite all the hypes, the movie itself was just simply normal. The plot was simple, borrowed from a few Greek myths, and combined together the Hollywood style, so nothing was original, and nothing was the same as the books and stories anymore. Yes, we have Perseus, the son of Zeus, but instead of marrying Andromeda, the princess whom he saved from the sea monster, he seemed to get together with his guardian angel, who was pulled from the middle of nowhere to fit the bill. And for an epic movie, I personally believe that anything less than 2 hours is just too short. You need time for the story to evolve, to build the plots and let the schemes unfold. It’s not because of nothing that Peter Jackson made 3 hours epic movies, and they rock. Anyway, I don’t want to deter you from watching the movie and seeing Sam one more time on screen since the epic Avatar. But don’t hold too high hopes, come in with a relaxing mind and enjoy the marvelous actions scenes, and for those who have read and love the stories, be open and accept the Hollywood way of story telling, for that is the trend nowadays 🙂

As the best part of the movie are the actions, let’s stop the words here and let the photos do the talking instead 😀

Perseus fighting Medusa in the underworld

Keeping his head low to avoid Medusa’s deadly gaze

The triumph of victory

Perseus, Pegasus and the sword from Zeus. Pegasus rocks by the way

The sea monster. Despite being called Kraken, it looked none like a squid. Well, it had testicles, but it also had a big body, a scary head, crimson eyes and a mouth full of razor sharp teeth

Perseus was facing the black hole created by Hades to punish the queen for daring compare her daughter with the beauty of the gods.

Andromeda, the strong willed princess that almost became food

Perseus fighting alongside the horror of the desert, the controllers of the giant scorpions. They are some kinds of zombie, or corpses, with their body parts being replaced by woods and stone to make lengthen their lives.

On the hunt for Medusa’s head

Battling the giant scorpions. Is there any link  between this and the scorpions in Scorpion King?

I really don’t understand what this owl has to do with the story. Can anyone enlighten me?

The blind witches, whom Perseus consulted about the way to kill the Kraken. I believe I have seen one in the movie Hellboy as well (The one who cured the Boy). Don’t know who they are, maybe they can see into the past and the future. They look quite scary though, with eyeless faces and an eyeball in a palm.

Perseus with the head of Medusa

Medusa before being killed. She looked really scary, with the big tail, smooth and silent moves, and the sudden, unexpected appearances. One of the bright spots of the movie itself.

Ralph Fiennes as Hades and Liam Neeson as Zeus. Such a waste of talents, they themselves deserve more meaty roles in better movie than this.

Perseus’s guardian angle, whom Zeus raised from the death to become Perseus’s wife (Poor Andromeda, don’t know what happened to her after she was rescued from the monster)

Bonus: The epic battle in Renaissance pictures (You can find some similarities to the scenes in the movie. For me, the scene where Andromeda was chained to the cliff reminded me of a scene in King Kong):


It started with the Ring – Part 2

Ok, let me continue where I left off. So, another online store is James Allen (http://www.jamesallen.com).

Overall, it looks simpler than Blue Nile, with the main color being orange / red. There are not many ring designs either, but what is better than Blue Nile was that they have 3D models of the rings, so you can see them in full details and from different angles, which is quite cool indeed. Moreover, the diamonds are cheaper, and they provide more information about the stones, as well as clearer pictures with zoom feature, so that you can do more thorough inspections remotely. That is really important, as you cannot see the real items, and have to fully rely on those information to make one of the biggest purchase of your lives so far.

However, the photos do not look very real either, still quite CGI. Moreover, there are not many designs, and the designs are not great, just normal. The diamonds look good, but not exceptional, and there price is still quite high.

Another thing is shipment. Blue Nile will ship the ring to us for free, but James Allen charges shipping fee, which amounts to around 100 USD. Moreover, there is a GST calculator on the website, which is really irritating to look at and try on. Anyway, still an option to consider. 😀

There is a forum called Pricescope (http://www.pricescope.com), where a lot of people were discussing about rings, diamonds and stuffs. Among the posts, the name White Flash (http://www.whiteflash.com) pops up quite often and prominently, as the store with exceptional customer service, reasonable price and abundant stocks to choose from.

They have a lot of diamonds at affordable prices, both in house and from vendors. Moreover, the diamonds come with a lot of information. As for settings, they have quite a respectable stock of designs, some of which are replicas of world famous designs by the almighty Tiffany & Co.

There is also a master jewelry designer called Mark Morrell (http://www.mwmjewelry.com), who is very skillful, very experienced and has a brilliant jewelry designer mind. In his portfolio are exceptionally beautiful diamond ring settings, such as Torch, Flame and Sunburst.

However, the not so good thing is that, he seems to work alone, a pure artist who’d rather spend time in the workshop creating beautiful rings than attending to phone calls and emails. Therefore, communication would be a big issue. Moreover, as he  only does settings, you will have to source for a loose diamond somewhere, then send to him to fit into the settings. Once he finishes the setting, he will send the finished product back to the diamond seller to inspect and send back to you. Such a hassle and too many points of delays and errors.

Moreover, he takes quite long time to finish each setting (6 to 8 weeks). Plus the time to send back and forth, it will take at least 3 to 4 months to get the ring, which is too long.

Ok, back to ring shopping, the first task is browsing the catalog and searching for a diamond within your budget. You can start with a budget and a carat weight that you want to get. The rest of the requirements, such as grade or clarity, can be relaxed gradually if you cannot find any match, as long as they are not compromised too much. Also, keep in mind that there are in house diamonds and those that belong to vendor. For those that belong to vendors, you will have to request WF to bring the diamond in house to inspect in order for them to send you more images to study. If the diamond is good and you want to buy it, then everything is fine. But if it turns out not nice, then you will have to bear the transportation cost to send the diamond back to the vendor. That’s why you should look for in house diamonds first, as the status is updated, the information is ready and there is no transportation cost.

If you are worried about the grade, that it will look very yellowish, you can check around, look at other stones of similar specs at the local stores, and even post the profile to PriceScope to ask for opinion.

About the information to ask regarding the diamond, at least you should ask the following things:

1. Diamond quality report. There are different diamond evaluators, but for safety, you should stick to either GIA or AGS, as they are well known and well established in the field of diamond quality evaluation.

Try to find one with excellent polish and excellent symmetry, as that will impact the quality of the diamond, its brilliance, fire and even the color of the diamond. With an excellent cut, you can go down by a few notches in terms of grade and clarity without compromising on the visual quality of the diamond and the ring.

2. Magnified diamond photo:

This photo helps you inspect the symmetry of the diamond, the quality of the cut, the pattern as well as detecting any cloud or defect that was visible enough.

3. ASET scope photo

This photo allows you to inspect the diamond further in terms of symmetry, as well as light reflection pattern of the diamond.

Tip: Red is good. The redder the better 🙂

For more information: http://www.ideal-scope.com/1.using_ASET_scope.asp

3. IDEAL Scope photo:

This photo is especially used for inspecting symmetry and light leakage from the diamond. Again, the redder the better. White and pale pink spots don’t reflect light very well, meaning the more white and pale pink spots it has, the less shiny and brilliant it is.

For more info: http://www.ideal-scope.com/1.light_return_and_shadow.asp

4. SARIN report

This report rates the cut of the diamond. For AGS diamonds, AGS 0 is the best. It’s also called Ideal cut. Again, the cut makes the diamond great, and should be the first characteristic to look out for when inspecting a diamond.

The original story about SARIN report is very long, but to put it short, there is a standard of cutting diamonds called Ideal Cut. That standard consists of some measurements, ratios and calculations that cutters should adhere to, in order to bring out the most fire and brilliance from the diamond. Diamonds cut according to that standard is supposed to be able to reveal the most of their beauty and shine. So, the SARIN report is created by measuring the diamonds after cut, then compare against the Ideal Cut standard. Each measurement is then graded depending on how much it adheres to the standard. AGS 0 means no deviation from Ideal Cut standard 🙂 That means the diamond is able to showcase the highest level of beauty contained in itself.

Setting is another headache. Choosing material is easy: Platinum is the way to go. However, when it comes to styles and designs, all hell break loose. Having too many choices is as bad as having too few choices. You can either go for this cross prong setting, which is quite special and hard to find in Singapore:

http://www.whiteflash.com/engagement-rings/x-prong-trellis-diamond-solitaire_977.htm#

Or you can play traditional and go for this elegant setting which resembles the legendary Tiffany Classic Knife Edge:

http://www.whiteflash.com/engagement-rings/classic-tiffany-style-knife-edge_1137.htm

It is simple but  not too simple. It is elegant, and timeless, and classical. It is Tiffany. Well, not really, but very near there anyway.

After you narrow down on a few settings, you can ask in PriceScope for more opinions, and you can ask for more photos to study further if you are still unsure.

Another headache is to do measurement. This is quite tricky indeed, as the local stores use another scale, and it is dangerous to convert as you do not know what they use, or whether they use something standard in the first place. You can follow the WF way, use a paper ring sizer, pull it tightly around your finger, then note down the figure, and use WF converter to convert from diameter to size.

http://www.whiteflash.com/diamonds_info/t/glossary.aspx?articleid=416&zoneid=20

http://www.onlineconversion.com/ring_size.htm

In fact, this kind of measurement is really subjective, as you don’t know how tight is tight enough, and paper is very fragile so you cannot pull too hard. Therefore, you should do several measurement, during different time of the day, and note down the difference. Moreover, your finger size changes depending on the weather condition, so you should measure in the condition that you are in most of the time (air con / no air con). Worse still, the paper sizer is too thin and light, so you cannot feel the impact of the weight on the size. Therefore, you tend to either pull too hard, ignoring the impact of the weight on the size, and got a very tight ring, or you go for the other extreme, pull too loosely with the fear of tearing the sizer and giving too much buffer, and end up with a ring for your … toe 😛 Luckily, the online shops normally offer warranty with free resizing, so as long as the ring is not too tight it cannot not go into the finger when you propose to her, everything should be fine, or at least not too bad 🙂

Note: If there is a Tiffany & Co store near your place, then everything becomes much easier. Tiffany & Co also uses the US ring size system, so you can just drop by and try the size, preferably with the design you want as well, since different designs with different weights feel differently on the finger even if the size is the same. Then you can go online and continue shopping with no worry about the size 🙂

Done with the size, now just make payment and wait. Payment with wire transfer is fast, easy and hassle free. And Citibank is the best bank for the job thanks to its global outreach.

It normally takes one week to make the ring. You can specially order them to set the diamond as low as possible, if you are afraid of knocking the diamond off by accident, as well as other modifications to the ring to enhance its wearing comfort. They are normally quite flexible on that, and will happily oblige. That you cannot do in local stores, which are rigid and have little room for creativity. So, go ahead and shop online with confidence, and soon enough you will find yourself passing local stores with distaste and absolutely no care at all 😉

P.S. Recently there has been a fairly new name mentioned in PriceScope: Brian Gavin Diamond.

http://www.briangavindiamonds.com/

In fact, this new kid on the block has deep relationship with White Flash, as its chief cutter (Brian Gavin) used to be White Flash’s master diamond cutter and co-founder, and its chief of customer service (Lesley Harris) used to be White Flash’s customer service director.

Although it’s new, it has gathered a lot of good feedbacks and is becoming hotter and hotter.

It started with the Ring

The engagement ring is really a symbol, a milestone that marks a higher level of commitment, and an official change of status, from friendship to engagement.

Two person can be friends for a very long time, and be boyfriends and girlfriends for a really long time, but they are still not really engaged, not until the guy is down on his knee and presents the girl with the ring that starts it all.

Well, some of you may disagree with me. After all, a symbol is just a symbol, and you may argue that it’s not worth the effort, time and money spent. However, come to think of it, it’s really worthy, and it may be the best investment you have made, since with the action and the ring, you have pushed the status of your relationship higher.

And, well, girls love DIAMONDS. The bigger the better, perhaps.

Moreover, when we speak about investment, we know that every investment has its own risk, but I will come back to that later. For now, let’s talk about ring, and ring only 🙂

When thinking about engagement rings, the first thought you have may be sourcing a ring locally. That has some advantages, for example, you can see the ring with your own eyes, touch the ring with your own hand, and inspect it personally. However, the market in Singapore is not big enough. There are not many designs to choose from, and most of them looked either dull or nothing special. Of course, if you have enough budget to go straight to the kind of Cartier or Tiffany & Co, then definitely you will find something you want, as those are in fact not local, and their stocks are imported here as well. Unfortunately, if you are not that rich, so you have to be creative and find another way to achieve what you want.

The situation is even worse if you want to find something in Platinum and Platinum only, as White Gold will be fading into Yellow Gold with time. The local salesmen will preach to you all those non-sense that platinum is not hard enough, and that white gold is much more suitable for crafting rings. I tell you, they are all wrong. In fact, it’s the exact opposite, that platinum is much harder than white gold, so hard that the heads of the diamond rings are usually made of platinum to ensure the diamonds would not fall off, even if the bands were crafted in white gold or even yellow gold. That is just a lame excuse they use for scaring you away from platinum, which they do not have for you  So, please ignore all those non sense and go for platinum if you want something firm, lasting and not changing color when scratched (unlike white gold, which turns yellowish after getting scratched).

Another commonly faced situation at local stores is that the first question they will ask you when you walk in is “How much is your budget?” Then they try to find a diamond ring that is around there. When you start looking for the band, they will try to divert you back to the diamond, saying that the band is not important, and that you should focus on the stone itself. Moreover, they always recommend stones with very high specifications (grade, color, clarity) while in fact, with your naked eyes you cannot see the subtle difference in the clarity or color, especially after the diamond is set into the band, and that means you pay a lot more for something you cannot see or appreciate on a daily basis, whereas the band, which can be seen clearly and marveled at daily is often neglected. Such an irony. I’d rather take it down a few grades and spend that money on a beautiful band.

(Diamond color chart, anything from J and above is considered acceptable, as the color is very faint and hardly recognizable with your naked eyes).

(Diamond grade chart, anything from VS2 and above is considered acceptable, as the defects are very tiny, and hardly recognizable with your naked eyes).

(A good cut makes a big difference, as it allows the diamond to reflect more lights, which adds brilliance, beauty, fire and vibrancy. Therefore, opt for the highest cut possible within your budget, and you can take clarity and color down a little bit in compensation, as a brilliant diamond will shine so brightly you can hardly notice either the defect or the faint color.)

Another option is to go online. Most of those online stores are located in the US, and unlike the local stores where they set the diamonds with the bands and sell as a whole, for online stores it was really flexible. You get to choose the band design, and the diamond separately, then add them together to form the ring. That gives you more choices, and fit your budget more easily. However, that also requires much more work and efforts from your side to ensure the perfect combination.

One online store to start with is Blue Nile (www.bluenile.com). They are big, established, and quite well known in the world of online jewelry stores. However, they don’t have many designs of engagement rings to choose from, especially for Platinum, and for each design, there are not enough photos to study the bands in details, just a few and they look more like CAD photos. As for the diamond choices, they carry quite a lot, but only a small part was located in house. The rest are just listings from their partners, which they have little information, and almost no guarantee of availability. Besides, the price is quite high, especially for the in house items.

<TBC>

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