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NPotW: Vietnam

The Têt celebrations were in full swing by the time I got to Saigon.

The Têt celebrations were in full swing by the time I got to Saigon.

It had been almost 10 years since I last set foot in Vietnam, so I was long overdue for a return. The only other time I had visited the country was a month-long family trip to Ho Chi Minh City — known locally as Saigon — when I was only 14. Consequently, my travels consisted of being dragged from one previously unknown relative’s house to another.

I spent a lot of time on buses, a couple of which were sleeper buses complete with individual bed.

I spent a lot of time on buses, a couple of which were sleeper buses complete with individual bed.

This time around, I’m 10 years older (but not necessarily that much wiser) and able to gallivant the country on my own accord, and gallivant I did. In a fortnight, I visited six cities (and one bay), but it never seemed as frenetic as my tour of Thailand. After landing in Hanoi, the itinerary looked like this: Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, and back to Saigon to catch my plane home. I made entire trip (other than the venture into Ha Long Bay) via bus; by my rough estimate, I spent nearly 70 hours on the road during my trip — an average of 5 hours per day[1]. On this trip alone, I saw more of the country than my Vietnam-born parents have.

I did manage to fit in a little bit of sightseeing between the bus rides. Because each of the cities had its own distinct charm, it’s hard to put any of the cities as my favorite over the others. Saigon is the business capital of the country and clearly the busiest. Hoi An is quaint reminder of the many cultures that have passed through the country — and only four kilometers from the beach. Hue gets its points just for being my mom’s hometown. Nha Trang, a growing city with a population of more than 300,000, exudes the air of tourist beach town — something Mui Ne epitomizes. Hanoi is the political capital, but its history is its signature; it’s the Chiang Mai to Saigon’s Bangkok.

Despite their quirks, none of the cities really had an exclamation point landmark (except maybe Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi’s Old Quarter) that symbolized it. They all felt like…Vietnam. It’s hard to explain, but I think it was harder for me to differentiate the cities than I would in other countries. Like my trip to Thailand, the trip’s most interesting points came from the people I met, but this time instead of meeting other tourists, I was able to meet the locals. Growing up in a Vietnamese household allowed me to overcome the usual language barrier and talk to everyone I met.

The Vietnamese people seemed to be generally very friendly, but they might’ve bumped it up a notch for a Việt Kiều — a Vietnamese person who resides in another country. Most of whom I met seemed simply intrigued by an outsider who spoke fluent-ish Vietnamese. Instead of past travel tales, I heard the voices of the cities — insight into how Vietnam really ticks. The locals pointed me in the right directions and gave me tips they wouldn’t normally be able to communicate to a foreigner; many times I even got a discount for being Vietnamese.

Being able to speak the local language made this experience completely different from my time in Thailand and in Korea. While I find each of the latter places quite interesting, I never felt as comfortable as I did in Vietnam (for obvious reasons). Maybe it’s because I’ve been gone for so long, but at points I felt even more at home there than I did in the States.

Vietnam (read: Saigon) is definitely a place I can see myself living for a short while. The traveler in me wants delve deeper into more sights of this country, but the Vietnamese in me wants to take in Vietnam and really understand its culture, and subsequently my background, better. Even though it’s much different than 20 — even just 10 — years ago, Vietnam still has a lot to teach me about myself.


[1] The number is a bit skewed by the supposed 20-hour bus ride from Hoi An to Saigon. It ended up taking 25 hours. I was not happy with this development, and I’m sure my aunt wasn’t either since I had no way to tell her we were going to be five hours late. [back]

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Off We Go Again

The Turtle Pagoda in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

The Turtle Pagoda in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

I’ve disappeared for a while, I know. I’m currently sitting in Hoi An, Vietnam. I was barely back in Korea before gallivanting off to another country again. After returning from Thailand, I went literally straight from the airport to school for my two-week English winter camp. That first Monday back was a long one, and I spent the week always a little lacking on sleep. The camp itself, however, was rather pleasant and entertaining, but rather uneventful on the whole. Each day consisted of some permutation of lessons, games, and snacks.

This country runs on motorcycles.

This country runs on motorcycles.

Now that camp is over, I’m running around Vietnam for two weeks. I’ve been in this country for five days and six nights, and it has been a constant blur of food stands, motorcycle taxis and buses. I’ve run through Hanoi, Ha Long bay, Hue, and now Hoi An. Tomorrow we’re on a bus for 20 hours to Saigon, where we’ll celebrate Tet with my aunt and uncle from my mom’s side of the family. I’m excited to see an authentic Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year — especially since this is my year, the year of the Ox.

This trip, even though it’ll touch more cities than my breeze through Thailand, seems to be much better paced. The cities are much better aligned with the major points of Hanoi and Saigon anchoring everything in between, so travel is rather convenient though long. Also, Vietnam — with the exceptions of the two major cities — has a much more relaxed feel to it than Thailand, which makes it easier to spend only a day or two in each place here. There’s only so much to see in each city, and the nightlife isn’t exactly a Vietnamese strong point.

The tattered flag on our boat in Ha Long Bay.

The tattered flag on our boat in Ha Long Bay.

I’m also meeting some family for the first time in nearly a decade. It’ll be a good Tet celebration just based on that fact, which will make my mom proud. Earning myself another mommy medal is the two-week refresher course in Vietnamese this trip provides me. It’s so nice being able to speak the language of the country instead of being a useless tourist (see exhibits A and B, Korea and Thailand, respectively).

I still have about nine days left on this trip, which should add dodging (more) motorcycles, lounging on beaches and roaming through highlands to the itinerary. Things could always change, though. As they say in Asia: Same same but different.

See you after the (Lunar) New Year! Chúc mừng năm mới!

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Bottle Beach: Living the Island Life

The ocean's soothing waves provided a nice relief from the commotion of the city.

The ocean's soothing waves provided a nice relief from the commotion of the city.

Even with Thailand’s abundance of jungle treks, Buddhist temples and street food, the sand of Bottle Beach was the part of my trip that I had most anticipated. Months of Seoul’s constant metropolitan buzz (and its sub-freezing temperatures) coupled with my five non-stop days in Thailand had me tingling with excitement.

Koh Phangan, the island on which Bottle Beach (or Haad Khuat) sits, lies off Thailand’s southeast coast in the aptly named Gulf of Thailand. To the north is the smaller Koh Tao, renowned for its scuba diving, and to the south is the larger Koh Samui, Thailand’s most popular island destination not named Phuket. Koh Phangan is accessible only by ferry, either 30 minutes from Samui or 2.5 hours from the mainland port of Surat Thani.

Cloudy skies weren't going to stop me from having a good time.

Cloudy skies weren't going to prevent me from enjoying the warm sand sifting through my toes.

Getting there from Chiang Mai was no simple task. With the upcoming New Year’s celebrations, the flights from Chiang Mai to Samui and Surat Thani were either more than I wanted to spend or completely booked. Instead, I took another overnight bus back to Bangkok where I caught a flight to Koh Samui where I waited a few hours to catch the ferry to Koh Phagnan where I fortuitously stumbled across the driver for the bungalow at which I was staying — an hour’s drive through the mountains on the other side of the island. Whew. I was ready for a drink. Or four.

At the beach, I met up with the girlfriend and her co-teachers, who had already been on Haad Khuat for about a week. We stayed in bungalows on the beach: wooden huts with a bed, shower and toilet in each one. That’s all I’d need to enjoy the beach, which is enough of an amenity for 250 baht per night (approximately $7.50 USD).

The weather was less than ideal for lounging on the sand, though. It had been raining for the week before I arrived, and there were no signs of stopping. Also the beach’s remote location — possibly its best and worst characteristic — left very few options for recreation; any transport to and from the sightseeing spots would cost at least 200 baht — quite steep for a Thailand-excursion budget. It also created a quandary when it came to the island’s biggest attraction: the Full Moon Party.

Bottle Beach II, complete with a "young, distracted staff."

Bottle Beach II, complete with a "young, distracted staff."

Located on Haad Rin — the opposite side of the island from Bottle Beach — the Full Moon Party attracts anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 revelers each month to carouse under beams the full moon. While the New Year’s edition wasn’t technically a Full Moon Party, its crowd would be no smaller than usual. It was a sight to be seen, but the hassle of getting to the party and not know exactly how or when we’d get back to our bungalows deterred us from attending. Instead we had our own small party to ring in 2009.

Let the reversion to kindergarten begin.

Let the reversion to kindergarten begin.

Complete with Full Moon Party-esque body paint, we sipped our own buckets of cocktails while waiting for the new year. Fortunately enough for us, at least one person out of the 20 or so who remained on Bottle Beach had a watch — an integral part to the annual countdown. Soon came the chants of “five, four, three, two, one, happy New Year’s!” accompanied by sprays of…Sprite.

There was no Dick Clark, Times Square or champagne this year, but the warmth of a tiki torch-lined beach and the waves of the ocean made for pretty good substitutes. The celebration continued until 4 am or so, when it was time for bed. I couldn’t wake up too late because the girlfriend and I had to catch a noon ferry back to the mainland.

Up next: Bangkok.

[click images to enlarge]

The Stars of Bottle BeachSparklingI love khom faiThe fluorescent body paint got a little messy, and it showed under the black lights.

UntitledUmm?

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Chiang Mai: New Adventures in an Old City

The 300+ temples in Chiang Mai are, as the famous Thai saying goes, "Same same, but different."

The 300+ temples in Chiang Mai are, as the famous Thai saying goes, "Same same, but different."

After twelve hours and one free meal (at what I deduced to be a Thai rest stop), I had arrived in Chiang Mai — at 5:30 in the morning. I had actually slept pretty well on the double-decker tourist bus, but tourist attractions (except for maybe some seedier ventures) aren’t open at that time of day. I checked into my room and conked out for a few hours before exploring the town.

While it isn’t the sprawling metropolis Bangkok is, Chiang Mai still has plenty of places to wander. For starters, the city, founded in 1296, has more than 300 wats, or Buddhist temples — supposedly about the same number as the nation’s capital. It seems like there’s a wat on every other block in the moat-surrounded city center, which only buttresses Chiang Mai’s reputation as Thailand’s cultural center. While it would be easy to loiter in and out of random temples, I asked the staff at my guest house to point out the important spots to see. On my map they circled Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Sing and Wat Chedi Luang.

The two-thirds of the chedi at Wat Chedi Luang left after a 16th century earthquake.

The two-thirds of the chedi at Wat Chedi Luang left after a 16th century earthquake.

One of the buildings at Wat Phra Sing, one of the city's most important temples.

One of the buildings at Wat Phra Sing, one of the city's most important temples.

After intentionally losing myself among the streets of guest houses, tourist agencies and food stands, I decided to meander toward Wat Chiang Man. Constructed in the 13th century, Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, so I had some pretty grand expectations — especially since the weather had turned sour with downpours throughout the day. Unfortunately, the wat was being renovated, so scaffolding and tarps surrounded the premises and left me with little to see. Wat Chedi Luang, dating back to 1401, and Wat Phra Sing, built in 1345, were, however, quite impressive.

This guy really likes bananas.

This guy really likes bananas.

I spent the next two sunny days on a trekking tour through a jungle about an hour outside Chiang Mai. It was the typical tourist package: two days with one night in a native Thai village, complete with elephant ride, waterfall viewing and bamboo rafting. We started with the elephant ride — an hour-long loop through trees and fields along with stands selling bananas for the elephants. It definitely felt kitchy, but the elephants seemed really sweet even though they were probably bored from walking the same path day after day. Every so often, my elephant would stop and curl its trunk over its head in hopes of finding a banana reward from me or my riding partner.

After the ride and lunch, we set off on a hike up a mountain to a Karen village, where we would spend the night. Our trekking guide, who called himself Mr. Ton, threw together a scrumptious dinner, which came with a show. The children of the 200-person village sang traditional village songs for us and then asked us to sing songs from our respective countries. I couldn’t think of one (I was prepared to go with the national anthem), but the Canadian sitting next to me suggested “Take Me Out to the Ballpark.” How un-American of me to forget that one.

The khom fai (hot-air lantern) is one of the coolest things in Thailand. After it floats away, it looks like a new star.

The khom fai (hot-air lantern) is one of the coolest things in Thailand. After it floats away, it looks like a new star.

After lighting a khom fai (hot-air lantern) with the children and listening to some out-of-tune cover songs from Mr. Ton, the 10 of us in our tour group retired to our single hut, equipped with thin sleeping bags, blankets and mosquito nets. The sleep was great — except for the mosquitoes, cold air and the roosters that decided sunrise was time to wake up.

The next day consisted of hiking down the mountain and riding a bamboo raft after lunch. One would imagine a bamboo raft to be a slow, pleasant ride — unless you’re one of the ones driving it. Each raft had a Thai guide (ours being a 12-year-old boy) and a tourist pushing it along with — what else? — bamboo shoots. I happened to be that tourist on my raft, but it wasn’t too bad. Every so often the guide/boy had to turn around and tell me which side to be pushing so that we didn’t die. I still can’t believe they put our lives in the hands of a 12 year old.

Chiang Mai was easily the most adventurous portion of my sweep through Thailand. It was also the part of the trip I was traveling solo, but I had plenty of company along the way — people at the guest house and those I met on the tour. Also, Chiang Mai isn’t so big that I ever felt lost in the expanse of the city. I was quite comfortable traversing the streets aimlessly. After essentially five days of constant movement, though, I was ready to sit down and relax…and what better place for that than the beach?

Up next: Bottle Beach, Koh Phangan.

[click images to enlarge]

Floating ByA Walk in the RainLight at the Guest HouseSitting PrettyMr. Ton, trekking guide and photographer Blue Skies Eye in the Sky

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New Place of the Week: Thailand

The Land of Smiles...floating away on a happy balloon.

Thailand: The Land of Smiles...floating away on a happy balloon.

Happy belated New Year’s to everyone as this edition of NPotW shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, seeing as I posted about my bewildering day and a half in Thailand. Known as the “Land of Smiles,” Thailand provided a tropical retreat from Korea’s crisp winter climate. The sticky heat that engulfed me upon exiting the plane inspired my fondness for flip-flops and substantiated my not-completely-unrelated aversion to socks; this was going to be a nice break from Seoul.

My trip lasted 11 days and consisted of three buses, three flights, a ferry and countless tuk tuks. It went a little something like this: Seoul, Bangkok (via Taipei), Chiang Mai, Koh Phangan (via Bangkok and Koh Samui), Bangkok (via Surat Thani), and back to Seoul. I might’ve only spent time in three locales, but I never really felt like I settled my feet. It was busy to say the least.

I landed in Bangkok and spent the first half day on my own, but the joy of traveling, I learned, is finding others heading the same way. Traveling soon became less about the places and more about the people, including — but not limited to — the Parisian who lives in Bangkok because she doesn’t like French people; the four Germans who happen to stay in the same guest house and book the same tour; the Thai tour guide who likes singing his songs despite not knowing half of the words; and the German carpenter/yoga instructor who cycles everywhere he goes.

Clearly, though, I spent time doing things other than talking to people (which will be detailed in a city-by-city play-by-play). I’ll always remember the things I did and places I saw, but a story isn’t a story without characters. Everyone brings something different to the table, whether they’re old or young, new or experienced, European or Asian. It was amazing how much I learned about places I had never been by just talking to my fellow nomads. I now understand how travel begets more travel: I hear their stories, and then I want to see them.

But before doing that, I’ll have to survive the remote jungles, busy streets, and mouth-watering food markets of Thailand. First step: an overnight bus journey to Chiang Mai. Now we’re on our way.

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The Whirlwind Begins

Wat Chedi Luang, one of the billions of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai.

Wat Chedi Luang, one of the billions of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai.

After a whirlwind two days, I’m finally (relatively) settled in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I arrived in Bangkok late Wednesday, where Matt of Nomadic Matt fame was gracious enough to lend me his floor for the night. I spent half of Thursday running around town making arrangements for the rest of the trip. The dizzying rush of finding last-minute bus rides and plane tickets taught me a few things.

First of all, in a place like Thailand where the tourists flock, there is always a bus ticket. Even though I was looking for an overnight ticket for Christmas night — the start of Thailand’s true peak tourist season with foreigners and Thai nationals all on vacation — I found one within minutes of talking to a travel agent. That leads me to my next point.

Travel agents, no matter how friendly and well-traveled they are, are not your friends. The travel agent’s affable nature combined with my lack of preparation for this trip to sucker me into an overpriced tour package that seemed to be a good deal. I should’ve followed my first instincts and booked everything one step at a time. In Bangkok, I should’ve booked how to get to Chiang Mai, where I would find my accomodations and things to do.

Now I’m in a relatively nice hostel called Backpackers’ Meeting Place Resident, but it’s a little more expensive than I would’ve like to have paid. Also, the bus ticket to Chiang Mai was probably a little more expensive than I should’ve paid for it. It’s also outside the city center, but it is close to an open food market, which is wonderful given my affinity for street food. Through this same tour, I’m going on a two-day trek through some jungle tomorrow complete with elephants, huts, and bamboo rafting. Should be interesting.

At least when I screw up in Thailand, it only means an extra six or seven dollars a night, which won’t kill me. Six or seven dollars, however, goes a long ways in Thailand. For example, six dollars stuffs me with street food for three meals, so losing such a big part of my budget to something so stupid is rather annoying. I’ve learned my lesson for my trip to Vietnam in January.

At least now I have everything set and I only have to worry about getting from scheduled Point A to scheduled Point B. The rest of the itinerary looks like this: Chiang Mai for three more days, then bus to Bangkok where I catch a flight to the islands around Koh Samui for New Year’s, then back to actually explore Bangkok for a few days.

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Wherever the Winds Take Me

My best decisions tend to be the ones that occur after the least amount of thinking. As scary as it may be, I like following my gut instincts. One day I woke up and decided finding a new job wouldn’t be as fun as moving to a new country. This morning I woke up and decided going to Thailand for 12 days would be more fun than staying in Seoul for that time. And that was that.

It really began when I started planning my February trip this morning. I was debating between Thailand and Malaysia, even considering doing both in the same two-week trip. Then I took the easy way out: I figured I should just go to each on separate trips. I did some cursory research on all the airline ticketing sites and found that Bangkok was clearly within my financial reach. Armed with a new determination (and an ever-so-open bankbook), I headed straight for the travel agencies after school and booked my flight from Incheon to Bangkok.

The travel agents gave me looks ranging from a clearly perplexed “are you crazy?” to a subtly annoyed “you’re not going to get any flights this late.” Third time’s a charm as the third travel agent found a flight whose dates and times fell right into my desired timeframe and whose price tag fit just right, something for which we owe the Thai PAD protesters a big “thank you.”

This is especially nice because this weekend I was extremely lazy and didn’t have a New Place of the Week feature, figuring I’d do a lot of wandering during my 10 days off before my winter camp. Little did I imagine on Sunday that I’d be headed to Thailand later this week.

The itinerary looks something like this: land in Bangkok, wander to Chiang Mai, fly to Phuket, and bus back to Bangkok. That’s about as much as I’ve planned, and that’s probably going to be the extent of it. Ah, the life of a dabbler.

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