Seoul Prancing with Laura Continued…

Wednesday December 25

Merry Christmas!!

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The air was a crisp 20 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas morning. I woke up around 10 am to call my grandmother who always hosts the best shindig around on Christmas eve. After my family chat, Laura and I headed to my favorite brunch place in all of Seoul- Flying Pan. This Euro-American fusion restaurant has a quaint, schmoozy atmosphere right in the heart of Korean Wall-street. French music softly murmured in the background as we gazed upon the ice rink festivities taking place just beyond the glass in front of us. The food was scrumptious, the chai tea aromatic, and the company, superb. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start this holiday away from home. We took our time enjoying the ambiance and latte as we discussed the bests and worsts of 2013.

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While in the Gangnam (Wall-street) area, we decided to go to a popular sticker photo shop, which had a line out the door. Sticker photos are photo booth pictures with the all alluring option of crazy, fun, unique editing additions. Christmas is a couple’s holiday in Korea, so many swooning lovers awaited the chance to get their holiday snap shots, along with a couple friend pairs like Laura and me.

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No one at the store spoke English and I couldn’t read the signs explaining the process. Apparently there is a two step method to this madness: 1) People go into the initial booth to have photos taken. 2) People move to the second booth to edit, decorate, purchase, and print photos. Laura and I were just waiting, people watching, and planning to imitate what everyone else did. The line was getting long, and per usual, I was getting a bit impatient after about 30 minutes of waiting with almost no progression in the line.  I saw a booth open up and thought… let’s be awful, typical, selfish American foreigners and cut in line.

When we entered the booth, we stared at a screen of color and cuteness explosion. I couldn’t read any of the directions so we just kept pressing buttons while getting ready for our photo op. We were hot in our winter gear and wanted to look our best, so we disrobed in the booth, Laura all the way down to her tank top. I was applying makeup and the both of us were curious about where the camera was. Every time we pressed a wrong button, an error bell would ring. People around us were getting shifty and probably curious as to why there were so many blunder beeps coming from our direction.

All of a sudden, the curtain was torridly torn back to reveal two horrified Korean teenage girls looking at us like we were either mean or stupid.

“My pictures!!!?!?” one girl exclaimed on the verge of tears.

Laura and I all too quickly realized that we had ‘cut in line’ to the second step of the process… the editing booth, of someone else’s pictures! Frantically, we tried to appologize. We attempted again and again to make the screen return to the beginning, but alas we had embarrassingly caused permanent damage.

Finally, I just yelled, “Grab your stuff. Run!”

We darted out of the store, through the impatient crowd, and into the frigid air to escape the shame of our Christmas misdeed. We couldn’t help giggling as we redressed ourselves in a store about a block away. After our trauma, we spent a few hours shopping and then rested at a coffee shop until we met up with Chris, John, Jesse, and Ellie for dinner at Chez Maak, one of my favorite trendy hip spots for makgeoli and pa jung (savory potato pancakes). Chris also surprised us with a pumpkin pie!

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We rushed away from dinner so that we could make it to our movie- The Hobbit. Our tickets were pre-ordered, printed, and we were ready with popcorn in hand. Or at least that is what we all thought. The minor dilemma occurred when Chris mishandled the box and scattered popcorn everywhere.

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The major dilemma came at the realization that our tickets were for an hour before I thought. We had accidentally come right in the middle of the movie. The movie clerks refused to refund our tickets, or even to set them for another time. I asked to speak to a manager to no avail. So much for holiday spirit?! I think this was our karma for destroying those innocent girls’ photos. Finally, John coughed up the extra money so that we could all go to a later showing. Meanwhile, we had already purchased our popcorn and drinks, so we sat in the lobby eating. Womp Womp (sound of disappointment).

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There was an hour and a half to kill before the next showing, so we headed to the Rainbow lounge to smoke hookah. Hookah is flavored tobacco. The environment was trippy to say the least.

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The movie was great, but poor Jesse fell asleep! We wound up leaving the theatre at 2:30 am, caught a cab, and headed home for peaceful slumber. Overall, not a bad Christmas away from home, but I can assure you that it still did not feel like Christmas.

Thursday December 26

As Laura walked the 5-minute commute to my apartment from her hotel, she was doused with a sheet of icy rain. She looked like a desperate wet cat by the time she reached my door. This was our first bought of bad weather during our entire trip thus far so I couldn’t complain, but we did have to do some emergency rescheduling with the crew. Instead of spending the whole day outside as planned, Laura and I camped out in my room, ordered pizza and watched Sex & the City while I tried to make sense of the chaos that had become my dwelling. Later in the afternoon, Laura and I met up with Jesse and Ellie at the Hello Kitty Cafe in Hongdae. The cuteness gets me every time. I just love this place! The food is terrible though- think croque-monsieur with pre-packaged mystery pork meat and American plastic cheese slices. Don’t get the food- only the delightful deserts and coffee.

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After the warming latte, Laura and I headed to the Trick Eye Museum and to the seasonal Ice Museum attached. The reason I love the Trick Eye Museum so much is that it changes the optical illusions every 6 months or so, so one can go back many times, depending on how long one visits or lives in Seoul, to have more fun clicking wacky images!

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Friday December 27

Our last day in Seoul together was a frosty one. Although the sun shown bright, the brusque air cut uncovered extremities like a knife with harsh winds. This was not our ideal weather, but we made do. Unfortunately, but hilariously, the theme of our last day was ‘underwhelming experiences.’ The weather was the first indicator of this. The second was our trip to the Namsangol Hanok Village for their ice carving festival. When one thinks festival, usually one imagines crowds of people, bustling activities, a variety of street food, and an air of grandness. Upon arrival, we discovered that the ice sculptures took up only a tiny space the size of a gas station convenience store. The place was nearly deserted and the ice sculpture area was roped off so there was no interaction with the art allowed. Womp Womp.

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The highlight of the day was enjoying some Kalguksu lunch in Myeongdong! So delicious and the best kimchi around!

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The next item on the agenda was Namsan Tower, the tallest point in all of Seoul. First we had to hike up a daunting hill in the bitter cold and then take a charming cable car up the rest of the distance. The views were as spectacular as they get in Seoul. I was admittedly a little disappointed by the lack of clarity due to smog, but honestly, there would never have been a perfect day because of the constant pollution harming Seoul, coming directly from China. Womp Womp.

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Namsan Tower has a famous tradition where couples, friends, and companions of any kind, bolt their love up on the tower figuratively and literally. Laura and I decided not to do it, mostly because we didn’t want to spend the money on the equipment. I intend to return with my lover bear Chris before he leaves in March to leave our lasting lock of love. My dream is to return 10 years later to find our rusty trusty lock still there dangling amidst all the other shared moments of affection.

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We were all lucky enough to witness a traditional performance while there.

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Our intention for the evening was to witness a Christmas Lights festival in the far Eastern suburbs of the city. Worried that we may exact the same fate as our previous ‘festival’ of the day combined with our blatant unwillingness to bare the brunt of the weather (even to shop!!), we altered our plans. Instead, we returned down the mountain and passed a couple hours chatting and downloading kitty emoticons at a local coffee shop awaiting performance time. We also snacked on some spiral potatoes! Yummy- my favorite!

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There are a dozen or so longstanding performances in Seoul that are popular with tourists and locals alike. My mother, Chris, Carly and I had attended Nanta when my mom visited in May. The show was a fusion of cooking, dancing, and traditional drumming. It had been a spectacular performance, one in which Chris was even invited on stage to perform in! Because I had already been to Nanta, Laura and I were deciding between a traditional Korean performance, Miso, and a show entitled Ballerina Falls in Love with a B-Boy. We opted for the later only because I had heard rave reviews from two of my friends at work. This was by far the worst decision of the day.

The ‘dance’ or ‘play’ was performed by a rag tag crew of adolescents on a tiny stage in a back alley theatre. The talent was slim to nil, despite obvious athleticism. Most of the performers seemed to lack any real ability to move or sense the rhythm of the music, appearing to flail their arms about to distract from their motionless cacophony of body cores and legs. The break dancing techniques were all ones completely over seen on youtube, and the ballerinas (not featured in the pics) appeared to be wearing their grandmother’s clothes.

The entire show was a hysterical horror. What made it even funnier is that we were the only Americans amongst a cadre of Japanese high schoolers who were enthralled with the muscular boys on stage. They literally flooded the stage after the finale. Each scene was uncreative, poorly acted, and performed with a shamefully embarrassing amount of braggadocios pride. I am 100% sure that my 20+ nieces and nephews (half of whom I have never even met) could have put on a better show. Womp Womp.

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Despite a disappointing end to a day filled with lackluster events, the company was terrific. John, Jesse, and Ellie are fantastic friends. The true disappointment came from my expectations not aligning with the outcomes and my subconscious preparation for saying ‘goodbye,’ which I was dreading like none other.

I can’t speak for Laura, but I think she had a marvelous vacation. I appreciated all of her observations while here. She liked the ease and efficiency of public transportation, the endless array of foods, events and activities to do in the big city, and she liked the mix of the ancient history with modernity. She did not appreciate the high amount of drinking in the culture, especially the drunken, horny, entitled business men. She also hated the second class citizenship of women. She felt that while kind and intelligent, many Koreans seemed to lack individual expression and creativity.

In the large expanse of the city, Laura commented on how safe she felt and expressed concern over the future of America after witnessing the advanced level of my students, mind you, while operating in their second language.  Many of my 13 year old students are discussing college level topics in English Tuesday and Thursday at academy, while advancing rapidly through their Calculus material on Fridays. Laura said she felt that her travels through Seoul had a sound track. She noticed the bells, bings, bongs, gongs, rings, tings, and songs of all of the city noises- from the elevator voice to the song of the approaching Subway, the doorbell to the restaurant service bell, and the clicking crosswalk to the beeping motion sensors.

Overall, the 3 weeks spent with my best friend cultivated memories and trust with and in one another that will last a lifetime. I feel so truly blessed not only to have a friend who is willing to invest so much time and money to come visit me, but also one who is an amazing travel companion- open to try any new activity or food, can balance the exhibits with outdoors, and is compassionately understanding. Three countries down together (Aruba, Vietnam, & Korea)! How many more to come? Only time will tell.

Saturday December 28

On Saturday morning, I walked Laura to her bus stop around 6 am. I  knew that once I said goodbye, I would be terribly depressed and lonely, but also relieved to be able to take a hand full of sleeping pills and carelessly collapse into my long lost bed. I only had two days to recuperate before the onset of a horrendous month-long winter schedule at my work. I think this little girl below was only half as exhausted as I was! The whole experience was well worth it. I ended the week  in a deep slumber accompanied by sweet dreams of us prancing around the world together to other mysteriously exotic lands.

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Prancing Around Seoul with Laura: Week 1

Our Asian adventure together continued 1700 miles Northeast of Hanoi, Vietnam in Seoul, South Korea!

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Tuesday December 17

Chris and my flight landed at 5:30 am Tuesday morning. We were home by 8 am and at our respective jobs by 2 pm. Laura landed in Seoul around 8: 30 pm and met at my place around 11 pm. We checked her into her hotel, went to eat delectable Korean BBQ, and took a tour (exactly 2 minutes long) of our miniature apartment… I think to her shock and horror. “It’s… just… soooo small,” declared Laura. In this moment I would swear by deja vu, for she had stated the exact sentiment with the same haunting expression as my mother only 7 months prior. Laura had a similar initial awkward and fumbling response to always having to immediately take shoes off once walking in the door, as is customary in Korea. Other than that, she felt comfortable and safe at her new digs.

Wednesday December 18

Before heading in to work on Wednesday, John, Laura, Chris and I went to the 2013 Seoul Design Festival. This was one of my favorite shared events together of the whole trip. The design festival featured new, up and coming artists, interior decorators, innovators in their given field,  fashion designers, techies, etc. Each station was unique and many were interactive. I enjoyed the wide variety of mediums utilized by each of the presenters.

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I met this artist. She designs the ballet-inspired prints herself and then has them translated onto a magnitude of different textiles. 1503940_984111016753_1925253899_n 601213_984099699433_1532573316_n 1528760_984099789253_848421853_n DSCN5326

Above: A hide away book shelf. Below: The softest, most-cuddly, and hilarious chairs I have ever sat on. I am pretty sure that the rest of the pictures <not displayed here> from this station would have solidified Laura’s mother’s fears over the past 16 years that we are lesbians (despite the fact that both of us have had many partners of the opposite gender).

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As I stated previously, many of the stations were interactive, yet many of the Korean attendees of the design festival were hesitant to get involved. Laura had some interesting observations and annoyance with the lack of initiation of many Koreans. Korea is a collectivist culture which means that the focus is on the group, not the individual. Evidence of this can be seen in every day life. Koreans are not rule breakers. They ask permission instead of forgiveness. Americans do the later. Being a deviant from any kind of norm is feared and avoided like the plague.  This can be wonderful because it promotes stability, lack of fear, less violence, respect for elders, order and control, an ease to every day life; however, it diminishes creativity, hinders individual expression and forces an entire culture to lack critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities. Laura found this down right trite and very uninspiring.

I told her that being a foreigner here has been the best of both worlds for me. As a person with anxiety, having an expected crowd and culture to move amongst is awesome. If I do something wrong or don’t feel like following the ‘rules’ that day, I am forgiven because I am a white foreigner. I actually really like the collectivist consideration for one another. I am not looking forward to moments of individualistic, selfish and entitled yearnings of the West back in the USA, most likely because it will be overwhelming for me to process and I will no longer feel special as one who is ‘allowed’ to do as I please.

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Above: A sculture made completely out of rice… only in Asia! DSCN5339 DSCN5347 DSCN5349 DSCN5351

Above: Picture right, the chair in the back is made completely out of cork. I really did not like the texture for sitting in because one’s clothes grab on the unconventional surface. Below: Rorshach decor- a future psychologist’s dream 🙂

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Above: Nifty little tea cups with tea bag holders that also looked like teeth!

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Below: Zip lamp shades that can be placed over any free standing bulb. Talk about economical and cute!

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Below: This was by far my favorite innovation of the day. Little men to hold the Ramen lid down so that the steam does not easily escape. This is genius.

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After the Design Festival, John and I scurried to work in order to make it on time. Chris and Laura stopped at a shop known for its appetizing mondu (dumplings).

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Wednesday evening after work, Laura, John, Andra, Ellie and I enjoyed dinner at our most-frequented local BBQ joint. You will see that we went to this BBQ restaurant often during Laura’s stay. We tried 5 different dishes, but Laura always had a fiending for Kalbi Sal- BBQ beef with salt.

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Thursday December 19

Thursday morning before work, Laura and I visited one of my most-cherished places in Seoul- Gyeongbok Palace. Unfortunately, we missed the English tour, but thankfully I have an excellent memory and was able to convey most of what I remembered from the last time I took the tour in May with my mother and Chris. The weather was crisp and there was fresh powder on the ground. I couldn’t have asked for a more glorious blue beaming sky to liven the spirit and brighten the pictures. I love this place so much because it reminds me of a fabulous time with my mother. It is located right in the center of the city and yet feels so far removed from the hustle and bustle of modernity. This place is part of ‘old Korea’ and has so much history from the various occupations of this small country.

Laura really enjoyed the symbolism and specific features of the palace. For example, I explained to her that the palace is placed specifically to blend in with the surrounding nature. The angular upswing of the awnings perfects melds into the slope of the mountain.

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Thursday evening after work was a blast! Christine, Yuni, Brandon, Ellie, John, Laura, Andra and I all went out to eat Shabu Shabu (very similar to the Chinese hot pot) and then went to noraebang to sing.

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Friday December 20

Friday I had work ALLLLL day, 10 am- 6 pm! Boooo! Meanwhile, Laura pounced around the city without me exploring museums (The War and Women’s Human Rights Museum and the Seoul Museum of Art) and getting her hair did! She got a fashionable new asymmetrical cut from my hair dresser Lucy!

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In the evening, we enjoyed more delicious Korean BBQ! Laura said she ‘craved’ the meat here, but to my dismay and surprise, hated the makgeoli. Makgeoli is a rice wine, a little bit sour and milky. I love it!

Saturday December 21

On Saturday, Laura graciously surprised Chris and I with lattes from Starbucks! Yum! Alas, Chris had to work, so it was Laura, Jesse and I that went out. Our whole day was spent in Insadong eating mouth-watering food, shopping for traditional Korean-made goods, and having tea at a traditional tea house.

Insadong was originally two towns whose names ended in the syllables “In” and “Sa”. They were divided by a stream, which ran along Insadong’s current main street. Insadong began 500 years ago as an area of residence for government officials through the early period of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897). During the Japanese occupation, the wealthy Korean residents were forced to move and sell their belongings, at which point the site became an area of trading in antiques. After the end of the Korean War, the area became a focus of South Korea’s artistic and cafe life. It gained in popularity with international tourists during the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Insadong is well known as a traditional street to both locals and foreigners and represents the culture of the past and the present. It contains a mixture of historical and modern atmosphere. The majority of the traditional buildings originally belonged to merchants and bureaucrats. Most of these older buildings are now used as restaurants or shops. Insadong contains 40% of the nation’s antique shops and art galleries as well as 90% of the traditional stationery shops. Particularly noteworthy is Tongmungwan, the oldest bookstore in Seoul, and Kyung-in Art Gallery, the oldest teahouse.

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I was so pleased that we were able to find this teahouse because when my mother was in Seoul in May, the traditional tea experience eluded us. We wound up drinking sugary tea in a courtyard with American Christmas music playing in the background. This time the tea was herbal, house traditional, and music, Korean. While in Insadong, Laura made a large and pricey purchase of an absolutely stunning tea set. The pictures do not do it justice! Because we did not want to risk breaking it, we returned home earlier than expected after it was purchased. The irony of this will become apparent later.

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Sunday December 22

Our first stop on Sunday was to Jogyesa Temple. Jogyesa Temple is the center of Zen Buddhism in Korea, and is famous for being located in the city. The first thing one notices at the temple are the lovely trees. These locust trees and baeksong trees in front of the Daeungjeon, the main temple building, are about 500 years old. One locust tree is about 26-meter high, and in the summer, provides a large amount of shade to enhance the mood of the temple. The baeksong tree is designated as a Natural Monument. The Daeungjeon building is a stately building built in 1938. The Dancheong is particularly beautiful with all the different colors painted on it, and inside the building is the statue of Seokgamoni. In front of the Daeungjeon building, you can also see a seven-storey stone pagoda containing Jinsinsari.

Laura seemed entranced with photo taking, especially with the wish candles. We were super lucky to see a traditional service going on inside. It felt special to be able to teach Laura a few of the Buddhist basics that I learned at my temple stay in the mountains in March.

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Next, we walked along the Cheonggyecheon Stream.

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Below: We had to stop to take a cliche photo op in front of the Admiral Yi sun-sin statue. Admiral Yi Sun-shin is a Korean hero. Yi Sun-shin (1545 –1598) was a Korean naval commander, famed for his victories against the Japanese navy during the Imjin war in the Joseon Dynasty, and is well-respected for his exemplary conduct on and off the battlefield not only by Koreans, but by Japanese Admirals as well. His most remarkable military achievement occurred at the Battle of Myeongnyang. He was outnumbered 133 warships to 13, and forced into a last stand with only his minimal fleet standing between the Japanese Army and Seoul and won. Yi died at the Battle of Noryang on December 16, 1598. With the Japanese army on the verge of being completely expelled from the Korean Peninsula, he was mortally wounded by a single bullet. His famous dying words were, “The battle is at its height…beat my war drums…do not announce my death.

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We then headed to Itaewon, the foreigner district, to visit Chris and work and to try one of Ben’s Cookies. Laura was shocked by how popular this place was, but even more alarmed that Seoul is so lacking in gooey warm cookies, so much so that this place makes bank.

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We had a fun dinner at Braai Republic for lamb pot pie and many many crafts of wine. From left to right: Laura, me, Yuni, Christine, Megan. Jesse joined in later.

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Last stop of the evening was to Southside Parlor for Bobby’s charity event/ welcome back concert.

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Above: Steve, Lee and Yuni. Below: Christine and IDSCN5481

Monday December 23

Monday morning Chris, Laura and I went to the Aria restaurant at the Westin downtown for our 5-star Christmas brunch with delicacies from all around the world. My favorites included:

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While I was at work, Laura went to the War Memorial of Korea and to the Noryangjin fish market.

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Tuesday December 24

In the morning, Laura went back to the War Memorial to take the English tour as I scrambled to finish typing report cards. Laura met me at school and spent the whole day with my adorable, energetic, candy- craving brute  kiddos. I have two distinct recollections of Laura’s commentary. 1) As she sat back with glazed eyes with 2.5 hours left in the day, “I’m exhausted, and you do this everyday?” 2) You are a good teacher- fun ,but with firm boundaries and expectations. This is the best compliment I could ever receive. Thanks lover! Meow.

After work, Andra, Megan, Ben, Lee, Steve, Yuni, Ellie, John, Laura and I went out for BBQ (I swear to god we did eat other things on this trip! lol).

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Hanoi, Vietnam: December 13-17

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Our 4-day journey to Vietnam was jam packed with a historical tour, water sports, cave exploration, fantastic food, a cooking class, and an epic reunification. My best friend, Laura, of 16 years, departed Minneapolis on Thursday December 12 with 2 bags- one with her clothes & camera, and one full of a plethora of Christmas presents from my parents, including the always-coveted decorated ginger bread cookies with cream cheese frosting, that my mother makes. Chris and I followed the morning of December 13 with our carry-ons from Seoul. We met in Hanoi after a free upgrade to business class (both of our first times!!) and a brief MN shout out at the Charlie Brown Cafe. Upon reunion, we three were joyfully chatty, despite being 2 bags lighter. Needless to say, Laura was stuck in the same outfit for 2 days! What a trooper!

Day 1

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All the booze we desired, personal TVs, and enough leg space for me to do a somersault. This is the life. I am 100% flying back to the USA in first class.

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Our balcony and the views:

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Our first adventure of the day was to explore the Old Quarter surrounding our aptly located accommodations. The Old Quarter has the original street layout and the limited remnants of French colonialism that can be seen in the street names and architecture. At the beginning of the 20th century, the city consisted of only about 36 streets. Each street then had merchants and households that specialized in a particular trade, such as silk traders, jewelry, etc. The street names nowadays still reflect these specializations, although few of them remain exclusively in their original commerce. The area is famous for its small artisans and merchants, including many silk shops, local cuisine specialties as well as several clubs and bars.

In the center of the Old Quarter rests Hoan Kiem Lake, meaning Lake of the Restored Sword. According to the legend, emperor Lê Lợi was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked for his magic sword, Heaven’s Will. Lợi concluded that the Turtle God had come to reclaim the sword that its master, a local God, the Dragon King had given Lợi some time earlier, during his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. The Turtle Tower standing on a small island near the centre of lake is linked to the legend.

Near the northern shore of the lake lies Jade Island on which the Ngoc Son Temple stands. The temple was erected in the 18th century. It honors the 13th-century military leader Tran Hung Dao who distinguished himself in the fight against the Yuan Dynasty, Van Xuong- a scholar, and Nguyen Van Sieu- a Confucian master and famous writer in charge of repairs made to the temple in 1864. Ngoc Son Temple is connected to the shore by the wooden red-painted Huc Bridge, meaning Morning Sunlight.

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Above: Laura gets adventurous in climbing skills and Chris is approached by an elderly Vietnamese man for a photo op (this has literally occurred everywhere we have gone in Asia).

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Whilst at the lake, Chris was on a mission to find the much-covted Vietnamese coffee shop that we intended to attend. Meanwhile, Laura and I went to explore the Huc Bridge and Ngoc Son Temple. As we were taking pictures and enjoying the scenery, a sudden storm rolled in. Laura and I scampered swiftly for cover and waited with 12 other people under an ornate decorative arch. As we were waiting, a young Vietnamese woman and her friends chatted with us and kept us pleasantly accompanied. After the storm subsided we were far separated from Chris with no means of communication. He knew that we would be somewhere on the lake (about the size of Lake Calhoun <3.2 miles in diameter> for reference). We had no need to worry because once we gave a two second description of Chris, one blurted out, “Oh… the tall black man?” Our new found friends were determined to help us reunite our group.  Only moments into our search, I became worried about the fact that we were moving around the lake and probably so was Chris, possibly in the same direction. This could go on all night… So we parted ways and a few instances later the Vietnamese college students were running back towards us stating that they had found our lovable Cbear. Yayy!

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Above: Rain storm. Below: One of the many “specialty” streets in the Old Quarter. This one was a seasonal street. It looked as though Christmas had vomited up tinsel and cliche Santa outfits for all genders and ages.

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We finished off day one with a fabulous dinner over-looking the Hoan Kiem lake. My first impressions of the city and its people were varied. From the moment we stepped off the plane, I noticed that the language sounded aggressive, but the tone did not match the expressions on the people’s faces. Every single person we met the entire trip was overly kind and welcoming. The reason for the assertive tone is that Vietnamese is a tonal language, much like Mandarin. This means that it was epically impossible for me to pronounce anything even remotely correctly because even if I was only a minuscule amount off of the word’s sound or pronunciation, it would mean something completely different. This is not true in Korea.

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My initial impression of the city was that it was small, very small. The closest comparison to our other travels would be Chiang Mai, Thailand, which I loved. Apparently the population in Hanoi is 6.5 million, but it did not feel at all congested. I am a bit jaded at this point, after having been living in the third largest city in the world (25 million in the city proper on a work day) after a year. The streets are fucking psychotic! There are NO traffic rules and people travel full speed right into one another until a second before collision, right as all the best moment’s of one’s life is flashing before one’s eyes. In my travels, Liberia was a close second in disastrous traffic scenarios, but at least there, the roads were so eroded that everyone was traveling slowly amidst complete chaos. This was not so in Hanoi.  

Most people drive mopeds or scooters because cars are outrageously expensive. A Ford Taurus would cost $50,000 because of the high taxation on cars and there is no domestic car production. Those who do own cars are very well-off businessmen, government job holders, or foreign dignitaries. Vietnam is unique in that most of the country, approximately 80%,  still sustains itself on farming. Therefore, the country as a whole is very poor. The largest exports are silk, coffee, and rice. Many foreign countries use Vietnam as a place to siphon cheap labor because of lower labor costs and less restricted operating standards. Panasonic is one of many. 

Day 2

Day 2 started out early with our tour guide Charlie meeting us at our hotel. Forgive the plug, but I acquired the services of Charlie through a company called Hanoi Free Tour Guides. These guides give free day long tours wherever one wants to go in the city. Each guide has to pass a four tiered exam and interview process in order to be selected- degree and resume selection, entrance exam, written work, oral test, and historical knowledge. Our experience with Charlie far exceeded my expectations. DSCN5075

Our first stop was to the Museum of Ethnology. The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is both a research centre and a public museum exhibiting the ethnic groups of Vietnam. The mission of the Museum is scientific research, collection, documentation, conservation, exhibition and preserving the cultural and historic patrimony of the nation’s different ethnic groups.

The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is a valuable centre for the exhibition and the preservation of cultural heritages of the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. It is also a centre for ethnographic research employing many experts on the different ethnic groups. People come to the Museum just not to visit or entertain, but also to learn about these ethnic groups, their cultural diversity and the uniqueness of each group and region, as well as traditional values throughout the Vietnamese country.

First stop was to watch the free water puppet show. Water puppetry is a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century CE when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. The puppets are made out of wood and then lacquered. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen, to control them. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this form of puppet play. Traditional legends and historical tales are among the enchanting puppet plays performed at this popular theatre
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Before and during the show, there was a large extra-friendly goat hanging out with the tourists.

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The crowd was highly amused by this ubiquitously seen and eaten-around-the-world animal. I wasn’t uber intrigued, but Chris really wanted a photo with him, so I had my camera out. He sauntered up to me playfully and then unabashedly started eating my purse! My first gut reaction was to smash down upon his thorny head with my fist and scream “No” over the blaring Vietnamese traditional music. This rousted a loud laugh from the onlooking crowd. Needless to say, the goat stayed far away from me after that. 

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We were given a ceremonious boutonnière for our attendance at the show.DSCN5098DSCN5099  

Below: the famous Vietnamese hat and fishing equipment, ceremonious Buddhist alter (80% of the country is Buddhist), and earthen ware.

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Above: This home we are posing in front of is a replica of the type of home our tour guide Charlie grew up in. The interior is about 20’X10′ with dirt floors containing one large family room, a separate area for cooking, a Buddhist alter, and a large machine for making clothes. 

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Above: The outdoor feature of the museum displayed a variety of housing particular to the different ethnic groups of the country. If you look closely at the right ladder, you will see breasts carved into the top of the ladder. This is the ladder for the women. I asked, but apparently there is not phallic equivalent for male ladders. Awww shucks. 🙂

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Our next stop of the day was to the Confucian Temple of Literature. This was one of my favorite places in the city. The architecture has been well preserved. The grounds are immaculately kept. This is a popular site for gradation photos because the temple is seen as the center for experiential and academic learning. The teachings found here speak of academic achievement and the moral need for public works. 

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The Vietnamese women and men are elegantly dressed for their graduation photos. Traditional Vietnamese wear for women is silk pants with a sheer long lace top. These, by far, have been the most attractive and sexy traditional clothes I have seen in Asia.

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Above: the three of us with our lovable sweet tour guide Charlie.

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In Vietnamese culture, the turtle and crane each symbolize enduring power and longevity. The two, standing together, represent a healthy long life of happiness. The tortoise represents the double symbol of Heaven and Earth. Its oval and convex shell represents the vault of heaven, while the square plaque on its underside symbolizes the surface of the Earth.
The tortoise is the emblem of longevity and perfection, and is generally represented with a coral branch in its mouth, a crane on its back, and a box containing the sacred book of “Lac Thu” placed under its back. This book serves as a reminder of the invention of a diagram representing the division of the universe into male and female principles. The crane on the back of the tortoise mostly in temples dedicated to Confucius, emperors and local spirits. In principle, the symbol of crane is not used in Buddhist pagodas. The tortoise is believed to live ten thousand years, and the crane one thousand years; thus, the presence of this symbol means, “May you be remembered for one thousand years, and may your cult endure for ten thousand years.”

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The trees were epic! And Chris was a bit of a celebrity that day. People stood in line to take a photo with him.

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After the temple, we had a magnificent lunch at Delicious Restaurant- huge and full of both tourists and locals. This is how one knows a restaurant is really great- popular with the locals and well-known enough that it attracts an international crowd. The restaurant was 360 degrees of visual and odorous excitement. All of the meals were cooked in plain view at different stations surrounding the two-ballroom-sized eating hall. We had so much food, I do not even remember all of the dishes. I know we had Pho, fresh spring rolls, fried egg rolls, and a fish dish. The total cost of our meal was around $30 for four people eating at least 5 dishes with drinks.

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Afterwards, we enjoyed Vietnamese coffee at a cute famous shop during a down poor. We got to pick Charlie’s brain about Vietnamese culture and Charlie had some fun romance questions of his own. Charlie is an attractive, well-dressed, smart man. I was surprised to find out that he had not yet dated, but he informed us that focus is on school and not on dating. Charlie is a 28 year old student finishing out his degree at a local private university. He has never been in a relationship and wanted to know the best way to ask a girl out. I told him to go all out, the more romantic and cheesy the better. Laura said she could do without the fanfare. We probably confused him more than helped, but it was a hilarious and informative discussion about relationships, sex, and love in Vietnam.

Couples in Vietnam are very egalitarian. Men and women work outside of the home, care for the children, and care for the home. Traditionally women still cook. Holding hands and public displays of affection are a rare sight, especially with the eldest generation. In Korea there is a steep divid on this issue. The older generation in Korea would probably die before touching someone of the opposite gender in public, while the younger generation can’t keep their paws off one another. In Vietnam, sex before marriage is common, but frowned upon. In Korea, sex before marriage is very common, but never discussed. Much like the trend in the large cities of the USA, Korea and Vietnam are waiting until late 20s and early 30s before taking the plunge into forever with his or her partner.

Charlie dropped us off at our hotel around 5 pm. We took a quick nap and Laura’s luggage finally arrived! The rest of the evening was spent at the night market shopping, people watching, investing in art, and trying the street food. I bought two of the below pieces. I feel very privileged to say that I met the artist and was able to see him in his element producing work.

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Day 3

Our destination for Day 3- Halong Bay! I had seen a photo similar to this one I took shortly after it was labeled a Cultural World Heritage Site. I knew I wanted to go to Vietnam and personally visualize the below picture. I did and it was surreal!

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We were picked up from our hotel at 7 am and began on our 3 hour drive to Halong Bay just NE of the city. If you can’t tell, Cbear was pooped.

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Along the way we got to see farming communities, rolling ‘greenscapes,’ and… chickens. Unfortunately, the scene of many animals crammed in a cage was witnessed far too often on this trip. Sad face for the animals. We stopped at an AHHHMAZZZING art store/warehouse/training center. Visitors were privy to gazing upon the workers as they sewed, manipulated their mediums, and honed their craft. This place reminded me of L’Artisan d’Ankor that we saw in Cambodia. I did not get the chance to do research on this place because it was an unscheduled stop in the tour, but I do hope that the artisans are treated well and compensated fairly. I bought two glorious silk shirts there 🙂

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Above: Sculpture room, Below: All of these pictures are hand-sewn!

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Yes, they are sewing these pictures… not painting. From far away, they look like paintings though.

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Back in the saddle again… on the road until we reached Halong Bay. 

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I slept for most of the 3 hour trek, so it seemed to go by in a flash. It was a rainy day, but still a gorgeous view. We chartered a private boat about 50 feet long. It was all ours!! For at least 6 hours anyways. Once on the vessel, we were off to view only a few of the thousands of spectacular jutting limestone islands and the accompanying fishing villages. First, we settled down to enjoy a very fresh and scrumptious seafood lunch.

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According to local legend, when Vietnam had just started to develop into a country, they had to fight against invaders. To assist the Vietnamese in defending their country, the gods sent a family of dragons as protectors. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. Numerous rock mountains abruptly appeared on the sea, ahead of invaders’ ships; the forward ships struck the rocks and each other. After winning the battle, the dragons were interested in peaceful sightseeing of the Earth, and then decided to live in this bay. The place where the mother dragon descended was named Hạ Long, the place where the dragon’s children attended upon their mother was called Bái Tử Long island, and the place where the dragon’s children wriggled their tails violently was called Bạch Long Vỹ island (Bạch: white-color of the foam made when Dragon’s children wriggled, Long: dragon, Vỹ: tail).

The bay consists of a dense cluster of some 1,600 limestone monolithic islands each topped with thick jungle vegetation, raising spectacularly from the ocean. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves. A community of around 1,600 people lives on Hạ Long Bay in four fishing villages. They live on floating houses and are sustained through fishing and marine aquaculture, plying the shallow waters for 200 species of fish and 450 different kinds of mollusks. Many of the islands have acquired their names as a result of interpretation of their unusual shapes.

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And then we went on a cave expedition!

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Above: this room caused Laura to burst out laughing like a 7th grader. I can give you two hints. It is red and very phallic.

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Below: we are rubbing the turtle head for good luck. Many people from all over the world have visited and left a small offering. It was spectacular to see the global currencies.

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Here we prepare for our 2 hour kayaking adventure. I opted for no life vest per usual. The crew gave us two kayaks and told us to explore- no real directions, no time to be back, no fear that we might get lost amongst the hundreds of similar-looking rocks. I LOVED IT! Freedom on the water at last. I missed Minnesota summer soooo much this year and there is no where in Seoul to get a calm “lake-like” experience of water. I don’t know if it was because it was a rainy day, but the Bay seemed deserted- no tourists, very few other kayakers, and minimal motorized boat sounds. The experience was tremendously peaceful. It was very unlike Phi Phi island in Thailand which seemed wrought with tacky tours and thousands of speed boats destroying the epic tranquility of the natural landscape. Here we were alone and it felt wonderful.

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After we traversed through the stoney underpass pictured below, we entered into a petite lagoon that was 360 degrees surrounded by striking grand limestone walls covered in lush greenery. Only the sun shown  above us, only the lapping of the water could be heard against the kayak, and it felt for a moment as if we were completely disconnected from the world as we knew it. I will never forget the transcendent views, the serene separation from society, and the epic release from all anxiety as I glided my fingertips in the clean cool water and breathed in the splendor of this once in a lifetime experience. I personally did not take any pictures purposefully because I wanted to only remember the feelings.

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Once we exited the lagoon, Laura and I rushed back because the sun was setting and neither of us wanted to get stuck out on the water in an area we did not know. Chris lagged behind. He is not as water able. One moment he was looking at an island of interest and the next moment he was floating in Halong Bay, disconnected from his kayak. He still doesn’t know what really happened. Laura and I did not see this occur. We heard it from the overly-concerned crew who had sent a rescue team out to get him. Chris is featured below on the side of the rescue boat. I think the crew thought I was diabolical because I thought the whole situation was quite funny. I never thought he was in danger for one moment. He had a life vest on, was in fresh water, and was within sight of the floating boat house we were on (maybe 150 meters away). If it had not been for our pending 3 hour commute home, I would have jumped in the bay too! The crew viewed it much differently especially when Chris came aboard bleeding profusely because he scrapped his leg on the side of the boat. It was a minor wound that they treated with great care. Either way it was quite dramatic. Chris’s camera was ruined permanently, but thank god we rescued the photos!

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Needless to say, we slept soundly upon return. It was one of the top 20 days of my life.

Day 4

In the morning and early afternoon of Day 4, Chris and I stayed in to rest and recoup. We were exhausted from the previous days’ activities and also needed some couple time. In order to get the 5 sequential days off from work, Chris was required to work every other day for the rest of the month. Being away from our 10X10 jail cell room in Korea was relaxing and very much needed. Meanwhile, Laura went and explored the city. Later in the day we had a cooking class to attend!

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First two tasks of cooking class: drink delectable Vietnamese coffee and go to the market!

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Below: Large toads in the bag.

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Below: The hind quarter of a fried dog.

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And now the cooking class begins. We made two types of salads, a pork stew, and fried spring rolls. The class was very well organized, super clean, and well-demonstrated. My only gripe was that compared to our previous cooking classes in Korea and Thailand, they didn’t really let us prepare or cook as much as the others. The stew was put in the oven and about half of the ingredients had already been chopped and prepared for us.

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Below: Making spring rolls.

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Below: Eating baby duck straight from the egg with a little bit of ginger. It was actually delicious!

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Below: Banana leave and prawn salad, and another pineapple, cucumber spicy salad.

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After our non-labor-intensive class, we sat down with all the members of our class and ate dinner with endless wine on the top floor of the restaurant. This part was unique, but a little bit odd because almost all of the other class constituents were much older than us. Chris and I headed to the airport after class to fly back to Seoul on the red eye so that we could work the morning we landed.