Vietnam


HANOI

I said goodbye to Neige and Rachel and began my journey to Hanoi, this time as a solitary traveller. I arrived in Hanoi in the later evening and grabbed a cab to go see Nate and Tali.

Nate and Tali are a wonderful couple I met while teaching in Chile. They only stayed in Chile for a couple of months, but could not afford the low pay, so decided to move back to Hanoi. They have been living there for about 2 years and I was very excited to see them. They live in an area of Hanoi called Westlake. I gave the cab driver the address and crossed my fingers I wouldn´t be dropped off in a ditch. Thankfully, I made it safe and sound and had a wonderful evening catching up over Chilean wine followed by an AWESOME dinner out. Seriously, one of the best meals of the trip.

We had a sampler of flavored rice wines and sauteed morning glory with soy chili sauce DSCN1382

Followed by fried frog legs, beef wrapped coconut rolls, fresh pho rolls with dill and wasabi soy dipping sauce and banana flower salad with dried beef served in a banana leaf.

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View from Tali and Nate´s place

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The next day we had a slow morning filled with coffee and delicious homemade crepes (Tali rocks).

We went to the park and had a delicious lunch (bun cha) with some of their friends from work, followed by some strong Vietnamese coffee.

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Sunday night, I went to my hostel which was located in the Old Quarter which was originally built as a big market, each street named after the product it sold. For example, my street was Hang (Street) Ga (Chicken). Wikipedia says,

¨At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of only about 36 streets, most of which are now part of the old quarter. Each street then had merchants and households specialised in a particular trade, such as silk traders, jewellery, etc. The street names nowadays still reflect these specializations, although few of them remain exclusively in their original commerce.¨

The Lake (Hoan Kiem) near the Old quarter,  is really lovely to walk around, both in the day and in the evening. It provides a moment of calm in a sea of motorcycles which can be pretty intense. Crossing the street feels like a game of frogger. Tali told me that buses are allowed to kill two people a year and not lose their licenses. At first I found the chaos fun but later it started to drive me a little nuts as crossing the street became a stress inducing activity.

I left on Monday morning to go to Halong Bay on an overnight boat tour. Halong Bay is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the world, and it is immediately clear why. The bay is filled with over 2,000 limestone islets that just straight up from the water. They almost look as though they are floating. Millions of years ago, Halong Bay was actually under deep-sea water, but through a combination of strange geological events, the sea water fell rapidly leaving these incredible rock formations.

We arrived in Halong around noon and then were ferried to the boat itself. I got REALLY lucky and got a room for two for just myself, which was great. The first day we went to Dau Go cave, which was made by the sea water years ago and is now preserved for tourists. It was enormous and very well-lit, but still hard to take good pictures.

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Next we went to the beach where we were able to hike up to  high point to take pictures of the bay.

The meals on the tour were really wonderful and around 5pm I was excited to go back for dinner. Post dinner we had cocktails on the boat and relaxed. I played a dice game called ¨worms¨and drank wine with a nice Dutch couple. the next day we headed back to the dock.

My only criticism was that the tour felt very couple-y which wasn´t much fun for single Grace, but there were other tours available which were more like ¨party boats¨ but I opted for the calmer tour.

I spent Tuesday evening, once I got home from the tour, checking out the bars in Hanoi with an Australian girl I met at the hostel. Hanoi has a curfew at 10pm, which is totally wild. Apparently this is some leftover regulation from Communist days, I´m not sure, but the cops come around 11pm to shut all the bars down. It was really interesting to witness. There is a cute cobble stone street right off the lake with some very cool bars. I especially likes Mao´s which has a Communist China decor and Fat Cat´s which had 1950s memorabilia as well as 70´s and 80´s disco and rock playing. When the cops came, we all had to put our drinks in plastic cups and go into the street until the left. It was strange. Nate told me there are also bars you can enter in secret,  through people´s homes. It´s like being in Prohibition.

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Rachel came to Hanoi Wednesday morning and we got some tasty Pho. She was tired and took a nap in the afternoon while I checked out Hao Lo Prison. It was pouring rain that day which was frustrating but the prison was very interesting. I was absolutely floored by some of the images of the Vietnam War. It became clear also that the American pilots were actually treated quite well at the Hanoi Hilton (well….for a prison) which is ASTOUNDING considering the damage they inflicted on the Vietnamese people. I left feeling sobered.

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Nommy Banh Mi Sammy and Pho

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That night, Rachel and I went out for more Cha Ca (tumeric fish with fresh herbs….so good!) and to go see a water puppet show. It was very interesting and only 45 minutes. Well worth the 5 dollars. We ended the night with some goodbye drinks at Mao´s.

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Vietnam was hands down one of my favorite places I´ve ever visited and I´d love to go to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) someday. I was totally in love with the mix of old French colonial style building and traditional Vietnamese houses and how all three (French, American and Vietnamese) blend into many aspects of Hanoi´s culture. I hope to come back someday!

So, then it was back to Seoul for the night, then on to Seattle, and here I am! I suppose that concludes my adventuring for a bit. I may go back to using PicanteKitchen so stay tuned!

Thailand


BANGKOK

We left for Bangkok from out hostel in Seoul around 5am to catch a 8:30 flight.

It was pretty smooth sailing getting to Bangkok, no problems with out layover in Guangzhou, China. We got off the plane, collected out bags, and took the subway to our hostel, which was an above ground railway, giving us a clear view of the city.

I don´t think I´ll ever forget the view on that subway ride. The lush, vibrant green of the palm trees  and cocoa colored canals flowing in and around the city made it seem as though nature and city were in a constant battle. Granted,  I´d been to the Phillipines for Christmas, so it was not the first time I´d seen this type of landscape, but it didn´t take away from the initial shock and excitement of arriving in Thailand. It certainly didn´t prepare me for the humidity that hit me when I stepped off the train. Dripping with sweat (this will be a running theme throughout the trip), we found out hostel and began scheming for the next few days.

That evening, we got some street food near us. It was so good (glass noodles in some amazing sauce) that we decided to find more. We went to Khao San Road which, despite being very touristy, is tons of fun. It is packed with cute, low-lit bars with live music and tons of shopping and street food.

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Next day, we went to explore a market while we waited for Neige to arrive. It was fun snooping around the stalls, though we stood out like sore thumbs as this was very much a market for locals, not tourists. After the market, we grabbed a tuk tuk and went to Lumpini park.

The park was quite pretty and a relaxing oasis amidst a sea of noise and pollution.

Later we got Neige and went out for dinner. I had found a good-looking restaurant on tripadvisor I wanted to try. The foodie in me wanted to have one, well-chosen, sit-down meal before leaving Bangkok. But, I lead us astray. I didn´t realize just how FAR AWAY this place was, or how bad traffic would be in Bangkok in the early evening. Over an hour later, after lots of confusion (the taxi driver had no clue) we arrived at this cute outdoor restaurant next to a garden. The food was awesome, maybe my favorite meal in Thailand, but it did not really make up for the distance travelled (poor Neige was SO tired and hungry).

We had fried fish

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Tom Ka Gai (Coconut lemon grass soup) SO GOOD. Best I´ve had in my life.

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Spicy green mango salad (A common menu choice throughout this trip)

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The next day, we went palace viewing. First up, The Grand Palace.  My, was it grand. It was SOOOO hot that day —-we thought we´d be okay with pants and our shoulders covered by scarves. We were sad to find out we needed sleeves to enter, so Rachel and I rented these linen a-sexual  fitting shirts. We looked amazing! 😉

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The Grand Palace was hard to capture in pictures because it was so massive. It was  a small city of highly intricate, gold-plated temples—ornate and breath taking. The heat was pretty intense but I just had to submit to perfuse sweating.

That night we got dinner at the top story of tall hotel, buffet-style. I wasn´t feeling great and the food was meh, but the view was pretty spectacular. Bangkok is a busy, smelly, noisy hot mess, but an exciting one. There was so much we just didn´t have time to do.

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CHIANG RAI

We took an early morning flight to Chiang Rai and got to our hostel around 10am. The hostel (called FUN D) was great! Nice, clean rooms, big showers, and a big open common area with cheap beer. We spent most of our time in Chiang Rai relaxing  and drinking cheap beer on rainy evenings, which was fantastic. We made sure to go see The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), which was very interesting. It was designed in 1997 by visual artists  Chalermchai Kositpipat, and is essentially a very unconventional Buddhist Temple. The inside of the temple has pictures of contemporary celebrities like Michael Jackson staring at the center of a celestial painting, and the outside mixes traditional Thai temple architecture with modern embellishments.

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(A tasty last meal in Chiang Rai)

CHIANG MAI

We took a bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai and the scenery was breath-taking. Big, dinosaur sized plants with leaves as big as people with a backdrop of lush green hills sides. Chiang Mai was one of my favorite places we went on this trip. It´s a beautiful little town, with tree-lined streets and cute shops and restaurants. Its touristy, but not so touristy as to lose it´s charm. Chiang Mai acts as a starting point for elephant trekking and outdoorsy adventures and is renown for it´s spas. We stayed at a hostel called Garden Aoi which was a bit ¨rustic¨ (The rooms were fairly basic, shared shower between 10 people) but the garden patio was really pretty and the breakfast  and coffee rocked. Plus, it was a super cheap at around 6 bucks a night.

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Our first day in Chiang Mai, we rented bike sand rode around the city which was a blast. Chiang Mai has over 300 wats (temples) , so pretty much one on every corner. I had an awesome lunch of green curry pasta with grilled pork cutlet. Nom.

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Rachel and I signed up to do elephant trekking and see tigers the next day and we were both very excited.

We had to ride in the back of a truck for about an hour to get to the elephant camp. Once there, we changed into these light blue linens, so that ¨the elephants will know you are safe¨.  We learned different commands in Thai for the elephants and how to mount them and get off, etc. We also got to feed them sugar cane which was fun. Finally, we got to ride them around the camp, and even give them a bath in the lake. The whole experience was very cool. The baby elephant was so cute ! Interacting with elephants like that is something I´ll never forget.

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I should  definitely note, however, that there is quite a bit of controversy with both the elephant trekking and the tiger petting parks. In both cases, there has been reports of animal abuse. The elephants are frequently abused when in training, using a steel hook, and also chained up most of the time. The tigers are drugged, without a doubt, or petting hem would certainly be impossible. On the whole, I found the tiger petting more upsetting because they were so clearly drugged and the whole operation felt very forced–go inside, sit like this, don´t touch the head, take a picture, get out. It was hard to see such beautiful, strong animals in cages. But, it was a memorable experience–I just suggest anybody interested do their research before signing up.

Our last night in town, we got drinks at a cute retro bar with a patio overlooking the river.

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KO PHI PHI

To get to Ko Phi Phi we had to take a flight to Phuket, stay a night there, then take a ferry to the island.

It was a rainy, long journey but well worth the wait. Ko Phi Phi was gorgeous and our cabin was really nice with air con and a private bathroom for the three of us. We also met up with Hannah and Tom, a couple Rachel and I met in Seoul. Spending five nights on the beach was perfection. We mostly just sipped cocktails, tanned in the sun, and ate delicious food. Ko Phi Phi is the ¨party beach¨so we made sure to check out the night life which involved loud bars along the beaches serving buckets of alcohol and lots of fire themed spectacles. We also signed up for a half day tour to go see the Maya Bay where The Beach was filmed which included snorkeling and a stop by ¨monkey beach¨. I got a massage and a pedicure for 6 dollars…hard to complain.

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Our half day excursion..

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Relaxing

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The last day on Ko Phi Phi, Neige and I got food poisoning (see the meal pictured above…good looking poison right there!) . It was BRUTAL. Plus, we had to check out of the hotel that day and take a two hour, rocky ferry ride back to Phuket. That was one of the most challenging days I´ve experience in my life, but we both survived and recovered just in time to fly to Siem Reap.

Buddha´s Birthday in Busan 부산


We´ve had a long haul with no days off….we had one at the end of February, but during March and April, there was not one day off. Finally, this last weekend, we got a 3 day weekend and I took the opportunity to go to Busan which I´ve been wanting to do since I arrived.

Busan is one of the biggest cities in Korea and is located right on the bottom tip, a skip and a jump from Japan. Busan has a thriving fishing industry and a handful of white sandy beaches creating a more relaxing, laid back vibe compared with bustling, frenetic Seoul.

We left Friday morning and took a five hour train ride from Suwon station. When we arrived, we took a cab to Gwangalli beach where our motel was located. We sprung for an ¨ocean view¨, and it was worth the few extra won.

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After settling in, Chris and I took a long stroll down the beach at twilight and met up with Rachel who was staying in Haundae in a hostel. We had a great time walking along the waterfront, the city lights sparkling on the water. Couples holding hands interspersed with teenagers lighting off fireworks on the beach made for a fun, light hearted if not romantic mood. We wandered into a mini Theme Park and squealed like 10 year olds (or…wait, maybe just me) on the Pirate Ship.

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After a tasty feast of marinated galbi, and of course, beer and soju, we meandered into a bar for over priced cocktails just in time to witness a marriage proposal right behind the bar. Oh, how romantic!

A few drinks in, we stumbled to the beach to light off fireworks….responsibly, of course. More squealing, stumbling, and some explosions later, we decided to call it a night.

Saturday morning Rachel and I headed to Yonggungsa Temple (용궁사) which was worth the long, sweaty and crowded 45 minute bus ride. Located right on the ocean, with the waves crashing onto the rocks, sits this gorgeous Buddhist Temple which was adorned in colored lanterns to celebrate Buddha´s Birthday. Although packed with tourists, it was a great experience. The colored lanterns were stunning.

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After the Temple visit, we found our way back to Haundae beach, which is the larger of the two beaches and better for swimming. Although we didn´t get the heat or sunlight we were hoping for, relaxing on the beach was very sastisfying and I did my best to breath in the ocean air as much as possible before returning to dusty, smoggy Seoul.

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We ended our trip with dinner out at a nice Italian place and some drinks at a bar on the beach.

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I was sad to leave Busan but happy to have gotten the chance to visit and I had a great time. It was nice to see a different side of Korea, especially a slightly less hectic and crowded city.

Now to buckle down and prep for open class at the end of the month….yikes.