Sunday, December 4, 2011

Vietnam: Day 12 - Seoul, South Korea

At shortly before 6am, our flight landed in Seoul.  We were a bit tired having only had about 3 hours of sleep, but if the choice was sitting around the airport for 12 hours or hitting the streets, why not keep the adventure going?  Jon and I stored our bags at the airport and grabbed the train into town.  It was a smooth ride, if a little long, but we made our transfer to the city subway at the university station and continued on into Seoul.
Our first stop was a Dunkin Donuts to get some caffeine before we walked the streets of Insa-dong (a trendy area not too far from the city center).  Since it was early on a Sunday morning, the streets were mostly quiet and not many of the businesses were open yet.  Still, it was fun to do some window-shopping and take in some nice views from the mountains surrounding the city.  At the end of the street, we noticed that we weren’t too far from Gyeonbokgung Palace and headed in that direction.
The weather was much cooler than the tropical weather we were used it (it was above freezing, but not by much), so we didn’t spend too much time strolling the outdoor grounds.  We managed to snap a few photos before retreating back underground to go to Dongdaemun Market.  Again, not too much was shaking there, but had we been in the market for some knock-off designer gear, this would have been the perfect place to find it!  Nearby, the city is renovating an area as a gathering space/cultural center.  The design reminded me a bit of Millennium Park in Chicago, and it looks like it’s coming along nicely.
Another subway whisked us over to an upscale shopping area.  Ready for lunch, we looked around for something Korean that might fit the bill.  We found a nice lady on the street who pointed us towards a restaurant a few doors down, and we went in only to find a menu entirely in Korean!  The waitress didn’t speak English, but some other diners did some translating for us.  We ended up ordering some beef Korean barbecue and waited to see what would arrive.  What we got was fantastic: there were thin strips of beef that the waitress grilled right at our table combined with a green salad, kimchee, a macaroni salad, and large lettuce leaves to wrap the beef in.  There was also red pepper paste and fish sauce to go along with it.  It turned out to be a lot of food, but we had no trouble making short work of it.
We ventured out yet again in search of the Namsan cable car.  After an initial wrong turn, we found the terminal, bought tickets, and were soon being taken up the mountain.  The view of Seoul from here was fantastic, and it was neat to see it unfold as we rose.  At the top we took an elevator ride up to the top of the N-Seoul tower.  It reminded us a bit of the Space Needle, so it was a nice transition back to our regular life in the US.  

Here, Jon and I gather some information for our pilot from the N-Seoul Tower as to how to get back to Seattle from Seoul:
Back down the mountain we went and zipped back over to Seoul Station.  Jon wanted to buy some red pepper paste to bring home, so we ducked into a superstore.  I had no idea how we’d find it, not knowing Korean, but luckily the store had a whole section devoted to it!  After a bit of debate as to whether that counted as a liquid or gel, Jon bought it in the hopes that there’d be no questions.
We took the train back to the airport.  The weather was clear enough now to see the new Incheon Bridge from the train, so that was neat to see.  It would have been great, had we had a little more time, to check it out up close.  We retrieved our bags and got through security before taking advantage of the airport’s free shower facilities (much to the relief of our fellow passengers).

10 hours or so later, we were on the ground back in Seattle.  This wound up being quite a vacation with a variety of different locations to enjoy.  As amazing as it was, it felt good to be back home!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Vietnam: Day 11 - Siem Reap, Cambodia

For our last full day of vacation, we decided to take it easy.  We hung around our beautiful hotel until about noon when we went off to downtown for a little while.  Soon, we were ready for lunch and doubled back to a restaurant within a butterfly garden.  Jon and I both ordered some relatively traditional Khmer meals and we did some reading there until about 2 in the afternoon.
Then, we headed back over to our hotel for our Khmer massages.  They were not as bone crunching as the ones we’d had in Thailand, but they certainly weren’t what you’d think of as a massage! I never even knew my feet could pop in so many ways.  Completely relaxed, we wandered back into town and took up residence at a café called the Blue Pumpkin for the afternoon.  It was nice to relax and get some more reading time in until we were ready to go get some dinner.
We ambled over to a restaurant a little ways from downtown and had a very nice meal, but soon it was time for us to admit that we had to hit the road.  We walked back over to our hotel to collect our bags, and then a nice driver took us to the airport.
Despite the late hour, the Seam Reap Airport was buzzing with activity.  There are quite a few red eye flights to Asian destination and much to my surprise, there are 4 flights to Korea alone!  After sorting out which one we belonged on, we settled in for our red eye to Incheon Airport in Seoul.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Vietnam: Day 10 - Siem Reap, Cambodia

Another early flight had us cabbing it to the airport early yet again.  This time, we were off to Siem Reap, Cambodia as an extension of our trip.  Initially this had not been in our plans, but the proximity of Angkor Wat to us meant we could not pass up a chance to hop across the border.
The Angkor Air hour-long hop was very pleasant, and we landed at Siem Reap to discover an airport similar to the open-air feeling I remember from landing at Kona in Hawaii not too long ago.  We bought our visas, got our fingerprints taken at passport control, and proceeded to Customs.  Here, there were no attendants but rather a pile of declaration cards that previous passengers had dropped on their way through.  We looked around for a few minutes, but seeing nobody, we added ours to the pile and zipped out to a cab!
A friendly driver took us to Viroth’s Hotel while we took in our first glimpse of Siem Reap.  Being in the jungle, the vegetation is much more lush and the streets much less crowded.  After settling in, we walked over to the town center for some lunch at a place called the Blue Pumpkin.  Finally, I had an actual sandwich with bread and everything!  The French influence is stronger in Cambodia than it is in Vietnam, so apparently that means much more bread.  Our meal was great, but we were anxious to get up to Angkor Wat, so we grabbed a tuk-tuk and made our way through the admissions booth and on to the temple grounds. 
My first impression was “Wow!”, and it reminded me of the first moment I had laid eyes on the Taj Mahal during our India trip.  The sheer size of the stone structure is enough to grab your attention as you stroll across the moat and into the long courtyard leading up to the temple.  There are bas-reliefs on almost every surface depicting the history of the 12th century society that built the sacred structure, and climbing in and around and on and through and up all the corridors and spires gives you a sense of the great history here.  How fortunate that the stone has held up through the years for us to see and explore!
From the temple, we walked the 3 km up to Angkor Thom (the city that lies just north of the temple).  We passed the south gate and several groups of monkeys as we made our way up the dusty road.  The Bayon was our next stop.  This structure has more elaborate stone carvings that depicted the daily life and struggles of the people who built it.  Most of it is still intact, so the walk through is a constant battle to determine just what to photograph!  There are so many elaborate places to look.  Just north of that are two platforms, the Platform of the Elephant and the Platform of the Leper King, which were used by royalty to watch performances on the expansive lawn out front.  Jon and I walked along here but opted to take a tuk-tuk back to Angkor Wat for sunset.
Unfortunately, clouds prevented us from getting a particularly dramatic shift in the light by the temple as the sun went down, but we stuck around and took many photos.  Another tuk-tuk took us back to the hotel.  After 5 hours of walking around and exploring, we were exhausted!
That evening, we walked to a nearby restaurant owned by the same people as our hotel for some traditional Cambodian food.  The taste is a bit milder than what we were used to from Vietnam, but it still had a distinct flavor that I liked.  We strolled into town to watch the nightlife unfold.  Vietnam is very much an early-to-bed-early-to-rise country, but the tourist trade in Siem Reap means that the bars and restaurants stay open well into the evening.  Tons of folks were still milling around and enjoying Pub Street as we bid them all good night to return to our hotel for some rest.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Vietnam: Day 9 - Ho Chi Minh City

If yesterday’s trip to Reunification Palace had been a gentile reminder of the Vietnam War, our excursion to the Cu Chi tunnels north of the city would bring it front and center!  Around 8am, our tour bus picked us up at the hotel and took a group of us about an hour outside the city to the Cu Chi region.  Our tour guide spoke excellent English and brought a dry sense of humor to what turned out to be a very sobering visit.  The Cu Chi people were in a disputed region that was the main northwest entrance to Saigon during the war, and the people of this area built a network of 250 km of tunnels to live in and to keep them safe from attack.  The US troops tried to poison and drown the folks out of the tunnels, as well as carpet-bombing the area, but to no avail.  Instead, both sides devised traps for their enemies: the US in the form of mines and bombs, and the Cu Chi with more primitive tools such as spears and traps laid out around the tunnel entrances.  The tunnels are impressive in their engineering and still exist to this day.  We even got to go down in one of them, but they are not built for tall Westerners.  This meant a lot of crouching and crawling to get through.
This particular tour made me a bit uncomfortable, but mostly because it really brought to life the brutal fighting that went on from both sides during the conflict.  Add to that the fact that there is a shooting range for tourists to enjoy right there filling the air with sporadic gunfire, and the place really came to life for me.  The exhibits are well-done, and the tour was (I thought) fairly even-handed in its retelling of events.  Jon asked the tour guide what the Vietnamese think of Americans today, and he said that the Vietnamese do not forget what happened, but that they do set it aside and look forward to a more harmonious future.
In the afternoon, we got back to the city and returned to the same restaurant where we’d had lunch the day before and had a little time to rest back at the hotel.  Then, we set out on a very long walk through the city to the Emperor Jade Pagoda in District 3.  This lovely shrine is still active today and filled with the scent of incense and filled with worshippers.  A pond in the courtyard out front is filled with turtles that visitors can add some baby turtles to for good luck.  As the evening fell, we sat in a local park to watch the residents play badminton while some children played in a small pool or rode some smaller rides.
Then we walked over to a Chinese-inspired restaurant for dinner where many dishes are served in clay pots.  Jon ordered something called broken rice where the clay pot in which the rice is cooked is shattered.  Then, the rice cake is thrown across the restaurant to a waiting employee who tosses it up in the air several times before serving it.  It was quite a spectacle!  With evening upon us, we wandered back to the market to buy some souvenirs before calling it a night.
Overall, I really appreciated our trip to Vietnam; it’s a beautiful place with friendly people, and I feel fortunate to have visited.