Traveling Tales: Seven nights in Tokyo

For a week I set out to conquer the megalopolis that is Tokyo. Many coffees were consumed, cafes visited, sushi feasts devoured, neighborhoods weaved through, boozy beverages downed, friends made, totoros found, dreams realized, love matierialized. Tokyo wooed me with its sexy, crazy, coolness and she was a costly lover, my week-long tryst was an adventure well worth every yen spent. Below are some of my favorite images captured during my time in Tokyo.

Beat makers outside Meiji Shrine in Shibuya

Sake barrels outside Meiji Shrine in Shibuya

Guard and processional along the path to Meiji Shrine

The afternoon chaos of Shibuya crossing

Blue nights in Tokyo

Women in kimonos shuffling in Omotesando Hills

Traditional Japanese dance party

Doughnuts at Streamer Coffee in Shibuya

A Tanaka specialty, the Gibraltar, at Bear Pond Espresso in Setagaya

Pachinko neon

Shrine streams in Ueno Park

Tokyo Skytree

Neon geisha in Shinjuku



In the midst of list season,  I deliver to you the first of far too many to come. Here is a tale told through images of places I traveled in 2011.


The Ho Chi Minh Memorial in Hanoi

A young boy properly suited for Tet festivities

Tran Quoc Pagoda


Local dwellings of the Bay

Giant vertical rock formations


Cathedral Notre-Dame

Soaking up the afternoon sun

Ho Chi Minh statue in front of the Peoples Committee Hall


A vessel of the Delta

Snake liquor for sale and a local curious fish

Coconut candy makers selling their product in the Delta


A fellow giant, me, greetings the Petronas Towers

One of oh so many delicious plates served up in Malaysia


On the water, island life

A monk giving alms at a Chinese temple for the Lunar New Year celebration

Botanical garden locals

A city of temples for ranging beliefs


Hongdae’s infamous makguelli man

Awaiting the sunrise near the sea

Fried goodness for sale near Seoul Station

Seoul Lantern Festival 2011


Gwanggali beach

Seafood stew successfully devoured

Bidding farewell to the sun over Gwanggali


Street art spotted in NW PDX

Sweet nectar from Mecca


Chicago Theatre

Skyscrapers and fields of grass

The Magnificent Mile

Meeting giant Marilyn


Iowa feels like home and these are some of the state’s finest folks and dear friends of mine.

Wall art at Big Tomato Pizza

The lovely lady Anna and I,  faces glowing in humidity


Exterior of the Seattle Art Museum

Roomies reuniting in Seattle


View of San Fran from Lombard Street

Annie Danger and I at the base of the windiest street in the world

Decor of China Town

Alcatraz sighting in the bay

Message of the Mission


Kaili and I playing with a sculpture park illusion

Minne’s Spoon and Cherry sculpture

Bridge wisdom


Sunny day at the seashore

My puppy dog, Sadie Hawkins, hiding out in the tall sea grass


Jackson Square

Intricate bead-work of a chief suit

Taking a shot at General Lee

Draping Oaks

NOLA pride: Abita beer and the Saints logo in the distance

Cafe Du Monde, possible location of heaven on Earth


South Korean guards standing in a kill stance in the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea

The flagpole carrying the weight of the heaviest flag in the world in North Korea

Peering into another world


For more photographs of my travels and Korean life, visit my Flickr page:

48 Hours in Busan

Last, last weekend was Korea’s Memorial Day weekend and to celebrate my coworkers Will and David, our friend Amila and myself decided to venture south to the beaches of Busan to soak up the sunshine, dine on fresh seafood and splish-splash in the salty waters of the East Sea.


The journey began late on Saturday night as we took a 3-hour train ride from Seoul to Busan and since there were no seats left on the train we made ourselves comfortable in one of the standing cars. The trip itself went by fairly fast, no doubt with help from the service cart selling beer at the same cheap price as convenience stores (~2,000 won or $1.50). When we finally arrived in Busan, our first mission was to fill up our bellies and after a little bit of roaming around and swiftly moving out of the sketchy Russian quarter, we settled on a small Korean restaurant for some pretty standard grub; I had a bowl of some scrumptious bibimbap that included some raw fish. After having drinks in a different section of the city that kind of reminded us of Hongdae, we decided to make the trek to a nearby jjimjilbong (Korean spa/baths) to wash and sauna off the day and catch some zzz’s.This jjimjilbong was quite nice with multiple hot baths, a large pool and two saunas, and the common room for sleeping was rather large though a little on the discomforting side due to the extra hot temperature.


Waking up around 11 AM feeling fairly well-rested, we hit the sauna, showered and grabbed a quick bite to eat before catching the subway to Gwangalli Beach.

Group shot at Gwangalli Beach (left to right: me, Will, Amila and David)

This beach was absolutely gorgeous and not too overcrowded, which was rather nice. We basically spent the entire day laying on the beach sipping makguelli, taking dips in the ocean to cool-off and grabbing food, coffee and water just across the street whenever the need arose.

Salty East Sea waters

Amila gazing out at the sea and Gwangan Bridge

My sandy toes

On the boardwalk

After beach lounging for several hours, we had all worked up a mighty hunger, but David and I were specifically craving some spicy cold noodles which isn’t exactly everybody’s cup of tea, so we left Will and Amila on the beach to hold our spots and got ourselves some giant bowls of noodles!


All too quickly our day at the beach was turning into night and for the evening hours we made our way to Haeundae Beach, which though I haven’t ever been to Cancun, I feel confident in making the comparison deeming Haeundae essentially to be Korea’s Cancun. Though Haeundae isn’t the kind of beach I prefer, it made for an eventful and amusing night out, and the surrounding area/section of the city was actually a lot of fun for grabbing dinner, drinks and whatever other entertainment seemed necessary, like noraebonging!!

Haeundae Beach by night

For a few hours we sat on the beach near the water playing drinking games and chatting, listening to terrible bands performing on the giant stage that we couldn’t manage to get far away enough from to allow the sea to completely drown out the sound. One game we played was a number/counting game that sounded too easy at first, but surely enough after a few rounds we were all becoming sufficiently goofy off of our beach beverages of choice, especially Amila who had trouble remembering some of her times tables! With the beach growing chilly and our stomachs rumbling, we went inland to find a spot for dinner that we could all agree on, which took far longer than it should, but eventually we settled for a giant pot of seafood stew and it was thoroughly satisfying to say the least.

Remnants of a seafood devouring session

Will and I had been really aching for some singing time so our next destination was a noraebong (singing room). The first place we went to basically refused us, a sometimes occurrence for foreigners just about anywhere, but the woman was very kind and directed us to a different noraebong nearby. Though we were all in attendance, Will and I were total mic hogs, but Amila and David didn’t seem to mind too much! I wish I could remember the entire tracklist for the night, but of what I can recall I know Will and I did a spectacular job with Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson,” and Queen, Prince, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones and Rick Astley (yes, we rick-rolled ourselves) all happened at some point.

Will, Amila and David at the noraebong…I think the boys were doing “Kung-Fu Fighting”

This might have to be one of my profile pictures for life

The rest of the evening went as most Korean nights do, unpredictably predictable. We walked around exploring the city at night, laughing at the strange sights and generally causing mischief whenever we foreigners could. David and I “played” a little volleyball on the beach and Will and I dared drunk David to run to the top of a sand mountain, which he did. All was magically well until we made it to incredibly beautiful looking, both on the interior and exterior, jjimjilbong we planned to sleep in only to discover that it was full. I didn’t think this was possible and certainly doubted the front-desk women until she allowed me to take a peek at the sleeping area to see if we wanted to stay there still and it literally was the most packed sleeping quarters I’d ever seen in my life. Fortunately jjimjilbongs are a plenty and after a short cab ride we found a place to rest our weary limbs.


For me, Monday began all too abruptly as an adjumma (someday I will go into all that this single word encompasses and signifies, which is a surprising amount, but for now just know that this is the word used to describe a particular and common type of Korean woman, but literally translates to married woman) woke me by shaking and hitting me with a square brick pillow and in a whispered shout said something in Korean that my mind translated to “get up and move now!” This all happened at 9:30 AM, which maybe in my U.S. days would have been a normal waking hour for me, but in Korea I’m lucky if I’m out of bed before 11: 00 AM. Exhausted and off-kilter from waking in the middle of my sleep cycle, I presume, I headed for the sauna in hopes of sweating myself to a state somewhere closer to awake than I was; it half-worked, but I think the cold pool after is what really did the trick. Or maybe just being surrounded by a ton of naked Korean women starring at me is what did it.

Amila and I were ready to go before the boys had even gotten themselves off the floor (somehow they avoided being rudely awakened by some Korean woman), but we managed to all meet-up for some breakfast before returning to Gwangalli Beach to spend yet another day on its glorious sand. Unlike our lazy Sunday, much of Monday was spent in the ocean playing with the volleyball David brought along. It was super fun running around and hitting the volleyball in the salty water and just being in the ocean like that reminded me of how I used to spend my weekends on the Oregon Coast surfing when I was younger. I’m sure I’d be awful at it now as I was never even that good, but I’m actually looking forward to busting out my surfboard when I get back to America and seeing what I can do.

The day was winding down fast and all too soon it was approaching the hour for Amila to catch a train back to Seoul. For our final supper together we grabbed some Mexican food and mojitos at a restaurant with a patio right next to the beach and it was an excellent meal to bid farewell to one of our posse members.

Last supper all together in Busan

From that point, the weekend was already perfect and extremely memorable, definitely among my favorite weekends spent in Korea. I couldn’t really imagine at the time what would’ve made the trip significantly better, but sure enough we came up with something. While eating dinner, the next mission was determined to be to get onto the roof of a building, specifically with our eyes on the linked twin towers that were so intriguing and architecturally attractive in the skyline.

Before embarking on our rooftop adventure though, we checked out a beach carnival that was next to the buildings. It was a quaint operation when it comes to carnivals, but it certainly created some great photo opportunities. I especially loved the bright colors, neon lights and terribly reproduced popular images.

The Crazy Flip


Loving this DISCO light

The sun was destined to set soon and thus we made our attempt to get to the roof of a building near the sea. The first tower we went up to the fifteenth floor and had no luck–every door was locked despite the deserted appearance of the building. With our fingers crossed, we took the elevator to the top floor of the second tower and as the boys turned to head for the stairwell I felt compelled to at least try the doors to the empty office next to the elevator and to my complete shock the doors were unlocked, as were the doors to the balcony overlooking Gwangalli Beach. We were all so ecstatic and simply couldn’t believe that we had discovered a high up in the sky to call ours for a little while. There are few things in life that I call perfect, but that occurrence and our luck in that moment and watching the sunset over the sea and edge of the hills in the distance of the cityscape really was perfect. Spending whatever time we did up there really was the ideal way to end our trip to Busan.

The view from our claimed balcony at Gwangalli Beach

Busan in the evening hours from up above

Well, that concludes the tale of my 48 hours in Busan. As I’ve already said, the trip was amazing and it was so wonderful to see another part of Korea. It’s finally setting in that I’m leaving soon and may or may not be back. It’s going to be difficult to bid this country farewell, it really is.

26 days and counting….

For more photos and higher quality images from my time in Busan as well as my travels throughout Asia, please visit my Flickr.

On My Odyssey….Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Malaysia

I’ve been struggling to share the portion of my “odyssey” story set in Penang, Malaysia, an island off the northwest coast of the mainland. Though I’d like to claim that I’ve sat around trying desperately to craft up lovely prose detailing my full experience, the truth is I’ve been completely avoiding writing anything on the Internet about Penang and I’ve felt a bit silly about that because I seriously seem to share everything on the Internet–what I’m listening to, where I’m going, who I’m hanging out with, what I did last night, what I’m watching, etc.. I often joke that the Internet is my boyfriend and in far too many ways it’s sort of the truth, which I probably should be embarrassed about, but never am.

Anyway, back to what I was saying. Two months have passed since my Malaysian adventure and I still cannot put together what I want to say about a place that somehow changed me; everything I’ve conjured up, every tale I’ve even spouted in person or over Skype to friends and family doesn’t seem to be adequate or worthy of the place that I remember. What I’ve come to figure out is that I don’t really want to share my story of Penang with anyone, at least not on here or right now, because it’s an experience that I selfishly want to keep all to myself, like a secret hiding place that would be ruined if anyone else really knew it.

Recently I’ve been seriously considering pitching story ideas to travel magazines and perhaps that would be a forum worthy of my Penang, but in lieu of waiting for that to happen, I’ve decided to post some of my favorite photos from my time in there: not the full story, but just enough of a glimpse to spark your curiosity for what is contained in my secret hideaway.

Spending time in between buildings


How Love Lane came to be known


A spectator to the act of worship


My morning greeting the sea


Sweet like candy


Dark, stormy palms


A warning I should have heeded to


Meat, muscle for sale




Malaysian moonlight

On My Odyssey….Saigon and the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

First of all, let’s talk about the name. Most people refer to the city I’m soon going to ramble on and on about at length as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) rather than Saigon, however because I am a lady that pays particular attention to words, I will affectionately refer, with no ill-meaning, political connotations or any serious significance really, to HCMC as Saigon, simply because I am fond of the sound of this particular two syllable word. Sai-gon.

Unlike the airport in Hanoi, that of Saigon is essentially right in the city. Seconds after throwing myself and my humble pack (I know a DSLR doesn’t exactly scream humble, but I do pack quite efficiently light, or so people tell me) into a cab, I was surrounded by bright flashing lights, billboards and structures stretching upward, all of which made me feel comfortable and at ease, as city dwelling often does for a city dweller such as myself.

Neon nights in Saigon

My first night in Saigon turned into something rather wild and wonderful as I managed to make friends with some local international students that invited me along for a night of drinking games and storytelling, and gave me the most thoroughly enjoyable welcome to a city I have ever had. Undoubtedly that night made me biased in my impressions of Saigon, but regardless, it’s worth noting that I was instantly enamored with the place.

Some of my sightseeing plans were challenged during my time in Saigon as the Tet holiday was still being honored and thus many areas of intrigue (monuments/buildings/museums/stores/businesses) were closed or significantly calmer than I imagine the norm to be, however I did manage to weave my way around the city to see a decent number of sights and partake in a memorable, sweaty photo jaunt.

If you ask anyone that knows me, even if only barely, they can almost definitely verify my claim that I harbor an uncanny ability to make friends with strangers. Personally, I quite like this quality about myself, though someday, hopefully never, I may be kicking myself for such irresponsible behavior. With my city map out, on the verge of plotting my journey to the Central Post Office, a kind man with a motorbike, by the name Nam, offered to take me anywhere I wanted and shoved a helmet in my hands. No convincing was really necessary though the ‘take this helmet’ plot must be a semi-effective measure for Nam and his motorbiking tourists scheme. Riding throughout Saigon on a motorbike is a must-do when visiting and was a period of my day and trip that I will remember fondly. Once arriving at the Post Office and Cathedral Notre-Dame, Nam adorably requested that I sign his journal (something he has every traveler he provides a ride to do) and asked to take a photo together. I too whipped out my film camera and snapped a shot of us that I’m really looking forward to seeing once I develop the rolls.

Central Post Office

Cathedral Notre-Dame

My walking tour essentially consisted of me trying to find my way back to the area of my hostel while hopefully wandering into some amusing and lovely sights along the way, which I can report that I managed quite successfully. Here’s a little of what my eyes spied while exploring Saigon by foot:

In the process of making some deliciousness

Peoples Committee Hall, another example of exquisite architecture

Slow life, relaxation

One immediately noticeable difference between life in Vietnam, at least from the snapshot I took in, as compared to that in Korea is the slower, calmer pace that seems to be prevalent and embraced in Vietnam. Not that folks don’t enjoy themselves in Korea, but the Vietnamese people appeared to allot more time in their day for simple pleasures like soaking up the sun and watching the world go by. This difference was one that was palpable as a foreigner in both lands and one that reminded me of the feeling I felt traveling from America to parts of Eastern Europe, where the day does seem to be greater apportioned for moments of personal enjoyment rather than work.

Portion of the Saigon skyline by day

Ben Thanh Market

Similar, but still distinct, the architecture in Saigon reminded me of what I saw in Hanoi, especially in terms of the pastel coloring and clear French colonial style influence. Saigon is clearly a much more modern city with buildings that have generally been maintained, reconstructed or newly built, which contrasted heavily with what Hanoi was made up of. This distinction between the city up north and that of the south was one I found intriguing and enjoyed witnessing back-to-back.

Upon returning to my hostel, I met my roommates (two girls from Scotland and one from Tasmania) and embarked on a relaxing evening of food and drink with fellow travel-spirited women. I cannot quite express how nice it was to spend time with some girls! My Korean life is too often devoid of lady pals and though I do generally prefer hanging with the boys, a girl sometimes just needs to hang with the ladies.

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Boating through the skinny, muddy waterways of Ben Tre

Waking up bright and early, my last full day in Vietnam featured a trip to the Mekong Delta. Due to my shortage of time, I was only able to explore the portion of the Delta called Ben Tre, which is about 90 min. away from Saigon. I absolutely loved my day in the Mekong Delta and sincerely hope to return to the area for a more extensive visit. Essentially the entire day consisted of boat hopping to various little islands where we (myself + the travel tour group I joined for the day) delighted in some of the area’s handicrafts and edible delicacies. Local honey tasting was involved as was taking shots of snake liquor, watching the process of making (and snacking on) coconut candy, dining on a rather delicious vegetarian lunch and cleansing the palette with a sampling of local exotic fruits (jackfruit, dragon fruit, papaya and a few others previously foreign to my tongue).

Snake liquor sampling and greeting the elephant ear fish, a species indigenous to the Delta

Perhaps the most heavily traveled stream in all of Asia

Children of the Delta; Unicorn Island natives

Tourism is obviously a big business in the Delta and though extremely large quantities of rice, local fruits, fruit by-products, and other crafts are exported outside of the Delta, most of the money that serves the economy of the Delta and its inhabitants comes from tourists. Regardless of your stance on organized travel (personally, I avoid it whenever possible), I couldn’t more highly recommend going on a tour of the Delta. Mine cost me around $12 in total including round-trip transportation, lunch and all activities included in exploring the area of Ben Tre. Quite a steal if you ask me.

Though I was pretty ecstatic about the whole experience of being in the Mekong Delta, the highlight for me was simply being able to walk around the islands and examine the flora and fauna, watch some of the locals conversing and working on their crafts and just kind of watch how the place functions so efficiently and almost mechanically in such a naturally beautiful, lush and green environment. Perhaps what impressed me most was the visit to the coconut candy ‘factory.’ I use quotations here because though our tour guide referred to the location as a factory, what we visited was more so a very effectively managed gazebo that housed individuals each serving a specific purpose in the process of creating sweet and delicious varieties of coconut candy–to call it a factory to me seemed both inaccurate and perhaps even demeaning to the beauty of the art of their skill.

The cooking process…

Lady candy wrappers

What I found so especially great about this coconut candy making facility was the fact that not a single portion of the coconut is wasted, everything is put to use in the process of producing the candy. The juice and the coconut meat are both used as key ingredients in the candy and the shell is used for fire to heat the sugary concoction into something chewy and, in my opinion, quite close to perfection. I bought a pack of some fifty pieces of candy that I too quickly ate and seriously wish I would’ve purchased much more.

All in all, my adventures in Vietnam were plentiful, but I left the place feeling a pang that has sort of stuck with me. Saigon hit me hard as a city that was so alive and sparked in me an energy I think I’d been unknowingly searching for and needing. If I could afford it, Saigon would be the next stop of my train of living and working around the world, it’s certainly an idea on my absurd table of possible life routes to take. Regardless of whether I actually pick up and move to Vietnam, I will definitely be making the trek back to Saigon before bidding Asia farewell, whenever that is!

Signage spotted while roaming an island in the Mekong Delta

At Thi Cafe on my last night in Saigon, sipping artichoke tea and listening to live music

Ho Chi Minh City hoodlums

Faretheewell Saigon

For more photographs from my trip to Vietnam, take a peek at my album on Flickr….On My Odyssey (pt. 2) : : Saigon, Vietnam

On My Odyssey….Not a day to be held hostage

Before I really get into the details of my Saigon experience, I must share a story that I’m still a bit shocked I haven’t mentioned earlier.

On my way to the airport in Hanoi, bound for Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, I was riding in a cab with my eyes darting all around, taking in whatever last little glimpses of the city and northern land that I could when the car slowed, and veered to the right side of the road. Coming to a complete stop, the driver turned around to me sitting in the back, smiled and got out of the car. He then proceeded to run across the freeway, playing a much more serious game of Frogger than what I’d goofed with during my stay in Hanoi. Thoroughly confused and mildly concerned to see my cab driver running across the freeway, I attempted to piece together what exactly was going on, but failed to come up with anything plausible. He probably just has to pee…right? But why would be go to the opposite side of the freeway? Maybe he doesn’t know where the airport is, but wait, no, that makes no sense.

I laughed, a little panicked but moderately amused, and was relieved to see my driver coming back my way. “Oh well, he’s back, nothing to worry about,” is what I thought to myself for a moment before my driver opened the car door, gave me the same confusion illiciting smile as before, turned on the radio and waved goodbye before running across the freeway, again. Now I grew a tad more worried, still mostly confused, but found some sort of strange comfort from the fact that the keys were still in the ignition–my logic being that if this was a worst-case-I’m about to be kidnapped in Vietnam-scenario that my captors wouldn’t have left me sitting in a car I could easily drive off with. Allowing my mind to jump around to various far-fetched conclusions, I sat listening to some Vietnamese pop music in the back of a cab on the side of a busy freeway crossing my fingers that I was close to the airport, would make my flight on time and that the day wasn’t right for me to be held hostage. I sat there, keeping my cool for nearly ten reallllllly long minutes before I noticed a man running across the freeway with his arms flailing, coming straight towards my lonely “please don’t kidnap me” cab. Opening the door with a grin similarly goofy to that of my previous freeway running driver, a Vietnamese man hopped into the cab, turned around smiling at me and said “hellooo, les go!”

In the end, I made it to the airport early, didn’t even come close to missing my flight and the day was in no way right for me to be held hostage. Just a little driving shift switcheroo, that’s all I witnessed; an endlessly amusing event, mostly after, but a little bit during.

On My Odyssey….Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

To be honest, I’m not really sure how I want to relay the details of my recent journey, however I do know that I don’t simply want to recount the happenings of my days as that doesn’t seem to be all that productive or of great value to you, the reader of my rambling thoughts. So, I suppose I’ll share with you my impressions, the tales worth telling, expose the myths I uncovered, the tastes delighted upon and some of the snapshots that my memory will forever cling to.

Here’s the story of me, a traveler sparked with child-like wonder for the world, on my odyssey in Vietnam.

Before even stepping foot into Vietnam, I was feeling a bit wary as much of what I’d read and been told from fellow travelers was quite negative–basically I figured I was bound to be ripped off, likely to have something stolen, be significantly debilitated by a lack of Vietnamese language skills, probably experience a fair share of begging, poverty and filth, but at least I would see some pretty sights and eat delicious, cheap grub. This is incredibly important to note, everything I had been told and assumed about Vietnam was completely wrong with the exception of my friend Thai accurately deeming Ha Long Bay as one of the most beautiful sights on earth (see below).

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Rather than having money or valuables stolen, or being significantly ripped off when purchasing goods/services/hot stone massages/money exchanging/food binging, I was actually given money (5000 dong, roughly a quarter) while in Hanoi by the friendliest of women handing out (real) lucky money as part of the Tet holiday traditions. I should have known not to listen to pessimism I am apt to ignore, but given my plans to trek this trip alone, I mentally prepared myself for an array of worst case scenarios of which no part of my trip came even remotely near resembling.

The impressions I drew from Vietnam were inevitably and constantly being compared to Seoul as Korea is my only point of reference in Asia. Vietnam is certainly cheaper, quite a bit dirtier and less developed than Korea, but the places in Vietnam I was able to spend time in were so special and quite unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.

One of the first things I noticed about Vietnam is the heavy reliance upon their most popular mode of transportation, the motorbike.

Motorbikes parked on a street in Hanoi

Motorbikes far outnumber cars and the non-existent traffic laws and road lanes (this is especially true of Hanoi, Saigon/HoChi Minh City was a bit more organized and people did actually obey the traffic lights, generally) made for a wild and mildly chaotic pedestrian experience, at least initially. Once I embraced the game of Frogger that was any attempt to cross the road, my walk about Hanoi became significantly easier.

Aside from the very apparent presence of motorbikes, much of my initial impressions of Hanoi were influenced by the architectural constructions strewn about the city, consisting mostly of fairly old, skinny, tall buildings that functioned as housing and businesses, and the faded–by dirt and years–pastel colors that coated them. This was something that really stuck with me because in Seoul I’m so accustomed to glass and concrete giants and neon lights whereas in Hanoi the colors were more natural and the city itself really wore its age, which I found strangely appealing perhaps only for it now being a ‘foreign’ sight compared to that of my home.

Street view in Hanoi…a “No Parking” sign of sorts

Pastel towers of Hanoi, the common architectural style

This is an odd place to diverge onto this thought, but while on this odyssey of mine I came to have a major shift of perspective as Korea was cemented in my mind as my home. It was an unexpected feeling as prior to this trip I was almost certain that I would be returning to the States to look for work this summer, but, as often happens with me, that plan has been significantly altered.

Back on topic, I mentioned before that Vietnam is quite inexpensive and this in part makes traveling there rather attractive. Beer costs about 18,000-30,000 dong most places (just under $1-$1.50; the exchange rate is pretty steadily at 20,000 dong= $1) and a filling meal at most sit-down street vendors can be had for anywhere from 30,000 dong for pho to 80,000 for a skewer feast (see below). Being a pescetarian (essentially a vegetarian that consumes fish and fish products), I stray away from most meats, however I couldn’t resist the urge to taste frog as the opportunity likely wouldn’t come again and the frog I had in front of me actually looked quite delicious (and it was, the little bit that I had).

My favorite dining experience in Hanoi–skewers of all kinds

When it came to food in Vietnam, everything tasted amazing. The flavor combinations in every dish I had was so complex and layered with tastes spicy, sweet and sometimes sour and textures ranging all over the place. All of the produce was incredibly flavorful and fresh and at the peek of ripeness. Again, comparing my experience in Vietnam to Korea, I was really impressed with the variety of options in Hanoi (Saigon as well, but I’ll say more about that later). Koreans are a rather nationalistic bunch and they adore their food, as they should. With that said, sometimes a girl craves a little something other than the flavors of Korea (also known as kimchi, jk jk) and in Vietnam I was pleasantly surprised by the wealth of options for dining and the broad range they took on.

Should you ever find yourself in Vietnam, Hanoi specifically, you must (seriously, I’m not joking around about this) plan a trip to Ha Long Bay. I only spent a day at the bay, but there were many packages and options to stay overnight or even for many days on a boat or in a hotel nearby. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay is an absolute wonder for the eyes and simply something I found to be so unique and lovely. During my time spent in Hanoi, I joined some fellow Drake grads that have been teaching English in China and it was quite nice to have some company on the start of my trip and especially wonderful to share in the Ha Long Bay experience with them. As part of our day trip we walked through a cave and spent an hour kayaking around the Bay, which for me was probably the highlight of the day, particularly when we came across a giant specimen of jellyfish and later paddled up to a water market to purchase beers. The latter experience was so funny and perfect really, as the four of us in two kayaks took forever to maneuver our kayaks properly to pay, get hold and partake in our Vietnamese beers. We also became pieces of entertainment for passing boats filled with tourists amused by the sight of us imbibing in the Bay. It was a little bit silly, but still one of those oddly magical moments that I’ll never forget–it was a tiny window of pure bliss.

The home and business (kayak rental) of a family in the Bay

Drake alumni romping about Ha Long Bay for the day

In total, I spent four days in Hanoi (including my day in Ha Long Bay) and found it to be a small, friendly city that was very much alive in its bold people and colors surprising me the entire time. Below are some of my favorite sights in Hanoi that I came upon while walking around with my band of cohorts from Drake/China.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and spotted this adorable little man

Tran Quoc Pagoda

As previously mentioned, this was the only portion of my trip with planned company by my side and the rest of my adventure was one of solo traveling that in the end turned into having very little alone time and making a mass of fast friends and meeting like-minded travelers from all around the world with stories I peeled apart over meals, drinks and days out exploring. Strangers aren’t ever so strange when you realize how similar they are to yourself–except I suppose I’m a weird one, so there’s always that to consider. Anyhow, more stories from these untamed waters are soon to come.

For more photographs from my trip to Vietnam, take a peek at my album on Flickr…. On My Odyssey (pt. 1) : : Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.


Gone gone to Vietnam (and Malaysia too)

This lady is bound for SE Asian sands and adventures abound. Expect to read of tales far-fetched and hopefully lovely, possibly fiction, whence I return to the heated floors of my Korean tower.

In the off chance that a poisonous snake makes friends with my veins in my all-too-likely-to-happen attempt to befriend a monkey, I will live forever in you Internet!

Before I bid you a real adieu, here’s my mildly absurd to-do/goals/non-sense travel list for this particular jaunt:

-Don’t get attacked and/or bitten and/or mugged and/or choked by a snake
-Make friends with a monkey (any kind will do…)
-Dip my feet in the South China Sea
-Visit a mosque in Kuala Lumpur
-Go to Ha Long Bay, charter a boat and make almost best friends with a Vietnamese fisherman!
-Mekong Delta
-Drink fruit wine
-Find a durian fruit, smell it and decide from there whether or not to consume it
-Goddess of Mercy Temple
-Walk about Graham Greene’s Ho Chi Minh (also known as visit The Continental)
-Visit bia hoi corner or supposedly where everybody sits around with drinking beer in Hanoi
-Petronas Towers
-Visit Hoa Vien Brauhaus in Ho Chi Minh
-See some flora and fauna my eyes are virgin to
-Eat grilled stingray wrapped in banana leaves, jiu hu eng chai (some sort of highly recommended cuttlefish salad), chen hu (a salad that includes jellyfish!) and a great many other dishes foreign to my taste-buds
-Don’t drink snake’s blood.
-See Kek Lok Si, the largest Chinese temple in SE Asia
-Explore the jungle a little bit, just a little bit
-Continue wanting to see a tiger, but don’t actually see one because it will probably eat you

Halfway reflections: six months in Korea

View from my apartment window shot in August

This week marks my six months spent living and working in Korea. I’ve certainly repeated it enough, but I’m quite serious when I say that my time here has sped by rapidly and though it does feel like I stepped onto a plane Asia-bound eons ago, the calendar and its measure of time passing somehow seems wildly inaccurate. In these six months I’ve learned so much about this country, its people, culture, customs and language, but I’ve also learned a lot about myself. There is a strange level of loneliness that comes with being a foreigner in a city constantly buzzing with busy bodies and being surrounded by voices you cannot understand. Though this aspect sounds perhaps unappealing, I’ve come to savor the time I’ve had alone here as it’s provided me with ample opportunity for self-reflection and self-examination, which at this stage in my life are things I dearly needed. I’ll likely never be satisfied with the amount of writing I complete, but when I set out for this adventure part of my intention was to write my heart out and though my heart has many more things to say and scream, I feel as though I am succeeding in turning myself more and more, bit by bit, into paper.

Anyhow, the point of this post is to report some of my findings and discoveries from my first six months living this foreign life, so here are a few thoughts that immediately come to mind…

1. Chopsticks beat the fork

Just last weekend I had a food experience that basically rocked my proverbial world. While going on a book binge in Itaewon (the often cited “foreign section” of Seoul aka where foreigners go when they’re homesick–due to all of the foreign restaurants that serve something other than Korean cuisine, innumerable themed bars that are, again, not Korean and countless vendors selling clothing that is “American sized”) my coworker David and I took a break to indulge in some Thai food. When our food came out and our hands moved for utensils we were both silent for a moment as we picked up our forks with a certain awkwardness for how unnatural something once so ordinary had become. We had a good laugh about it, but the fact remains that I seem to know not what to do with a fork any longer and that, my friends, is WEIRD. Having grown to prefer using chopsticks, I found this instance of using a fork so hilarious not only for how strange it felt, but also for how primal and animalistic using a fork seems to me now. Forks somehow lack a gracefulness that comes with eating with chopsticks; using a fork requires movements that seem too aggressive to me, too similar to stabbing and shoveling even if it is just with vegetables and rice. This is already more than I ever needed to say on the topic of forks vs. chopsticks, but my point here is that the chopsticks beat the fork–I’ve found a new preference.

2. Heated floors are amazing. Seriously.

I’m too lazy to figure out (or google) what genius was behind the creation of heating a home through the floor, but this person, whoever they are, is easily on my favorite list because heated floors are awesome!! Waking up in the morning and stepping out of bed is made much better when the floor is nice and toasty. I don’t have a whole lot more to say about this except that it is really quite wonderful and everyone should experience the pleasure of heated floors someday.

3. The Korean education system is by no means perfect, but the U.S. could definitely take a lesson from them

Every student in Korea attends public school receiving a standard education across all subjects, but, beyond that, just about every Korean also attends a variety of hagwons, which are private specialty schools that offer further instruction on a specific area of study. I’m employed by an English academy/hagwon, but there are literally hagwons for every subject you could think up–math, science, taekwondo, art, Chinese, music, you get the point. Most of my students, ranging from elementary school grade through high school, attend classes everyday but Sunday from 9 AM through anywhere between 6 PM-11 PM. There are some breaks in between for meals and whatever necessary transportation, but, for the most part, kids in Korea are in school all day long. This system of schooling definitely has its drawbacks and in no way do I think how it’s done here is the ideal, but it’s worth nothing that Korean families and the Korean government do take education very seriously and their investment in both time, money and resources is one reflection of this fact. I, along with most Americans, am concerned about the state of the educational system in America and though I don’t know what exactly the solution(s) is/are, I do know that great measures need to be taken and changes need to be made because other countries, Korea included, are surpassing us in far too many areas. The fact that a thirteen year old in Korea can write a better essay in English than an American high school student is something that worries me as I’ve witnessed this to be the case far more often than I’m comfortable with.

4. Warm beverage vending machines are almost as amazing as heated floors

I do gain an immense pleasure from inserting 1000 won (less than $1) into a machine that will spit out a can of warm, sweet soy milk. 

5. Neon night light

My officetel/apartment is on the thirteenth floor of a fifteen story building and out my window at night the neon lights of love motels, restaurants, PC bongs (internet cafes), noraebongs (singing rooms), clubs and whatever other forms of entertainment warrants colored light signage are glowing bright. If I were on say the fifth floor, my room would probably never know the dark, but higher up the neon glow that radiates into my room is the most comforting and strangely soothing night light I’ve ever had.

6. Korean kids come up with the best English names

Most of my students have fairly generic English names (Sarah, Tom, John, Richard, Lisa), however there’s a handful that get creative and make the attendance roll significantly more entertaining. My particular favorites are Obi and Maybelline of the girls and Flash and Ocean of the boys.

7. Makgeolli my love, soju my death

Ugghhhh, soju is the worst. It’s downright awful and anytime that stuff shows up at the party (which is way too often) my liver, my brain and my entire body punish me severely. Soju is often compared to vodka and is a potent and unbelievably cheap distilled beverage, costing about 2,000 won (just over a $1) per bottle with an alcohol content of anywhere from a 25% – 45%. Added to all of this terribleness is the fact that soju is generally consumed in straight shots and there are loads of drinking rules that all work against the aforementioned liver. Makgeolli, on the other hand, is a wonderful Korean rice wine that is milky white with a subtle sweetness. Just as cheap as soju but a bit less strong, makgeolli is beloved amongst Koreans and for whatever reason, whenever they spot a foreigner drinking makgeolli they will immediately consider you their new best friend. Though it’s generally consumed plain, I have had makgeolli mixed with cider, which is quite sweet but a rather refreshing beverage.

8. Kimchi in everything, all of the time

When I first arrived in Korea I had a semi-open mind about consuming meat and figured maintaining my vegetarian diet wouldn’t work, but after one meal of pork with my Korean coworkers I quickly realized that my innards don’t know what to do with meat anymore and it was better to accept the confusion/intrigue/shock of Koreans than to miserably try to convert to a diet I don’t care for. This is where kimchi comes in. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish of spicy, pickled/fermented cabbage and is consumed with almost every single meal in Korea either as an ingredient in the main dish or as a side. Trying my darnedest to stay away from meat, kimchi has become the staple of my diet and most of my meals are centered around it–kimchi fried rice, kimchi stew, kimchi pancakes or a kimchi rice ball; my Korean life figures into having kimchi in everything all of the time. Fortunately, I love kimchi and all of the dishes that call for it.

**For the record, I haven’t been a proper vegetarian while living here as I have on occasion been eating fish, which is the only meat I’ve ever really loved and found difficult to give up when living in close proximity to the sea (as I did growing up in the Pacific Northwest and now in Korea).

9. The pleasures of Korean cinema

Before moving to Korea I became obsessed with the work of Korean director Park Chan-Wook and was especially enamored with his films Thirst and Lady Vengeance. Since living in Korea I haven’t watched all that many Korean films as finding titles with English subtitles can be difficult, but recently I went on a movie binge and am diving into the works of other well-regarded Korean directors. At the moment, my obsession is with Bong Joon-Ho and his most recent film, Mother. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen and is so well-crafted and stunning in all of its attributes–storyline, acting, character development, visuals. The thing about Korean cinema that I find so special is that I have yet to watch a film that isn’t breathtaking and, simply, great. When it comes to cinema, Korea seems to know what they’re doing. If there is anything you take away from my six month reflection, I hope at the very least it is that you need to watch a Korean film. 

I’m certain there are things I’ve left out, but these things are what immediately came to mind. My Korean experience has been phenomenal and this is no doubt a year of my life I will never forget. I could easily ramble on about my fascinations with my current home for days, but it’s getting late and the part of me that is obsessed with American television shows needs to be fed some of The West Wing (GO SANTOS!). Stay gold my friends. 

See Through My Seoul

I can keep the Seoul puns coming for eons and in the midst of messing with words, I suppose I can post a photo or two. Here’s a photographic update of my last two months. I cannot believe I’ve already been living here for three months; the time has been speeding past and I can’t hardly wait for whatever the next few years hold for me in my South Korean jaunt.

This is the Kring Culture Space, which is quite possibly my favorite building in Seoul. The interior is just as stunning as the exterior! I visited the Kring building for a multimedia art event put on by Intel and VICE Magazine called The Creators Project. It was quite a party and perhaps the perfect space to host such an event.

Dance party!! The crowd was awesome and everyone had a great time dancing and jamming to DJ Soulscape

Cell phone charms for sale in Myeong-dong, a popular shopping area in Seoul. There are an infinite number of options when it comes to phone charms, so be sure to select wisely!

A peek into the immensity of Seoul as seen from the viewpoint on the trek to N Seoul Tower.

Art installation at the base of N Seoul Tower

These are “locks of love,” which cover the metal railings and some metal trees at the observation deck of N Seoul Tower. There are hundreds of thousands of these love locks left by people to symbolize a promise to stay with someone forever—be it a lover, child, friend or family member. Some people leave messages with their locks, expressing their love even further. It’s a beautiful sight to see and such a romantic, adorable and generally dear gesture.

Art installation in Hongdae that I’m oddly fond of. Hongdae is a super hip area (near Hongik University, which is a major art school in Seoul) packed with bars, cafes, night clubs and eateries. In the very near future I plan to explore all the cafes over there including the few roasteries I’ve spotted.

On the way to the cat cafe in Hongdae…can you feel the cat love all around?

Welcome to Gio Cat cafe! This was hands down one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in Seoul. For 8,000 Won (about $6) you get a coffee beverage and the opportunity to spend as much time as you like with the roughly 20 cats at the cafe. As one would expect, many cats were napping, and it’s against the rules to wake up a sleeping cat, some cats were climbing platforms and snooping in the bags patrons left sitting out and other cats were friendly and greeting their excited visitors. I went on a Saturday and the place was quite packed with Koreans taking a million pictures of cats. Of course, I too brought my fancy camera and couldn’t resist snapping some shots. If you ever have the chance, go to a cat cafe!!

Look at that face!! Probably my favorite cat the cafe!

So, that’s basically the last month summed up in photos. I still have a ways to go before I’ll have conquered Infinite Jest, but I’ve decided to start a 365 photo project when I’m done reading, so get ready for a steady flow of photos in the not-so-distant future that may or may not turn out fantastic. Until next time, I’ll work on crafting some more stories from these Asian waters.

(All photos taken by Chelsea Marie Hicks using a Canon Rebel T1i)