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PLACES TRAVELED 2011

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.

HANOI, VIETNAM : : FEB. 2011

The Ho Chi Minh Memorial in Hanoi

A young boy properly suited for Tet festivities

Tran Quoc Pagoda

HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM : : FEB. 2011

Local dwellings of the Bay

Giant vertical rock formations

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM : : FEB. 2011

Cathedral Notre-Dame

Soaking up the afternoon sun

Ho Chi Minh statue in front of the Peoples Committee Hall

MEKONG DELTA, VIETNAM : : FEB. 2011

A vessel of the Delta

Snake liquor for sale and a local curious fish

Coconut candy makers selling their product in the Delta

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA : : FEB. 2011

A fellow giant, me, greetings the Petronas Towers

One of oh so many delicious plates served up in Malaysia

PENANG, MALAYSIA : : FEB. 2011

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

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA : : 2011

Hongdae’s infamous makguelli man

Awaiting the sunrise near the sea

Fried goodness for sale near Seoul Station

Seoul Lantern Festival 2011

BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA : : JUNE 2011

Gwanggali beach

Seafood stew successfully devoured

Bidding farewell to the sun over Gwanggali

PORTLAND, OREGON : : JULY 2011

Street art spotted in NW PDX

Sweet nectar from Mecca

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS : : JULY 2011

Chicago Theatre

Skyscrapers and fields of grass

The Magnificent Mile

Meeting giant Marilyn

DES MOINES, IOWA : : JULY 2011

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

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON : : AUG. 2011

Exterior of the Seattle Art Museum

Roomies reuniting in Seattle

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA : : AUG. 2011

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

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA : : AUG. 2011

Kaili and I playing with a sculpture park illusion

Minne’s Spoon and Cherry sculpture

Bridge wisdom

CANNON BEACH, OREGON : : AUG. 2011

Sunny day at the seashore

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

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA : : SEPT. 2011

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

DMZ/JSA/NORTH KOREA : : OCT. 2011

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

HONG KONG : : DEC. 2011 (COMING SOON)

For more photographs of my travels and Korean life, visit my Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seafaringwoman/

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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Soon, you shall know my velocity

Sitting at the shore of Unicorn Island in the Mekong Delta (Ben Tre, Vietnam)

Oh, my friends, I have so much to share with you.

In a time period quite condensed, no more than a few weeks, much has happened to earthquake my little world and rewrite whatever semblance of a path I ever had in mind for myself. In every possible way I feel rejuvenated and inspired by what I’ve seen and by the people that stumbled into my lone adventure to assist in carving it into something spectacular.

There’s a great deal I am compelled to say in regards to my recent travels to Vietnam and Malaysia, hundreds of photos filled with tales for you to dream up or for me to provide in detail, but this evening is not the one for me to pour out every story, though I vow that night will come soon.

While traveling I brought with me Dave Egger’s You Shall Know Our Velocity! and it was simply one of those reads that was made particularly fantastic and forever memorable because it was the perfect text to be digested while on planes, buses, boats and exploring a portion of the world unknown to me. There’s is something to be said of the power of reading the right book at the right time, and for me this book was such an ideal companion for my time on the road and in the sky.

Anyhow, here’s something beautiful not written by me, but about the sea that my soul is so drawn to dive into and wander ceaselessly:

“There is a corner of the sea that is deep but not so deep that it’s black. It’s the blue of a blueberry, violet in its heart, though this blue allows light through its million unseeable pores. The hue is evenly painted but electric, a klieg light pushing through a gel of cyan. But invading this blue are clouds of inky purple, billowing clouds curling in small waves, and they grow from below, splitting the sea between light above and dark growing from below.”

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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

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