Monday, July 9, 2012

Goooooooooood Morning Vietnam! - Part I: Hanoi

Let's start this one off with an anecdote of my time in Hanoi so you can get a feel of what my trip was like!

It was late!  Most places in the Hanoi Old Quarter had already closed down for the night, which meant it was past midnight.  My friend Daniel and I had just left the drinking establishment we had been frequenting when we were approached by two Vietnamese guys and one girl on motorbikes.  They were inviting us to get on with them.  Although we didn't really know what was going on, somehow, we convinced ourselves that they wanted to take us to another bar or pub that was still open.  So, like any *slightly* intoxicated foreigners would do, we got on and didn't ask any questions (which is retrospect, was a very stupid decision and could have been more than slightly dangerous... as I write this, I still have both my kidneys though).  I was with one guy on one motorbike and Daniel was sandwiched between the other two on the other bike.  About 5 minutes into our "joyride", I could hear Daniel shouting that the girl behind him was grabbing his junk and was most likely a prostitute.  Thirty seconds later, they suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere, told us to get off and pointed towards an extremely shady-looking neighborhood before riding off into the night.  We immediately decided that we did not want to be here and started walking back from where we came from, hoping to find an open watering hole on the way.  It's only when Daniel reached into his pants pocket to grab his phone to check the time, that he realized it was missing.  Turns out it was no coincidence that the  girl had been sitting behind him and grabbing his junk with one hand, while, with the other, snagging his phone from his pocket.  The joke was on them though, cause Daniel's phone was an old piece of junk... and at least he got fondled for it!

That's just a glimpse into my time in Vietnam.... Now let's go back to the start:

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Royal Visit


I successfully and officially completed both of my Spring online courses (both A plusses... oh yeah), and that means I can get back to living. I feel like this summer represents the 'beginning of the end' for Jason and I, in the sense that even though the glorious hot-weather season has just started, it also signifies the relative end of our contract, with less than two months to go. Of course this time of year is bittersweet: while we look forward to our return to Canada and normal work routines, we don't really want to start thinking about packing up our life here. We're perpetuating the denial stage just a tad longer. We're not done here just yet, and we're certainly not going to set ourselves up for regret by not fully taking advantage of every single weekend. And so we begin our Korean bucket list.

First up: A famous royal spot.

We toured Gyeongbok Palace in Northern Seoul on a beautiful June Saturday with Becky and Kyle, our American alter-egos (and friends of course) we had met on our Muui-do beach weekend. Having somewhat neglected our 'cultural' experience here since Spring made its appearance, in favour of more hot-weather-friendly activities involving water or beaches, we judged it was about time we got this major Korean tourist attraction out of the way.

Me in my Royal Gown
First constructed in 1394 and reconstructed in 1867 due to having been destroyed during the Japanese invasion, Gyeongbokgung, which means 'Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven', was the main and largest palace built by the Joseon Dynasty. That's about all we know from it, since we casually and not so subtly opted out of the extremely boring tour that we had initially joined. After passing through a few guarded gates, we made up our own walking tour, admiring beautiful ponds, gardens, and pagodas along the way. Most of the structures, foundations, building materials, designs, and colours were very similar, if not identical, to other Korean palaces and temples. Still, I was impressed with this particular palace because of its size (it covers a lot of gound), and its proximity to mountains. Easily accessible by subway, yet it certainly didn't feel like we were in an urban setting.
The photo op we encountered on our way in made for a more authentic atmophere and some good fun. We were dressed in traditionnal royal gowns (for free!) and encouraged to take souvenir photos (which we, of course, indulged in).
Jason getting crowned

The Gyeongbok Palace grounds were littered (bad choice of word here...) with foreigners of all nationalities, a usually rare occurence for Korea outside of Itaewon, which indicated that this site was probably listed as one of Seoul's 'must visits' on TripAdvisor.

Before we knew it, breakfast was a long time gone and our stomachs started demanding food. Cabbing to Itaewon (Seoul's international foods capital) set us back about 10,000W, and we soon found ourselves walking up and down food street searching for the perfect place to eat. Unable to settle on a single restaurant, we chose to ponder it over drinks and appetizers at Prost, a pub that, despite good food and atmosphere, lacked pathetically in the service department.

Upon further investigation, we found a Bulgarian place called Zelens and all agreed that it was 'it'. A half hour waiting list meant that we had just enough time to enjoy a beer at a nearby English pub before dinner. I ordered delicious spinach-stuffed chicken breast and mashed potatoes (the first ones I've had since moving to Korea), while Jason opted for risotto-stuffed squid and a salad. Even with some wine to top it all off, the bill was actually reasonable. Most importantly, the service was impeccable.

Before returning home, I made sure we stopped at What the Book (the English bookstore), where I succombed to the pressure and splurged on the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

But let's keep that for another time...

Blend of old and new, modern and tradtional.