Friday, February 27, 2009

Hanoi, Vietnam

I began my Vietnam trip in the capitol city, Hanoi. Hanoi has beautiful architecture (which was quite a relief after Korea's bland, concrete monotony) characterized by narrow, long houses--influences from when the French taxed residents based on the width of buildings. The city is also a traffic nightmare, since there are more motorbikes and bicycles than cars and the motorbikes do not stop for pedestrians--you simply look forward and walk at a slow, steady pace and trust that they'll drive around you. I found it best to cross with a local.

More evidence of Hanoi residents' insane apathy towards the risks that motorized transport entails. Yes, this rail track is active daily.

My first full day in Vietnam, I took off with a girl I met at my hostel (highly recommended if you're traveling to Hanoi) to explore the many museums and monuments in and around the city. Everything was beautiful, but crowded with tourists (and of course, the people trying to sell things to the tourists).

I visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the museum and sites around it. Then I went to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's oldest university which was very beautiful, and I found myself making comparisons between temple/palace sites in Korea and the same in Vietnam (Vietnam's always have water; Korea's art is more linear and clean, Vietnam's more intricate suggesting a more direct Hindu influence on its Buddhism). After lunch, I took in the Hoa Lo Prison (otherwise known as the "Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam war). The exhibits all focused on the French colonists' imprisonment (and torture) of Vietnam national activists under French rule. Finally, I ended my day at the Museum of Vietnam History, near Hoan Kiem Lake.

Me in front of the One Pillar Pagoda (notice how it's surrounded by water).

All of these things were interesting, and you should definitely check out my photos from the album linked at the bottom of this post, but nothing from my day compared to the evening. I had tickets to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.

Now, I am a former theater techie and have a huge thing for puppets and whatnot, so I was already really excited about seeing the water puppets in Vietnam. It's a unique art form to the northern half of the country, developed as a way to appease the gods and entertain villagers when the rice fields overflowed (which happens a lot in a country that is essentially at sea level). The program featured 17 songs, each with unique puppets and motions. It was difficult to get pictures because the puppets moved so quickly and naturally, but that didn't stop me from taking a lot!

The musicians concentrate as they play on traditional Vietnamese instruments.

An excerpt from the story of Hoan Kiem Lake (the legend of the restored sword)

The puppeteers take a bow. They used to get diseases from prolonged exposure to the dirty water, but nowadays they wear waders.

Finally, one of the excerpts I filmed, the "Dragon Dance":

I was completely mesmerized by the performance. I want to try it! Maybe next time.

Check out the rest of my pictures from the day's adventures. There are photos from most of the museums (though not of President Minh because cameras were not permitted inside the Mausoleum) and the lake as well as some random propaganda seen around town and other fun pictures:

Around Hanoi (museums, etc.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Going Home...

My afternoon flight out of Hue got delayed for a few hours, making it not worth the trip to leave Hanoi airport for one last venture off to town. So here I am in an overpriced internet cafe, catching up on web-life.

This is ok with me, as I'm probably about traveled-out. I realized this morning walking around the Hue citadel, part of the monuments that comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that I had little interest in taking pictures (although I did enjoy exploring the peaceful ruins, nearly destroyed by the Tet Offensive). This was a likely indication that I just wasn't that into it. I took some, but left earlier than I would have if my visit had occured during the first few days of my trip.

I miss Korea. I noticed Korean signs and companies everwhere. In Hoi An there was a tailor shop called "Kim Chi" and I became unnaturally excited. I miss my cats (especially after seeing strung up ocelots at Perfume Pagoda, prepped for consumption--eek!), my boyfriend (I found myself talking about him waaaaaay too much sometimes), my friends (so I don't have to start every single conversation with the same set of Where are you from? How long have you been in Vietnam? When will you leave? exchanges), having my own apartment (not that some of the hotels/hostels weren't nice... but it's not the same), swing dancing, having a regular schedule, taekwondo... everything. I even miss my job (but don't tell them that!). I miss the lack of a prolific tourist industry such that you can't trust people who talk to you on the street (this is a sad, sad reality of Southeast Asia--and I know I trusted people more than many other travelers here and perhaps got "taken advantage of" on some prices, but I had some really great experiences with people, too... not the least of which was the Moon Lady).

However, I was just checking the news... Um, thanks, Kim Jong Il. Let's hope I make it home.

That said, I have had such an amazing, wonderful time here in Vietnam. I've learned so much about the culture (and even a little of the language--hello, thank you, goodbye, beautiful, I love Vietnam--you know... the important things) and seen so much of the country in just a few short days. It's made me remember how much I want to live in at least one other new country for a year and do some longer volunteer work (1-6 months) in a couple other places before settling down for a bit (not that settling means no more travel--I want to do a LOT more of that).

I met a lot of other travelers here. Nomads living out of backpacks. Mostly they were interesting, great folks. But I don't think I like travel as much as I like experiencing a new country the way one does when they move there. Learning the language and customs of the locals. Making friends beyond a single day's conversation...

I'm glad I spent my full vacation in one country because I got a little deeper into the culture than if I'd done like some folks I met here and did three days here and three in Cambodia and three in Thailand. Whoa... that sounds exhausting to me. I'm still amazed I did three different cities here in a week and a half. Shoosh. And I can always go to Cambodia or Thailand next time around.

Well... ok. Japan in May, first.

Pictures and details will come over the next few weeks. I will be a little Vietnam-obsessed for a bit. But I'll try to make it worth it for ya!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Moon Magic.

Cua Dai Beach, near Hoi An.

Under the shade of umbrellas rented from the beachfront restaurant, I was discussing the volunteer program Roz, a girl I'd just met from New Zealand, was working for in Da Nang and how she'd learned the Vietnamese she'd picked up in the four months she'd been living here, when we were approached by yet another old lady trying to sell us crackers and cookies. Roz was hungry, so she bought some. The lady was highly entertained by her broken Vietnamese (in much the same way old ladies are amused when I speak Korean) and called over some young girls sitting one umbrella down the beach.

After the old lady departed, the girls stuck around. The boldest, and youngest (born in 1987), was nicknamed Chua, which means "sour" in Vietnamese. She eyed Roz's candy. Roz offered her some.

A few minutes later, after finishing the snack, Chua stares at the empty wrapper. "It is no good."

"Really?" Roz inquires. "You finished it."

"Yes," Chua declares. "One is not good, but maybe two is good."

We laugh. Roz hands her another. "Three is better," Chua says eagerly.

"We'll run out!" says Roz.

"It's ok. I will call the lady back. We will get more."

"You'll buy?" says Roz.

"I will open my big heart," she implies she will generously treat us to the second round of snacks. Then... "You will open your big wallet." Roz and I are clutching our sides.

"Ok, ok. I have big heart, but little wallet. Later, I will get you dinner. I will jump in the ocean and catch a fish. Free fish for you," says Chua.

"Cam on. Thank you," says Roz.

"For dinner?" I ask.

"Yes. Dinner in next life," says Chua. "You die, come back; I bring you fish."

"Where did you learn English?" I ask.

Chua is deadpanned in her response. "The moon."

She has some necklaces and bracelets for sale.

"They are magic," she says. "You have boyfriend?"

"No," says Roz.

"Well, you buy bracelet, you wear, you get boyfriend," claims Chua. "You buy from me, next time you come back on your honeymoon. You want to buy more, but you can't. Because I am on the moon."

"What if it doesn't work?" I ask.

"Double money back." says Chua.

Of course, I bought a bracelet with magic eye beads for Min Gi and a necklace made of green shells for me. Hopefully Moon Magic will keep us together (and laughing) for a long time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Update from Vietnam

So far, I have...

...seen an extremely unique form of perfomance art--water puppets.
...slept on a boat in Ha Long Bay, after kayaking around caves and swimming in the salty, still water.
...honored Ho Chi Minh with my silent walk around his well-preserved body (complete with face that still looks like it's plotting evil deeds).
...made friends with Germans, Malaysians, Danes, Australians, a Canadian, a Scot, and another American.
...spoken in Korean with a couple of Vietnamese guys who used to work in Daejeon.
...been bitten by too many mosquitoes to count.
...eaten too much good food to list.
...bartered with shopkeepers.
...narrowly avoided motorbikes on the busy streets of Hanoi; barely escaping with my life.
...climbed a mountain in a national jungle preserve on Cat Ba island. most of Obama's first book.
...become addicted to Vietnamese style coffee.
...generally been having a grand old time and taken lots of pictures of it all that I will share when I return to Korea.

Tonight is my last in Hanoi. I will visit a pagoda tomorrow and then move on to the ancient cities of Hoi An and Hue via overnight train. I will come back to Hanoi for my last afternoon here (for present shopping and possible spa visiting).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Antici... pation.

I have mentioned around the fringes of this blog that I am leaving for Vietnam on Saturday (well, late tonight I will catch the bus to the airport) for a little less than two weeks. However, what I've really wanted to do for the last two weeks was announce every single day all of the cool, interesting, awesome places I'll be going and the things I plan to do and all the neat little containers I found to reduce the size/weight of the stuff I'm taking in my amazing new backpack... etc. All the minute, nuanced detail of my every whim and pleasure and anxiety related to the plotting and revising of my trip plans.

I wanted to write this on my blog:

I AM GOING TO VIETNAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(Notice the excessive number of exclamation points.)

But I have exercised restraint. Exceptional restraint, if you must know, because I am absolutely tittled about this. It's my first solo trip to another country (I did some solo traveling in the U.S., and I don't count Korea because moving to a country is different than visiting). My emotions have fluctuated every five minutes this last week: first super excited, then nervous, then overwhelmed, then blissful, then excited again. It's hard not to blog about things when they're some of the most important things on my mind. Why, beautiful people, have I exercised this restraint?

Well... it's for your benefit.

I love you--you read my writing. I don't want you to stop reading it. I know that the intricacies of vacation orchestration are less interesting to others than to myself, hence why I have not blogged about my plans ad nauseum. And I am fully aware you'd rather read about the exciting adventures I had (past tense) than the ones I will have (future tense). Therefore, I have not allowed my blog to devolve into following my whims of would-be traveling fortune.

I have resisted putting in a bid for advice from my readership about what to do/see in Vietnam (or worse still, a request for accompaniment to stave off the occasional moment of anxiety I have about traveling alone, which is quite natural, but of little consequence). Nor have I weighed you down with details of plans that may or may not happen, as I'm keeping pretty flexible about things (I have a rough outline of the things I want to do and hostel reservations for the first two nights, but beyond that, I'll be open to experiences--wherever the winds may take me). I hope you appreciate it when I am able to share my journeys with you afresh upon my return.

So why do I bring all this up now, on the eve of my departure?

Two reasons. First, to let you know why I might be sporadic in posting for a bit. Second, and more interesting, I wanted to remark on the feelings of preparations for a journey.

Nothing can compare to the amazing experiences you have (or as Min Gi described them the other day, "great intangible property you get") while traveling. But for the traveler, the planning of a trip is a great part of the fun. I actually think much of the experience of going somewhere new is planning for it. The anticipation. Not most... just a significant part. It's a little stressful, but generally the height of immersion in your trip before you actually take the leap.

So as the high from my Vietnam trip wears off in the coming months, I'll be looking for my next hit. Japan in May with Min Gi? Oh yes, my dears. This will happen.

Graduation at 외고: Silly.

Today was Taegu Foreign Language High School's graduation ceremony. I was curious to see what a Korean ceremony would be like, but as I quickly learned (and what I really already knew) was that my school is a little... um... special.

The students usually wear their school uniforms, but at our school they are not required to wear uniforms (as a boarding school and special gifted school we have a freer atmosphere within the building). So the third grade students just dressed up. Most of them looked pretty snazzy.

As the crowds gathered, you could see family members and friends with huge, rather gaudy bouquets for the graduates.

Much like American ceremonies, the principal called the names of each graduate and they crossed a stage to receive their diplomas. Of course, in the Korean ceremony, there was a lot more bowing.

Contrary to what you might suppose, Korean ceremonies are a lot less formal. Students and parents talked the whole time (the atmosphere was similar to that of a wedding in this country). Nobody paid any attention to the principal's speech. And the strangest part (which I think might be unique to our school, as we seem to have a higher tolerance for student shenanigans than most schools) was that every now and then the third grade students would rush the stage in groups and scream out messages of love for their teachers or perform little dances for them.

Here is one some girls from his homeroom performed for Mr. Jang.

It was strange. But funny and cute.

I stood near the Japanese and Chinese native teachers, and we chatted in Korean about what graduation ceremonies are like in their countries. I think we all agreed that this Korean ceremony was the silliest.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blues Workshop: From Middle School Dances to Almost That Sexy.

Last week, I attended a three-hour blues/musicality dance workshop lead by Peter Vawter, a dance and music teacher originally from the West coast, but living in Japan for the last 10 years or so. He's touring Korea with a well-known swing dancer from Seoul, giving workshops along the way. Lucky me--Min Gi and Anna (head of the other Daegu swing club) organized the whole thing and it went off fantastically.

I've been intrigued by blues dancing because when I've seen it done well, it's the sexiest damn thing I've ever seen. No lie. I'm partial to Latin dances for their sensuality, but I was blown away by blues.

However, every time I've tried it, it's been awkward for many reasons. For one, you have to follow really well because your bodies are pressed so tight together. If you make a mistake in the footwork, you could accidentally knee your partner in the groin, especially if he's shorter than you (and this often happens to me in Korea). Even the spins happen in tight to the body, though I've been getting more comfortable with that in Lindy, as I can now successfully NOT elbow Gong Bi in the face (unless I want to, of course).

Our initial discomfort with being that close to each other manifested itself in the first half of the workshop seeming like a middle school dance in the gym. Blues doesn't work without some grinding actions, so Peter played us hip hop which loosened us right up. Mmm... Sexy.

Also, the "lifts" or "throws" in blues are not jumps, but dips. With a jump, I support most of my own body weight. However, with dips, I have to trust a man to hold my weight up with his body. Um... I already have weight issues. This is compounded because many Korean men are smaller than me. And I live in a country that doesn't believe it's possible for a woman to weigh more than 60 kgs (about 132 lbs). As a result, except for certain fellas, I usually just support my own weight and arch my back. This works pretty well for the guys I could break by sitting on them.

At any rate, at the end of three hours, I was able to do a lot more than I could before. Plus I think it is improving my follow for other kinds of dances. It felt sexy dancing with the guys. It was great.

In the meantime, enjoy Peter and his Korean partner dancing to "Wade in the Water." May I recommend you dim the lights, pour a glass of wine, and light up a candle first? It'll put you in the proper mood.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Skiing Injury.

In my four seasons of skiing, I have worked up from having never stood on skis before to easy advanced (black diamond) slopes being pretty manageable for me. I started skiing because my (then) boyfriend won a trip to Telluride, Colorado in March for his job, neither of us knew how to ski, and we both thought it would be sad to go on that trip still as novices. Though I've since axed the ex, I retain the skiing (and the taste for fine wines) that is the legacy of our almost two years together.

Skiing is hard to learn as an adult because you're more aware of how badly you could hurt yourself and you don't recover as quickly as twelve year olds do. A friend of mine once claimed you couldn't learn to ski after you learned the principles of physics. And to some extent, she's right. The motions of skiing (although actually in agreement with our basic understanding of the laws of gravity) feel counterintuitive at first. The last thing you want to hear as you're speeding toward the edge of the path that you are certain you will fly off of and down the mountain through the trees, is that you should turn yourself more in that direction, but that's what the darned ski instructor keeps shouting at you. (And it does work, in case you were wondering).

As difficult as it was for me to learn, and as frustrated I was with the process along the way, I've managed never to injure myself beyond minor bruises and the aches from working muscles infrequently worked by other exercises.

Until yesterday.

This weekend, I went to Phoenix Park in Gangwondo. I went there last year for Seollal. Although I continue to maintain that it is second-best to High1 Resort, I still had a great time skiing. The trip was arranged through Adventure Korea (an English-language tour company based in Seoul). My experience with them was much nicer for the weekend than it was last year, I think because the group was smaller and the trip was shorter. The trip included an afternoon pass and rental on Saturday, but we could purchase extra time for night skiing or Sunday morning. I got both (of course!).

Saturday was fine. I had a great time and helped Sarah tackled her first real full-intermediate level slope at night. Sunday morning I was the only person from my room hitting the slopes.

It began wondrously. There were very few people out at 8:30 a.m. The weather was very misty... until you got to the top of the mountain which was above the cloud cover. You could see the valley covered by the mist like a strange floating lake between the mountain peaks. I wished I'd brought my camera, but now I'm glad I didn't.

Because as I was tackling one of the more difficult intermediate slopes as a warm up for skiing the black diamonds, I took a nasty spill and pulled my shoulder so bad and it hurt so much, at first I thought I'd dislocated it. Even worse, I had one ski, but the other was about 50 feet... straight up the steep incline. And no one was around.

I struggled to get out of my other ski (not being able to use my left hand/arm at all, this was very difficult), and started hiking up the icy incline, when a kind snowboarder noticed the ski and that I'd fallen and retrieved the ski to me. He asked if I was ok, and I said yes, though my arm was still throbbing, because I could tell that my legs were fine. I got back in my skis, slid (very, very cautiously) down to the nearest cafe, where I felt it would be a fine time to break for breakfast.

I thought during breakfast about giving up and going back down to the lodge and resting some. But I still had three hours of skiing left. And I determined my arm wasn't broken, nor the shoulder dislocated. I stuck to easy and intermediate courses the rest of the day and had a grand time.

Travelling back to Daegu was rough on the shoulder, so by the time I returned home, I was ready to die, and a little afraid that it wouldn't recover in time for my Vietnam trip. But after a night's sleep and a little Advil, it seems ok. I probably won't try to do push ups for the next week, but I'm not gonna die and I think I'll even be back at 100% in time for my Saturday flight.

Woo hoo!

So four seasons... and still no (serious) injuries. Can't wait for next year!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Hidden "Advantage" of Being At Work...

I'm more productive when I have too many things to do. If I ever really want to be a writer for money, I need to learn how to structure my "free time" more effectively.

However, watching Oprah last night about a woman who was so busy that she forgot she locked her two year old daughter in the car all day at work (yes, the poor girl died of heatstroke and the woman lost her job and became a pariah in her own town) has made me reconsider the usefulness of being "productive" simply to be "productive." Surely we don't have to do so many things that the stress makes us commit tragic errors of absentmindedness. If Euripides were alive today, would his heroines die from the hubris of multi-tasking? How interesting would that be? Which god would intervene on our behalf?

Perhaps, instead of berating myself for failing to get everything done I feel I'm supposed to have accomplished by now, I should just enjoy the things I have.

(But that sounds a bit like mediocrity's motto; a banner celebrating our defeat. For now, I'll walk the line--neither resting on yet-unearned laurels nor neglecting the joys of present-moment living.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Jia: A Novel of North Korea

A few weeks ago, Sarah dropped a book on my lap. Hyejin Kim's first novel, Jia, is based on her work with North Korean refugees living in villages along the Korean-Chinese border. It is a fictionalized version of true stories related to the author by the refugees. I am curious what parts are real and what are invention, although I certainly understand the safety risks to her friends if their true stories were exposed. I feel that her research journal for this novel would be at least as interesting a read as the final product.

As with most of what I read about North Korea, it is difficult to separate my powerful emotional reactions to the content from the quality of the writing, and therefore it is difficult to do a true "review" of this book. I would definitely recommend it, though I believe I found Charles Robert Jenkins's story more compelling than Jia's, but only perhaps because it was my first time reading a daily-life account of the most 1984-esque country in existence. The writing is poetic in places, but clear; it is a quick read. Jia's struggles are shocking (though the plights of some of her friends are certainly more heartbreaking), but she ends up one of the "lucky" ones. The main character's voice is straightforward and generally stripped of the emotional extravagances that would have ruined this book.

Themes of loss and loneliness are strong throughout the novel. Strangely, I found echoes of Frederick Douglass's autobiography, particularly related to the experiences Jia has once making it to China and Douglass's overwhelming fear upon first arriving in New York City. That the regime of Kim Jong Il (and that of his father Kim Il Sung) places its own citizens (even once loyal citizens) in a position the emotional/psychological equivalent of American slaves suggests that the tragedy that is North Korea is not likely to be resolved and fully healed for several centuries hence.

I am a little sad, but seeing literature like this gives me hope. Because if we continue the analogy, it was only about 10-20 years after major abolitionist literature such as Douglass's autobiography and Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared that it was abolished (leaving the next century and a half of emotional/political/legal battles to cope with).

Although Kim's work is being praised for being the first English/Western publication of this kind, I would actually like to see both her novel and Jenkins's story translated into Korean. I don't think that many publications popular in South Korea present such a stark view of the poverty and suppression that are part of North Korea's daily truths. But I could be wrong...

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Wine in a can.

You came from Australia. All the way to a Korean convenience store.

One brave man though he would give you a shot...

...and was a little disappointed.

His skeptical girlfriend gave it a fair shot...

...but couldn't get over the fact that she was drinking WINE from a CAN.


Not likely to be served in Zagat's guide restaurants anytime in the near future...


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