Cinnamon Tea in Sapa

We wake up quite late considering how early we went to sleep. Sleeping at 7:30 made me think I’d be up and about by 4am but no, I sleep for almost 12 hours. I guess I needed it!

We take a quick walk to the village general store, which sells bottled water and a couple treats at a highly inflated price. I get it though, carrying all that stuff 7km isn’t easy. We cross a pretty dodgey rusty old suspension bridge on our way.

Song prepares our breakfast which consists of rice, baby bamboo shoots, and green beans. Delicious yet again.

Before we’re finished packing up to leave, Song offers to let us try on her clothing and take photos if we’d like. I WOULD like, but Song is like a size negative 3. Tamara and Ryka manage to squeeze into her tiny clothing though!

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I pull Song aside and pay her quickly before Mark and Ryka notice I’m gone. I want to stay true to my promise not to tell them how little we’re paying…even though I’m super proud of the deal we got. She gives Tamara and I a gift; a small silver bracelet made in her village. All the women wear arm fulls of them!

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The little fabric bracelet was a gift from her children.

We thank Song a million times and hug her goodbye. I wish I could explain to her what an amazing experience this was for me. It’s so incredible to have the opportunity to see how other people live. Especially Song and her family, in such a small simple house with no running water, very little material possessions, in a remote village, but with the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. Living simply really does make you happier. While I’m happy to have a solid home and a hot shower, I find it really refreshing to know that people can live so happily without these things. Song gave me something I could never have received on a generic tour. It was a genuine experience and this is why I like to travel. This is what I search for.

Song takes Mark and Ryka on a hike to another village, because they’ve arranged to stay for three days. Tamara and I say our goodbyes and head up the hill half an hour before finding a main road. From there we ask some locals which direction to go to find Sapa, and head on our way. It’s a much faster walk to follow to road, only about 3km. If we took the route from yesterday we would surely get lost!

Once in Sapa life gets pretty boring. We arrive around noon and have to wait until 6pm for the night bus. Please kill me. We do a bit of a café-hopping in order to charge our phones and use the wifi without overstaying our welcome. It’s a cold and rainy day, so the last thing we want to do is wander around town with our big backpacks on…we prefer Vietnamese cinnamon tea in a cozy café.

Somehow the time does actually pass, and it’s finally time for us to board the sleeper bus. It’s over-booked, as per usual in South East Asia, but we are early enough to snag a bed. We don’t get to sit anywhere near each other, but I plan to spend 90% of my time sleeping anyway. Two poor suckers get stuck sleeping on the floor of the bus between the rows of beds. I watch people jump over them on numerous occasions just to access the washroom. No one is happy about it.

The ride is bumpy, but doesn’t feel as long as the drive there. When I wake up I’m surprised to hear that we’re already in Hanoi.

Trekking to a Hill Tribe in Sapa

We pack our day packs with an extra pair of clothes, and make sure to layer up because Sapa is famous for having 4 seasons in one day. It’s a cold morning with clouds hovering over head, threatening rain. All I can do is hope it doesn’t get too slippery on the trails, because all I’ve got is a pair of running shoes.

Tamara and I walk down to the same spot we met Song yesterday. We’re a bit early, so we run to the market to buy some fruit for breakfast. I get 3 small bananas for 5,000 dong ($0.25).
As soon as we meet up with Song she explains that we’ll have some company today. Two other people have arranged to trek out to her house with us, which is totally cool with me. She also makes sure to mention that we don’t tell them how much we paid. Apparently they’re paying more and she’s worried that they might be angry if they find out. I promise her I won’t tell them. Now I have a burning curiosity to know exactly how much they’re paying, and I plan to find out.

Shortly after, we meet our trekking companions. They’re a couple in their late twenties who live in Hanoi full time, teaching English and running a catering business. Mark is from Australia and Ryka is Dutch. They met in Romania and have been together ever since; what a cool way to meet someone!
We wander through the market while Song picks up all our necessary groceries for the next three meals. I try to be patient through the small talk but am eager to find out what a fantastic job of haggling I’ve done. I finally get to ask them what they’ve paid for the trek. They say $20 EACH per day. I keep my promise and tell them we’ve paid the same, when in reality we’re only paying $13 each per day. Mark says he’s heard of people haggling it down to $18, but that you would never get it any cheaper than that. Mark, who lives in Vietnam. It’s pretty hard to keep the smile off my face. Victory!! I love a good deal. The couple have been referred here by their friends, who visited Sapa and found Song the same way Tamara and I did; by bumping into her on the road. They loved her tour so much that they keep her cellphone number handy and recommend her to everyone who goes to Sapa. Today is going to be a good day.

We start out on our 7 kilometre trek to Song’s village. A number of other tribes-women join us and talk to us a little bit, but Song’s English is by far the best. Once we’re out of the town we start along a rocky and pretty steep ascent. The rain has held off thus far, and the sun has even managed to poke through the clouds a little bit!

We make a quick stop, where I take the opportunity to de-layer and gulp back some water. Song points to the left to bring our attention to the marijuana plants growing on the hillside. Wow, she’s not kidding. Now that she’s said it, I can even smell it a little bit. She says it’s grown here to make clothes and that it’s rarely smoked by any locals, but that if foreigners ask they can usually buy some from the farmers. Of COURSE they can. A few minutes later we also pass by a massive plot of land used for growing Vietnamese green tea. That’s more my scene.

The trek is insanely beautiful. Part of me is a little bit disappointed that we can’t see the view from the mountains due to the thick fog, but something about being able to see it creeping towards us and rolling over the rocks along the trail ahead, makes the walk even more incredible. The fog also does a pretty good job of keeping us cool and protecting us from direct sunlight, which I’m sure my skin will appreciate.

It’s pretty hard to put into words how spectacular my surroundings are. Lush green jungle in combination with massive limestone cliffs and orange tinted dirt make for quite an incredible few hours. Photos never do it justice, and I take a few, but I try my best to just absorb my misty surroundings instead, because I know that I’ll never experience something quite like this ever again.

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We stop for lunch in an open and relatively flat area of grassy land next to a farm. Just beyond the fence, some children are playing a game where they release baby chicks into the yard and run around catching them all again, shrieking and giggling with delight.

Song pulls out some soft baguette bread, and slices up pieces of cucumber and tomato while we all relax in the grass. We stuff our bread with the vegetables and call it lunch. After a long morning of hiking I feel pretty hungry and the vegetables taste so refreshing. We have watermelon and banana for dessert.
Then the fun starts. Three of the women who’ve accompanied us on our trek start pulling out their handmade items and encourage us to buy. “You buy this from me and I go home.” in the most pouty tones they can muster. We say no over and over again, but it doesn’t deter them much. This lasts for about 10 minutes before they finally give up and walk off, disappearing into the fog. I hate feeling guilt tripped and pressured into buying something. I also hate feeling that they beautiful hill tribe women are a nuisance, but in all honesty, 90% of the time they are. They act like beggars, are shameless in their sales tactics, and I’ve seen them swarm tourists in Sapa who make the mistake of caving and buying something. Because Sapa is now such a popular tourist destination, the street selling has gotten out of control. There are signs around the town of Sapa asking people not to buy anything from children specifically. I’ve learned that this is because their parents will pull them out of school and send the kids out to whine “buy from me” at tourists in the hopes that their cute, irresistible little faces will turn a higher profit. Some people choose to ignore these signs and do it anyway. I saw one woman hand a camera to her friend and ask her to take photos while she distributed cash in exchange for fabric bracelets to a hoard of hill tribe children. This is another reason I tend to dislike other tourists.

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The last portion of the trek is extra slick with earthy red mud, and all downhill. We are extra careful with our footing, but each of us fall at least once. Song leaps down the mountain in nothing but a pair of plastic sandals and doesn’t trip once.
I’m so happy I wore a pair of jeans that no longer fit me, so I won’t have to feel so bad about them being destroyed. I fall a couple times and the seat and knees of my jeans are instantly stained a rusty orange colour. If I had 1,000 dong for every time I almost fall, but somehow manage to catch myself, I’d be rich.

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Muddy aftermath

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We walk through one last stretch of thick greenery, where Song picks us some berries that look like tiny, yellowy-orange raspberries. They taste bitter, but have just enough sweet flavour to balance it out.
We finally make our descent to her village. I’m not quite sure what to expect as we approach her house, but I am eager to see how she lives. Four or five young, barefoot children run up to greet us, and seem excited to have their mother home. Only two of the children are Song’s; an 8 year old boy and a 6 year old girl. They look just like her. She turns the key to a small padlock hooked between two metal loops on her front door and we step inside. The house is made up of two rooms, a living room/bedroom and a kitchen. The floor is made of solid exposed concrete, the walls are simple hand cut planks of wood, and the ceiling is made of mismatched scraps of metal. Song tells us that her and her husband built it themselves over three years. It’s very modest, but beautiful in it’s way. A small television sits in one corner of the room, and a single lightbulb hangs down from the ceiling. There is no running water, and no bathroom of any kind. Song fetches big barrels of water from her brother-in-laws house down the road to use for cooking and cleaning.
There are animals absolutely everywhere. The children have fun playing with a small puppy, while a funny cat comes and meows aggressively at us all, demanding some attention. Two or three chickens roam around, sometimes letting themselves into the house, and are followed by a flock of baby chicks. Pigs and piglets also hang around outside the home, and on occasion we see a wild dog. Bugs don’t seem to be much of an issue here, though cob webs can be found on almost everything, I don’t see any spiders or even a mosquito.

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I pull out my phone to take some pictures, and the kids all run over to see if they can play with my phone. I check with Song and she doesn’t mind. I don’t have many games at all, let alone games that cater to 6 and 8 year olds, so instead I try to find them a video to watch. All I’ve got is the Of Monsters and Men music video for Little Talks. The kids watch it over and over again. If you’ve ever seen it, you’ll know it’s one of the weirdest music videos of all time, so I kind of understand why they love it so much.

By the third go around I can’t watch it anymore, and my phone has a mega-protective case on, so I let the kids play with it for a while and go to help Song in the kitchen. There isn’t much to do, but we sit around the open fire and chat while she cooks. I notice some miscellaneous pig meat hanging to dry in the corner of the room. Song explains that it’s been cooked in salted water, and after drying for an hour or so, it will keep for months to come. They eat every part of the animal; hooves, tail and ears included. I’m disappointed to find out that her husband won’t be coming home tonight. He works in the rice fields and only comes home every few days. It would be so interesting to meet him! I foolishly made the assumption that they had an arranged marriage, but she tells us that they met in Sapa when she was younger, they fell in love, and were married at 16. In her tribe, you are able to marry whomever you choose, but by age 20 it is common to be seen as old and undesirable. Anything under 16 is too young, so basically, only the time between the ages of 16 and 19 are deemed acceptable for marriage.

There’s no mirror in the house, but Tamara, Mark, Ryka and I all inform each other of our sunburns. I can feel mine burning on my face and chest. I don’t understand how I managed to get so burnt in such thick fog, but it happened.

Dinner is ready, so Song pulls a small wooden table into the middle of the living room and brings out large bowls of food. We all sit on small plastic chairs and fill our bowls with rice, tofu, mushrooms, carrots, and water spinach. Everything tastes especially wonderful after a long day of trekking. I lose count of how many bowls of food I consume. It’s only 6pm when we’ve finished eating but I feel absolutely exhausted! I step outside to use the washroom (aka. any nearby bush of my choosing) and to brush my teeth. It’s so too bad about the overcast sky, because without any light pollution I’m sure the stars would look incredible from here.

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I’ve been confused about where everyone will sleep since I’ve arrived. There are only two places to choose from, and even if we squish I don’t think all seven of us will be able to squeeze into two beds. Song clears away the table from where we had eaten dinner, and pulls out 6 bundles of long dried rice stems. She unties each bundle and starts spreading them on the floor. The last two bundles are used as pillows to complete this rustic version of a pull-out bed. I’m skeptical as to how comfortable some dry sticks can really be, but I also hope that we get to sleep on this make shift mattress because how many opportunities am I going to have to sleep on something like this again?

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I worry about how we’ll make the decision between who sleeps where, because I can see that Ryka and Mark are also eager to sleep on the rice bed, but Song just assigns us each to a bed an fortunately for us, we get the one we want. Song and her children all sleep together on her bed.
She’s hung a bug net from nails in the wood around the room, which makes me feel even more comfortable with sleeping on the floor. I am in the middle of the forest after all, and even if I don’t see the spiders doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The bug net is key. We test out the rice bed and are pleasantly surprised by it’s comfort level. The dried rice is really there primarily to keep us warm, but does provide a layer of padding too which is nice!

By 7:30 we’re all wishing each other goodnight and falling asleep. I see a couple fireflies have made their way thorough the gaps in the wooden plank walls, and are perched on the outside of our bug net, glowing a pleasant red as I drift into a blissful sleep.

I only wake up briefly to the sound of heavy rain on the metal roof top and a quick sight of lightening illuminating the room through the spaces between the walls, before I fall back to sleep.

I think about how lucky I am to be here, and how fortunate I was to have met Song out of all the other hill tribe women. Her opening her home to us like this is extremely humbling and so kind.

Sapa

I wake up briefly in the middle of the night. Did our driver just stall the bus? Yes. He most certainly did. Now it sounds like he’s having trouble getting it started again. It’s 3am and we’re in what seems like the middle of no where…please don’t break down.
I fall back to an in-and-out state of sleep while our driver struggles with the bus. Hopefully we make it, but I don’t have the energy to stay awake and find out what happens.

Apparently he fixes whatever problem the bus had, because the next time I wake up we’ve made it to Sapa. It’s 7am. Everyone groggily exits the bus and we all collect our bags. It’s raining, we have no place to stay, and I realize I don’t even know what direction the town is in. A young local on a motorbike pulls up and starts trying to sell us on his guesthouse. He quotes us $10 per night. I try to bargain him down to $8, but he won’t have it. We consider trying to go out on our own and find something cheaper, but he assures us we “won’t find anything better” and it’s raining. $5/each a night is totally acceptable. I go first, awkwardly getting on the motorbike with all my luggage. He holds an umbrella over my head the whole time. While he’s gone back to get Tamara, I do a quick run around to a couple other hostels in the area but find that they’re all asking the same price. We stick with the first one.

By 8am the rain has stopped and we are settled into our hostel, so we go for breakfast and discuss our plan for the day. In Vietnam, Pho is eaten as a breakfast dish (and lunch. And dinner.) and while the idea of hot noodle soup for breakfast is a slightly foreign one, we order it for breakfast anyway. It’s unlike any other bowl of pho I’ve ever heard of or tried before. The bowl is filled with local mountain vegetables, rice noodles, and a ginger broth. It’s pretty unreal.

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We both want to go on a trek in Sapa despite all the rain, but are torn about whether to book a tour or not. Our hostel staff have been pushing it on us a bit, but I really really like to try and find my own way. A tour is easy, you know what you’re getting into, it might even be cheaper. We don’t know.

On our way back to the hostel, we are approached by some local villagers who strike up a conversation, asking us where we’re from. This is common in Sapa, because many of the hill tribe women come to the village in order to sell handmade goods to tourists. Since Sapa has become such a tourism hotspot, the pressure to buy is always intense. They usually cut right to the chase – “you buy from me now”, as they hold up various items, from small hand sewn change purses to bulky silver necklaces. I’ve found that the only effective way to avoid this is to simply ignore them. A “no thank you” doesn’t cut it. It feels awful, but I’d be living on the streets if I bought something from every woman or child who’s asked me to!
These two women in particular though, we stop to chat with. I’ve read online that it’s possible to book a home-stay trekking trip right from the tribal women themselves. I’m curious about the price. Many of them have picked up English from tourists over the years.
We make small talk with them for a few minutes and then, a little guarded, I start asking some questions. I ask Song, the young woman, if they do guided trekking trips to their village. They do. I ask if they offer home-stay accommodation. They do. Terrified that I’ve just opened up a can of worms that I’ll have to awkwardly run away from, I ask how much it costs.
I get the worst response known to any bargainer; “how much do you think it’s worth?”
Thus far I’ve done no research. This WAS supposed to be my research. It’s a fine line between over paying, and bidding insultingly low. I have no idea. To my good fortune, a very loud truck drives down the street at this very moment, making any speech inaudible. This has bought me 5 more seconds to think.
Prices prices prices. What’s it worth? What am I paying for? Please don’t insult the tribal ladies.
The truck passes and I spit out “twenty dollars?”, still completely unsure if this is even in the ballpark of appropriate prices. She laughs and says each? I too, laugh, and throw out the idea that I meant total, for both of us. I still don’t even know. She raises my price to $30 for both of us. Trying my luck, I push for $25. She chats with her friend for a few minutes in their native language, and in turn I look at Tamara and explain in French that I have no idea what I’m doing. We discuss the numbers and agree that it seems quite good. Finally, Song turns back to us and agrees.
I clarify, “$25? for two people? Two days and one night? Food included? Lunch, then dinner, then breakfast?”
She nods, with a smile on her face.
“Uhh, alright. So tomorrow? When should we meet?”
She suggests 9am.
“Great. Where?”
She suggests we meet in the very place we are standing now.
“Okay. Great. Uh, see you tomorrow then!”
Smiling and waving, Tamara and I walk away, back to the hostel. God I hope I haven’t made a huge pricing mistake. Even if I have just agreed to largely over pay for something, $12.50 seems amazing for two days of activities and accommodation. How wrong can it really go? I actually have a really good feeling about it, I’m pretty excited. No hokey tours for us!

The rain is holding off, but the trails will still be wet from this mornings weather, so we decide to rent a motorbike and check out the Silver Falls, just a half hour’s drive outside town. I fell off a motorcycle, driving my very first time in Thailand. It was a similar situation, we were headed out to see something called the Emerald Cave in Koh Lanta. I got way too excited and confident about my driving skills, and managed to crash my motorbike within 10 minutes of turning it on. I still have the scars to prove it. I feel like Sapa is a good place to try again. It’s quiet here, and if I can just practice driving around in circles on a side road for a few minutes, I think I can get comfortable again. It’s only $4 to rent a motorcycle for the day, and our hostel has two readily available for us to borrow. I get on and do a couple practice runs just getting used to the gas and break. I’m not 100% but I feel alright. Tamara gets acquainted with her bike, and we set off. The tanks are empty so our first stop is to get petrol. I have to weave in and out of traffic, dodging humans, animals, and other cars/trucks before actually making it to the petrol station. I drive 20km/hr the whole way.
While waiting in line at the station I start to get worried. What if I fall off again? I’ll feel like such an idiot. Am I really comfortable enough on this bike to commit to a half hour drive? Are they steep mountain roads? I start to realize this is most likely a terrible idea. I tell Tamara my thoughts, and she supports my decision to turn this bike around and go back. We can take a motorbike taxi out to the falls. At least then if we crash it’s not my fault. I feel like a huge loser, but that’s what we do. By the time we get back to the hostel I feel really confident on the bike and in the traffic, but I still think it’s best to integrate myself back into motorbike driving very slowly.
For the same price as renting a bike for the day, we can hire a motor taxi to drive us up and back from the falls.

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They drive us up a beautiful winding mountain road which, when the clouds break, offers an incredible view of the rice terraces and landscape. Most of the drive up is clouded by mist, but that gives a pretty dramatic and picturesque effect to the lush green mountains around us.

Before we officially arrive at our destination, I see the waterfall as we round a corner. It’s absolutely massive, and water crashes down over multiple tiers of what seems like the tallest mountain peak in sight.
Our drivers wait for us on the road, and mine warns me to be careful and to follow the pathway. Is there an option that does not involve following the pathway? I want that one.
I start to climb some man-made stairs with a hand railing that climbs the side of the falls, until I see an opportunity to step out onto a huge rock in the stream below the waterfall. This must have been what he meant by “dangerous” when he warned me to stick to the pathway.
Maybe it’s because this is just in my nature, but I feel like I must take this route. It’s not insanely intense, it’s just hopping from boulder to boulder above a shallow stream. It’s not like I’ll die if I fall, and it’s so much more fun this way!
I go about as far as I can before I’ll have to start some amateur rock climbing to get up any closer, so I jump back over to the pathway with Tamara and we continue our climb. The stairs only lead us as far as a small bridge half way up the falls, where I see another opportunity to get a little closer. There’s a barrier, but it’s relatively short and no one is around, so I step over it and climb out onto another rock in front of the falls. It makes me feel so small to look up at something so big and powerful. Nature is really cool.

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Tamara counts 300 steps up to the bridge, we take some photos, and head back down to our motorbikes.
Her bike reaches the bottom of the mountain a few minutes before mine, which I can’t understand because I’ve literally got involuntary tears streaming out the sides of my eyes we’re moving so fast.

It’s only 1:30. I have no concept of time today after taking the sleeper bus here. It feels like 5pm. We’ve got so much time! We decide to hit another tourist attraction in Sapa called Cat Cat Village.
It’s just a three kilometre loop down to a river and small waterfall, where some villagers have set up shops along the way to sell more hand made jewellery, wood carvings, bags and other things.

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The whole walk takes us about one and a half hours, which seems really long for three measly kilometres, but we take our time. I think we choose a wonderful time to stroll through the village, because there are next to no other tourists. I think this is probably something people do in the morning, or maybe people have been deterred due to the thick fog. Really, the weather has worked out well for us today! I don’t mind that it’s a little cold.

On the way back we sit down for a Lao Cai (local beer) and papaya salad. Then it’s time for a nap. I have a glorious sleep, warm under the covers and not bumping around like I was on the bus. It’s wonderful.

We go to the Main Street for dinner and find a cheap restaurant called Michell Restaurant. They have an Italian theme but still serve Vietnamese food. What’s with all the Italian/French themed things in Asia?!
When we walk in, a table of about 10 people all turn their heads and welcome us in. It’s the family who owns the place, and they’ve all just sat down for dinner. It seems that we’re their only customers so far. They are overly accommodating; pulling out our chairs, bringing us free hot tea (in wine glasses) and saying things like “okay thank you for ordering, our kitchen will prepare this for you now”. Their dishes are so cheap, which is why we chose it, but it feels like we’re in a fine dining establishment. Well, sort of.

It’s only 7:30 when we’ve finished dinner so we walk down the road to a bar with a happy hour special. A cheesy old movie, similar to the one we saw in the bus station, is playing on a tv. All the bar staff are watching it intently and laughing hysterically. I see “Sheena” in the top right corner of the screen. I guess that’s what we’re watching, but I’ve never seen it before. It’s brutal, but I totally watch it out of the corner of my eye while we chat with some English and American people at the bar.

Pineapple Ladies and Sleeper Buses

I wake up for the first time on my trip, confused about where I am. I suppose I was dreaming of home, because when I wake up I have to remind myself that I’m in Vietnam. What a nice surprise!
Tamara and I check out of our mediocre guesthouse, walk to the travel agency where we bought our bus tickets, and leave our backpacks. It’s so nice that we don’t have to carry them around with us all day. Now we can do some sightseeing!

There is a prison here in Hanoi that was built hundreds of years ago by the French colonies, and then used by the Vietnamese to house American pilots and other prisoners during the war. Not all of it is still in tact but what’s left of it has been turned into a museum in the middle of town. By Apple Map’s estimate, the prison is only a 15 minute walk away from the Old Quarter, so I map the directions when we have wifi at breakfast, screen shot them, and use them to find the prison later. Unfortunately, they aren’t the kind of directions I’m used to following. I get weird instructions like “walk west on Bàt Dân Street, turn left at the Vietnam Bank, pass by công ty cō phãn on left” which isn’t really helpful. We try reading all the street signs and shop names but we never find công ty cō phãn. We decide it might be best to just get a motor taxi. This is not a hard thing to do in Vietnam because EVERY ONE drives a motorcycle, and there are always people slowing down or beckoning you over to be driven somewhere. We find two motorbike drivers and ask how much it will cost to go to the prison. They say 100,000 dong ($5) each. Having no idea what a good price is, but making the assumption that they’ve way over quoted us, I laugh and tell them no. They quickly drop their price to 50,000 dong each. I push a little further and say 40,000. They accept. We are given helmets and each get on the back of a motorbike. I’m not really a huge fan of motorbikes after my incident in Koh Lanta, Thailand last year…but I trust that these guys know what they’re doing. At least I’M not driving in this crazy Hanoi traffic. I’d die.

After 5 minutes of weaving between motorbikes, cars, and buses, (with what feels like a few close calls) we’ve arrived at the entrance to the prison. We pay 20,000 dong ($1) for an entrance ticket.
The prison is interesting; full of historical information, authentic artifacts, a few prison cells still in tact, and even some old torture equipment. I’m not a big history buff at all so I still don’t totally follow the chain of events that lead to French Colonization or the war with the USA, but nonetheless it’s cool to your around. One of the coolest things I see is a small cement tunnel that has been excavated out of the ground for display once the prison was shut down. It shows the small space through which 16 prisoners escaped by crawling through a sewer and past a set of iron bars. The space is TINY and it just proves how malnourished the prisoners were and their desperation to escape.

We walk back from the prison to the Old Quarter, now that we know the direction and don’t need to follow any weird Apple Map instructions.

I’m walking ahead of Tamara when I hear her laughing behind me. I turn around to see a fruit vendor has come up to Tamara and placed her fruit basket balancing stick-tote thing on Tamara’s shoulder so she can test the weight and balance. The woman also removes her traditional sun hat and puts it on Tamara’s head. I manage to snap a few hilarious photos before she comes and transfers everything on to me.

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The next thing you know, slices of pineapple have been bagged up and handed over to us with a demanded price of 150,000 dong ($7). I almost puke. 150,000?! EACH?! For some measley pieces of pineapple and a silly photo? Hella no. Take your bagged fruit back back! While I’m trying to tell pineapple lady (as politely as possible) that she’s crazy, another vendor comes out of the blue, selling little doughnut-like pastries. She tells Tamara they’re free to try so she tries one, but big surprise, she bags up a bunch of them in .001 seconds and forces them into Tamara’s hands. I overhear her demanding a stupid amount of money for a handful of little doughnuts, I think I hear 200,000 dong. Tamara is trying to bargain without being rude. I quickly finish haggling with the pineapple lady, by giving her 50,000 dong in the name of keeping our funny photos and being able to now get rid of the doughnut lady.
I see Tamara handing the doughnut lady 100,000 dong, and being asking for 80,000 more. Doughnut lady wants almost $10 for 10 shitty little doughnuts. No! We tell the doughnut lady that she’s already charged us WAY too much and we walk off.

My first time being scammed in Vietnam.

I guess it’s not really so much a scam as it is some little snack vendor ladies ganging up on poor innocent backpackers. We’re too nice! It all happened so fast. We were bombarded and just couldn’t think quickly enough to get away from the puppy-dog-eyed “sweet” little vendors. Looking back, I wish we had just dropped the stupid pineapple, said no and peaced out. So what if I took a photo? I know that I know better than to let this stuff happen to me! Damn that clever pineapple lady and her tricks.

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I’ll never trust you again.

After (spitefully) enjoying our little snacks and checking the time, we decide we’ve got enough time to visit the West Lake where there is a popular pagoda. We try to find another motorcycle. The weirdest and most annoying thing has happened to us frequently over the last two days. When we walk around aimlessly, we see a billion travel agencies, cafés, restaurants, hostels etc., but when we are looking for a hostel? There isn’t a one to be found for blocks. It’s ridiculous. It’s happening right now with motorcycles. I feel like I haven’t walked 10 feet without someone offering to drive me somewhere…until this very moment when I actually want to be driven somewhere. Classic.
We walk for a while, keeping our eyes out for any taxi motorbikes, until Tamara finds an old man who waves us over from his bike. Score. I do the haggling, because I want to see how low I can push the price this time. We barter back and forth until we agree on a price of 40,000 dong ($2) each to drive three times the distance of what we drove to the prison. I’m starting to think that my haggling this morning still resulted in us getting ripped off. Whoops. This time, there’s only one man and one bike. Tamara and I both have to squeeze onto the back of ONE motorcycle! Ah! I sit on the very back and hold onto the seat for dear life. It’s far more comfortable than I expect, but there’s no where for me to put my feet, so my leg muscles get a bit of a workout while keeping my feet from dragging on the ground.

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The pagoda is only kinda cool. I’m not a pagoda snob or expert or anything, but I don’t understand why it’s listed as one of the top sites in Hanoi. I’m not überly impressed by it.

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It’s kinda tall I guess. We don’t hire a guide, so it’s very possible that there’s a whole story behind it’s existence that I’m missing to make it significant. There is a lot of good people watching along the lake side, which I find more interesting.

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We slowly start to walk back in the direction of the Old Quarter, where we need to go to catch our overnight bus to Sapa. It’s a half hour walk, but we’re not low on time and walking will allow us to explore more of the city anyway.
The road we follow is lined with lots of bizarre bridal shops. I see more than one 80s themed mannequin bride on display. Big teased hair and everything. We walk for at least 15 minutes down the same, weird street before an elderly man on a motorbike beckons us over. We had planned to walk, but we entertain the idea of quick transportation anyway. I ask him how much it will cost to the lake. He speaks no English, but we are able to show him a picture on Tamara’s phone. He quotes us 80 but we bargain him down to 50,000 dong. 25 ($1) each. That’s the lowest I’ve done yet! He turns his bike in the direction we’ve just come from. We’ve been walking the wrong way the whole time! Both of us are confused but we laugh and hop on the bike, feeling thankful that we found this guy when we did! I sit in the middle seat this time, which is more comfortable for my legs but gives me awkward arms that I don’t know what to do with, so I just hug my backpack against my chest.

Back in the Old Quarter we end up with another hour to kill before the bus leaves. We sit down for two-for-one happy hour and have a beer. We order two sandwiches for take away as our dinner for later. Who knows where the bus will stop for dinner? Or if it will even stop at all.

We arrive at the travel agency for 6pm as requested. We sit and chat with our travel agent lady for half an hour before the bus actually arrives. While sitting there and waiting I see a sign for something called an “open bus ticket”. I enquire. Apparently, you can pay $55 and get a one month ticket that allows you unlimited hop on hop off access to busses stopping at all the major locations between Hanoi and Ho Chi Mihn City. What is this magic? $55 to not worry about transportation for the rest of my time in Vietnam? Don’t mind if I do. I’m willing to bet that we can get a cheaper price if we stay loyal to this agency, too. I keep that idea in my back pocket to discuss more with Tamara later.

A van finally arrives to pick us up and take us to the sleeper bus. The drive is a lot longer than I expect, but it works out fine because our ticket indicates that we won’t actually be departing on the sleeper bus for another hour.
When we get to the bus terminal we sit and wait in a room with nothing but some black chairs, all facing a television playing some really awful really old American film (1940s/50s?) with a Vietnamese voice over. Some guy and some lady crash their helicopter in Africa and happen upon an African tribe. It’s sexist, a little racist, and the special effects are so bad. It’s genuinely the worst film I think I’ve ever seen in my entire life, but I haven’t watched a lot of old movies so maybe they’re all like that. It’s awful in a kind of funny way, I suppose.

I step away from the riveting film to use the washroom. The electricity seems to be out, and it’s 7:30pm. I get to pee in the dark.

We board the sleeper bus around 8:15pm. It’s the size of any regular coach bus, but with two tiers of “beds” which look like extremely reclined bus seats. Some intense Vietnamese techno beats pump through the speaker system. We climb into a pair of top bunks with super wonderful cheetah print blankets and get comfy. We’re given a bottle of water aboard the bus. Free gifts!
An old couple sitting across from us complain to the driver that there is no toilet on the bus as advertised. They’re like, “but we were told there would be a toilet!” and I just chuckle to myself and think, nothing in Asia is ever what you are told it will be. They’re in for a surprise. We probably (definitely) won’t arrive when we were told we would either. I wonder how they’ll feel about that. The toilet thing kinda sucks I guess, but I pride myself on my ability to hold my pee so I think I’ll survive the next 9 hours just fine.

I fall asleep to the melodic sounds of car horns, the bus engine, my fellow bus mates text message alerts, (why don’t people use silent mode?) and the Vietnamese techno relentlessly being played over the speakers. No doubt the most appropriate musical choice for a bus full of people trying to sleep.

I wish there were a font for sarcasm.

Tamara Arrives!!

Tamara arrives in Hanoi safely! Wahoo! It’s been three whole years since I’ve seen her! Crazy. I meet her at 10:30am outside my spider hostel and we go to find a new place.
Some backpackers I met last night told me about another hostel just like 50 metres down the street from this one, but when we stop in to ask for a room we find all their dorm beds are full. We keep searching.
We find a small guesthouse a few blocks away, with a big room that we can have to ourselves, and is only 125,000 Dong ($6) per person. I won’t lie, it’s not the most pristine room I’ve ever been in, but I show the owners a picture of the giant spider from last night and make them promise I won’t see one here. Good enough.

We walk around the lake and visit a small temple on the water. I buy a pair of flip flops and some comfy pants, and try my hand at a little bargaining. I’m a bit off my game… it’s been so long! It’s also taking me forever to get adjusted to the currency here. 21,500 dong to the dollar is not an easy conversion to make.

We walk back to the Old Quarter for Lunch. We find a weird tall and skinny restaurant with a balcony and an Italian theme, and order a bowl of Pho. We chat and catch up on each other’s lives over the last three years sometimes in French, but mostly in English. I love when we can kinda mish-mash the two languages into one. I look forward to working on my French a bit while we’re here, it’s lost so quickly. What’s great about us catching up, is that even though so much has changed, it feels like I just saw her a week ago. Isn’t it funny how that happens?

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After lunch we walk around to some travel agencies and get prices for a bus to Sapa (in the North West of Vietnam). I like to check out at least two or three agencies and try to bargain a bit so we can be sure to get the best price. A lot of them offer tour packages for cheaper than a two way bus fare, but I largely dislike the idea of tours. I like trying to discover stuff myself! We also don’t know how many days we want to stay in Sapa yet. Most places are quoting us $20 dollars for a one way bus ticket, but we happen upon one little place that we stop into on a whim, where we negotiate $15 for a sleeper with air-con. We take it. Now we can book a ticket back from Sapa whenever we like, and can find our own place to sleep without a giant bus full of other tourists beside us. I’ve heard there are some wonderful hill tribe people who open up their homes to travellers.

The bus ticket search takes up the better half of our afternoon, and by the end of it we’re hungry again. We walk around for a good hour before settling on a place to eat. We find some decent looking restaurants but the food is relatively expensive. I’m banking on a $3 meal, tops. We come across a cool looking restaurant with a kitchen out front and dining area in the back. It’s cheap, we’re hungry, we sit down. It’s Japanese food, which I somehow only realize once we’ve already picked a table. I’m definitely not opposed to it, but I had my mind on something Vietnamese. Oh well. I order a noodle soup and a steamed bun stuffed with pork. It costs 50,000 dong ($2.50). The food itself is sub-par but not terrible. What’s terrible, is the table of screaming children just two tables over from us. Their parents are enjoying their meal and seem completely indifferent to their two toddlers wreaking havoc on the poor little restaurant. Like actually smashing things with hard plastic beach toys and screaming about it. Rah! Some people’s kids, ya know?

Our walk back from dinner is pretty uneventful until we get about two blocks away from our guesthouse. For reasons I cannot explain, the traffic in the Old Quarter is out of control. Crossing the street becomes impossible. Well, a different kind of impossible. Crossing the street is a hard task at best in Hanoi, as there is no obvious right of way or any crossing signs, so you just step out into the street and play Frogger with the motorbikes, taxis, and busses.
This is worse though. The traffic is so intensely backed up, no one is moving. Still, bicyclists, motorbikes, and pedestrians all try to squeeze into any tiny space available to them, in hopes of moving forward. It’s impossible to find a gap to squeeze through just to get across the road!

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Making it back to the guesthouse feels like a completed mission, where we can enjoy the peace and quiet of our room, away from all the relentless honking.

Giant Demon Spiders

A friend I met 5 years ago (why am I so old?) lives in Switzerland, so I haven’t seen her in a long time! As fate would have it, she has planned a South East Asian backpacking trip that lines up with my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, so obviously we’re meeting up! She’s been stuck in Bangkok for a few days working out her Vietnamese Visa, but is expecting to arrive in Hanoi tomorrow.

I hang out in the city and wait for her, but am having a bit of trouble figuring out what to do with my time here. I don’t want to hit any tourist spots yet, because there’s no sense in seeing them twice and I’m sure she’ll want to see them all too! I plan to wander around the lively streets of the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake like I did yesterday; absorb some more Vietnamese culture. Maybe I’ll find a new spot, who knows where my day will take me!

While walking down the street I meet a guy from Ghana, who’s living in Vietnam on a soccer contract. We hang out around the lake and go for lunch, which he offers to pay for. I usually like being an independent lady and buying my own stuff…but when you’re on a budget of $15/day and you’ve just paid $100 for an entry visa…you do what you gotta do. I’m just used to being around backpackers whom I would never expect to pay for anything of mine because we are all equally 100% poor.

After a long afternoon of walking around Hanoi I feel like just relaxing on my own. Maybe taking a nap? I think months of living at home had turned me into a semi-hermit. I leave my new pal and head back to the hostel where I take a cold shower, which only effectively cools me down for a total of 0.5 seconds, and then have a little nap. It’s a lazy kind of day.

In the evening I hop across the street for some dinner. There’s a restaurant that serves both western and Vietnamese style food, and it’s indoors/air conditioned which means I don’t have to risk getting soaked by any potential rain again. There’s been a giant grey cloud threatening the city all day. I sit alone by the window.

Shortly after I get my $0.50 beer, I am provided with some entertainment when another traveler tries to enter the restaurant but really struggles with opening the sliding entrance doors. He pushes and pulls like 5 times before he sees me pointing to the arrows on the door that signify the side to side sliding motion. He makes it inside, what a champion. He’s eating alone too, so I invite him to join me. He’s from Manchester, UK, and is the spitting image of my friend Tom, who I traveled with in Australia last year. Tom was also from (basically) Manchester. Weird!!! Same same but different. Later, a girl from his hostel walks in and sits with us too. I forgot how stupidly easy it is to meet people here. They’re leaving in an hour for an over night bus to Sapa, so they aren’t in my company for very long.

I go back to my hostel and prepare to have an early night, because I’ll be getting up relatively early to meet Tamara. Instead, I meet an Argentinian dorm-mate of mine, and we go out for a beer. We find another sweet “happy hour” deal and sit on a balcony. I’m 90% sure our waitress is drunk. She’s the nicest thing ever, and seems excited to be practicing her English…but definitely tipsy. She talks to us all night.

When we get back to the hostel, I’m casually settling into my bed when I catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. In the corner of the room, directly across from my bed, there is an absolutely gigantic, hairy, demon spider on the wall.

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I will never sleep again. I try to keep my cool but draw everyone else in the room’s attention to it, and then immediately go get someone from front desk. I couldn’t have it disappearing while I stepped out to find rescue.
Our front desk guy comes into our room with a giant broom, climbs up on a bunk bed, and just smashes the beast without remorse. It tries to escape and run away. It’s an epic battle for the history books, but the front desk staff prevails. There’s now a huge curled up spider carcass on the floor. He comes back a little while later with a plastic bag and throws it away. Back to the depths of hell for you, spider beast.

Will I sleep tonight? Will I ever sleep again with a bug net? Prob not. What if he had a big spider family? What if he was just the BABY and his larger, scarier spider parents are going to seek their revenge?

Speaking English in Hanoi

I was not a happy camper this morning when I woke up to someone else’s abandoned alarm clock. It was ringing for a solid 5 minutes before they came back from wherever they were to turn it off. I’ll kill you.

Everyone in my dorm room is leaving to go to either Ha Long Bay or Hoi An today, and they’re all up early getting their stuff together to go. I try to sleep through it, but fail. Hostel life. I wake up with only a few mosquito bites, but I’m totally over heating. I want to take a cold shower but so does everyone else in the room, so I’ll have to wait.

My $4/night bed also comes with an included breakfast. If that’s not thrifty I don’t know what is. It’s a pretty good breakfast, too! Not just some toast and tea, but a menu of about 6 items to choose from, and tea or coffee. Actually, tea and coffee are free all day. If it weren’t for the bugs, I’d probably want to stay…but I don’t. I plan to do it the traditional, and most effective way, of just walking around and stopping in to check prices/ see rooms before committing to anything new. I also desperately need a pair of flip flops (as the floor in this hostel is sometimes wet without reason) and I need to pull more cash. I make these things my mission for the day. I also look into getting my legs waxed because I’m going to be hittin’ the east side Vietnamese beaches soon.

I bring a small black and white map of Hanoi, given to me by the front desk, and set out into the craziness of the Old Quarter. It’s so humid outside that it’s hard to breathe. I should just accept right now that I’ll be perma-sweaty for the next month and a half.

I somehow manage to walk in the right direction towards the popular Hoan Kiem Lake, where I can be sure to find shops and an ATM. I see a Bank of Vietnam and try to pull money but it doesn’t work with my debit card so I must use my visa once again. I don’t know how people travel without these, really.
I feel extra on edge as I pull my money because someone comes to stand behind me half way through my transaction. Please don’t rob me please don’t rob me please don’t rob me. He doesn’t rob me, he just wants to use the ATM too. Crazy.

One mission: completed. I’m close to a salon that I googled with a good reputation, so that’s my next stop. I walk into a very skinny lobby area with hundreds of nail polishes on shelves all along the walls. I am lead up three flights of a narrow, winding stair case to an air-conditioned room with calm Vietnamese music is playing.
There are two ladies in the room, not just one. Right away, BOTH of the ladies start waxing my legs! One lady per leg. They move super quickly and I can’t stop myself from laughing. Kinda weird at first, but just too funny! If I went to a salon in a Canada and asked to have TWO people wax my legs at the same time they’d probably just say no, or I’d be paying double. Here, my leg wax only costs me $25, and is done in half the time it usually takes. What service!

I walk back over to the lake so I can catch up on my writing. It’s a beautiful location to sit and relax on one of the many benches surrounding the water.
I have been sitting for maybe 10 minutes, when I am approached by four Vietnamese people about my age, two girls and two boys. One of the girls asks me if she can sit down and practice her English with me. Please don’t rob me please don’t rob me please don’t rob me.
I invite her to sit down, but I am clutching onto my bag for dear life. What is the catch here? What’s the scam? I’m pretty much prepared to run if something weird happens.
They ask me simple questions like my name, where I come from, and my age. I have to remind myself to speak slowly, which is not an easy task.
Over time I ask them some questions too, and find out that they’re all University students in Hanoi, who often come here to find tourists to speak with. I start to calm down a little. No one is here to rob me. The hype about Vietnam being so dangerous doesn’t seem to be true to Hanoi. Maybe Ho Chi Mihn?

The four of them have only met today, while wandering around the lake to practice English. What a fun way to make friends! After they sit with me for a few minutes, more and more people start to gather. Eventually the first four leave, but I am now speaking with a new group of 10 or so people, asking me the same questions.
“What is your name? Where do you come from? How old are you? Do you have any siblings? Tell me something about your mother. How long are you in Vietnam? Do you like my country? Tell me something special about your country. What do you study? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you like shopping? Why are you traveling alone?” Everyone is always sad that I’m traveling alone. “What music do you like?” They all love Taylor Swift. No one knows Macklemore.

The questions go on and on and I sit with them for hours, helping them with pronunciation and spelling. Some write down new words I say, and they all help each other translate if they are unsure of what I mean.
It’s a really really cool experience!
Some add me on Facebook or ask for the link to my blog so they can read about my time in Vietnam, which will be even more English practice for them!

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By 5pm I realize it’s been FOUR hours of sitting by the lake and chatting. I’ve missed lunch and I’m starving, so I apologize and say I have to go find dinner. One of the guys makes some suggestions for me on where I can go to find good Vietnamese dishes in the area. He even has a book about the food handy! Someone else gives me a map in colour and WAY better than the one the hostel has given me. Everyone I meet is so nice.

I also haven’t peed in four hours. I can’t wait until I get back to the hostel so I try to stop in a small café but they tell me they don’t have a washroom. Nooo! I ask the shop keeper at an art store just next to the café where I can find a washroom. She offers to let me use hers…in the scary dark back room behind the shop. Am I going to die? Please don’t rob me please don’t rob me please don’t rob me. She turns on the washroom light and here I am.

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In the scariest, most spider covered squatter toilet in all the land. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I try to find my happy place.

I leave and thank her a million times for letting me be in the scariest room I’ve ever been in.

I plan to go back to the hostel before heading out for dinner, but I get totally lost, even with my new map. The Old Quarter is like a big maze.

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A woman carrying a big basket of fruit approaches me in the street as I’m looking at my map. Please, for the love of god, don’t rob me. I don’t want to buy anything please go away. She offers to help me figure out where I’m going, and easily points me in the right direction. She doesn’t ask me for money, she doesn’t try to steal my bag. Just a nice lady.

I make it back to my hostel, take a cold shower and head back out for some Pho. I find a restaurant on a street corner with lots of other customers so I sit down at a miniature table (extremely popular here in Hanoi) and order one bowl of chicken Pho. I sit on the sidewalk and enjoy the people watching. It’s totally enjoyable until the rain starts pouring down. Like some serious rain. There is no awning to cover my head and no where to sit inside, so I follow suit with everyone else and push my table against the wall, huddled under a small roof overhang. I am soaked. Everyone is soaked, but no one seems to mind. The Pho is great, though.

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Lightning brightening the sky

I eat quickly and head back to my hostel where three American girls walk in off the street and join my almost empty dorm room. They invite me to go for a drink with them, so of course I agree and we find a cute restaurant close by with “Happy Hour Now, Buy One Get One Free Beer” permanently printed into the menu. I didn’t know discounts could be permanent. Vietnam has taught me many new things today.

Vietnamese Visas: Heed my Warning

It’s funny to think about how awful I felt when I first arrived in Seoul, it just seems so silly now. Instead, I’m wishing I didn’t have to leave so soon because there’s so much more to do in South Korea! I plan to come back one day with more time…and more money.
I am pretty pumped to be flying to a country where I can survive on $15/day. My love affair with South East Asia can be revived once more!

I have to check out at 10:30 which is less than ideal, but Kimchee Guesthouse has been good to me. Actually, they technically gave me my first paid writing gig. This morning I got W10,000 ($10) for writing about Seoul during my time here. I was gonna do that anyway…for free! The W10,000 is a sweet bonus.

I somehow accidentally walk into a Japanese noodle shop for lunch. I thought it was Korean food, but noooooo. I eat it anyway because I love Japanese noodles, I do what I want, and because I can still have a Korean dinner before I go. I feel like I’ve had a pretty decent fill of Korean cuisine in 5 days. No dog or penis worms consumed though, I’m happy to say!

I spend the rest of my afternoon wandering around Myeong-dong for the last time. I wanted to check out some other areas, but I don’t feel like I have an abundance of time before I need to leave for the airport. I’ve never missed a flight and I’d like to keep it that way! I buy a couple silly Korean accessories because they’re awesome. Cat ear headband, anyone?
I then rush back to the hotel to pick up my backpack, and get on my way to Incheon Intl. The airport subway line takes about 45 minutes from where I’m staying, and I’ve left myself some buffer time just in case.

Arriving at the airport with lots of time to spare, I mosey over to the check in counter, hoping I can leave my bag early and go grab some food before the inevitably awful meal they’ll serve on the plane.
This is when the party starts.
I am asked for my passport, ticket confirmation number, and visa letter. Umm…what is a visa letter? A visa approval letter you say? Why no. I do not happen to have one of those handy. How do I acquire one? Oh…. It takes a few days? Wonderful. My flight is in a couple hours.

I’m passed over to the manager, who is supposedly going to help me, but I don’t see how. I have no visa. I’m thinking at best he’ll just hook me up with a low cancellation fee. I’m already wondering if Kimchee Guesthouse will have an extra bed for me tonight. The manager is super friendly and directs me to a website called Vietnam-evisa.org, which can apparently get you this entry letter ASAP. He warns me that it’ll be expensive. I ask HOW expensive. Am I looking at $1,000? $100? He says this happened to an American traveler a couple weeks ago and it cost him $400. I’m hoping I’ll get a better deal as a Canadian. I’m trying to do the mental math; is it better to cancel and buy a new flight, or dish out $400 for a visa right now? While weighing the pros and cons I continue filling in the online info. Just another fun fact…I have 3% battery left on my phone.

The manager tells me that he has another option for me, and points to a large, rough looking man in a black suit and with slicked back hair. He’s talking on the phone to someone. He gestures for me to hand him my passport so I do, and he snaps a photo of it. I’m not a big fan of that, like who are you and what are you doing, sir? He hangs up the phone and tells me it’ll cost me 200 USD to get a visa on arrival at Hanoi’s airport. Luckily, I’m a quick texter and have already filled out all the information on the online visa form. they’re quoting me 67 USD. The manager assures me that this scary man in a suit is legit, but something about him rubs me the wrong way. I don’t generally do deals with what looks like maybe a member of the Korean mafia. Then they’re telling me that $67 is just the processing fee and that I’ll owe more at the airport. I’ve got like 2 minutes to make the call, and have no idea which is the better option but I choose to go with the online visa people who aren’t trying to charge me a shady $200 cash to skip around the rules. Online, they’ve promised to get me an approval letter anytime between now and 4 hours from now. This is clearly a gamble in itself…but I just have a good feeling about it. Well, a better feeling. I click send and kindly tell the mafia man that I appreciate his help…but no deal.He doesn’t seem too stoked.

I wait at the desk for about 10 minutes, chatting with the check-in people and just like, praying that I’ve made the right call, when I feel the buzz of my phone notifying me of an e-mail. I’ve got a letter! Not all hope is lost! With this letter I can now board the plane, though it still doesn’t mean I have a visa. That’s good enough for now! Goodbye kind check-in humans, you’ve been great!

I see a kind of problematic side note in my confirmation e-mail from the visa people. I need to bring two 4×6 photos of my face with me to the visa issuing office. When was the last time you saw a headshot machine at the airport? Never. I’m pretty much out of time, so I keep my eyes open as I run through the airport, but I’m sure there’s no way in hell I’ll be able to get these pictures taken! I wonder how Vietnam will feel about that.

My flight is in another terminal. Classic. The security line is nightmarishly long. When does that ever actually happen? Things are not going my way today. I wish my flight had been booked on Sunday, when everything was just miraculously working in my favour.
I rush through the airport and make it to the shuttle train that takes me to the proper departure terminal. I don’t understand how, but I make it to my boarding gate with a few minutes to spare. I even get to sit and charge my phone for a few beautiful moments. I know I’ll need this when I arrive in Hanoi. If I don’t have any 4×6 photos…maybe my Facebook prof pic will do? Same same but different, right?
…I’m totally getting deported.

I spend my flight feeling as if I’m in limbo. They’re the worst 4 hours of my life, just trying to keep my mind off what waits for me in Hanoi. On the bright side, I finally finish my book about the North Korean Labour Camp Escapee. On the down side, someone sneezes on my tooth brush on my way to the plane bathroom.
I honestly don’t know what I dread more; living in a society where everyone is neurotic about hygiene and wear face masks out in public, or living in a society where people sneeze and spit wherever they please. He doesn’t even apologize. Just continues going about his life, as I stand there in horror, ready to drop the toothbrush and walk away right there and then. I don’t though. Instead, I carry it to the washroom with me and toss it in the garbage. I’m too polite.

Alright. It’s landing time. I’m so nervous! I am quite literally the first person off the plane. I’m that annoying passenger who starts undoing their seatbelt and packing up all their stuff well before they’re actually allowed to. I can’t wait any longer, time is of the essence here people!
Because it’s just that kinda day, being first off the plane means absolutely nothing. We go from the plane to a shuttle bus that will take us to the terminal. So being first to the bus has 0 advantage besides being guaranteed a seat. I don’t super feel like sitting anymore though.
Let’s go people! move move move! board this bus! You can do it! I have no time or patience when my fate lies 500 meters away. We get to the terminal where someone is holding up a sign with my name on it. Fun! It’s almost like I’m important. Really though, it is SHE, the lady with the sign who is important. She’s going to hook me up with a visa. She charges me another $43USD for the visa processing fee, and apologizes that she has to charge me $2 because I don’t have any 4×6 photos. I think it would have cost me more to have the photos taken…so that $2 is all yours lady. You keep it.
She’s the nicest, cutest little thing ever. I had arrived in Hanoi feeling so stressed about my visa but she’s adorably excited that we were born in the same year. She makes me feel way more at ease. I think I’m actually going to get into Vietnam!
I’m now at a total of $112USD for the Visa. Not bad. Definitely cheaper than having to stay in Seoul and book a new flight.
She instructs me to sit down while she deals with the visa desk. I guess everything goes okay, because she comes back 10 minutes later, passport in hand, with a fancy full page visa sticker. Hella yeah! She waits with me to pick up my baggage and asks me some questions about why I’m in Vietnam. She says she feels sad for me that I’m traveling alone. I laugh and try to explain that it’s a choice, but she doesn’t seem to understand that and just gives me sad eyes. Maybe because she feels so sorry for me and my lonely life, she offers to help me get transportation downtown. Apparently a bus will cost $3 and take 2 hours, where as a taxi costs $18 but takes 1 hour. I know I’m supposed to be aiming for thriftiest of travel, but it’s 9:30pm (11:30 in Seoul time) and I just want to get settled into my hostel. I’ve already spent a small backpackers fortune on my visa, why not go all out? I take a taxi. She helps me find an ATM to pull out 350,000 Dong (can I just make ONE joke about the hilarious name of this currency?) and goes with me to hail a taxi with a meter. She says it won’t cost more than what I’ve put aside. Smiling, she waves goodbye and says “see you later!” She was so lovely, but I hope I do NOT see her later. Her, or any other emergency visa official of any sort. Ever.

I finally feel like I can relax, here in the back of this taxi. It even seems totally legit, which I was never expecting. I visualized arriving in Hanoi and having to fend of swarms of thieves while haggling with shouty tuk tuk and taxi drivers. That’s what people prepared me for.
My driver gets a little bit lost among the labyrinth of streets in the Old Quarter. I don’t blame him, this place is crazy. Groups of people sit on small stools outside restaurants, eating bowls of noodles and other yummy looking meals. Motor bikers whiz by our car, texting while they drive, and somehow manage to dodge pedestrians carrying huge baskets of bananas, grapes, and other fruit.
This, in a nutshell, is what I love about South East Asia. The absolute chaos that miraculously manages to work harmoniously with such ease.

I arrive at my tiny little hostel, whose front doors are just barely wide enough for me to squeeze through with a backpack on. The people at reception are extra friendly and offer to help me book any tours or transport. I say thanks but tell them that I’m too tired to think about it now. All I want to do is sleep!
I am shown to my 8 bed dorm room where I meet a group of 4 travellers from Hong Kong and a French dude. They all have plans to move on from Hanoi tomorrow.
I only paid $4 to stay here tonight (with free breakfast!), so I’m not really sure what I expected, but this is by far the weirdest and dirtiest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. I don’t get a key to my room, there are no lockers, so my things are just out in the world basically asking to be stolen. Beside the washroom, there is a random closet (I guess?) without a door and only contains a couple plants, a table, and some miscellaneous mannequin body parts. Ya.

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Within an hour of being in my room, I’ve gotten a pretty substantial amount of bug bites. The only downside to my handy-dandy bug net tent, is that it’s not compatible with bunk beds. My sheets feel damp, but that’s not the hostels fault, that’s just the intense humidity of a Vietnamese summer. I try to go to sleep, using my heavy duvet to shield me from further bug bites, but sacrificing my body temperature to do so. I sleep with my wallet in my pillow case and hug my day pack to prevent anyone from trying to steal what little money I have.

I’m so happy to be back. God I missed South East Asia.

North Korea…(n border)

OH MY GODDDD today is the day I get to go to North Korea! Well, the border, but it’s basically the same thing.
I could barely fall asleep last night I was so excited!
I wake up at 7am in order to be ready for pick up at 7:30. I run downstairs at 7:20, and see a van pulling away from the hostel parking lot. NO! Come back!!! I run after it like a total loon. Thankfully, my running isn’t for nothing and he does actually stop. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had come down at 7:30!! Another fortunate thing, is that there’s no one else in the van. No one who could have seen me running crazily after a vehicle. That’s a plus. The driver checks my passport and informs me that he has three more pick ups. Sweet! What a small tour.

One girl who boards the van is wearing knee high socks over fishnet stockings, and a short little skater skirt. Umm I don’t know how to break this to you honey, but you can’t just roll up to North Korea wearing whatever you want. There’s a dress code.

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I seriously think about telling her but she looks like someone who might punch me, so I don’t.
Instead, I ask if everyone is going on the JSA and DMZ tour, but everyone else says they’re just doing a half day DMZ tour. I hope I’m on the right van?

We get driven to a big fancy hotel downtown Seoul, where I am separated from everyone in my van and lead into a big conference room with lots of other people. I guess the tour wasn’t as small as I thought…
How will I ever know if the girl in fishnet stockings gets denied from the tour now?!

I meet an American guy about my age, (we can call him Hottie Marine or we can call him Cameron. I think Hottie Marine is more fun.) and an older American lady who are both coming on the same tour as me. At least now I’m sure I’m in the right place!
We get our passports registered by the tour company at the hotel, and are given a seat number for our bus. My seat number is 32. That means at least 31 other people are coming with me on this tour. It’s a little disappointing, but my own fault for hyping this up so high for myself. I’m sure it’ll still be sweet!

Our tour guide sits at the front with a microphone, giving us our itinerary details for the day and some background history on the split between North and South Korea. He repeats everything a lot, but I feel like I learn a good amount about the history. I hardly knew any before! The bus to the border takes just over an hour.

We start the day at the JSA (Joint Security Area), after driving through a village of people who actually live within these de-militarized boundaries. They are exempt from military service here, and do primarily agricultural work. The JSA is the only place along the entire 250km de-militarized zone where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face.
We get to take a walk through Panmunjom, which is where an agreement between both North and South Korea was sign during the Korean War in 1953. It’s an area within the JSA, which I learn the United Nations and U.S. Military also occupy with soldiers. Before going to Panmunjom we are taken to a little theatre room to watch an information video on the history of the Korean War, the United Nations involvement, and some other info on the JSA. We are told not to point or make any hand gestures during our visit, and are told to only take pictures straight ahead. Any photos taken side to side will be deleted from our cameras or phones. Intense!
We line up in two single file lines, escorted by South Korean Military guards, and are lead through a United Nations building and outside to where we can literally see across the border. Sure, it’s not technically North Korea, but it’s North Korea’s side of this de-militarized zone, which is still pretty cool.
Apparently, North Korea runs very expensive tours a few times a week to the de-militarized zone too! Only very high-up government officials (and maybe a foreigner lucky enough to get into the country) can afford to take these tours. We are there at a time when a North Korean tour is happening simultaneously across the yard, so I actually get to see some civilians!

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It’s kind of weird to see people on the other side of the border taking a casual tour when I’ve only ever pictured North Korean people as poverty stricken, in labour camps, or serving their military service. I never thought about anyone hopping on a bus tour for their day off.
I wonder what the tour guides on the other side are telling their guests.

We get to step into the blue Panmunjom portable building, where 4 military soldiers are there escort us. It’s really just a room with a few tables and chairs, but some really important people have sat in these seats! Many political discussions between North and South Korea (as well as many other involved counties) have taken place in this room. The little building straddles the line between North and South, but because it’s a United Nations Building, it is safe for us to step into the North Korean side. Again, with a South Korean Military escort.

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This is me “in” North Korea.

We are ushered back out to our tour bus, where we take a quick spin around the JSA grounds. Sometimes, when permitted, we take some photos through the windows of the bus. I feel like such a silly little tourist when we all jump to one side of the bus to take a picture, but alas, if I hadn’t come on a tour I wouldn’t be here at all.

We visit the last train station in South Korea, which has been built in a way that could connect it to the North, should the reunification ever occur. It’s never been used, but the people who built it are confident that it will be of use someday soon.

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Lunch is at a Korean restaurant that serves us traditional bulgogi, which is different from the bulgogi I ate for lunch yesterday. I think yesterday I had some kind of bulgogi soup, but this is legit bulgogi now.
Some of the people on my tour bus are a little cray cray, so Hottie Marine and I avoid sitting with them over lunch. One tiny (but very loud) woman from New York just can’t stop talking, is always the last one back to the bus, and is really pissing off this vegan hippie couple from New Zealand. They confront her about it. Why are people so intense? It’s pretty entertaining…but they all need to take a Xanax.

After lunch we are driven up a winding, land mine covered, mountain road to the “observatory” which is, again, not what I expected.

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(I don’t think I was allowed to take a picture, and it failed miserably, but that little red triangle smear there has a skull and cross bones to symbolize a land mine.)

It’s a relatively clear day here at the DMZ, but the observatory has so many rules that I can’t get any good photos of North Korea. From the edge of the observatory deck, I get a clear view of North Korea’s obscenely large flag pole in the Propaganda village, but it doesn’t work in pictures. We are only allowed to take photos from behind a big yellow line, which is a good 10 feet or more away from the edge. So all I get is this.

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A bunch of people’s heads and a KINDA visible view of the flagpole. I pay W500 ($.50) to use the binoculars and go in search of North Korean people in the village, but I see no one. Apparently, until 2004, this propaganda village used to have a loud speaker that blasted messages like “Welcome to Paradise!” and other garbage to encourage South Koreans to defect to the North. Obviously that didn’t work, so in 2004 they gave up, but name “Propaganda Village” stuck. The central flag pole is pretty funny; standing at 160m high, it used to be shorter than that of South Korea’s, which is 100m, but the North felt it was necessary to build a bigger and better one. So it’s been visible from pretty much everywhere we visit on our tour.

The most exciting draw of this tour for me, was the promise of a North Korean defector to accompany us. This does happen, but she sits at the front of the bus, 31 seats ahead of me, and we don’t get a very long question and answer period. All I know about her is that she escaped North Korea by taking her two children an sneaking off, leaving her husband behind because he worked for the government. Her uncle lived in China and paid to bribe some border guards for her escape. Our tour guide keeps saying that he knows all of her stories and we can ask him later. I don’t want to ask him later. I want to ask her now. We are given a short opportunity, but I, regretfully, shy away from my questions which were things like, “Do you ever miss home?” At the time, I felt that this was too personal a question to ask in front of 40 other people. Now, I wish I just knew the answer. She only comes with us on our tour for half of the day. I think it’s so incredible that she isn’t afraid to be this close to the border on a regular basis. If I escaped from North Korea, I feel like I would stay as far away as possible. South Korean passport or not. You can tell just by looking at her that she is a strong, smart and very brave woman. I’m disappointed that I don’t get more time to learn about her story, but I still feel pretty honoured to have even briefly met someone so brave.

The last stop is a place known as the “third tunnel”. No photos allowed. Over the past 60 years, South Korea has discovered four passage ways along the DMZ line that North Korea has built in secret, to set them up for a surprise attack on the South. When South Korea discovered the passages and confronted the North, they responded by painting the walls of the long granite tunnel black, and claiming that they were coal mining. Black paint. Fool proof, really.

Since it’s been discovered, three thick stone wall barriers have been put up and each shielded by a layer of barbed wire for extra security. It is now a pretty safe bet that the North Korean Army won’t be coming through this tunnel anytime soon. So now that it’s secure, we get to go down and see it! We also get to wear sweet yellow construction helmets to protect our heads from the rocky cave ceiling, which is only about a meter and a half tall through some sections. I have to duck for most of the walk to the end, where we get to see one stone wall barrier before turning around.
Climbing back out of the tunnel is not what I’d call fun. It was built 75 meters below ground, and the long, steep incline is hard on the calf muscles. At least the South Koreans can take pleasure in knowing that if the North ever DOES attack via one of these tunnels, they’ll be exhausted by the time they arrive.

We get back on the bus and head towards Seoul. The huge bus pulls over on the side of the road, and about 10 of us are sent to get in a small van instead. I think it has something to do with different tour companies? Hottie Marine, the loud lady from New York, the New Zealand couple, and a few others and I are all sent to this van. The drive back to Seoul is only about an hour from here and the van will be dropping us off in Itaewon.
I don’t think that’s super close to where I’m staying, but I figure the lovely Seoul subway line can take me anywhere I need to go.

First, we stop at an Amethyst shop with “special prices” but I stay in the van because I know how easily persuaded I am, and I like sparkly things. Best not to tempt myself…even with the “special prices”. I also feel pretty annoyed by the fact that they bring us here. This is just another reason why I don’t usually do tours. The couple from New Zealand are apparently really mad about having been brought here, and apparently throw a bit of a fit inside the shop. I’m only sad that I missed it.

Hottie Marine asks me if I’ve tried Galbi yet, which I have not, so he asks our tour guide if she can recommend a Galbi place near to where we’ll be dropped off. She offers to show us one of her favourite spots. Perfect!! Everyone else is dropped at one location in Itaewon besides me, Marine, and the loud New York lady, who basically refuses to get out of the van. She has somehow managed to buy something at every tacky tourist gift shop along the way, and is carrying at least 4 bags of stuff. Apparently she can’t carry this all on her own and wants to be dropped off somewhere she can buy a bag. Our tour guide stops at multiple luggage stores but none suit the needs of this crazy lady from New York. After fighting with our tour guide and whining for at least 15 minutes, she finally gets out and just carries her stuff like a normal person.
Hottie Marine says he’s embarrassed to be from The States when people like her give it such a bad reputation. He’s totally right.

Our tour guide is a little angel and not only drops us off at this Galbi restaurant, but takes us inside, recommends her favourite dish, and orders it for us. She really goes above and beyond what I would expect of my tour guide once the tour has ended!
She orders us two kinds of Galbi, which is like raw rib meat from (I think) beef, which we cook on a hot coal fire at our table. Our waitress cooks it for us, but I notice she doesn’t do this for the Korean people in the restaurant. Not sure if this is pity or preferential treatment. We also order a bottle of Soju, neither of us having tried it before. I expect it to be like a beer, but instead we get a bottle of 18.5% rice wine. Thank god we only order one.

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She motions for us to wrap our meat in a piece of lettuce and throw some rice and kimchi in there with it. I do this on a plate, which is apparently NOT what you’re supposed to do because she rolls her eyes and comes over to me, slaps a piece of lettuce in my hand (and slaps my hand a few extra times for emphasis) picks up a piece of meat, throws some sauce, rice and kimchi in lettuce hand, rolls it up, and stuffs it in my mouth. All the restaurant staff watch her stuff food in my mouth, and all smile at me for encouragement. Hottie Marine tries to follow suit with what I’ve just been taught, but apparently he messes it up too, because he gets a lettuce hand slapping lesson next.
“These poor, useless white kids” they must be thinking. It’s all we can do to keep from coughing up our food we’re laughing so hard. From then on we try to be sneaky and eat when no one is looking, for fear of getting more lettuce slaps.

The meal is fun AND delicious. I’m so happy I got to try Korean barbecue before I leave! Today’s tour was not at all what I expected it to be and in some ways it was a bit of a let down, however, I have no regrets about doing it and am still excited to know that I’ve been about as close to North Korea as one can get. I also learned a WHOLE lot about the history, and the South Korean view of the situation. For another point of view, you can read
a Lonely Planet author’s review of the your here.

I go back to my hostel quickly to shower and take a nap, before heading to the Gangnam district to meet Hottie Marine again for drinks. I meet him at an Expat bar called Whiskey Weasel, where we sit at the bar and chat with the owner. The owner, Leo, has lived in South Korea his whole life and served 7 years in the army before opening the bar. He closes down a bit early and offers to take us out for some Korean food and drinks. Obviously we accept!
He orders some Mak Ju Li, some spicy pork, mussels, and some kind of pizza thing. It’s WAY too much food, but I eat some anyway. I can’t say no to delicious local cuisine. The pork is literally the spiciest thing ive ever eaten in my life. My mouth is on FIRE. I don’t even really like spicy food so I’m holding back tears as I eat; trying to play it cool. Even Hottie Marine and Leo are struggling with the spice. It’s that intense.

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I order a glass of milk. I only eat a few pieces before I give up and just stick to the mussels and pizza. Leo teaches us to say, “Kom-bé!”, which is Korean for “cheers”.
Bars in Korea don’t really have an official time for last call, so we are out far later than I should be with a flight to Vietnam tomorrow. Luckily it’s not until the early evening!

Hiking By Day, Drinking Mak Gul Li by Night

Okay forget the running idea, I’m going hiking today! I’ve realized that Seoul is basically surrounded by mountains, so why would I run on a university track? I take the subway (I’m a pro now) to Giruem Station, where I must then catch a bus. I don’t even take the bus in Toronto, so I’m a wee bit concerned that I have no idea what I’m doing. Again, Seoul’s transit system is a gem and my required bus is sitting just outside of the subway station exit. Amazeballs!

I haven’t eaten yet, so I let that perfectly timed bus go so that I can get some food. There are a couple street stalls selling fruit, but everything is so expensive! I want to buy just one apple, but they say I can only buy them in bundles of 5 for W5,000. I love apples, but not that much. I decide to get food at the base of the mountain. There are bound to be more stalls and probably some restaurants too! I think today I shall try bulgogi.

The bus takes me to the base of the mountain where I see a tourist information centre. I don’t know what trails to follow or how long anything takes so I try popping in to ask some questions. Too bad the doors are locked. It’s a Monday afternoon! Even the sign outside shows their hours and confirms that they should be “open” at this time. The lights are off inside, though, so they’re pretty obviously closed. Oh well. I try to read the trail map outside of the centre instead. Everything is in Korean but there are some pictures! I still don’t really understand.

While standing at the map a little Korean lady comes over and I’m 90% sure, compliments me on my butt. She keeps tapping her own butt, pointing at mine, smiling and saying stuff in Korean, then gives me a thumbs up. If that’s not a compliment, I don’t know what is. Thank you kindly, old lady.

I give up on trying to read the map and just pick a trail. For once, I think I have picked the BEST day to do something touristy, because there are no tourists! Apparently this place gets pretty busy on weekends, but on this splendid Monday afternoon I only see a handful of other hikers. The trails are great, totally unpaved and pretty challenging in some areas. I have to do a mini rock climb to get to the top. I make the choice to crawl out to a look out point on a cliff, but I’m extra careful because I’m going to North Korea tomorrow and can’t die before that happens.
The view is pretty sweet! Seoul surrounded by fabulous mountains. I love it! There’s nothing like the peak of a mountain to make you NOT hate hiking.

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On my way down I even see some wildlife… A squirrel and a wild dog. Exotic!

Taking the bus back is a nightmare. I’m sure there’s an easier way, but I think I have to ride the whole loop to get back to the subway station. I don’t really mind, because after hiking I’m a bit tired anyway.

Something magical happens.
I’m chillin on the bus thinking about how long it’ll take me to get to the right stop, then onto the subway, where I have to transfer etc., when I look out the window and see a super familiar Starbucks. Them a familiar GS25. A familiar grocery store. Dear god, is that the road to my hostel? Why yes, it is. How lovely! I’ve accidentally arrived at my destination without even knowing it. I have no concept of this is even possible, but I care not!!

I’m starving, so I stop at a restaurant that coincidentally has bulgogi. Things are going my way today!

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bulgogi is the best thing I’ve eaten so far. But I say that every time

I stop in at the hostel to shower and get ready before going out to buy a pair of pants (I’ve got a good feeling about it today!) and then meeting up with one of my old high school friends who lives in Seoul!

Today. is. my. DAY! I find pants that fit. Hollaaaaa. I don’t do anything crazy adventurous to find them, I just go back to Myeong-dong before it gets busy like it was last night. I’m boring and shop at ULIQLO. Sue me.

My life is at an awkward point where I’m relatively low on Korean cash, but also so close to leaving that I don’t want to pull more. I don’t want to pay to pull more money, and then pay again to have it exchanged in Vietnam. Hella no. I’m going to try to live the next two days on W21,000 ($20). I think I can do it. I love peasant life.

I meet Sung at 8pm at Starbucks. I don’t know why I pick it as our meeting spot. I can’t afford this fancy shit. It’s just such a good landmark! Damn you, Starbucks.
He doesn’t live in this area but knows where the cool part is anyway, so we walk just a couple blocks over from my hostel to a fun, young, very lit up part of town. Lots of cool bars and restaurants, along with more boutique shops! I wish I was in more of a position to shop it Seoul, because they know what’s up when it comes to clothing.

We stop at a little Korean restaurant where we order Mak Gul Li to drink; a very old and traditional Korean drink. It’s hard to describe besides being delicious, but it’s made with rice and is slightly carbonated like beer, but quite sweet tasting. It’s served to us in a huge bowl. I am a little obsessed.

Sang also orders us another Korean food called Pa Jeun, that he says if often eaten with the Mak Gul Li. The two are complimentary, the same way wine would go with a steak in Canada. It’s like a seafood pizza, but with eggs and green onions instead of actual dough. Another delish choice.
I love Korean food now. I knew there was some good stuff around, I just had trouble finding it!

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It’s so fun having some friends who live all over the place. It’s always nice to catch up! We can talk about everything, from old high school memories to the best sights in Seoul. I now feel like I have a solid list of things to fill my few remaining days here! I even get a list of more foods to try. Yummm!

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