A Travellerspoint blog

August 2006

The Best So Far

day 10-11: tam coc, ha noi

sunny 30 °C

Ha Noi is a nice city, don't get me wrong, but the heart of Vietnam lies in the countryside. The people are friendly and willing to do anything for you, so long as you buy some of the wares they are selling. The beer is cheap and plentiful, as is the food. The scenery is to die for, from the mountains to the sprawling rice paddies, topped with a clear blue sky and huge white clouds. Cows are EVERYWHERE, in the street, in the fields, hanging out under a big rock, near the train tracks. Fearless bicyclers brave the roads to larger-than-they cars, trucks, and semis.

People carry on with their business, but in a different way than the city folk. Things I've seen transported on motos: large titanium pipes, a crate full of live chickens, another of live dogs, a stack of towels taller than the driver with the woman on the back hanging on for dear life, a washer, a dresser, a huge box of 90's-style CD players, and of course an entire family.

This was all to and from Halong Bay and Tam Coc, and in Sapa. We took a day trip to Tam Coc, billed as the Halong Bay in the rice paddies. It was magnificent, even when it started pouring rain. Imagine me in the front, Mikey behind me with the 17-year-old girl paddling and in the back, rowing with her feet, the matriarch. We passed several secluded houses on the river, and saw several men and women fishing. A lady carrying her baby picked a lotus plant and put it on the baby's head as a hat. A family of approximately 10 or 11, on the same sized boat as Mikey and I, waved cheerfully and greeted us with "Hello!" and smiled for my pictures.

Contrast that to the blaring horns and often frustrating and always unnerving traffic of Ha Noi, where people want you for your money. Which goes to show, I think, that no matter where you go, things stay the same. The country vs. city dichotomy holds true in every country, but living in a city for so long, I've forgotten just how perfect it is sleeping next to a river with only the sound of crickets to put you to sleep, or seeing a 10-year-old boy herding cows, or seeing the rice fields dotted with pickers on an almost too sunny day. Or having anyone and everyone shout greetings to you. As it is everywhere else, so it is in Vietnam.

And my absolute favorite thing about Vietnam is that life is as it always was. There are no fast-food chains in from the west, not even a McDonald's or a Starbucks. There has been a big boom in hotels, but here, tourists can really get a sense of what it is to be in Vietnam. People don't change the way they are or live just to suit the tourists. Of course tourism has changed Vietnam, but not more than years of war or oppression. What am I trying to get at? There is NO McDonald's! There is no Starbucks! To say that is saying enough.

  • *Tonight I leave Mikey in Ha Noi and head south for Danang on the train, then on a bus to Hoi An to meet my Finnish friends before they leave.

Posted by lrbergen 20:04 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

My Fake Honeymoon

day 6-8: halong bay

So what is up with me being in the most beautiful scenery ever and paying only $50 (US)? This includes transportation from Ha Noi (about a 3 hour trip), a night on a boat, a night in a hotel, all meals included, trekking, kayaking, swimming, and transportation back. Yes, folks, it is truly ridiculous.

Mikey and I left early Sunday morning and got on a boat in Halong Bay. Our meals were delicious. Our room on the boat was boat-y and comfortable. We stopped at one of the sets of caves, the third of which looked strangely like something out of the Goonies. We stopped and went swimming in very questionable water. All the while, we were surrounded by over 2,000 islands and islets that are made of limestone and the most ridiculous sunset I've seen in a long time. To sleep at night? We went into the middle of a ring of these islands and dropped anchor. The sunset was incredible and the stars at night were plentiful.

The next day we came to Cat Ba Island, one of the most developed of Halong Bay. Despite the thunderstorm raging (not really RAGING, per se, but I can't think of a better word), Mikey and I and a family of Spanish tourists went on a trek through the mountain. This was on a very narrow path with tons of brush, wet brush, while wearing shorts and sandals. The views were great and we ate guavas right off the tree and disturbed a huge spider spinning its web.

After the two-hour trek, we went back to our hotel for lunch then onto a bus to a boat to a floating island to go kayaking. We followed our guide and passed floating villages (pet dogs included...or maybe they're being fattened for a feast) and ladies in small rowboats selling snacks of oreos, pringles, and other assorted junk food. We stopped in a little cove and went swimming, where the water was much less polluted and very very shallow. Then we made our way back to the floating village, hopped on the boat again, and stopped at Monkey Island. Even though there are only 30 monkeys, and there are other islands with larger populations, this one holds the name. We did see two monkeys fighting in a tree. The little Spanish boys kept yelling "Monkey! Monkeyyyyy!!!" in that cute little Spanish accent. Then the older one told me I was a monkey. Ha. Ha.

Then we came back and I took the first shower I've had since Saturday. It is now Monday. Lots of polluted-water swimming and sweating in the meantime. Mikey and I are staying another night to hang out on the beach and maybe do the waterpark. Our hotel will cost us a hefty $12 for the two of us. To be fair, they have three Vietnamese channels.

  • A note about the title of this blog: people refuse to believe that Mikey and I are just friends, so we have taken to telling them that yes, we're on our honeymoon. Always a bridesmaid but never a bride, I guess.

Posted by lrbergen 06:21 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

Zao 4 LIFE!

day 4-5: sapa

sunny 36 °C

Sapa has the most beautiful and breathtaking sceneries I have ever seen. Imagine if you will huge mountains, surrounded by the step-like rice paddies. Add a river in the valley and orange clay roads and there you have Sapa. Scattered here and there are small wooden houses, bamboo forests, and the occasional goat, pig, or cow.

Yes, my friends, this is truly paradise on Earth. It could not be any more different than Ha Noi.

I "slept" on the train Wednesday night, which was nearly impossible. Imagine you are being shaken awake by your mother or whoever. Then imagine they are shaking you during an earthquake. This is the train in Vietnam. Every once in awhile it would jerk to a stop sending you and your belongings flying. Good times.

So I arrived Thursday very early, exhausted, sweaty, and dirty. I was given a nice breakfast at the hotel and introduced to my guide, Vinh. I feared that I would be doing this trekking and homestay alone, but fortunately, two lovely people from Finland, Sini and Juki, were to come with us. It rained.


Oh how it rained. Visibility was limited - we went down the narrow roads through the mountains and when you looked to the right for a nice mountain view, all you saw was white. And then I got wet. Really wet. Drenched, even through my cheap poncho. Two beautiful little girls tagged along with us, one whose name was Chi, and her friend. I believe they were Zao. Chi's English was beautiful; I'm sorry to say more beautiful than most of my students' in Korea, who pay a hefty price to have the same skills as this little girl. She would follow us all the way to her village of Ta Van where we would be spending the night.

(Chi, right, and her friend)

We started our descent down maybe 3km of slippery yellow clay. You would look around you and see the different local people, with about 50 kilos of corn strapped to their back, looking at you strangely as you struggled not to fall. They would merely shrug and go around you, because they take this road nearly every day, rain or shine. We stopped for a nice lunch of cheese, boiled egg, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches on fresh baguettes. It sounds maybe a little strange, but it was definitely delicious.

We continued on, passing some of the local schools and many of the local women and little girls, all shouting, "You buy from me? You buy from me?" I didn't keep track of how much I spent, but I came away with numerous embroidered bracelets, a few silver ones, three pairs of earrings, and a red zao headscarf. If you bought from one, you could expect at least four more women to crowd around you. These women are relentless. Not mean-spirited, but definitely relentless. The women make all of these items and sell them while the men stay at home and raise the boy-children, if there are any. The smallest girls are carried on their mothers' backs, but around the age they learn to walk, they begin selling.

So we visited the villages of Y Linh Ho and Lao Chai, which I believe are both home to the Black H'Mong people. Thank you in their language is "O Cho." In Ta Van, where we spent the night, they say "Cho Bayoooooo!" in a very sing-song voice. We arrived around 2 or 3, cleaned up a bit, and generally relaxed. The house we stayed in was very nice, and as Sini said, very similar to a traditional home in her town of Lapland. They had a big living room/dining room area with a stone floor, a little area where they and other people from the village would watch their satellite TV, a nice big kitchen area, a bamboo outhouse complete with running rainwater through a bamboo pipe, and an upstairs with about 10 beds for their houseguests. It was a very lovely home, and it was amazing to see their ingenuity.

The man of the house is 31, and his wife is 27. They have been married for 10 years and have two sons, the oldest of which is 8 years old. They have guests such as us about 3-4 times a week. For dinner, they prepared us a veritable feast of pork, beef, tofu, egg, rice, spring rolls, and vegetables, all locally grown or otherwise acquired. It was DELICIOUS. The whole time Juki, Sini and I made yummy noises, which I think might have amused them. Then they broke out the rice liquor, which is very similar to vodka, and I believe is actually the same as the soju in Korea. To toast in Zao, you yell "ONE! TWO! THREE! ZOOOE!!!!" I didn't last very long with this liquor and quickly switched to shots of Tiger beer. The boys both seemed irritated that we were being so loud and they couldn't join in, especially when it was bedtime.

After a while of this, naturally came the portion of the evening where we sing. Sini actually enjoyed this bit and sang some beautiful Finnish songs. The husband sang one in Zao and Vinh, our guide, sang in both Vietnamese and French. When it came to my turn, for lack of a better typical "American" song, I sang the Penguin song, which I learned when I was a Girl Scout camp counselor. It's the most ridiculous of songs, complete with dancing like a penguin. As all of the different cultures I have taught this to, they enjoyed it as well. We stayed up talking, drinking, and singing until around 10pm. Sini, Juki and I went up to our beds upstairs and contented ourselves with the fact that all we could hear was the river nearby and crickets. It was also pitch black. If this experience was not authentically Sapa, then I don't know what is.

The next day we were given banana pancakes and coffee for breakfast, which we ate on the front porch facing the mountain. We headed out around 10:30, after saying goodbye to our Zao friends. We climbed up, then we climbed down. Repeat. Repeat some more. Slip a bit, fall a bit, get your shoes caked FULL of mud. Look around, sweat, breathe, and enjoy the experience. We went through a bamboo forest, then stopped to rest at a very nice waterfall. I was wearing my Red Zao headscarf, which was met by many a surprised Sapa face. We visited a Red Zao home, then we ate a lunch of the Vietnamese style ramen, which was very tasty. We hiked up some more to where the bus took us back to the town of Sapa. I have no idea how far we hiked, but in the tour booking it said something like 30 km.

So now I'm back in Ha Noi, waiting to pick up my friend Mikey from the airport. It's a completely different world, and I am again used to the sounds of honking horns and "Madam, cyclo?" "Madam, taxi?" "Madam, moto?" But for two days I lived in a clean, simple, and beautiful area of Vietnam, one that I will never forget.

  • *A personal note: when I got back to Sapa, I received an e-mail informing me that my cousin's husband lost his battle with cystic fibrosis on Sunday. Beppe was one of the sweetest, funniest men I have ever met, and he was Italian to boot. He leaves behind his wife, my cousin, Kristi, and their two twin daughters, Sofia and Asia. He will be greatly missed and it is with a heavy heart that I write this. Please keep the Parri family in your thoughts.

Posted by lrbergen 19:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Uncle Ho and His Peeps

day 1: ha noi

overcast 38 °C

Greetings all from Vietnam. Here has been my last day:

- Arrive in Ha Noi, take taxi 45 minutes for $10, my first introduction to Vietnamese traffic. Honestly, I thought Korean traffic was bad.


- Learn that in order to cross the street, you must walk slowly and you can go at any time. Looking both ways does not help you here. If you wait for a break in traffic, you will be waiting all day. You must simply have faith that the bajillions of motos and bikes will not run you down. Follow a local when possible.

- Not many white people go to see Ho Chi Minh's (Uncle Ho's) remains in his mausoleum. I waited in line with about thousands of people and saw MAYBE 5 whities the whole time. What I also saw was everyone and they mama staring at me. One lady even took her daughter's hand and forced her to touch my arm. Another lady carried her baby up to me and forced him to say "hello." After a while, the people would tire of this until I had to get out of line to check a bag or camera, then I would be around a whole different crowd. I'm white. Man, am I white.

- Uncle Ho was pretty good looking for an old dead guy. He's pretty well-preserved. His corpse is taken to russia for 2-3 months out of the year for "restoration."

- The beer here is really cheap and REALLY GOOD. Ok, I don't know how it goes by Western standards, but I have had nothing to drink in the past year but Cass, Hite, OB, and Prime. These beers suck. And they're not that cheap. For a nice big bottle of Bia Ha Noi or Tiger, it's about 14,000d. The exchange rate to dollar is 16,100d = $1. hoo-de-hoo.

- The funnest thing in the whole wide world is sitting on the back of a moto taxi (xe om) going through the crazy traffic. Once you get past the initial shock and fear....and shakes that I had the first time (could have just been the engine). But it only costs 20,000d pretty much no matter where in the city you go. Let me tell you, that's my favorite part so far.

- White people sweat. A lot. I learned this in Korea, but it has been reinforced in Vietnam, where it is much hotter and there is no aircon to speak of. I brought two pairs of pants and three shirts. I am bitterly screwed.

- Vietnamese coffee is amazing. And it costs less than 50 cents. Dag!

Tomorrow evening I am taking the night train into Sapa, which is just south of the Chinese border in the mountains. I'll spend Thursday night with a host family and a guide, trek around Thursday and Friday during the day, and spend the night on a train Friday night. Meals included, train tickets included, only $70, which is really good for a single traveller. Tonight I think I'ma go to a water puppet show.


Communist propaganda be damned, Vietnam is great!

(PS - There are so many Spanish people here! I can't get away from it! Which would be cool except I'm lame, and it's all old married couples anyway.)


Posted by lrbergen 02:39 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

I forgot about these

last pics of my kids!

I was just going through and I found some pics of students I forgot about. Just to pay homage to the crazy nuts.

This is my favorite EB class.
L-R: Ellen, Emily, Jenny, Hally, Jane, Betty, me, Nancy, John, Terry, Andrew, Aragon (they get to choose their own English names), Andy, and Tom.

My zoo class. Everyday was crowd control, but they were all so sweet and funny. Especially the twins, Aaron and Frank (who I called Puh-ranken-shtein).
L-R: Anna (Banana), Natalie, Justin the monkey boy, Kelly, To-To-Tony the Tiger, Robert (Robot), Andrew. Standing up on chairs are June and Puhrankenshtein. In the front is Ajumma Aaron.

Another class that became a zoo after so long of silence and shyness.

I'm going to miss these guys.

Posted by lrbergen 22:39 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

More Engrish fun

finally, photographic proof of its existence

sunny 32 °C

I said no more blogs until I got to Vietnam, but Tuesday was Korea's Independence Day. For once I had my camera at the ready to take pictures of the copious amounts of engrish t-shirts, advertisements, and graffiti.

The following were taken in Hongdae, the funky area around Hongik University.

"The Critics Loved Moby Dick the Typesetters Didn't."
I suppose that's true, but most Koreans are willing to buy a shirt without understanding a word that it says. I guess the reverse holds true in English-speaking countries.

"Wild Style Lover's Rock Triple Fat"


this makes no sense whatsoever...promoting environmentalism maybe?

This is an advertisement for a bar. Boy, do I want to drink there...

No Engrish, just a cool mural.

One guess what this advertisement is for...

To show you how terrible Korean fashion is...

As opposed to the NORMAL world history.

And to commemorate Korean Independence day...

So that's all for now. There have also been shirts that say "I have no potential." Or, "To be honest, I never liked you that much anyway." Etc., etc., etc. Bask in Engrish's glow.

Posted by lrbergen 09:20 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Alive and Kicking

yes, i still am

sunny 36 °C

I realize it has been almost two months since my last blog entry. To which I can only reply:
I'm sorry. Forgive me. Mea culpa.

This is basically because my life has been routine after boring routine. I work, I sleep. I watch TV shows on DVD. I complain about work (including, but not limited to, shuffling around of teachers and lack of air-conditioner in 95-degree weather). On Saturdays we go to Itaewon and stay out all night (for my grandmothers and other family that looks at this, I will spare details). I am either at work or out with my friends.

What I want to write about today is the future. But I will refrain from my theory that one day tiny robots will take over the world and we will be their servants, or that the Planet of the Apes movie will come back to haunt us with all of those nerds saying, "I told you so." No, no friends. I will be talking about what is in store for me. I realize that is selfish and maybe a bit boring, but it is my blog and I will do with it what I please. To the 10,000 + people that have visited this blog, well done.

Vacation Time:

My contract ends exactly two weeks from today. Exciting? Yes. A relief? Yes. Scary as anything? Yes. For one year my life has been secure and safe, and as I have mentioned, very routine. I stand by the theory that we are creatures of habit and want nothing more than a good old-fashioned routine. Staying in this routine for too long can be a bit alarming and irritating. So it is time to change it up, which is why I came to Korea in the first place.

On August 21, I will be heading off to Vietnam for one month. Alone. Very much alone. I know my family may be worried about me, and to be quite honest, I share in their sentiments. I haven't travelled alone for more than a week, and that was about 2 years ago. So one month is a huge step for me. I need it though. I want to experience the entire country. From the beaches on the east coast to the central highlands, I want it all. Now aren't you proud, Travellerspoint? And along the way, there will be loads more blogs (just check out my adventures in Spain, as posted in my diary. I wrote more than you could ever imagine, judging by my blog updates, or lack thereof).
I will be flying from Incheon in Seoul to Hanoi. I will spend 1-2 weeks around the north area, including Halong Bay which is rumored to be THE must-see in Vietnam. Hopefully Mikey will be with me at this time and we can drink a beer while sleeping on a boat under the stars. That's the plan anyway.
Then I will hop on a train and slowly but surely make my way to Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). On the way, I will be sure to do anything and everything that strikes my fancy. Hoorah. Then September 21, I will leave from Saigon back to Seoul. Which leads me to my next topic:

Career Opportunities:

This of course is where the vacation ends. Many of you have expressed worry and anxiety about my pending unemployment, but as I said in a recent e-mail, you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting an English-teaching job in Korea (supposing, of course, that you were so inclined to dead cat-swinging). I am currently seeking employment and if all else fails, I will re-enter Korea on a tourist visa and leech onto my friends' hospitalities and look for a job then, being able of course to start at the drop of a hat (again, assuming that you are inclined to hat-dropping).

Then it will begin another year of a new job with new students, new teachers, and new problems. No hagwon is perfect by any means, so of course negative Nancy that I am, there will be plenty of things to complain about.


Dating in Korea gets a bit ridiculous at times. One minute you're swearing off men because of the lack of English-speaking, mature, good-looking ones, the next you're wondering if maybe this is it.

You all know about my (mis)adventures with the Libyan boy, Walid. That did not end well. There have been a slew of Korean men in the meantime, and even one Brazilian, that I have been on dates with, but have ended up disappointing all of my lowered expectations of men. Recently I have started dating a lovely Korean man, Jung Ho, who is definitely a diamond in the rough at the bar he works at. He has been extremely kind to me, and is ridiculously good-looking. We get along very well and have plenty of things to talk about. We make each other laugh. He's even taken to holding my hand in public (which to me seemed a scandal after all the stares we received).

So what is the problem?, you may ask. My Korean skills are nonexistent and his English skills could do with some improvement. The culture barrier is ALWAYS there, and with the language barrier, it's sometimes hard to get over. For example, I never EVER have problems buying things for my friends, such as dinners, drinks, movie tickets and the like. I would much rather have their company than not so it doesn't bother me in the least. However, it bothers Jung Ho. He has the idea that men should always pay for everything, and when I did something to the contrary, it was almost impossible to explain the difference. In fact, it ended in a big argument and now I don't know what's happening.

Again, the culture difference/language barrier makes life in another country difficult and frustrating, especially in dealing with matters of the heart. Um...I have no more transitions here up my sleeve, so here are some pictures.

Tsingtao Beer, from China. This is the best beer I've had in Korea.

Jung Ho.

Market street in Sincheon. You can buy anything here, fruit, fish, bras, rice cakes, kimchi, spices, etc., etc., etc.


These pictures were all taken with my camera phone because as we all know, I can't have nice things without breaking them and I broke my camera. So now I have to live, yet again, with knowing that I have to buy the exact same camera again. Boo. Boo-urns, even.

Ok, this blog is done. My next one will probably be from Vietnam, so enjoy!

Posted by lrbergen 19:26 Archived in South Korea Comments (1)

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