On my first AND last Korean package tour, I visited Vietnam and Cambodia with my mom and her 2 sisters. We spent 4 whirlwind days visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Ha Long Bay and Hanoi in Vietnam.
Witnessing my mom behaving like the baby of the family and bickering with her sisters was loads of fun, but all of the kimchee I had to eat on the trip, was not. Don’t misunderstand. I love Korean food and eat it all the time. But on a short 4 day trip to foreign lands, I really want to try the local food. Would you believe I didn’t get to have pho in Vietnam?
This is when I learned that there’s a whole shadow infrastructure specifically built for Koreans on tour. I’m talking Korean style hotels, Korean restaurants and shopping opportunities geared to Korean tastes. It was shocking. Isn’t the whole point of traveling to another country involve tasting the local food and immersing yourself in the culture?? It makes me sad to think that Koreans are traveling the world, but spending all their time in new countries in a contrived Korean shadow bubble. How do you learn about and respect another culture, if you never try to understand it?
Anyways, back to the point of this post!
UNESCO listed Ha Long Bay is an eerily beautiful karst landscape in Vietnam’s Tonkin Bay. Made up of approximately 1600 limestone pillars, Ha Long Bay was recently provisionally listed as one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature. According to local legend, the islands and islets of the Bay were formed when the dragons who protected Vietnam began spitting out jewels and jade to block invaders’ ships. Hence the name, Ha Long Bay, which means “dragon descending.”
Weaving in and around these dramatic limestone formations on a traditional boat while munching on freshly prepared sushi and seafood was truly magical. I felt like the main character in a medieval fantasy epic.
The pollution, non-stop honking and major scooter traffic of Hanoi was a bit shocking after the peace of Ha Long Bay, but we did manage to find one place of quiet in the city: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum in the centre of Ba Dinh Square. Completed in 1975, Ho Chi Minh’s body is kept in a glass case for viewing and protected by a military honour guard, despite his express wish for cremation.
There are strict rules for visiting – no smiling, no laughing, no photographs, no smoking, and you must be absolutely silent. You also have to be dressed conservatively and cannot put your hands in your pocket or cross your arms while walking by his body. These rules are taken seriously; when I smiled by accident, I got a rough warning from one of the armed guards, and that was just in the line leading into the mausoleum! I admit it…I was a bit scared. Walking single file around a dimly lit glass casket, and seeing the super waxy looking doll-like figure that is Ho Chi Minh’s body, was for me, surreal, rather than grave as intended.
After leaving Hanoi, we traveled to Siem Reap in Cambodia, which is just 6 km away from the 400 square kilometre Angkor Archeological Complex. Containing the remains of many 9th – 15th century Khmer capitals, it can be rather overwhelming. The most famous of these are: Angkor Wat, the largest temple, and Ta Prohm, where the trees seem to be locked in a mystical embrace with the entrances and doorways of the temple.
There’s something awesomely spooky about 216 giant Buddha like faces gazing serenely at you from every direction. That’s what you get at Bayon – my favourite part of the entire complex, and definitely something I’d like to see again.
The next time though, I’ll definitely do it independently and not on a Korean tour package!!