A Travellerspoint blog

A Look at the Real Remnants of the Vietnam War

Vietnam's DMZ

overcast 87 °F

Imagine yourself in 1967, 20 years old, a US Marine, stationed at the closest US base to North Vietnam, often referred to as the "Meat Grinder", "Hell Hole", or "Dodge City" in Vietnam's DMZ which many Marines called the "Dead Marine Zone".


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Welcome to Con Thien Firebase. While this base is less famous than Khe Sanh or Camp Carroll, it saw some of the bloodiest battles between the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the USMC during the Vietnam War. During the war, Con Thien was intended to be used as a base for the McNamara Line to prevent the NVA from penetrating the DMZ. The firebase was considered to be extremely important thanks to it's untainted views of the surrounding area and North Vietnam, but unfortunately, it was also within artillery range of the NVA leaving Marines constantly exposed and seemingly defenseless. Washington's unwillingness to appreciate the vulnerability of this base, has made it one of the most tragic examples of the far-removed, high-tech planners of this war. Directly translated, "Con Thien" means "Hill of Angels" and the men who served on this hill were undoubtedly angels. They paid a steep price as they persevered against a well-trained, well-armed enemy. Official records state that 1,419 US Marine and Navy Corpsmen were killed in action and 9,266 were wounded between 1966 and 1969, at or near Con Thien.

In 1967, CBS ran a special on Con Thien. It's quite interesting.

Joe & I were introduced to Mr. Hoa, a former soldier of the South Vietnamese Army and life-long resident of a small town right outside of the DMZ, Dong Ha. We spent the day following Mr. Hoa around the DMZ on our motorbike, listening to his experience in the Vietnam War, the effects it had on his hometown, and the effects it is still playing for him and his family now. Mr. Hoa was conscripted into the army when he was young and fought alongside the US Army against the NVA. He was a low-ranking solider but believed in democracy, and very quietly confided to us that he still does today. After the war, Mr. Hoa was forced to go to a reeducation camp for two years. He lived deep in the jungle, was forced to work for eight hours a day, attended another four hours of "classes", and given only enough food to ensure basic survival. After his reeducation he was able to get a job but says he can still feel the discrimination against him. It is harder for him to get a job, harder for his children to get into good schools, and while former Communist party members are given a large discount for university, he must pay full price for his two daughters to receive university education. His brother, who was a high-ranking officer in the South Vietnamese Army, had to go to reeducation camp for five years after which the US helped relocate him to Colorado, where he still lives today, to protect him from Communist discrimination and persecution.

Although Con Thien was once a large base that covered three small hills, only one bunker remains. That would be our first stop for the day. As we drove along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, we suddenly pulled off the road, down a tiny path in the middle of an endless array of rubber trees. We drove into the jungle for about 10 minutes then got off our motorbikes and walked for another 5. I was extremely nervous during all of this. While millions of tons of ordnance were dropped over Vietnam during the war, it's estimated that one-third of them did not explode. It's believed that nearly 20% of Vietnam remains uncleared, with more than 3.5 million mines and between 350,000 and 800,000 tons of unexploded ordnance. Between 1975 and 2007, this resulted in 105,000 injuries and over 45,000 deaths. Additionally, death and injury still happen nearly daily in the DMZ as a result of this. (Mom, I tell you this information now ~ after I've returned safely). Needless to say, knowing this information I was beyond nervous to be driving around the jungle and traipsing through bushes. Luckily, we got to the top of the hill just fine and found the only remaining bunker standing before us.

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Our Drive In

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view from the top of the bunker

After all the research we had done and watching the 1967 CBS Special on Con Thien, all the bullet holes, the carving of California in the wall, the old Budweiser can, the dry, scarred land... they were all pieces of such a tragic story of sacrifice.

We got back on the Ho Chi Minh Highway and were taken to the original Ho Chi Minh Ttrail. We got to walk down it for a little while and heard about the many different stages of the roadway. There were actually several Ho Chi Minh Trails that led to different places.

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Before & After

Our next stop was the Truong Son National Cemetery. This cemetery is the final resting place to more than 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. While South Vietnamese soldiers and US soldiers were sent to their hometowns to be buried, all NVA soldiers were buried along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were later unearthed and what was left was reburied in this cemetery. Many graves remain empty and all are marked with a simple white tombstone with the Communist Star on top and the words liet si which means "Hero's Martyr". Their names, birthdays, date of enlistment, and date of death are also marked on each tomb. It was sad to see how young many of these boys, quite literally, joined the army and died. Many were around 14 years old when they enlisted and were killed not long after.

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We continued to drive for quite some time down unpaved country roads, seeing the depths of this very small and highly un-visited area. In the short time that we spent here, we saw no other foreigners at all. We stopped along the highway at the Hien Luong Bridge that ran over the Ben Hai River which was the official dividing point of North & South Vietnam. The bridge was painted red on the Northern end and yellow on the Southern end while each side had their corresponding flag flying next to the bridge. While the bridge and the surrounding area was destroyed in 1967 as a result of heavy bombing, the government rebuilt the bridge to look like the original, as well as the Communist flag but left all Southern Vietnamese relics as nothing more than dust. You'll see in the before and after photos that the South Vietnamese flagpole no longer exists. The Communist government also built a monument of a woman and her children waiting for their fathers to come home after fighting for the Communist army.

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Hien Luong Bridge in 1965 and 1966

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Hien Luong Bridge Rebuilt for Tourists

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area around the bridge in 1966

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area around the bridge March 2012

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These speakers were used during the war for Communist propaganda. As we walked around at night, many of the streets in Dong Ha had similar speakers and right at 5 o'clock the news began to ring out amongst the streets. Obviously we don't know what they were talking about but it definitely created a very "Big Brother" feel.

We continued to drive for quite some time and the only way we found we could describe the land is amazingly desolate. While the land was still beautiful and covered with miles and miles of rice paddies, it was endlessly pock-marked with bomb craters and cemeteries. While the government has begun a large movement to plant mass amounts of rubber trees along the roadways, it is seemingly a lackluster way to cover the immense damage caused by the use of defoliants, such as napalm, and heavy bombing. The area largely just looked dead and forgotten.

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1966 & 1968 Overview of Ho Chi Minh Trail and the DMZ. You can see in the second picture that the Hien Luong Bridge is destroyed, no longer connecting the two sides and the entire terrain was pock-marked with bomb craters at this point. These craters remain today.

Our last stop of the day was just North of the DMZ, to a village that is actually considered one the most heavily bombed and shelled strips of land on the entire planet. As a survival tactic, the village of people living in this area literally went completely underground in 1966. This village created a highly impressive complex of tunnels in which more than 90 families lived for nearly 6 years. The tunnels consist of three levels and took 18 months to dig by hand. The first level of tunnels began at 12 meters deep. This level was used only for cooking and storage, as this level was still vulnerable to American Drilling Bombs. The next level started at 15 meters deep and this was the largest area, encompassing the level where all living happened. There was a meeting area (which also doubled as a reception area for weddings and other celebrations), living quarters, water well, watch posts, an operating room, and even a maternity ward. 17 babies were actually born in the tunnels, all of which are still alive today. The lowest level of tunnels were dug to 32 meters deep. This level was too low to live, as it is very moist, so it was used for storage, one bathroom (to be shared among everyone), and showers. There are 13 entrances and exits to the tunnel. While they've all been remade today to allow tourists to go in, they were highly disguised during the war. One was left as is and we took a picture of it. Their cooking area was covered by the jungle and had tiny holes so from the top it would only look like jungle mist, not smoke, while they were cooking. Everything was completely covered with trees and built into the side of a hill, making the village completely undetectable by US pilots. Traveling in these tunnels was absolutely fascinating. Every single detail of the tunnels was so incredibly thought out. It's amazing to see what people are capable of doing when they work together to survive. Their hard work and determination was successful. Amazingly, no villagers lost their lives as they quite literally lived under fields of fire.

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After our tour, we regrettably said goodbye to Mr. Hoa and boarded a 13 hour bus to Vietnam's capital city, Hanoi.

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In Hanoi, we went to the Hỏa Lò Prison which was originally built by the colonial French but was later used to keep POWs during the Vietnam War, most notoriously, John McCain was first held captive here. It has been left largely as it was when it was being used. American POWs sarcastically referred to this prison as the "Hanoi Hilton" and it had an entire section about how well they treated US soldiers during the Vietnam War. This was all quite contrary to the story any US solider held here will tell you. According to U.S. POWs held in "Hanoi Hilton", they endured miserable conditions, including poor food and unsanitary conditions. Beyond that, the facilities here were used to torture and interrogate many US servicemen, especially US pilots shot down over North Vietnam. Many of the torture methods used at the Hỏa Lò Prison included rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement with the goal of getting written or recorded statements from the prisoners that criticized U.S. conduct of the war and praised how the North Vietnamese treated them. Such POW statements would be viewed as a propaganda victory in the battle to sway world and U.S. domestic opinion against the U.S. war effort. In the end, North Vietnamese torture was sufficiently brutal and prolonged that virtually every American POW subjected to such torture eventually made a statement of some kind at some time. After being forced to make an anti-American statement, Senator John McCain wrote, "I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine." Joe & I both found it extremely, extremely difficult to walk through the rooms full of claims that our American Heroes were being treated not only humanely, but downright graciously. We did get to see John McCain's flight suit and parachute on display here.

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While we've both spent extensive time reading and researching wars and always do our best to learn every side to the difficult stories these wars have to tell, in the past week we've seen the damaged, dark, and miserable effects this war had on everyone involved in a way we never could have in the far removed land that we call home. The realities of war are just so difficult to comprehend and stomach. We've spent hours upon hours reading first hand accounts of US Vets and we've talked to Vietnamese citizens who lived through this nightmare. We've seen the scars that are left as everyday reminders on the land here and we walk away thinking, "Why?" As I sit in this now communist country, unable to freely access my Facebook account, where Mr. Hoa can't openly say that he believes in democracy and can't receive financial support for his children's education because he served alongside US troops, for what means did everyone pay such a huge price?

Posted by nlpolyak 23:51 Archived in Vietnam Tagged war Comments (1)

Beaches, Birthdays, Cooking, & Ancient Meanderings

Nha Trang & Hoi An

sunny 90 °F

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Nha Trang

In our last blog, we left you Mui Ne which was a taste of a slow life in paradise. We spent our time reading, writing, and getting a base tan ~ happy to relax with few options to do otherwise. We left that slow, quaint life for Nha Trang. Lonely Planet described Nha Trang as, "The beachfront has been given a huge makeover in recent years, with parks and sculpture gardens spread along the shorefront, although by night it still reverts to a bit of a circus with motorbike drivers doubling as pimps and dealers, and kamikaze hookers hoping to relieve drunken tourists of their remaining dong." One must ask themselves, "Nice beach, pimps, and kamikaze hookers... What more can you ask for?!?!" We were sold so we took a 6 hour bus ride up the coast to Nha Trang. We've heard such horror stories about scams and robberies on buses so we were a bit apprehensive. Lucky for us, we got on a POS bus with tons of garbage on it, it brought to the middle of an extremely poor area with nothing in it, and we were told our bus was broken and a new one would come shortly. We stood for about 30 minutes in 100* weather, hoping we did not get duped. Thankfully, a better working bus soon came and trucked us to our destination. Following suit with all our arrivals so far, when the bus pulled up to it's destination we were swarmed by taxi, motorbike, and cyclo drivers pushing us, begging us, and being obnoxious. At this point we were 10 day veterans, we couldn't be fooled so we picked up our packs and headed to "budget alley" in search of a hotel. All the hotels were $10 and we visited quite a few options. Joe was dying in 100% humidity, my hair looked like Simba's mane, and we negotiated ourselves an $8 room so finally we dropped our bags in a crappy "prison cell" and went to bed. The next morning, we woke up early and went out to find a better place to stay. We found the perfect place called Forget Me Not, providing clean, big rooms, full of natural light, and the sweetest couple owning it ~ all for the grand price of $9.50. We settled in and headed to the beach.

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We spent the next few days enjoying the beach. Each day, we rented a beach chair under a tiki hut for $1.50, ate fresh fruit cut up for us right on the beach, and looked out upon a beautiful blue ocean spotted with gorgeous, mountainous islands. At night, we spent hours walking around taking in the city full of cute restaurants, cafes, and and bars. We had some of the best food we've had since coming to Asia! Joe was in heaven! We really loved Nha Trang. It offered a city lifestyle that came with it's own attitude and personality which contrasted nicely with the blissful beach. It was perfect for us!

One afternoon, feeling a bit "well done" in the sun, we took a trip over to Long Son Pagoda. We had seen quite a few temples dotting all of the cities we've visited thus far but pagoda's are very different in Vietnam than what we were used to in Korea. This pagoda was built in the late 19th century but has been rebuilt several times since then. The entrance way and much of the decorative details to the buildings are constructed with glass and bits of ceramic tile creating beautiful mosaics. The Long Son Pagoda is also home to a huge, white Buddha that is visible from all over the city. Unfortunately, the pagoda wasn't well maintained, was overrun with beggars, and the Buddha was being renovated so we couldn't see it's base. That being said, it was a nice break from beach bumming and we got some good pictures!

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For my birthday, I decided I wanted to veer away from the beach and head to historic Hoi An. This required us to take an 11 hour bus. We boarded the bus at 7:30 PM and it was a "sleeper bus". It was actually more comfortable than most of the hotels we've stayed in and it was definitely a novel experience. I have no doubt the novelty will wear off quick, as we have plenty of hours left to log on these buses.

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Hoi An

Hoi An is a time warp back to Old Vietnam. Set on the Thu Bon River, Hoi An was once a major international port in Southeast Asia. Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Indian, Filipino, Indonesian, Thai, French, British, and American ships came to call here for the treasures of the Orient. Many of these treasures, such as silk, fabrics, porcelain, and paper, are still popular and prolific today. With these trading partnerships, each country left distinct architectural marks which have still been preserved today. In the late 19th century, the Thu Bon River silted up, preventing ships from reaching Hoi An's docks. Thanks to this, the city has been left almost completely unchanged. There are even strict rules today safeguarding the city's heritage and regulating any restoration work done within the confines of the city to ensure everything is done tastefully and keeps modernization within reason. There are even strict rules that govern the color houses can be painted and the signs that can be used. It's amazing to literally be walking amongst history that can date back to the 2nd century.

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Within Hoi An's 23 square miles, there are anywhere from 300 to 500 tailors eager to make you clothes at record speed and for record low prices. You can bring in pictures of any dress, pants, jackets, shoes, anything you want and have it made for you ~ picking out the fabric and personalizing it completely for you. I saw a dress I liked hanging in a shop. I was measured and picked out a fabric before I even knew what was happening and it was made for me in less than 24 hours. I was amazed and loved my new dress!

Right outside of the heart of Old Town lies a beautiful beach and an abundance of incredible fields. I have a slight obsession with rice paddies. I just think they are so gorgeous. Our first day in Hoi An, we ended up spending about 10 hours walking around little neighborhoods, farms, fields, and the Old Town. It was great!

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At night, along the river, lots of older women sell little paper boats with a candle in it that you send a wish down the river on. We found a real cute little boy helping his mom sell them. He was so absolutely adorable. A few minutes earlier someone walking down the street handed me a rose. I passed the rose on to the boy and he couldn't have been happier. He sang for us and just loved posing for pictures! He was such a cutie and made me miss my students so much!!!

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Happy Birthday to Me!!!

As a birthday surprise, my amazing parents surprised me with a room that cost more than $15 at the Hoi An Beach Resort. It was the best surprise I could have asked for! We were treated to wonderfully white bed sheets, a comforter, big showers, and a beautiful river view room. My mom also heard from a "little bird" that I wanted to go to a cooking class and scheduled us a full day with the Red Bridge Cooking School. I was so excited!

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How lucky am I?!?!?!?

Our sweet room and our view:

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Cooking class was a lot of fun. First, we went to an organic herb village called Tra Que. It was really interesting to see how they grew the herbs. Everything is done by hand, there is no machinery used at all ~ not even to water the fields. We got to taste a lot of the herbs and picked out some things we would be using in our dishes for the day.


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Next, we headed to the market to pick up the rest of what we would be cooking with. Asian markets never seem to stop amazing me. There is a constant chaos, yet everything remains so organized.

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Our last stop was the cooking school. We were handed aprons and a class of wine at 10:30 AM and were told that we weren't prepared to cook until our first glass of wine was finished. We had a lot of fun throughout the day making our own rice noodles, an incredible five color salad, Joe did some Vietnamese BBQ'ing, and we cooked shrimp in banana leaves. We made four dishes that are signatures of Central Coast cuisine which is said to be the most complex in the country. We succeeded in class but don't ask us to do it again in America.... I'm not so sure our skills will travel with us!

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At the end of class, our group sang me happy birthday with a candle in a pile of noodles!

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My Son

Today we rented a motorbike and headed 45 kilometers outside Hoi An to Vietnam's most extensive collection of Cham ruins, My Son. Set in the middle of a jungle, overlooked by Cat's Tooth Mountain, these ruins provided for a great escape into nature. While you can join a tour to the ruins at just about every street corner, we opted to do it by ourselves and get to the grounds nice and early, allowing us to have the place to ourselves. Unfortunately, only 20 of the 68 original structures still stand. My Son was once an important intellectual and religious center and served as a burial ground for monarchs from the 4th to 12th centuries. Unfortunately, during the Vietnam War extensive carpet bombing covered most of this area of Vietnam, devastating the temples, among much more.

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More than anything, we enjoyed our hour long motorbike ride out and back. We drove further and further into small towns and got to see some magnificent scenery. This was only our second time renting a motorbike but we are hoping by the time we finish traveling, we'll be expert motorbike drivers like true SE Asians. Then we can add ourselves to this shockingly impressive gallery.... ENJOY!!

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If you'd like to see the rest of our Vietnam pictures, take a look here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.666055612372.2105750.32103399&type=1&l=0a58fe601c

Posted by nlpolyak 07:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged boats beach adventure city exploration Comments (1)

Let the Backpacking Adventures Begin

Exploring Southern Vietnam : Ho Chi Minh City & Mui Ne

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We are now just about one week into backpacking and already feeling like seasoned travelers. While I had my doubts that I could go from being one of the worst, high-maintenance packers the world over, I am genuinely surprised with how well I am adjusting to the life of a backpacker. Joe, of course, had no problem! I can't believe we fit 91 days of living into such a little space and I continue to get better at packing everyday!

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Our first destination is Vietnam. Despite Vietnam's harsh, divided, and difficult history, it is a country blessed with beauty. Everywhere you turn your eyes are blessed with new, beautiful colors intertwined in always changing landscapes. From the rolling mountains, to the vast expanses of incredible rice paddies, and of course along the 2,140 miles of gorgeous coastline, Vietnam is a true gem. Beyond the beauty the land has to offer, the people are remarkably kind and friendly. This population of people that have weathered multiple wars, colonialism, and communism, seem to have kept their head high and are remarkably happy. Their optimism and vivacity can be felt almost immediately as you walk down the street and watch the people interact with each other over meals or in passing conversations as they try to sell you a tour, a motorbike ride, cigarettes, or any other number of things. It's also easy to see that Vietnamese people are hardworking people. Everywhere you go, seven days a week, you can see hardworking individuals performing backbreaking labor in blistering heat during all hours of the day. Beyond that, you can't take ten steps without at least 2 people trying to sell you anything they can. Work is a central pillar to Vietnamese life so it is no wonder that unemployment is virtually nonexistent here.

Ho Chi Minh City

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, at about 12:15 AM. After about 20 hours of traveling, we walked out of the airport to be smacked in the face with 110* weather, humidity, and at least 100 taxi drivers yelling to get our fare. Having heard so many warnings about scams in HCMC we were immediately overwhelmed and weary. We booked our first two nights hotel before arriving so we finally picked a taxi driver with a friendly smile and a taxi license to take us to our hotel which was in District 1. Our taxi driver turned out to be very nice and had good English so he was able to teach us a little about the area and some helpful hints about traveling in Vietnam. We finally got settled into our room by 2 AM and were ready to crash!

We woke up the next day, ready to explore!! Everything we read about HCMC emphasized that it is a city on the move. That may be the understatement of the century! From the millions of motorbikes that traversed the streets, weaving between already chaotic traffic, to the loud street vendors and just overall over-stimulation of all senses, HCMC is definitely a force to be reckoned with. Before we could rub the exhaustion from our eyes, we both looked at each other and almost simultaneously said "What did we get ourselves into?!?!" If you don't believe us, here is a small look into just a moment standing on a random street corner...

Vietnamese Rush Hour

Regardless, we knew we wanted to get the most out of the day so first we took a walk around to get a feel for the area. This led us to Reunification Palace. This building was built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam's Presidential Palace. It remained the Presidential Palace for 9 years until April 30, 1975 when communist tanks stormed Saigon and crashed through the gates of this building, ending the war. The building was left just as it was on that day so it is as if you traveled through time as you walk through the halls of this huge building.

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Afterwards, we went around the corner to the War Remnants Museum. Honestly, as an American, this shocking museum presented a very uncomfortable experience. The War Remnants Museum documents the evils, atrocities, and brutality of war, but, more specifically the American's evils, atrocities, and brutality in the Vietnam War. The exhibits included pictures in almost every country of protests against American involvement in the war, merciless pictures of American torture and the effects of torture during the war, and most heartbreaking, the effects of the use of defoliants such as agent orange and napalm, which are still being felt by Vietnamese people today. It was a graphic and heart-wrenching experience. I couldn't help but question how, only 37 years later, Vietnamese people were so overwhelmingly friendly to me as I walked down the street. While I whole-heartedly respected and felt sorrowful for this unfortunately history, I wished the museum wasn't as biased as it was. Concurrently, I have been reading a US soldier's memoirs on his time spent in Vietnam so I'm thankful that it helped me to create a more balanced and thorough understanding of all of these atrocities.

In the wake of the museum, we needed a bit of a pick-me-up. We headed to a coffee shop to do some research on a more relaxed and low-key location to celebrate Joe's birthday. After some deliberation, we decided the next day we'd take a train to Mui Ne but that didn't stop us from spending the rest of the day walking around, taking in the chaos of the city for hours. We spent a bit of time meandering through the famous Ben Thanh Market where we ate dinner and walked around looking at silk stands, souvenirs, and funny t-shirts. After yet another exhausting day, we headed to bed dreaming of the paradise that awaited us.

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At 5:30 the next morning, we experienced our first Vietnamese sunrise on our way to Saigon Station. Sitting outside, excitedly waiting for our train, I looked up at this old, weathered building and couldn't help but reflect on the war that so recently rattled this country, what these walls must have seen, and how different the people who occupied these seats where then.

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Mui Ne

After a four and a half hour train ride on an old, smelly, and dirty train, we disembarked at a very small, overgrown train station in Phan Thiet. Once again, we were greeted by droves of taxi, cyclo, and motorbike drivers, all ready to fight for our fare. This aspect of travel is going to take some getting used to. We need to learn to take a step back, say "No!", and get a grounding for where we are and what our options are, so we can better negotiate the best price and stay on budget! But on Day 3, we were not that good! We took a taxi ride to our hotel from a driver that once again spoke enough English. (We have been very surprised by how much English is spoken by everyone here!) Our driver nicely delivered us, questionably safely, to our destination and we were happy to see paradise at our feet.

Mui Ne is a pretty secluded, quiet, and calm area. Just the opposite of HCMC and exactly what we needed to unwind after a year and a half in Korea! Mui Ne is in the top rankings of Vietnam's best beaches and people come from all over the world to kite surf here. It really is beautiful. The city is also largely dominated by the fishing industry and the production of fish sauce which is wonderful for me and my love for fishing boats. There was no shortage of colorful fishing boats in addition to these very unique round, tub-like boats that the men used when pulling up the fishing nets.

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We decided to stay at the Hai Yen Resort. Our room was small, quaint, and clean with an ocean view ~ everything we could ask and more for $15/day. Our hotel had a nice, cheap restaurant with good food and a really nice pool. We spent our days taking in the sun and swimming in the pool. We both watched each other slowly unwind and the horrid black circles, that had formed under my eyes in Korea, are slowly starting to dissipate. :o)

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Happy Vietnamese Birthday, Joe!!

Joe's birthday was quiet and calm, like every other holiday we've experienced abroad. His most stressful times of the day were deciding when he should hop in the pool, when to turn over on his chair, and when to eat. That's everything our favorite beach bum could ask for!! At night, we headed to get some fresh seafood BBQ'ed for us right on the water. While frogs, snakes, and crocodile were on the menu, we decided we'd be a bit more conservative in our selections and went for delicious scallops and prawn.

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On our last day in Mui Ne we decided to rent a motorbike of our own. Joe and I hopped on and were ready to explore for ourselves. It was really amazing to see the different landscapes that rolled right into one another. You would go from fishing village to rice paddy to sand dunes to ocean to mountain to lake and back to rice paddy again. It was really beautiful and interesting to explore outside of the city centers. While I already knew the economic disparity between classes was vast here, it was an interesting observation nonetheless as we got to go quite a bit away from the city and see how the local, peasant class lived. It reminded me a lot of the people I met and worked with in the Dominican Republic and I know we'll have many more experiences like this in the coming months but it's always a good time to reflect on how blessed we are and to take a moment to be thankful.

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After leaving Mui Ne, we boarded a 5 hour bus to Nha Trang a bit further North but more on that next time...

Love & Miss You,

Nichole & Joe
xoxo

Posted by nlpolyak 06:39 Archived in Vietnam Tagged boats beach adventure city exploration Comments (5)

Farewell Korea

... onto the next adventure

all seasons in one day 30 °F
View Lunar New Year 2011 & Chuseok 2011 & New Years 2011 & Korean Home on nlpolyak's travel map.

Well after a year and a half… 548 days... 13,152 hours… 789,120 minutes… you get the point – a long @$$ time – it is time to say goodbye to Korea, our lives here, our students, our friends, and all the other amazing people we have met here. It has been a whirlwind of a week full of “To Do Lists” and frantically trying to get everything packed and stored away while coming to the realization that a backpack just isn’t that big. Now, with 11 hours left in Korea, the bags are overstuffed, we are preparing for our last sleep in a “home”, and I sit down to share with you some farewell thoughts.

I feel like we’ve been counting down for this day for so long and now that it’s here I feel more sentimental than I ever thought I would. I came to Korea looking for adventure, anxious to see the world, and hoping to develop more personally. Looking back at our time, I can honestly say we got what we were looking for and so much more. Our journey in Korea has not been an easy one; yet I recognize that life often is not easy, no matter where you are located around the world. However, each and every day Korea has presented us with challenges, big and small; struggles, personal and professional; and mountainous opposition, surmountable and insurmountable, but a year and a half later I am thankful for every bit of this experience. As a couple, Joe and I have always been best friends, but Korea has made us a family unit. We have become an unbreakable, unbeatable, unshakable, undefeated team and I expect the next leg of this journey to solidify this even more.

Beyond the small, family unit that Joe and I have created in our shoebox apartment, I was blessed with the most amazing students a teacher could ever ask for. The 10 of us are undeniably a tight-knit family with a unique bond, full of once in a lifetime love shaped in our little classroom. I wish you all could have gotten the experience to meet these kids, they are truly angels. Take a look at some cute graduation pictures....

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My student's parents also got us an incredible farewell present. They gave both Joe and I our own hanboks, the traditional clothes in Korea worn on special occasions. It was such a generous and incredible gift. One we will surely never forget!

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Korea has also blessed us with some amazing friends. We’ve gotten to meet so many different people and form strong friendships. Our family circle keeps getting bigger… Joe & I, my students, and now we add Steph. Steph has been such a huge part of our Korean experience. We are a trio that never stops laughing, causing trouble, and having fun. Steph has been one of the greatest additions to my life. I thank Korea from the bottom of my heart for delivering my favorite thing about Canada.

To round out our family circle, we need to add Julia, because what family is complete without the heart of the family... the clown that is always making everyone smile. We also have our Korean friends (Angel, my coworkers, Bonnie) who gave us a wonderful insight into what true Korean life is like, guided us every single time we needed help, and helped us better understand Korean culture. You added a unique dimension to our experience that we couldn't have otherwise had.

As you can see, although this has been a trying experience, we created a life and a family in Korea that will always hold a special place in our hearts. We are so thankful and feel so blest to have had this opportunity. In addition to this, we are also thankful to our real families for supporting us, loving us, and keeping us included in the family even from 8,000 miles away!! You guys are amazing!! 92 more days!!

Now for the exciting part… In 11 short hours we board a plane for Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Vietnam. We will be starting a 3 month backpacking adventure through Southeast Asia. Below you will see a map with a rough idea of how we plan to explore but much of our time will be spent by spontaneously deciding where we go and what we do for the day. I will try to write shorter blogs when we have internet and keep you up to date with our location and some pictures. We are definitely on to a whole different kind of challenge but we feel prepared and ready to take it on together! Wish us luck and keep us in your thoughts!!!

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We miss you and love you!! We’re almost home!!
Xoxoxo

“May travelers upon the road find happiness, no matter where they go, & may they gain, without the need of toll, the goals on which they set their hearts.”

Posted by nlpolyak 09:15 Archived in South Korea Tagged farewell thanks Comments (1)

한국 Road Trip

sunny 11 °F
View Korean Home on nlpolyak's travel map.

In early January we got a special surprise. Two friends, Tommy & Chris, decided to adventure out of America and visit us in good ole' SK before we made our final departure. We had one last small break from school for 설날 (Korean Lunar New Year). In the past year and a half we've traveled to China, Japan, and other large cities in Korea but we had one last big thing on our Korean Bucket list. We were so interested in seeing the Korean countryside and getting a peak into the lifestyle outside of the chaotic life in Busan. About 80% of the population in South Korea lives in cities, mostly in Seoul. Our goal was to set out and see as much of the countryside as we could in 4 days. We were also so excited to be able to share this experience with friends from home. While we skype with our families, write this blog, and try to take lots of pictures, none of it can compare to actually experiencing this life we've created in Korea first hand. Tommy and Chris would now be the only people from home that would have had that insiders look at what our "secret Korean life" holds.

After purchasing an atlas, getting t-shirts made, and purchasing some pretty ridiculous animal hats, we felt we were ready to take the Korean Roadway by storm!

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This is the route that we took over the course of the road trip.

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After being reunited with some incredible friends; on Sunday, we all packed into our sweet Hyundai, and got ready to have some fun.

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We headed up the east coast up the most rural district of Busan, Gijang. While only 20 minutes away from home, this area is drastically different. The majority of land is either vacant or used for agriculture. This area is also known for it's seafood and fishing ports as it's located directly on the Sea of Japan. Our first stop was in a small, old fishing port called Daebyeonhang Port. This port sees the richest harvest of anchovies in Korea. Maybe it's because old fishing boats and older fishermen remind me of my Pa, but for some reason or another I absolutely love to walk around the ports and take pictures of the boats and fishermen.

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We had a rule that if someone in the car yelled "하지 마" (Korean for stop), we had to stop and do something fun and adventurous. Our first 하지 마 was at Jinha Beach. We didn't make it far but the boys were already hungry so we showed Chris and Tommy so of our favorite street food. Joe ordered them some steamed dumplings while I got them my favorite pastry. It's essentially crispy pancake batter on the outside with custard on the inside. They come in the shapes of different animals and are just fantastic!

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Once we got back in the car we headed to Andong for our first night. Andong is the home of Confucianism in Korea. This city was also the home to much of the noble class during the Joseon Dynasty. Many of these homes still stand today so Andong provides a wonderful opportunity to experience the essence of traditional Korean lifestyles. Queen Elizabeth actually spent her birthday in 1999 in Andong. We had the opportunity to see a traditional Korean village and since it was Lunar New Year Day, we were basically the only people there. It was really beautiful.

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causing trouble since c. 1994

After some freezing cold traditional folk village experiences, we headed to lunch. Andong is famous for its jjimdak so we went to Andong Gu Market which literally means chicken alley. This dish is made of chicken, a variety of different vegetables and noodles, all marinated in Korean soy sauce. All those crazy meat-eaters enjoyed this quite a bit!

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Another 하지 마 stop:

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And yet another 하지 마:

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For our second night we stayed at the Muju Ski Resort. It was nice to see the slopes but it was 12*. Tommy & Chris got to experience their first night in a traditional Korean hotel, where you get no beds but rather sleep on the floor. We've been friends since we were 10 years old, when's the last time we had a good old fashioned sleep over?!?! Thanks to discomfort we were able to wake up really early, see a beautiful sunrise, and get a jump start on our day.

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"where are the beds??"

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On the next day we headed to the Southwest area of the country to see a bamboo forest. We couldn't get there without another 하지 마. This time at Jirisan Rest Stop where the boys got crazy and decided to climb a monument. There must be something in the water in Jefferson but none of us can seem to keep our feet on the ground.

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Just as we arrived at the Damyang Bamboo Forest it began to snow. It was the first time we've gotten to see snow in almost two years so it was quite exciting.

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On our last night we stayed at the Hwasun resort which was basically an indoor water park in the middle of nowhere. We got a room early, purchased some cheap beer at the convenience store downstairs, and ended up having one of the best nights we've had in Korea right in our bed-less room. Goes to show you that all you need in life is a few great friends to have a lot of fun. We got to go bowling in our hotel and the next morning woke up early to play in the water park before heading back to Busan.

We had a great time and now, with only 10 days left in Korea, we can say we got to see the majority of the country.

Now for the greatest part of this whole blog. We purchased a video camera to take with us backpacking and we made our first video compilation to document the fun we had. ENJOY!

To see the rest of the Road Trip Pictures:

Posted by nlpolyak 04:09 Archived in South Korea Tagged adventure friends fun with exploration Comments (0)

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