South Korea Diary #2: Seoraksan

Part 1 can be found here.

After 2 days in Seoul, our South Korea tour took us to Seoraksan, a mountain in the east of the country. Most of the tour packages I’ve found only take you to the usual places like Seoul, Busan, and Jeju Island, but as this is a “fall foliage” tour, it’s natural that we got to visit one of the places with the best and earliest fall colors in South Korea – they reach their peak in mid-October, just in time for our visit.

Our first destination is the Seoraksan National Park, with its entrance in a beautiful valley surrounded by brilliantly red and yellow forests, made all the more vivid by the craggy rocks and dark green pines scattered amongst the peaks. The valley also houses a Buddhist temple, Sinheungsa, and a large bronze statue of the Buddha.

Entrance to the National Park

Sinheungsa Temple

Next, we took the cable car up the slopes of Seoraksan. My fear of heights didn’t let me enjoy the views as much as I would like, but despite that, I could still see how gorgeous it was. From the cable car station, it is a 15-minute climb to the mountain peak, but in truth, it took me nearly an hour because I was stopping so often to take photos of all the foliage. I’ve had my share of fall colors when I lived in LA, but that was just little pockets here and there. I’ve never seen such a concentration of fall colors before, and it was truly too spectacular for words. It was difficult to pick which photos to feature in this post, because they all look good!

The view from the cable car and the view from the peak (my aunt had to coax me into taking this one!)

My scarf matches the background perfectly

Fall is also the season for cosmos flowers in Korea, and on the way back to the hotel, I managed to snap some photos of a blooming field. More gorgeousness!

Before heading to the airport, our last stop is Ojukheon (House of the Black Bamboo), a historical site and museum. It was the house of Shin Saimdang, a 16th-century Korean artist and poet, and her son, Yi I, a Confucian scholar (their images are on the 50,000 and 5,000 won notes, respectively, which show you how prominent they were.) The museum and the house are just okay (though the display of Shin Saimdang’s paintings and calligraphy is quite nice), but the main appeal – for me at least – is the surrounding garden, full of persimmon trees ladden with fruits and golden ginkgo trees.

And that concludes my trip to South Korea. Despite the time constraints of a tour, it has given me a good taste of the country. Hopefully some day I can come back and explore it at my own pace!


South Korea Diary #1: Seoul & Nami Island

Last month, I just went on a 4-day trip to South Korea with my aunt. It was an organized tour, which is my least favorite form of travel, but my aunt asked me to accompany her, and I never turn down the chance to travel to a new country, so of course, I accepted.

We started out in Seoul, with a tour of the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Blue House, the presidential residence. The Blue House we only got a glimpse from afar, but the Palace is beautiful, with traditional buildings surrounding spacious grounds, dotted here and there with trees full of fall foliage or stately evergreens. We also got a short visit to the National Folk Museum, which is located within the premises, and learned about the traditions of Korea.

The Blue House

Entrance to Gyeongbokgung and a corridor inside the Palace

A pavillion on the grounds

Another fun thing about the Palace is that you can see a lot of people wearing hanbok (traditional Korean dress), both tourists and locals. You don’t have to worry about cultural appropriation here – apparently, you can visit the palace for free if you wear a hanbok! (The tour also included a package for hanbok rental, though I didn’t wear one; I much prefer taking pictures of others.)

The maine square of the Palace

These kids did an entire reenactment… it was quite cute to watch

Traditional meets modern

Later in the day, we went to Everland theme park, South Korea’s version of Disneyland. You need at least an entire day here, and besides, I’m too much of a wuss for some of the rides (it has the fourth steepest roller coaster in the world. Just hearing the screams was traumatic enough). I ended up wandering around the flower gardens of the European Village with my aunts and other elderly ladies of our tour group (I guess I’m an old lady at heart!) and enjoying the Halloween decorations.

Main street of Everland

The Cupid Garden and Cottage Garden of the European Village

Everland at night

The next day, we got to see more of Seoul in the form of the Dongdaemun shopping district. Shopping is actually a huge part of the tour – most of the women in the tour group came back ladden with Korean beauty products – but I’m not much of a shopper, so I used that time to wander the nearby streets and people-watch. Later, we headed to the Namsan Tower, where you can have some magnificent views of the city.

The National Assembly Building

Seoul City Hall

A temple on the street of Seoul

Dongdaemun Design Plaza, where you can see a lot of street style photo shoots

The road to Namsan Tower, and the Tower itself

The famous “love locks” of Namsan Tower

Panoramic view of Seoul from Namsan Tower

Finally, to round out our Seoul trip, we went to Nami Island. It is not an actual island but just a river islet about an hour from Seoul, which gained popularity for being the filming location of “Winter Sonata”, a famous K-drama. I don’t watch K-dramas, but the island itself is very beautiful, with tree-lined walks and glimpses of the river through the branches. It was full of tourists, of course, but if you venture down to the river bank, you can find a lot of quiet pockets to relax in, after the hubbub of Seoul.

A little rice paddy by the river and the famous ginkgo-lined avenue of Nami Island

The squirrels and chipmunks of the island are so used to people that I could go right up to this guy and he even posed for me!

My only complaint is that we went there a tad early, so the leaves haven’t changed colors yet. But that would soon be rectified, because our next stop would be a national park in the mountains. Stay tuned!

A Week In Da Nang

It has become kind of a tradition with my family to take a week-long vacation in early summer. Since most of us work in academia, it’s the most convenient time (later in the summer we would be busy preparing for the upcoming semester); plus, the kids won’t have to wait too long for their vacation.

This year our destination is Da Nang, a city in Central Vietnam best known for its beaches. Most travelers skip it altogether or only use it as a transition point between two more popular destinations – the ancient capital of Hue and the old town of Hoi An – but we’re all about avoiding the crowd, so to Da Nang it is.

To shake things up, we also decided to take the train instead of flying. Sure, the trip takes 15 hours instead of 1,5, but it’s fun to sleep on the train (we had an entire compartment to ourselves), and you can catch some epic sunrise and sunset too.

Sunset over Thanh Hoa

Sunrise on the way to Hue

Another great thing of train travel is you get to go through the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass, the most beautiful coastal road of Vietnam (called “a ribbon of perfection” by Top Gear). You can’t get views like these from a plane:

Our first glimpse of Da Nang from the train

In Da Nang, we rented an apartment right by the beach. It’s in a newer part of town, so we had the beach almost to ourselves. To avoid the sun, we only went to the beach very early in the morning (I’m talking about 5 AM early) or late in the afternoon.

The beach in the afternoon…

… and in the morning

If you go early enough in the morning, you can see the fishermen coming back with their catch in distinctive basket boats. You can even buy their fish – it doesn’t get fresher than that!

A fisherman’s motorbike and his gear

A make-shift fish market on the beach

You can also see a lot of wedding photo shoots

My niece and nephew’s beach combing haul

Of course, being so close to the famous old town of Hoi An (it’s only 30 km away), we had to take a day trip there as well. However, it wasn’t easy with two kids in tow, so I didn’t get to see as much of the town as I’d wanted. I’ve been there once before, but that was years ago and I didn’t remember much of it, except that it was very pretty. It’s still pretty now, like a more compact version of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, only with Chinese and Japanese influence on the architecture rather than French. Unfortunately, it was also very hot and insanely crowded. Otherwise, I would’ve gone back there by myself to really explore the place.

Typical Hoi An scenes

Two of the many Chinese temples and assembly halls of Hoi An

There are also plenty of day trips and hikes that can be taken from Da Nang, but I was feeling lazy, so I just wandered around the waterfront area of the city, which isn’t far from our apartment. It’s a great place for people watching, and when Da Nang’s many bridges, the most famous of which is Dragon Bridge, are lit up as darkness falls, it is quite an impressive sight.

Dragon Bridge during the day

… and at night

Our answer to Singapore’s Merlion

Da Nang’s skyline

All in all, it was a good trip. I still prefer the “discover and explore” type of travel, but it’s fun to just relax once in a while.

From The Garden

It’s been a while since I share photos from our garden, but after seeing Kezzie’s post of her own garden, I was inspired to do the same. My dad is a pretty avid gardener, and I’ve been keeping sort of a photographic record of our garden for him, so it’s always fun to look back to see how our plants were doing each year.

Our amaryllis collection (the salmon-colored one is from a bulb I brought back from Amsterdam)

Orchid and Heliconia

Banana blossom (which makes a very good salad) and mulberries (which make very good jam)

Cuba Diary #5: Trinidad

Trinidad is often called the second biggest tourist trap in Cuba, after the seaside resort of Varadero. While that doesn’t sound very positive, it is also easy to see why tourists flock here. It has a little bit of everything – colorful colonial buildings, beaches, mountains, waterfalls, and lush farmlands. It is like a miniature Cuba, all packed in a small town. And just because it’s a tourist trap doesn’t mean that you should skip it either.

Our drive from Cienfuegos to Trinidad was the shortest – only 1.5 hours – but for once I wish it was longer, because it was breathtaking. The shared taxi took us through wide pastures with a blue mountain range in the distance, and the sea peeking in every once in a while in a series of pretty little coves. I’m still kicking myself for not asking the driver to stop the car for a photo, but then again, if we stopped whenever there was a photo op along the way, the drive would take twice as long.

We checked into our casa, Casa El Ceramista, so called because the host, Alexey, is a ceramic artist. Be warned: the family has a super cute dog and you may spend so much time playing with him that you forget to see the town.

His name is Scooby-Doo and he totally knows how cute he is

As it was still early, we decided to go on an excursion to the Topes de Collantes National Park for some hiking. The host got us a taxi to the park (50 CUC round-trip). The drive was insane – all up and down and crazy curves – and the driver never slowed down, but thankfully, we got to stop at a viewpoint and see all the way down the valley to the sea, so the near-death experience was worth it. Just don’t go with a full stomach.

We then hiked to Salto del Caburni, one of the most famous waterfalls of the area (it costs 10 CUC/person to get in). The hike isn’t that difficult, but very steep, so it’s murder on your knees. Bring water and some snacks, you’ll need it.

Me on the way back

The waterfall itself is beautiful – a white cascade tumbling down into a jade-green pool, surrounded by towering trees. You can swim there, but the water was too cold for us, so I contented myself with just dipping my toes in.

After we got back into town, we walked to the Old Town for a bite to eat. It was crawling with tourists, so we ducked around the side street until we came to Plaza Mayor. We went up the bell tower of the Convento de San Francisco to watch the sunset, before retreating to a restaurant nearby. Trinidad supposedly has a hopping nightlife, but we were wiped out after our hike, so we just had dinner and went back to the casa to sleep.

Trinidad in the sunset

The next morning, we went into town early to avoid the crowd, turning down any alley that caught our eyes. It is literally impossible to take a bad photo here – the houses look like a box of Crayola, and there is something worth photographing around every corner. When the crowd started building up and the sun became hotter, we went into the various museums and galleries around Plaza Mayor, including Palacio Cantero, which is a mansion-turned-museum on the ground floor and offers the best view from its tower.

View of Trinidad from Palacio Cantero

The abandoned Church of Santa Ana

In the afternoon, we continued to wander away from the Old Town and saw more of the “real” side of Trinidad, such as…

High school students lining up before class

A newspaper seller and a vegetable seller

The onion man – a common sight in every Cuban town

A ration store

The list of monthly rations

A primary school

Then, in an attempt to escape the crowd, we walk 3 km out of town to a “Welcome to Trinidad” sign with a replica of the Manaca Iznaga tower (a tower in the nearby Valley of the Sugar Mills, originally built to observe and control the slaves working in the fields.) We had to walk along the highway, but the road wasn’t busy, and clearly we had the right idea, because after we took photos of the sign, several cars stopped for photos as well!

Cuba-styled power lines  – yeah, that looks safe…

Laundry day!

We went back into town for dinner, and spent the rest of the evening wandering around Plaza Mayor enjoying the atmosphere. You can go into one of the restaurants/pubs for drinks, but we opted for the cheaper version from one of the many stalls lining the street (it tasted fine to me, but what do I know?) There is also Disco Ayala, a nightclub inside a cave just outside of town, but the thought of hiking up a hill at 11 PM didn’t sound very appealing to us. It is the one thing on my “to do” list that I didn’t regret skipping. I guess we are old ladies after all.

Plaza Mayor at night

And then, it was another 5-hour drive back to Havana, one more day in a flurry of souvenir shopping and packing, and, all too soon, our trip was over. Adiós Cuba! It has been absolutely wonderful, and I hope I can return one day.

As usual, I’m ending this travel post with a cat photo

Cuba Diary #4: Cienfuegos

Sandwiched between the two more famous destinations, Playa Larga (Long Beach) and Trinidad, Cienfuegos is often overlooked by travelers in Cuba, but I think it’s a mistake. This small city is dubbed “the Pearl of the South” for a reason, and there are plenty to see and do here if you know where to look.

The ride from Viñales to Cienfuegos was the longest in our trip – nearly 7 hours. We were picked up by a taxi, driven to a station outside Havana, and changed to a different car (you just pay the full amount to the first driver). The couple who shared the taxi with us was going to Playa Larga, so we had to do a little detour, but I didn’t mind, because the drive from Playa Larga to Cienfuegos was exceptionally pretty – windswept forest on one side, dazzling turquoise water and pure white sand on the other.

The ocean is so blue it looks fake…

Cienfuegos is very pretty too – lots of colonial-styled buildings, like a smaller, more tranquil Havana with a French twist (it is, after all, the only city in Cuba settled by French immigrants.) Our casa, Hostal Colonial D+D, is in one of these houses – it may look small on the outside, but the inside is huge and very airy. The host, Diley, told us that we were only the second set of Vietnamese guests she ever had, which made us feel quite special.

Our casa (the pink one)

Across the street from our casa

As usual, after checking in, we went out to acquaint ourselves with the town. Cienfuegos is laid out in a grid, so it’s very easy to navigate. We walked along the main boulevard running through the center of town and came to the main square with its neoclassical buildings.

All the houses in Cienfuegos look like frosted cakes

Electric fan guards being used as shelves! Now that’s what I call recycling!

Images of Che everywhere

However, a dark cloud was building up on the horizon and it was getting late, so we didn’t linger at the square but pushed on to the Malecón, where we could find a place to eat. The rain still caught us by surprise – it was supposed to be the dry season, dammit! – and we had to duck into the first restaurant we saw. After an early dinner and with the rain showing no sign of stopping, we decided to call it a night. We were having an early start the next day anyway – we were going on a flamingo-watching tour!

The Malecón after the rain

The next morning, we were picked up at 7:30 by a taxi (the driver lives right next door to our casa) and driven to the entrance to Guanaroca Lagoon. Our host had made a reservation for us, so we were able to skip the ticket line and joined the first tour group, which left at 8. After a short walk through a woodland area, we arrived at the dock, where the boats were waiting. Three persons went into each boat, and off we went.

We only saw a few common water birds at first, like herons and pelicans, and the flamingos were just a few pale dots in the distance. But then we rounded a corner, and suddenly there they were, in a pink line against the green mangroves. A hush settled over us as we watched them walk in a group, slender and graceful, dipping their heads into the water to feed, their vivid plumage reflecting on the mirror surface of the lagoon.

We got closer, and suddenly there was a rush as the flamingos all took off into the sky like a pink cloud, circling around us before settling down on the far side of the lagoon. Everybody must’ve been holding their breath, because we all breathed out and exclaimed “That was amazing!” I think it was as close to a natural high (in every sense of the phrase) as you can get.

Afterward, the taxi driver took us to the nearby Rancho Luna beach. Here is the turquoise water and white sand we saw on the drive from Playa Larga. It looked so inviting that even I had to venture in, although I couldn’t actually step into the sea (can’t swim, remember?) I just sat on the edge of the water and let the waves wash over me. We had lunch at a restaurant by the beach, where I got adopted by a very friendly cat. The driver then picked us up again and drove us back into town. The whole trip cost just 25 CUC (plus 10 CUC each for the boat tour.)

The cat was like, “This is my human now.”

In the afternoon, we continued our sightseeing that was disrupted by the rain the previous day. We went into the Tomas Terry Theater, but while it was interesting in an imagine-what-it-was-like-in-the-19th-century kind of way, the entrance fee was too expensive (5 CUC). Instead, go across the square to the Palacio Ferrer, a former mansion and House of Culture. It was under renovation when we were there, but you could still walk around and admire its eclectic architecture.

The cathedral’s bell tower and the statue of Jose Marti on the main square

Palacio Ferrer

We also checked out the city’s provincial museum, with its odd assortment of decorative and historical artifacts, thrown haphazardly into a building that still retains a faint echo of its former glory. We were the only visitors around. It was all weirdly charming, like an abandoned castle.

This TV isn’t part of the display… but it should be!

We ended our day by watching the spectacular sunset over the Malecón.

The fancy Cienfuegos Yacht Club

My arms were tired from taking all these photos, but it was worth it

I would’ve added another day in Cienfuegos because there were still so many things that I’d like to see (the botanical garden, El Nicho waterfalls, the Naval Museum), but alas, I made the schedule before I knew what an enchanting place it is. Until next time, I hope…

Cuba Diary #3: Viñales

If you think Cuba is all colonial towns and beaches, think again. Viñales, 2.5 hours west of Havana, is a valley and natural reserve nestled amongst limestone mountains that will show you the natural side of Cuba. When I talked to some friends who had gone to Cuba before for some tips, they all said “Oh, it’s really boring, there’s nothing there,” but I’m glad I didn’t listen, because Viñales turns out to be one of my favorite places in Cuba.

We were picked up from our casa in Havana in a modern minivan, which was a nice surprise. The town of Viñales itself is tiny and rather reminds me of the ethic villages I saw in Buon Ma Thuot, with the red dirt tracks, the small, colorful bungalows lining the streets, and the mountains in the distance. We were dropped off at our casa, Casa Estrella y Celestino, and greeted by the host, Sady. She runs the place with the help of her parents and her sisters, and during our short stay there, we really felt like a part of the family.

Selfie with Sady, her baby, and her mom!

Per Sady’s suggestion, we decided to go on a horse-riding tour that afternoon (25 CUC/person, for 3-5 hours). Neither of us have ridden before, but we thought, how hard can it be? Boy, were we wrong. We did not know what we were in for as we blithely followed the guide to the horse farm, but as I climbed on my horse, I began to feel something was not right – the horses were on the small side, yet our legs could not reach the stirrups.

Our horses

And thus began our ordeal. Every time the horses broke into anything faster than a sedate walk, we would be jolted so violently that it was all we could do to hang on for dear life. The horses were very gentle and knew the way so well that we could have just sat there and they would have taken us where we needed to go. In fact, it was our clumsy handling of the horses that made it worse. The valley is gorgeous, but I didn’t see a lot of it because I was terrified of falling off.

A calm moment during the storm

We got some brief repose at the Mural de la Prehistoria (not a real prehistoric mural, but rather a mural inspired by the theory of evolution, painted in 1961). You can pay a fee to go up to it, but we chose not to – you could see it much better from afar anyway.

Later, we stopped at a tobacco farm and learned about the cigar making process, and had our first taste of a Cuban cigar (well, my friend did.)

Tobacco drying on the field and in the drying house

When the tour was done, I came away with a giant bruise on my hip (from getting hit by my camera) and mad respect for all riders.

The next day, determined to see the valley in a less painful manner, we rented two bikes (10 CUC/person for the whole day) and rode around. This time we got to see more of the lush farmland and the mountains surrounding the valley, called mogotes, or haystacks (it’s the same kind of mountains in our Ha Long Bay – some travelers we met even said Viñales was like Ha Long Bay on land!)

A local primary school (the lunch lady was buying bread rolls for the kids)

Along the way, we met two kids, started chatting with them in a mix of English and Spanish, and they ended up taking us on an informal tour of the valley.

We went to a lake on the other side of town, in the Valle del Silencio (Valley of Silence) and visited a nearby cave. There were moments when I wondered what we were doing, following two kids we just met through a dark cave that lead to God knows where, but it was fun. They were nice kids, and afterward, one of them even took us home, where his mom gave us a refreshing drink from their well. I really wish my Spanish were better so I could talk more with them and learn more about their lives.

It’s a rock that looks like Fidel Castro!

At 5 PM, we bid the kids farewell and returned the bikes to town. Then, apparently we hadn’t exerted ourselves enough, so we decided to walk to the Horizontes Los Jazmines hotel, which is said to have the best view of the valley, to watch the sunset. You can go there by taxi, but we saw that it was only 3 km, and so, armed with the offline app, we went on our way.

The road was fine at first – mostly footpaths through farmland, but walkable. But then it got rougher and sketchier, until we were picking our ways through brambles, horse crap, and, on one memorable occasion, a dead bird. My feet were covered in so much red dust that it looked like I had some horrible skin disease. We could see the hotel like a pink mirage in the distance, but the slope just got steeper and steeper, and I was practically on my hands and knees, cursing and our own hubris, wheezing, “This view had better be worth it!”

This guy was looking at us oddly when we passed. I didn’t blame him. Probably not a lot of people go this way

And then we made it to the top.

Yes, the view was worth it

We rewarded ourselves with a huge meal in the restaurant next door and a taxi home (only 5 CUC for the whole ride), because let’s face it, there was no effing way we were walking back through those fields in the dark. But, as hard as that hike was, I’m glad we did it. It made us appreciate the view at the top that much more.

And made this meal taste amazing (this is shredded beef cooked in tomato sauce, or ropa vieja – literally “old clothes” – the most famous traditional Cuban dish)