Many Faces of Japan

16 03 2010

There’s a lot to say about Japan, but in a nutshell: it is the cleanest country on the planet; the people are pleasant everywhere in Japan, but more down-to-earth in the Kansai region; it has an amazing history; the best of electronics and convenience; AND the fashion is equivalent and maybe better than New York’s fashion. As it’s my second trip to Japan, including the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto and Nara) and Randy’s first, I feel like we covered a different part of Japan that became our own experience. During my first trip, my sister, Mailena, and her boyfriend, Justin, were great tour guides. Justin knew how to get around Osaka and Kyoto like the back of his hand, of course it helped that he knows the Japanese language. And Mailena took me to her favorite spots in their small village, Nishi-Iya, including onsens (Japanese spa), thrift shopping and ‘country’ restaurants. This trip was very special, as it was my sister’s first major move – out of the country and on the other side of the world – and it was my first major overseas trip, by myself. Although it was three years ago, this trip planted the seed to what I am doing now. Justin was teaching English with the JET program and I got to experience one of his classes. So, thanks Mailena and Justin for a wonderful first trip to Japan! And thanks for introducing me to a new world teaching English abroad.

Todai-ji Temple - the largest wooden structure in the world that houses the largest statue of the Buddha Vairocana

As for my second trip to Japan, I fell in love with fashion in Japan. It’s a little out there and I don’t know if Westerners can handle it, but Tokyo is definitely one of the fashion capitals of the world. Not only do the women dress to impress 24/7, but the men dress like they’re about to walk down a runway show. Tokyo is not just a huge metropolitan city with the most modern vending machines that include everything from cigarettes, beer and chicken, but it’s a place to go for people watching. We saw the craziest outfits on the most normal people. Every girl has the same make-up and hair, with fake eyelashes caked on foundation, eye make-up to the max and blonde or orange hair that is curled to the perfect wave. Shibuya is the place to see these women, of which I do not care much for the hair and make-up. But the men have their own style. It seems that every man just came out of an anime cartoon, with their spiked hair and either a suit or ripped up jeans and leather jacket. Enjoy the pictures below!

Harajuku shopping district

Anime-like men in Harajuku

Osaka men fashion





History Museums Around the World

9 03 2010

After our first round of traveling around Asia (Beijing, Hong Kong, Korea, Vietnam and Japan) I have to say that my three favorite museums are the War Memorial of Korea, War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

These three museums are an amazing asset to the local community and to the world. In my experience, some of the best museums charge less than $2 USD. All three of these museums are unique in many ways, sharing destruction and death.

One of the most rugged and in your face museums that I have visited is the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. As soon as you pay (less than a buck) you are directly faced with military aircraft such as big fighter jets, helicopters and military tanks that were used during the Vietnam War (the locals call it the American War). There are hundreds of bullet holes and dents in these amazing machines. It’s great that they have everything in your face and you have an opportunity to see it from Vietnam’s point of view. The memorabilia, photos and artifacts will blow your mind. I kept thinking that in 50 years from now this museum will not be standing because of the poor quality of the glass and security of the items. The glass that separates items from the public is extremely thin and can be easily broken. I wish that the government or some organization would do a better job to protect this museum so that future generations can see a part of history. The pictures in this museum are very real and gruesome, showing you a version of the war that we don’t see back in America. Nonetheless, it’s definitely an impressive museum.

If you’re ever in Seoul, a must see is the War Memorial of Korea.  As soon as you are in front of the museum you will notice the Statue of Brothers, the elder, a South Korean soldier and the younger, a North Korean soldier, which symbolizes the situation of Korea’s division. The Korean peninsula has seen many wars from neighboring powers. The War Memorial was built to commemorate actors and victims in the wars which led to the modern nation state. The museum also has the purpose of educating future generations by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting various historical relics and records related to the many wars fought in the country from a South Korean perspective. If you truly want to see evidence of how Japan invaded Korea and destroyed priceless art and buildings, travel around the peninsula and see with your own eyes. If you get a chance to go to Gyeongju, which use to be the capital you will see the destruction that was left. I have been told by countless Koreans that Japan doesn’t even acknowledge that amount of damage that they did to Korea. Click here to find out more about the Korean War.

Display of the nations' flags that participated with the U.N. during the Korean War

8:15am was the precise time that the bomb was dropped.

One of my favorite museums of all, is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It’s a funny feeling that you get once you step foot into this historical city. It’s like time stopped here (8:15 am on August 6, 1945 was the precise time the bomb was dropped over Hiroshima). I guess this museum is truly unique because how many other places had an atomic bomb destroy their city. This museum does a great job showing you how it was minutes after the A-bomb was dropped. If you’re ever in Japan, do yourself a favor and visit this part of history. After viewing the whole museum we had an opportunity to walk around this new vibrant city. Everyone says the people have moved on and as well as the city. But, you can’t help to think that one bomb so powerful, that people evaporated into thin air or burned into ashes at the drop of the bomb. Later on that evening as we were walking to our hostel, we had to walk pass the existing A-Bomb Dome. In 1966, the city decided to keep this structure in its original condition as a landmark from the war. The dome was registered on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list in December 1996 as a monument that reminds us of the tragedy of the bombing, according to wikpedia. The city stood quiet as we walked toward our hostel, it was a really beautiful sight but I couldn’t help that the feeling was very eerie. I mean if you think about it, one bomb killed more than 80,000 people instantly. Does the soul ever find peace?

A-Bomb Dome

They said that plants and grass weren't going to grow in Hiroshima for another 75 years - this tree is in the preservation fence of the A-Bomb Dome.





A Beautiful Ending to a Short Trip

22 02 2010

Other than all of the heartache and pain that went on in Phu Quoc those many years ago, it is a tropical paradise with the most beautiful beaches and amazing accommodations at the more luxurious places. It’s an island about 15 km south of Cambodia and an hour plane ride from Saigon or two-hour ferry ride from Rach Gia. The seafood is the best here, especially at the Night Market. You can find a meal for two people at local restaurants including the Night Market for less than $5 USD! And any dish you choose will be amazing.

Long Beach on Phu Quoc Island

Of course, poverty still exists here. We visited a family who lives in pretty much a shack. The mother was cooking on the side of the street, while her 1-year-old daughter was playing next to the speeding cars and motorbikes. We walked inside to find her walls filled with paintings that her husband had painted, cement floors and a wooden bed with one sheet on it. Her kitchen was outside by the street. But, regardless of the situation, she and her daughter were happy. She and her husband sell the paintings for reasonable prices. Randy bought a painting for about $7 USD, which probably helped them out a lot, considering that the average family in Vietnam makes about $150 per month.

Apart from the realization of how the majority of Vietnamese live, Phu Quoc is a beautiful island with a large part dedicated as a National Forest. You can find deserted beaches or beaches with many people participating in a variety of water sports. I chose to refresh my SCUBA diving skills. It was my second time diving in an ocean. It felt great to get back in the gear and under the water again. I didn’t have time to finish my certification here, but it’s a great place to do it. The sights underwater weren’t that exciting where I had dived, but the waters weren’t too choppy and the current was pretty calm. The instructors are great and it’s relatively cheap to get certified in Vietnam. Click here to find a list of dive operations and more information about Phu Quoc.

SCUBA flag and the Vietnam flag

Lodging in Phu Quoc is hard to find if you want to find a place online during the peak season (December – February). Also, hotels and resorts will charge more during this time. But many places don’t have web sites, so it might be a better bet to just arrive in Phu Quoc and then find a place to stay.

Phu Quoc was the perfect place to relax. We spent about four hours at the massage salon on the first day! Our hotel didn’t have a massage salon, so we went to Phu Quoc-Saigon Resort to get pampered. Even though this was one of the nicer resorts, we got a great package deal for our manicure, pedicure, spa and sauna, full-body hour-long massage and facial. In the states, we would spend about $400 on something like this, but in Vietnam, you can get a relaxing, refreshing spa treatment for only $36! The women who work here do an excellent job. One lady gave us a manicure and pedicure and facial. And another lady gave us a calming body hour-long massage. We felt like royalty after the four-hour session. But, this wasn’t the last of it. We got another hour-long massage in Saigon for $10! I’m sure there are cheaper places that are just as good, though.

We definitely got star treatment in Vietnam. Although, I was afraid of everyone despising me because I cannot speak Vietnamese, I was wrong. I had only one encounter with someone who was slightly prejudiced, but that happens even in America. As a Vietnamese-American, it was great to visit Vietnam as a tourist. But having a father who didn’t instill in me the Vietnamese culture and a mother who was adopted during the war and deprived of her Vietnamese culture, I feel that it would be even greater to learn more and more about the Vietnamese culture, not only for my generation, but for the next. This is not the last you will hear about Vietnam from us. We will go back soon to discover more about the culture and its people, not only for my sake of knowing more about where my family is from, but for the next generation.





Attempting to Learn about Vietnam’s Past

21 02 2010

Aside from all of the hustle and bustle of the Saigon, the city has a history that not many know about. Like I said, we learn one side of the story in history class. We learned that the Americans were trying to save the South Vietnamese from becoming a communist country controlled by the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong. But, little did we know how torturous and gruesome war can be, until we went to the War Remnants Museum. The pictures they had on display tell the story of how horrible the war was a how it destroyed parts of Vietnam and its people. They were held in prison camps and exposed to Agent Orange, one of the most dangerous dioxins. The U.S. Army used this dioxin to get rid of the trees and shrubs in rural South Vietnam. Little did they know that it not only caused disabilities among American soldiers, but also thirty years after the war, Vietnamese babies are still being born with physical and mental birth defects. It’s a tragic reality. We actually saw a baby with physical defects that was probably a result of Agent Orange.

Propaganda against the Vietnam War

We also learned about another reality of Phu Quoc Island. Two days before going to the beautiful beach, we learned that the South Vietnamese government with the help of the U.S. Army kept a prison camp on the island, where they would torture and kill the Viet Cong in tiger cages and much more. Tiger cages were a box made of barbed wire. The Viet Cong were forced in these, sometimes three or four people at a time and they would pretty much bleed to death together.

Tiger cages that South Vietnam and the U.S. used to torture the North Vietnamese.

We have to learn these facts through museums and books. The war was really harsh for the Vietnamese, which is the reason why many don’t talk about it. Unfortunately, the younger generation, such as mine, has no idea what the story is behind how we are alive today.





Shopping Madness

19 02 2010

Sixty percent of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 30, according to business-in-asia.com. This interesting fact shows the youthfulness as a country and how Vietnam is one of the fastest developing countries. These characteristics of the third-world country are prevalent in the people. The Vietnamese people are so sincere, helpful, hard-working, kind and open to foreigners. It seems that they are much more accustomed to working with and interacting with foreigners. For example, a lot of the older men know how to speak English very well because they worked with Americans during the war. And a lot of the younger generation knows how to speak English because they interact with tourists from Europe, North America and other parts of the world. Because foreigners usually can’t speak Vietnamese, they communicate with English. I didn’t realize that English is really a language that everyone around the world knows a little bit of and uses even in countries like Vietnam. Surprisingly, the U.S. Dollar is accepted in Vietnam as well.

Vietnamese people will go out of their way to make you happy, especially if they are trying to sell you something and if you’re willing to give them a good price for it. For example, we bought tons of gifts and souvenirs from one lady in Ben Thanh Market. I asked for certain items that she didn’t have, so she went to the next store to get it for me. In addition, Randy bargains like crazy. His strategy is: the more you buy the more of a discount you get, which is true. Walking through Ben Thanh Market is madness. Women will pull you left and right to eat at their place or buy their items. But when we went to An Dong and Binh Tay Markets, there were no foreigners. All of these items are for the wholesale price. Hardly any bargaining can be done here. But, it’s still madness. People are buying things in bulk and lugging it out of the four-story market filled with people.





Good Morning Vietnam

18 02 2010

Being Vietnamese-American and going to Vietnam for the first time was truly a life-time experience, even if it was just for five and a half days. As we went through customs and the airport, we could feel the tropical climate and the hustle and bustle of a city trying to make something for itself. Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City is a city that is rising in tourism and as the world gets to know more of Vietnam’s history and culture, the more people will love it. The first thing that hits you when you leave the airport is the amazing amount of motorbikes! They come in all directions and it seems impossible to cross the streets. But, they’ll just go around you as long as you walk slowly. In addition to the massive number of motorbikes and their courtesy, the people are super nice, sometimes because they want to sell you something, but sometimes just because they are truly sincere and want to help you.

In a city of 7 million people, 3 million motorbikes pack the streets.

As for the food, if there is one word that describes Vietnamese food, it is ‘fresh.’ Everything from the pho, banh mi, seafood, coffee and che is full of flavors like lemongrass, pepper, mint and more. Vietnam’s history is something to discover more and more about, not only because of the war, but because this is where my family is from and where they have some story about the war. In school, we only learned about the Vietnam War, which is what Americans called it. We didn’t learn about the other side of the war that the Vietnamese call the American War. Visiting Saigon and Phu Quoc for the first trip to Vietnam was the right choice because of what we learned. I hope that you enjoy reading the next few posts almost as much as I enjoyed visiting Vietnam.

Like I mentioned, Vietnamese food is FRESH. It is filled with herbs, spices, vegetables, meat or seafood and their staple ingredient – fish sauce (nước mắm). I had fogotten how much I liked Vietnamese food. I didn’t realize how priviledged I was to have that type of food when I was younger, until now. I never knew what I was eating, I just knew that it was good. Now, I know what the food is called, but sometimes I don’t know what it’s made of. So, some of the information I get comes from the Internet.

I loved having pho almost everyday in Vietnam. Pho is a famous dish in Vietnam and around the world. It’s made of rice noodles in a beef broth, with your choice of how much bean sprouts, lime, basil, hoisin and sriacha sauce you’d like. They have chicken and seafood too, but beef (Pho Bo) is the way to go. Another snack or dish that I missed was Banh Mi, which is a baguette filled with thinly sliced carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, mayonaise and meat or tofu. It’s definitely a sandwich that was influnced by the French.

Vietnam's most famous dish, pho

Vietnamese seafood is the best in the world. Korean seafood is different because it usually has a kimchi taste to it. But I prefer Vietnamese seafood, which has more of a fresh, herb and black pepper taste. The best seafood in Vietnam is on Phu Quoc Island. The clams at the Night Market were amazing! The Vietnamese make a dipping sauce with shellfish such as clams, shrimp, prawn, crab and crawfish. The sauce is simply made of black pepper and salt with lime juice. It tastes perfect with shellfish!

Hot pot with baby shark, fresh vegetables and clam at the Night Market in Phu Quoc

Other dishes that are worth trying are Banh Xeo (the Vietnamese version of a crepe filled with fresh vegetables and pork), Bún thịt nướng (Vermicelli with grilled pork or fried spring rolls) and of course spring rolls, fried or fresh. Vietnamese coffee blows away other types of coffee. Its strong taste and sweet condensed milk stirred together and poured in ice make it the perfect drink for a warm morning or sweltering afternoon. But for an even more refreshing drink, try che. Everyone makes their che different. It’s usually made of red or soy bean in a coconut milk and crushed ice. Sometimes, it will have jellies, other fruit or some sort of custard.

But, one of our favorite eating experiences involved a bit of an adventure. Although this ‘restaurant’ is tucked away from District 1 and all of the other restaurants and hotels, this special chef is known for her homemade soups. She was featured on the TV show, “No Reservations,” with Anthony Bourdain. She is known as the “Lunch Lady.” It’s people like her who make the country a better place. She makes her culture speak through her cooking. She’s like a mother or grandmother who spends countless hours preparing a meal from love.

There was no exact address for her restaurant, which in Vietnam is sometimes outside with plastic chairs and tables and considered street food. But this street food was something different, with full service and the best soup in town. We had a small map that we found online and headed toward the area in search of this legend. As we got closer toward the area we asked a few locals where she was located and they knew exactly who we were talking about. Her stand was tucked away in a small alley. This was definitely off the beaten track. Her customers were everyday locals who crave the “good stuff.” This is the type of place where hardly ever see travelers. As soon as we located her stand, her face lit with a huge smile, welcoming us to sit down and try her food. She is an amazing woman who truly has a gift. Anthony Bourdain said that she was one of his favorite street vendors in Vietnam.

The Lunch Lady's Saturday Special - Banh Canh

She often puts a spin on traditional Vietnamese food making her own unique dish. When we went on a Saturday and she prepared a classic Vietnamese dish called Banh Canh. But instead of a pork-base broth she added her own spin with a crab-based seafood broth. The dish included fish cakes, succulent shrimps, thinly sliced shallots, onions, peppers, and a few quail eggs. Anyone who loves food could see the love that she put into this food.

This was one of the best dishes that we had in Vietnam. We highly recommend trying the Lunch Lady’s soup. If you’re limited on time in Vietnam, make sure you make time for the Lunch Lady. Just make sure that you get there after 11am and before 1pm. For someone being so famous, she charges less than 18,000 VND per plate, which is equivalent to $1 USD. Despite her popularity she refuses to raise her prices.





A Peak into the North and a Leap into Ice

29 01 2010

As if skiing for Christmas wasn’t enough snow, we went back to Gangwando province for more. The MOE (Ministry of Education) organized another adventurous trip to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and Ice Festival. They took us to the DMZ on the east side of the country. The DMZ serves as a dividing line and buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is 2.5 miles wide, which includes the Han River and some land, according to Wikepedia.

We’ve been to the DMZ on the west side, where the U.S. military is based and which is more dangerous because it’s easier for the North Koreans to enter because there aren’t as many mountains as there are on the east side in Gangwando. My good high school friend, Quentin Willard, reminded me of good southern hospitality and took us to Camp Casey, a U.S. Army base where we had Taco Bell! (They have McDonald’s and KFC everywhere in Korea, but not Taco Bell!) He took us to the DMZ, which had an eerie feeling because they had a small amusement park, the tracks for that train that took South Korean workers to the North to work and a few sights and memorials from the war, such a steam locomotive that had hundreds of bullet holes. He also took us to another observatory where we had a clear view of North Korea. Across the Han River, we could see a small village with just a few houses and no lights. This village was definitely a traditional North Korean village where they had no electricity or cars. They lived off of farming and hunting, while they could see the bright lights across the river in South Korea.

The other side of the DMZ was totally different. It’s located at a Korean Army base. It took a long time to get there because there was so much ice and snow. But it was definitely a beautiful scene when we got to the top of the mountain. This part of the DMZ wasn’t as commercialized because not many people go there. The mountains are too hard to get around, which is also the reason why it is not as dangerous as the other side of the DMZ. (So, why are the Americans on the more dangerous side?) The mountains can protect South Korea from the North. Although there are huge mountains on this side, the river is much narrower. Some native teachers, who we went with, said that they saw some North Korean soldiers on the other side. Both sides are definitely worth seeing if you get a chance. But, they also used to do day trips to Pyongyang, North Korea. They recently opened the borders to Americans. That would be an interesting trip. Click here to find out more.

Again, the MOE never ceases to surprise us. Because that was the first weekend of the Ice Festival, there weren’t any hotels in the small downtown area. So, we got lost in the snowy mountains trying to find our “hotel.” We actually stayed in log cabins with 20 other native English teachers. It was a blast! We got up early the next morning because our day was filled with being on ice. We were told that we would go ice fishing and fishing with our bare hands for freshwater mountain trout. They gave us the poles and string, but no bait. They said the fish don’t need the bait. We just had a small fake fish with a hook. It worked for some people who caught a fish. But some of us were just freezing our toes and fingers off. After warming up in a rest area, we had an appointment. There was a lot to see and do at the Ice Festival, including an ice castle, ice sculptures and games on the ice such as ATVing, ice soccer, ice skating, etc. But, we had to hurry because we had an appointment to go fishing with our bare hands! I had just realized that we were supposed to do the polar bear plunge and catch the fish!!! They gave us shorts and a t-shirt and we shakily walked to the pool area where others were sitting down, preparing themselves to be freezing. The announcer tried to warm us up to jumping into the freezing cold water, so he asked someone to dive in! A Korean man dove and then one of the native English teachers dove! He’s SCUBA diver, but the water was freezing cold. He did the count off. Everyone jumped in! But, Randy, two other native teachers and I took a few more seconds to have the courage, but we did it! I didn’t even try to catch a fish with my bare hands because all I wanted to do was get out of the ice cold water. While our toes and bodies are freezing, they led us to a hot foot bath. The water was extremely hot, it took a few minutes for me put my feet in all the way. After a while, we were all fine. Some teachers caught one fish, two fish and even three fish! But, needless to say, bare-hands fishing and polar bear plunging is a one-time experience. Thanks to the MOE, we can check that off of our list of things to do before we die – wait, that wasn’t even on my list!