When we, as a nation, put our minds to something, when we truly choose to care about something, change always happens.Megan Rapinoe (quoting Ijeoma Oluo)
I want to start off by acknowledging the U.S. Women’s World Cup Team, nay, the UNITED STATES CHAMPIONS. Wow. What a proud and historic moment for the United States and for women in general. I still remember watching Brandi Chastain and the 1999 women’s team. This moment feels just as, if not even more, iconic and revolutionary given this moment in history. There are so many things to say about the statement this win makes and why it reverberates so widely both for me personally and also for our country. But I will say this: this team is a national treasure and I think (hope) history will acknowledge this moment as a true turning point in the journey towards gender equality. Also so fitting it came right after the July 4th holiday.
Now onto the past two weeks. WOW. So much has happened. I don’t know where to begin. We’re going to learn a lot of stuff together here. First off, the trans-Pacific flight over to Seoul was actually a lot easier than expected. It flew by. I watched a ton of movies and it really did not feel that long. Landing in Seoul was a trip. The airport was so clean and orderly, so calm and peaceful, it was almost eerie. I kept thinking, “This is not a real airport.” So already, I knew I was starting off on the right foot with that city. The four girls got to our Airbnb, which was a cute little spot in the Itaewon neighborhood (which Nicole tells me is kind of like the Brooklyn of Seoul), and then met up with Nicky and Dan for a traditional South Korean meal. This was Korean Silkie Ginseng Soup, or Samgye-tang. I LOVED this meal. What was so interesting was the chicken was a BLACK chicken (no idea this was a thing that existed) or Silkie, which was a little jarring at first to see, but once I tasted how good it was, my fears melted away. Also, the chicken was stuffed with rice and other goodies, which was so fun and different. However, the jetlag hit me hard at 7 PM and I almost fell asleep into my bowl (this was a constant theme throughout our first week in Asia).
The next day, we met up with Nicole, my friend from Gibson in DC who is originally from Seoul, and who happened to be there that week to renew her visa. What kismet! Nicole was an incredible tour guide and was so enthusiastic to share her city with us. Plus, it was so nice to spend some time together 4 months later on the other side of the world! First, we went to Changdeokgung Palace and the Secret Garden there. I learned SO much about Korean history from this tour and from Nicole. For instance, I had no idea about the sensitive nature of the relationship between Korea and Japan. I felt like such an ignorant American. I had no idea Japan occupied Korea before World War II. It’s interesting that as an American and, especially as a Jew, I know so much about the European theatre of World War II, but very little about the Asian front beyond Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nicole explained how so many political issues in Korea still stem from this time period. Really fascinating.
We then went for lunch at this great restaurant called Hangane Bulgogi in Insa-dong where we sat on the floor and ate a smorgasbord of yummy Korean dishes! We then walked around the Ikseon-dong neighborhood, which was probably my favorite thing we did all week. It is this cute neighborhood where they have taken traditional Korean homes and transformed them into a latticework of cool shops and restaurants. We walked around for a bit and had some coffee in this adorable coffee shop.
We then went to a really cool market and shopped around. We also got to meet and hang out with Nicole’s mom! We also walked down the river walk Cheongyecheon Stream, which for me was a super nerdy cool moment. I’m not sure how many of you watch the show Sense 8 on Netflix (if you don’t, you should), but there’s a really particularly emotional/iconic moment that happens with one of my favorite characters on this walk. Alex and I took a picture in the spot. So fun!
That night, we went to the Dragon Hill Spa. For those of you who have never been to a Korean spa, it’s an experience. Watch this. Or this. It’s like a Russian bathhouse, arcade, jail, and spa all mixed in one. Christina and Abby had never been before and I was super excited for them to have this cultural moment. You basically are naked the entire time you are in there, unless you’re in the common spaces where you wear essentially a prison uniform. There are all different types of saunas and baths. But the pièce de résistance are the spa treatments you can get there. You essentially lay down on a surgical table, completely nude, and another (almost) nude woman begins to scrub and exfoliate every inch of you. I mean every inch. They throw your limbs around like they are wet noodles. Then, they bathe you like you’re a baby. I freaking LOVED it. My skin has never felt so soft. I was really proud of the other girls for doing it. Not easy to be completely naked for such an extended, public period of time, and also, the scrubbing can really hurt (I think in a good way). They were troopers! We then hung out in the different saunas and baths and drank sikhye, which is a rice milk drink that was very refreshing and we tried the baked eggs (this was not my favorite, I’m not going to lie), which are both traditional things to eat/drink in the Korean spa. For those of you who have one of these near you back home (I’m looking at you DC, LA!), I highly recommend going.
The next day, we got up bright and early to go to the DMZ. For those who don’t know, the DMZ stands for the Demilitarized Zone. This is the border between North and South Korea that has stood since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Technically, it’s an armistice line, so the two nations are still at war. It has been called the most heavily militarized demilitarized zone and Bill Clinton called it the “scariest place on earth.”
Alex and I purchased a more expensive tour that also takes you to the JSA, or Joint Security Area, which is the UN portion of the DMZ where the armies from both sides meet and you can technically stand in North Korea. As a foreign policy nerd, I was SUPER excited for this. There was a special dress code, too. We had to have our shoulders covered and not wear any shorts or ripped jeans. Alex tried to cover her tattoos as much as possible. Sadly, when we showed up, we were told we wouldn’t be allowed to go because President Trump was scheduled to be there two days later and they were preparing the security for that visit.
Still, the visit was very cool. The first stop was at the northern-most train station in South Korea which was built with the intention of one day connecting it to North Korea and beyond (China, Russia, Europe, the rest of Asia). Unfortunately, this fell apart after the period of the Sunshine Policy was ended. On the second stop, we got to stand at a viewpoint and look into North Korea through binoculars, which was wild. It felt genuinely surreal. First off, the DMZ was so LUSH. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. I guess because humans can’t live there, the wildlife and vegetation has been allowed to grow untouched. Also, just being able to see North Korean villages was mind-boggling. We then walked into a tunnel that the South Koreans discovered in the ’90s that the North Koreans were building to get to their side, after watching a very strange propaganda video. All in all, just a very surreal experience. (I’m not posting all of the photos from this because it made me feel uncomfortable.)
On the way back, we heard from a North Korean defector. Her story and her journey of escape was fascinating. (I don’t want to put too many details here, but happy to discuss!) The moment I will never forget was that one man on our trip asked her if she felt the Western media portrayal was accurate of life in North Korea or whether it was exaggerated. She said life there is worse than even the Western media portrays it. That’s a horrifying thought.
When we got back, we walked around the Myeongdang district, which is the super trendy shopping district. There is also a fun food night market here. We finally got Korean BBQ and Bibimbap!! Yum. We also got these crazy tall ice cream swirls. We also explored the bar scene in our neighborhood, but once again, my jet lag hit me like a ton of bricks and it was off to bed.
Our final day, we did some more exploring. We went to the Bukchon Village, which is a historically preserved part of the city. All the houses are old-school Korean. It’s very pretty. It kind of reminded me of a Georgetown neighborhood, Korean-style. We also went to the largest palace, Gyeongbukgung. I decided I’m moving into a palace. That is my plan post-Remote Year. I will not be taking further questions at this time.
We went to the night market that night in Myeongdang, which is SO awesome, and I wish we had something like this in the states. What a nice way to just walk around, have nibbles of different foods, and enjoy the beautiful evening. A glorious last night in Seoul.
One funny quirk about Seoul: there are no garbage cans anywhere. It was so interesting. The city was SO CLEAN, but whenever we had any small bit of trash, there was nary a trash can to be found. I wonder if this was a bid to make people carry less garbage. Seoul actually recently made it illegal to give to-go containers to people if they are actually planning on drinking or eating in the restaurant. I saw very few people with plastic anything in the city, so this policy must really be working to have people be doing less take-out in general, and therefore less garbage in general.
The next morning, it was off to Hong Kong! I’ve been so excited for this. Hong Kong is one of those cities I’ve always been fascinated by but never thought I’d actually get to visit. Boy, it did not disappoint. Off the bat, I would like to say that Hong Kong reminds me a LOT of New York. If New York was also a tropical island paradise/beach town. The skyscrapers there are nuts. So tall and so MANY. (The most in the world). It’s also one of the most densely populated places in the world. Those of you who know me know I have a love-hate relationship with New York, and I think if I lived in Hong Kong, it would be similar. Amazing city to visit though.
First and foremost, it was really interesting to see the clash of the English and Chinese influences (again, foreign policy nerd alert). Here is a video giving an overview. For those of you who are not aware, Hong Kong was “leased” to the United Kingdom for 99 years from 1898-1997 after the Opium Wars, when it was technically handed back over to China. Although it’s technically under China, it was promised a certain level of autonomy under a treaty signed in the 1980s between the UK and China in anticipation of the 1997 lease end date. Under this treaty, Hong Kong was promised to run under a different system than mainland China for at least 50 years after the handover. It has its own legislature and judiciary. A lot of the culture is still so British. All the English announcements were in British. They drive on the left side of the road and sit on the right side of the car! Really wasn’t expecting that. The names of places are things like “Queen Elizabeth Hospital.” And it just felt VERY western and multicultural. But then, we were there during the anniversary of the transfer back to China, and there were celebrations and Chinese flags everywhere. Just as we were leaving, the newsflash came in that there were massive protests against China. People had actually stormed the parliament against a controversial extradition bill that would make it easier to extradite people to the mainland. All very intense and wild that it was happening right when we were there.
Our first day in Hong Kong, we went to Victoria Peak and took in the beautiful view of the harbor and the skyline at dusk. The next day, we joined a group of expats who rented a junk boat that took us all around the harbor. Fun to hear these people’s different stories for how they ended up in Hong Kong and only reinforced how international the city really is. We also went to Shake Shack this day, and they have a milk tea shake that was seriously life-changing. I’m obsessed with milk tea and it’s flavor and for this to be combined with one of my favorite American chains was just too much for my brain to handle. They need to bring this flavor to the US of A ASAP.
Our final day in Hong Kong we explored Lantau Island. We went to see the Big Buddha, which is the second biggest bronze Buddha statue in the world. We took a crazy long/high cable car ride (my scary thing for the month is complete) and some wild bus rides to get there. I genuinely almost vomited. As soon as we started trekking up towards the Buddha, it started to downpour. We were drenched. Then, as soon as we started our trek down, the skies cleared and the beautiful sun came out. Super fun. BUT, it was worth it. A really beautiful island and a really beautiful statue.
Our Airbnb in Hong Kong was… interesting. It was TINY. Only enough space for two beds and not much else (like our bodies or bags). It was right in the middle of all the downtown madness, and the building itself was rundown, but the apartment was clean, if not small. It was an interesting juxtaposition to be in Hong Kong after Seoul, which felt so clean and so orderly. Hong Kong was so loud, intense, messy, crazy. I was exhausted. Unfortunately, I had no energy to experience the nightlife there, but I heard from my friends it was really fun. Next time.
Hanoi/Ha Long Bay
Our final day, I was really jonesing to get to Hanoi already. By that point, it had been over a week of living out of my backpack and I was just ready to be settled and with the whole group. On the bright side, I now know my backpacking limit is about one week. Duly noted!
Hanoi is WOW. I’m not sure if you have ever seen a video about crossing the street in Hanoi, but let me enlighten you. It’s wild. There are a million motorbikes zooming past and you have to just step into the chaos and trust that they will not run you over. I feel like Neo from the Matrix trilogy. I’m not sure I will ever get used to it, but it definitely gets slightly less terrifying the more you do it (only slightly). There is also a TON of honking.
The food here is unbelievable. My favorite of the trip so far. Pho is one of my all-time top favorite foods (shoutout to my Delaware peeps, you know who you are!), so I came in with high hopes and boy oh boy, has it delivered. If I haven’t already gained weight on this trip, this month will surely do me in.
This first week, a group of us rented a house to celebrate the Fourth of July in an isolated place, since we were not sure how such a celebration would go down in Vietnam (shoutout to Alyssa for organizing!). I realized that this is probably the first Fourth of July I have spent outside the United States. It was a strange feeling. This was never a holiday that I thought I felt strongly about, but maybe because I took it so for granted. Especially living in DC for so many years where the celebration was so engrained. I was fine most of the day, but at night, it dawned on me we wouldn’t be seeing any fireworks or eating any burgers. I definitely had a sharp pain of homesickness/nostalgia/melancholy about it. It was strangely kind of nice. (Shoutout to Kaisa’s friend Sebastian who was visiting from Finland for these awesome pics!)
The next day, we left for Ha Long Bay. We took a bus, stopped at a pearl factory? (I learned a lot about cultured pearls I never knew). And got to the bay. We took a smaller raft to our bigger boat. Our first day, we got to go kayaking around the bay. This was pretty comical. I have never actually done real kayaking before, and neither had Nandita. The two of us in our kayak were definitely behind the pack, but the important thing was that as hard as it was, and as slow as we were, we completed it. It also provided beautiful views of the scenery and the water.
Ha Long Bay in general is not to be missed. It was stunning and I am nervous to think about what it will look like even a few years from now with all the tourists coming through. Every night the boat picks up and drops off more people, so there is a constant churn of new groups of tourists and SO. MANY. BOATS. But honestly, the scenery is breathtaking and frankly looks fake. It’s stun.ning.
That night, we got a cooking class on the boat and afterwards went to the top of the ship to watch the stars. This was super. I know some people are used to being able to see bright stars in the sky, but I am not. It is consistently amazing to me. I definitely had a pinch myself moment. Ha Long Bay is another place, like Hong Kong, that I was always fascinated by, but given my life circumstances and general apprehension about everything, I figured it was place I would never lay my eyes on. So I definitely had a moment where I realized I was there and it was happening. Just pure gratitude for this opportunity and the people I am sharing it with. Whew, got a little emotional there.
The next day, we got up early to do a little cave/beach exploring. More stunning views of all the beautiful rock formations. All-in-all a wonderful experience and one that I highly recommend to anyone visiting this neck of the woods. (Beware, a massive photo dump is happening and I’m not sorry about it…)
In closing, I have been in a constant state of childlike wonder since landing in Asia. (P.S. my fourth continent checked off! Hoping to be at six of seven by the end of the year!) My fellow Remotes have even commented on it. I find everything here exhilarating and exciting. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to channel this energy forward into my life when I return back to the States. There will come a time where I have to return to “real life” and deal with the (sometimes) mundane drudgery of day-to-day existence. As a Sagittarius, I have recently learned this is really soul-sucking for someone like me. I need constant adventure and “newness.” I’m trying to think about how to keep this momentum going once I’m settled in one place and not flitting off to a new country every month. Some ideas: spending less money on my rent/clothing/material objects, and saving more money towards experiences. These don’t have to be grand travel adventures, even just casual weekend trips outside of town or to another city to visit friends. This will help break things up but also keep me looking forward to new and exciting things while having a stable life. How to have the budget for this, you ask? Well, as I said, these don’t necessarily need to be extravagant international trips. But even so, I plan to live with roommates or family upon my return, I plan to drink/go out less, and I plan to really be quite sensitive to my costs, as I have learned to do on Remote Year. I think there are really healthy ways to save/have money to spare even on a non-corporate lawyer salary. I just have to line my priorities up right.
Open to any other ideas on how to keep things fresh and exciting for those who get bored easily by routine.
I’m also going to make a concerted effort in the coming weeks to really spend time with those on my trip whom I haven’t been able to get to know as well yet. (Polarians, if you’re reading this, you know what to do.) I definitely don’t want to have any regrets when looking back on this year and thinking, “X was such a cool person, I wish I had gotten to know him/her better.”
On the flip side, I’m having a ton of angst about October, which is the month I’m planning an adventure for myself. I am nervous about the prospect of traveling completely solo, not for safety reasons, but because I am such an extrovert. I have solo traveled before, and to be frank, I really didn’t like it. After day two, I was ready for others to experience it with and to have conversation with. But who knows, that was a long time ago, and I was very different then. I am also going to try to structure my plans with that in mind and perhaps try to stay in places that are more conducive to meeting people. Again, open to all suggestions!
If you’ve read this far down in my babble, thank you. I see you and appreciate you! Stay tuned for more from Asia.
P.S. My friend Abby has a YouTube channel where she is posting video highlights of all of our experiences so far. Make sure you check her out to check up with us and also to see appearances by yours truly. 🙂 Her video about our Passover seder will be up soon!
Click here to subscribe to her channel so you don’t miss out.