An Interesting Time to Travel

Wow, time goes by so quickly! I really need to start sitting down and writing these blogs out more frequently, or I’m going to start forgetting what we’ve done! I left off last in Vietnam with Sa Pa, we were heading down to the village of Tam Coc. After Tam Coc, we checked out Hue (pronounded hway), Hoi An, and Da Nang, before jetting off to Seoul, South Korea.
Tam Coc is known for it’s rock formations, rice farming, and picturesque boat rides along on the river. We spent two nights here, staying at a small family run “bungalow”, enjoying a boat ride, walking/biking around the narrow cobblestone alleyways and across rice field vistas, and out to a temple.

Boat Rides in Tam Coc, Vietnam

From Tam Coc, we had the grand idea to take the train to our next destination of Hue. It was the most convenient option, departing from the small town of Tam Coc. Even though the train seats were comfy and the views were beautiful, this is something I would skip next time and fly instead. It was supposed to be 10 hours, which is long to begin with, but ended up being around 12 instead, with all the delays and stops in between. Needless to say, I was tired of sitting by the end of the day. We spoke to one student who was heading back to university in Ho Chi Minh – 30 hours on the train! No thank you, but, it is an incredibly affordable way to travel. On the train ride we passed by mountainous jungle, small towns, and many farms. Coming from a state where farming is huge, the farms were the most interesting to see as everything appears to be done manually with little mechanical assistance. We saw many farmers using animals to pull a single plow down a row to ready the field to plant, then people laying seeds one by one down each row, then little children following behind and stomping the dirt down over the seeds with their feet. Quite a difference from the farming we see at home! I did see one tractor with specialized “wheels” churning up the mud in a rice field to prepare the planting bed, but that was about it for the modern conveniences of farming.
Once we reached our destination of Hue, we crashed since it was so late. The next two days we visited the Imperial Palace, spent time wandering the neighborhood we were staying, strolled the riverfront esplanade, and discovered a craft brew place owned by a friendly Californian. The Imperial Palace was an amazing place – we spent hours here wandering the grounds and gardens, enjoying the interesting architectural features of this ancient palace.

Riverfront Sculpture in Hue, Vietnam

From Hue, we signed up for a private car/tour to hit some sights along the way to Hoi An. The tour took us to a small fishing village, over the Hai Van mountain pass, to an old French/US military bunker, up to the Golden Bridge, and then to Marble Mountain. We had an English speaking driver, so it was fun to be able to talk to him about Vietnamese culture, customs, and just life in general. At the end of the day, he dropped us at our “Little Boss” homestay in Hoi An.

View of Da Nang from Hai Van Pass
At the top of Marble Mountain

Hoi An is a coastal town known for charming streets strung with hanging lanterns – fun to see during the day, but the beauty really comes out at night when they turn on the lights. Hoi An also has a canal running through it where you can take a lantern lit boat ride, and/or light floating lanterns to send prayers or wishes downstream. While the floating lanterns were pretty to see, we did not light one as I was torn in opinion on them because of the trash it leaves in the river in the end (not so pretty during the day when you could see what was left over).

Lady selling floating lanterns.

From Hoi An we transferred to Da Nang for our final three days in Vietnam. We stayed in an apartment here, just four blocks from the My Khe beach. My Khe beach might be better known to some as China Beach. What an interesting place. It was probably the cleanest place we had been in Vietnam, but was also very interesting because of all the construction going on – it appears they’ve torn down a lot and are putting in all new hotels, apartments and restaurants to cater to the tourist. Much of the construction seemed to be in progress, and we overheard an expat telling his friend that when he moved there 10 years ago, his building was about 90% finished, and now, it’s still just about 90% finished. We did a lot of walking here and enjoyed the last of the warm weather we’d see for a couple months as we were heading to winter in Korea and Japan.

Traveling during the Covid-19 outbreak has been really interesting, and a bit stressful. On an ironically good note for us in Vietnam, because they shut down the border to China and any flights coming from China, it felt like we had some cities to ourselves. We were told that places like Hoi An and Da Nang were usually so packed with Chinese tourists that you could barely walk down the street, and lines at tourist attractions would typically be hours long. Not so for us, we really “lucked out” in that regard. But, you can tell the lack of tourists is really taking its toll. We struggled with the decision to go or not go to South Korea. We were nervous about going there because they didn’t shut down all flights coming from China, just the ones from the “affected areas”, but when reading news about their preparedness, it all seemed like it would be fine.

We made it to Seoul!

Upon arrival in Seoul, South Korea, we headed to our apartment in the city center and went on with our plans as normal. Seoul is such a cool city! We didn’t really know what to expect, but ended up really liking it. It’s very modern, clean, has great public transport, and people are very friendly. It’s on the pricier side of travel, compared to Vietnam, but not out of control expensive. We wandered a lot, checked out the Seoul Museum of Art, the Seoul Sky Tower (we did the cable car one day, and hiked the hill another day), the Korean War Memorial museum, the Myeong-dong shopping district and night food market, and took a train out to a small town for a rail biking experience.

Korean War Memorial Museum
Senior Picture Time at the Imperial Palace Grounds
Imperial Palace Grounds in the Middle of Seoul.

We had wanted to take a tour up to the DMZ/JSA, but due to an outbreak of African swine fever, the JSA was closed until further notice (has been closed since October). I read that this isn’t something that can infect humans, but they are more worried about people carrying away the disease on their shoes. No need to cause an outbreak in another county or country! They culled around 160,000 pigs to stop the spread among the animals.

Speaking of viruses, throughout our time in Seoul, we really kept an eye on the Covid-19 news. This is where it became a bit stressful. Several days in to our stay, cases started to quickly multiply in Daegu, a city a couple hours south of Seoul by bullet train. We had planned on going there, but decided to cancel because they basically shut down the city. We could technically still get there, but 1) why risk our health, and 2) what’s there to do or eat when everything is closed? With the cases jumping by leaps and bounds every day, we made the quick decision to leave South Korea early, and forego Japan for now, since it didn’t seem like they had things much better under control at that point. We really struggled on where to go on such short notice, but we finally settled on Madrid, Spain – last minute flights weren’t terribly expensive, and it got us close to where we were going to go eventually anyway. We flew through Abu Dhabi and arrived here a couple days ago. We don’t know 100% where we are going after this, but most likely we’ll head down to Portugal for awhile. It feels like we are fleeing to get away from the virus, but in reality, I think it’s just a matter of time before the virus is everywhere in full force. Cases keep popping up in more and more countries and since international travel is so open, I don‘t think any countries will come out unscathed. We’ve only seen a couple of people out and about wearing masks here in Madrid, but that may change, who knows. Until then, we are just going to keep on keeping on. Washing our hands, using hand sanitizer, not touching our faces, etc. Seems to be working so far….keeping our fingers crossed!

Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Sending our love from Spain, until next time, stay healthy!