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What we learned from our amazing trip to Korea!

 

Why Korea?

To travel is to learn, and Korea was always on our bucket list! It was our 8th country to explore together! Now, Tien, being a screenwriter, drew immense inspiration from those captivating Korean dramas. She always admired the skill of Korean screenwriters, and that’s one of the reasons Korea lured us in.

We all know that Korea has this irresistible charm that’s been drawing tourists like crazy, thanks to the Korean wave. We have so many friends from Vietnam who have traveled to Korea, but mostly on tours to see Korea during the foliage season. Korea has also been a major foreign investor in Vietnam, so we were thrilled to experience the culture that had such a significant influence on our home country.

But here’s the kicker. Getting our visas for Korea was quite an ordeal. It was the first time we had to invest so much time and effort into the application process. Tien, being a freelancer, made it even trickier as proving income can be a real hassle. But hey, determination paid off, and we got our visas approved in the end! It was a tight schedule, though, just 10 days from visa to flight, but we wrapped up our work swiftly for this exciting journey.

Now, here comes the “challenge” part. We spent 9 days in Korea, smack in the middle of July – right in the middle of the rainy season. Nearly all travel guides we read screamed in unison, “Avoid June and July, it’s miserable, it rains every day!” But, well, July was the only time we could escape our work commitments, so we decided to embrace the rain and make the best of it. There’s so much to share, but here are some highlights and things we learned from the trip.

The public transportation in Korea is beyond amazing!

As soon as we set foot in Incheon Airport, we wasted no time and got ourselves those mighty cute T-money cards – the ultimate travel hack! The card costs 4,000 won, and we had to top up an additional 20,000 won to start our journey. With our T-money cards in hand, we hopped on and off the subway system in Seoul like seasoned locals. And boy, does Seoul deserve its crown as the king of subways! It’s like a well-oiled machine, flawlessly connecting every nook and cranny of the city and even extending to some further satellite cities in the Seoul Greater Area. Getting around was a piece of cake, and we had a blast exploring all the vibrant corners of Seoul without spending too much money on taxis.

Comparing Vietnam’s transport to Korea’s, it’s clear: a city’s greatness rides on its public transportation. Korea, you set the standard high, and we loved every efficient moment of it!

Sure, we thought using public transportation would ease the walking load, but boy, were we mistaken! Seoul’s subway system is vast – with over 20 lines and hundreds of stations, each one having a labyrinth of exits and stairs. It felt like we were on an urban hike every day! On average, we logged around 15,000 steps a day. Whew! No wonder Koreans look so fit and healthy. Even the sprightly seniors in their 70s that we spotted in the subway put us to shame as they donned their hiking gear and headed to Bukhasan National Park for a weekend trek.

Walking became an unexpected but rewarding part of our Korean adventure. It kept us active and gave us a taste of the locals active lifestyle – probably making us hungry again so quickly. So, despite the unintentional workout, we’ll cherish the memories of strolling Seoul’s streets and embracing the energy of this vibrant city!

How Netflix Is Changing the Way We Find What to Eat

Like many Netflix aficionados, on the plane to Korea, we watched the Streetfood series, Seoul episode for food recommendations, and boy, did it lead us on a mouthwatering adventure! Our destination: Gwangjang Market, home to the legendary Knife-cut noodle lady. Even at a bright and early 10:00 AM, her once modest stall had transformed into a bustling hotspot, attracting a swarm of hungry tourists who had the same idea as us.

However, with our stomachs growling from a 10-hour food hiatus, patience was in short supply. So, we opted for the next best thing – a nearby stall just 10 meters away, offering the same knife-cut noodle as the Netflix lady’s noodle. It was a good noodle with clear and flavorful broth, we loved the noodle, it’s chewy and it was great to see how they actually prepared the noodles in front of our own eyes, but we couldn’t help but wonder if the Netflix-recommended stall would have been even better. Nonetheless, we felt it was essential to give some love to less-visited eateries.

It’s fascinating to witness the influence of food series like Netflix on travel and tourism. While these shows can introduce travelers to unique local dishes, they may also contribute to overcrowding in popular food spots, affecting the authenticity and atmosphere of these places. It was a very mixed feeling visiting the Gwangjang Market. 

How Korea Is Trying to Bring Nature Back to the City
We had the pleasure of joining Mr. Kim, a spry 70-year-old, on a walking tour to explore the Cheonggyecheon Stream. Mr. Kim, a retiree at 65, three years of idle boredom followed, until he stumbled upon the opportunity to become a tour guide, and he’s been loving it ever since.  Despite his limited English, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the stream, soaking in its beauty. It’s remarkable to think that this wasn’t the original stream, but a revitalization project that reclaimed space from slums and motorways, transforming it into a serene public oasis. The government’s determination to bring nature back to the heart of the city came with a hefty price tag, but seeing people of all ages relishing this urban sanctuary made it all worthwhile.

The Han riverside in Seoul is simply awesome!

Nearly every big city in the world has its own river, like the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City, the Red River in Hanoi, the Huong River in Hue, and the Han River in Da Nang. But what sets Seoul apart is how they’ve transformed the Hangyang riverside into a vibrant hangout spot for its citizen. It’s like an urban oasis where people can escape the hustle and bustle of city life and unwind.

We went to a riverside park on a beautiful afternoon seeing people sitting on the grass, enjoying instant noodles from a nearby 7/11, or having fried chicken and a chilled Cass beer delivered right to your spot as the sun sets over the river and the river breeze on your face. It’s the perfect way to forget the worries of the day, all the Zoom meetings, and deadlines and just embrace the moment. Seoul’s urban development has nailed it when it comes to creating these awesome public spaces.

Tien, especially, loved a small pond nestled among towering buildings in the banking district. We joined the locals, taking off our shoes and strolling knee-deep in the refreshing water. The cool breeze added to the blissful experience, and for a moment, we felt like we were in our own little paradise.

We had been living in the huge city of Saigon for 10 years, it sometimes can be overwhelming and stressful but when you have such inviting public spaces where all the traffic noises are so far away, it changes the game. The Hangyang riverside was a true highlight of our trip – a place where the city’s heartbeat merges with the serenity of nature.

Palaces, Korean Dramas, and the Integration of Culture in Tourism

If you ever find yourself in Seoul, visiting at least one of the five palaces from the Joseon dynasty is a must! These historical gems, standing strong for five centuries until the Japanese invasion in 1910, offer a captivating glimpse into Korea’s rich past. Tien and I, avid fans of Korean dramas set in the Joseon era, were beyond thrilled to explore Changdeokgung and Gyungbokgung Palaces. As we walked through the corridors and courtyards, we couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe, knowing that these were the very places where kings, queens, and concubines once lived and loved and where all dramas happened around. History came alive before our eyes, and it was an experience we’ll cherish forever.

Between the two palaces, we like Changdeokgung despite being built as a backup during emergencies, its value in history was undeniable and the great harmony between the architecture and the surroundings, led it to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

But the charm didn’t stop there. It was great to see visitors dressed in Hanbok, the traditional Korean attire, roaming the grounds. They even enjoyed free entrance – a brilliant way to integrate cultural elements into tourism. Korea’s approach to embracing its traditions and making them accessible to visitors truly impressed us. It got us thinking about how Vietnam could follow suit, perhaps granting free entrance to those wearing our beautiful Ao Dai while exploring the imperial city of Hue.

The Korean War Still Has a Huge Impact Today

As a history enthusiast, one of the most compelling aspects of my Korea trip was delving into the Korean War’s huge impact on the nation’s daily life. Stepping into the War Memorial Museum, I was immediately struck by Korea’s earnest effort to share its history with the world. The museum’s vast size and modernity were awe-inspiring, presenting a wealth of information in a simple yet comprehensive manner. What truly impressed me was the fact that entrance was entirely free – a testament to Korea’s commitment to making its culture and history accessible to all. It spoke volumes about their long-term vision and dedication to education.

Inside, the exhibits meticulously recounted the fighting against North Korean Army in the 1950s.

The section honoring the countries that sent troops to aid South Korea showcased a deep sense of gratitude, particularly to the United Nations army led by the US. As I explored, I learned about Korea’s ongoing concerns regarding its Northern neighbor, leading to compulsory two-year military service for all men. This practice serves as preparation for the potential worst-case scenario, a stark contrast to Vietnam’s two-year military service, which isn’t obligatory for all males.

The visit also got me thinking about how deep reliance on the military and the gratitude South Korean feel towards the troops that once stood by their side, did this dependence might have contributed to Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War? Maybe.

Ah, the Starfield Library – an unexpected detour in our Seoul adventure!

Our initial plan to hike Bukhansan National Park got washed away by heavy downpours, so we decided to explore the indoor much-hyped Starfield Library instead.

As we approached the crowds, we were taken aback by the sight of colorful books stretching from floor to ceiling, beautifully illuminated – a true bibliophile’s dream. But here’s the twist. As we ventured upstairs, getting closer to the shelves, we made a shocking discovery – all the books were fake! Empty cardboard boxes masquerading as books, with clever designs and dimensions to create an awe-inspiring visual. It was quite a surprise! Sure, there were a few real magazines scattered around, but the rest were merely picturesque props for the perfect Instagram shot. It left us feeling a bit underwhelmed, as we had hoped to immerse ourselves in a genuine library experience.

Nonetheless, we made the best of it. We took some photos, enjoyed the beautiful decorations, and used the library as a place to rest after a long subway ride. It was undoubtedly a lovely spot, but perhaps it suits others better than us, the bookworms craving a real literary feast.

In Korea, hiking is almost a national identity

We are both avid hikers, with a deep love for mountains. While we don’t consider ourselves mountaineers, we enjoy embarking on short treks and hikes on our own. In the last few years, we had the incredible opportunity to trek in the Himalayas – one in Nepal and the other in India. During our Annapurna trek in Nepal, we noticed an interesting sight at every tea house we stopped – Korean flags proudly hung everywhere. It became apparent that hiking is immensely popular in Korea, so naturally, exploring some treks in Korea became a top priority for us.

During our nine-day adventure in Korea, we embarked on two wonderful treks – one around the Namsan Tower in Seoul and the other being the mesmerizing Igidea Coastal Walk in Busan. Both trails were beautifully designed and left us in awe of Korea’s natural beauty.  The Igidea Coastal Walk, with its 4 km stretch along the picturesque coast, embraced by a serene pine forest and the vast ocean, undoubtedly became the highlight of our Korean trip. Throughout our journey, we were amazed by the countless aunties and uncles in their 70s, clad in colorful trekking gear, confidently hopping on and off the subway to access the mountains. It’s no wonder that Korea ranks among the top countries with the highest life expectancy – their love for hiking and a diet enriched with kimchi contribute to their active and healthy lifestyle.

Gamcheon Cultural Village: How a Slum Turned into a Tourist Magnet

The Gamcheon Cultural Village – a name that initially puzzled me. What exactly does it mean? I soon discovered that it’s a place crafted for tourism, but as I explored its winding streets and learned about its history, I came to truly appreciate the vision behind the project.

This village was once a hilltop refugee camp, providing shelter to tens of thousands during the Korean War. Busan, being the only region not captured by the North Korean Army, offered hope and safety to those seeking refuge. However, in the years that followed, Gamcheon became a major challenge in the city’s urban development plans. But then came a brilliant idea – to transform the entire village into an artsy wonderland adorned with graffiti, murals, and art installations, all designed to entice tourists and create employment opportunities for the residents. It’s amazing to witness how a former slum was revitalized into a vibrant cultural hub.

Arriving early, ahead of the crowd, allowed us to enjoy a peaceful stroll through the village, exploring the small alleys, though it did involve quite a few steps. The artistic charm was captivating, and we marveled at how such a creative approach to urban development could breathe new life into the area.

Jeonju: A Nice Break from the City Worth Visiting

Jeonju, a charming city situated halfway between Seoul and Busan, pleasantly surprised us with its Hanok Village. Though it wasn’t initially on our itinerary, the looming heavy rain in Seoul led us to seek a quieter destination.

Despite the light drizzle in Jeonju, we eagerly explored the traditional Hanok Village. The Hanok architecture embodies the essence of Korean tradition, featuring small rooms surrounding a tranquil garden, adorned with a simple yet elegant interior. To fully immerse ourselves in the experience, we decided to stay in one of the Hanok houses. It was a delightful opportunity to live as Koreans did in the past before modern and comfortable houses began replacing these historical treasures.

As we wandered through the village, we were pleased to learn that the city initiated a project to preserve the remaining Hanok houses. Transforming them into accommodations for tourists allowed us to not only experience the local lifestyle but also support the community’s livelihood. It was great to see how up to 700 Hanok houses had been repurposed into various tourist services like souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars, breathing new life into these historic dwellings.

Recalling Hoi An, a place with a similar setting but even more historical significance, we couldn’t help but envision the possibility of creating a similar accommodation service, mirroring Jeonju’s efforts. If we could offer travelers the chance to stay in centuries-old houses and immerse themselves in the rich heritage of Hoi An, it would undoubtedly be a unique and cherished experience.

Final thought!
Our Korean trip was truly unforgettable, allowing us to delve deep into the rich culture, engage with its warm-hearted people, and uncover its fascinating history. We will definitely come back.

I'm a video creator, tour guide, coffee addict and history buff.

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