Moving to South Korea: Experiencing a Seoul-ful moment

Travel

Moving to a new country, especially one like South Korea, where the native language is not English, isn’t easy, nor is it for the faint of heart.

Uprooting and upheaval are part and parcel with any move, particularly when the country you’re going to is wholly unfamiliar.

Sheer excitement upon arriving in South Korea

The transition will invariably challenge you, test your nerve, patience and moxie like never before. You’ll go through stages, the first of which being sheer excitement.

My excitement, upon touching down in Seoul, reached fever pitch. Eyes agape, like a newborn seeing everything for the first time, I had a new lease on life. The sensation was palpable, a feeling you have to experience to fully understand.

Alight and electrifying, these fireworks are the best way to symbolise the thrill and excitement with which we felt upon touching down in Seoul. ©

Alight and electrifying, these fireworks are the best way to symbolize the thrill and excitement with which we felt upon touching down in Seoul. © GP

The raw, natural high you feel upon commencing on a new adventure is like smoking your first cigarette. It is as powerful and addictive as it is fleeting.

A simple task becomes ever-more difficult

One of the first things we noticed is the difficulty with which the most simple of tasks are accomplished. Thinking we were adequately prepared for our first taxi encounter, we had the hotel’s address, name and phone number at the ready. The address, however, was written in English and having the hotel name was about as useful as watching Korean soap operas.

The taxi driver’s English was about as good as our Korean. We got lost several times. Irritatingly, he kept the meter running every time he pulled over for directions. There was no way to convey are growing frustration.

As you can probably tell, culture shock has most definitely set in. That, or I'm severely sleep deprived, jetlagged or on some sort of acid trip. I'll let you decide. ©

As you can probably tell, culture shock has most definitely set in. That, or I’m severely sleep deprived, jetlagged or on some sort of acid trip. I’ll let you decide. © GP

Elevated blood pressure and 13,000 won ($13) later, we arrived at our hotel only to be informed that we had travelled in a black cab, the rates of which are double that of other taxis. Maybe it was all part of an elaborate plan to con the westerners. If that’s the case, he deserves an Oscar.

Lesson learned. We hit the hay after two piping hot – both in spice and and temperature – kimchi jjigae (soups).

Although moving across the world is an immeasurably exciting endeavour, we found it near impossible to compete with Dave's unremitting enthusiasm, especially after being crammed into a suitcase for 20 hours. He's the most grateful of stowaways. ©

Although moving across the world is an exciting endeavour, we found it near impossible to compete with Dave’s unremitting enthusiasm, especially after being crammed into a suitcase for 20 hours. He’s the most grateful of stowaways. GP ©

South Koreans’ patriotism

In the morning both of us, enamoured by Seoul’s sites and sounds, stared out of our respective windows during the brief taxi trip back to Seoul Station. Most noticeable was the abundance of Korean flags. They were draped across buildings, used as lanterns and displayed on every street.

South Korea displays its flag everywhere, and in abundance. © GP

Koreans wear their country’s pride for all to see, their devotion and patriotism as abundant as kimchi.

The power cut stage – self doubt

The euphoric feeling, for first-time travellers, can last for weeks, even months. Well-versed, experienced travellers on the other hand can expect a short surge before entering the second stage, which I refer to as the power cut.

If you’re anything like me – which is a scary thought – doubts will inevitably will creep in. You might be thinking, “Have I made the right decision? Is it too late to go home? What have I done”?

Rest assured, this momentary doubt is normal. Of course, that’s going on the assumption my thought patterns aren’t entirely abnormal. Don’t let the negative murmurs get the best of you. Stay on course and embrace the challenges that will be indiscriminately tossed your way every day.

You’ll grow stronger, more confident and comfortable with your new surroundings each day. And soon, you’ll find yourself using chopsticks as if you were South Korean in another life.

 

Vietnam – a cultural wonderland

Travel

I had this preconceived notion, having just spent a week in Bangkok, of what awaited as I made my final descent into Vietnam, Thailand’s more regimented and orderly neighbour.

My presumptions, I thought as we queued for hours to get our pre-approved visas checked and re-checked, were right on the money.

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Initially it felt like my every move was being monitored by numerous guards, whose stoic, uncompromising demeanours matched their stiff, over-starched uniforms.

After escaping the restrictive confines of Tan Son Nhat Airport and subsequently haggled with numerous taxi drivers, most of whom resembled ravenous lions in search of their next unwitting prey, Vietnam served up an enriching cultural and unrivalled spiritual journey, dispelling all preconceptions.

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From Ho Chi Minh – formerly Saigon – to Hanoi, Vietnam is home to cities abuzz with life, metropolitans that never sleep and, at times, are unnervingly chaotic. But that’s precisely what makes them so enigmatically charming. Locals, even with a lack of material goods westerners hold to such high acclaim, are genuinely happy and welcoming.

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And unlike Thailand, its loud, obnoxious neighbour whose incessant house parties cater to every tourist whim, Vietnam extracts you from your comfort zone, challenging you to adapt and break completely free of routine. While at times frustrating – especially when attempting to communicate with locals who don’t know a word of English or very nearly being run over by countless scooters moving at breakneck speeds – you’ll be hard pressed to rival the enhanced sense of reward and accomplishment you feel at the end of every day.

And if you’re not a fan of the hustle and bustle, have no fear because Vietnam has some of the most majestic and picturesque rural and island retreats across the globe. Whether it’s Con Dao, a pristine, tranquil island 45 miles off the coast of Ho Chi Minh barely touched by the tourist foot, or the central highlands – the capital of which is Buon Ma Thuot – you’ll be able see a side of life intrinsically connected with nature’s raw beauty, enabling precious time to reflect, decompress and unwind.

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I’d be remiss not to mention Vietnamese cuisine. I’d suggest, if you’re an adventurous sort, to try anything locals eat as if you venture off the beaten track – which I highly recommend – menus will be as foreign a concept as you are.

Pho – pronounced fuh – is far and away the most popular dish. Eaten at all conceivable times, this filling, aromatic and nutritious soup-like concoction consists of herbs, chilli paste and fish sauce. It brims with lean meats and fresh ingredients, the infused spice perfect for sweating out a hangover and, like pretty much everything else on offer, costs less than a smile on a rainy day.

So if you fancy an incessant house party similar to the one’s Zac Efron hosts in the film Bad Neighbours, dance to Thailand and join the throngs of other party-goers, but if your keen on an unworldly and culturally superior sojourn venture to Vietnam.

They’re, however, neighbours – and not of the bad variety – so if both destinations tickle your fancy then jump to and fro and experience the best of both worlds.

Now excuse me while I devour a spicy bowl of pho.

Commuter scooter – a Vietnamese way of life

Photography
Savouring every morsel of her tantalising ice cream treat, this young Vietnamese makes the most of her afternoon scooter commute.

Savouring every morsel of her tantalising ice cream treat, this young Vietnamese girl, whose vibrant dress closely resembles the colours of a spaceship ice lolly, makes the most of her afternoon scooter commute.

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There is something incredibly soothing and peaceful about travelling on a train. And, no, I’m not referring to a city’s crammed subway or unventilated underground. Those types of trains are merely a means to an end, a necessary and unavoidable evil.

I’m talking about commuter trains that connect the world and, with the slightest gaze out onto the horizon, stimulate your mind and open your imagination.

Even though fully aware of the final destination, unless inadvertently hopping aboard the wrong train in a foreign land or finding yourself incapacitated by a drug stupor, you are forced to surrender control and let the tracks lead the way.

You  find yourself slipping into a state of comfortable helplessness. The tracks, as they cross bridges, slide alongside lakes and swerve ever so slightly into the distance, cannot be dictated to. The rhythmic pace at which trains zip down the track tends to settle even the most nervous traveller.

Powerlessness pervades while  barrelling down the tracks. Once you realise fate is out of your hands, sit back, relax and truly appreciate the undulating hills, meandering rivers, quaint towns, imperious peaks and memorising skylines that so often pass us by.

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