After our brief stop in Taiwan, we moved on to country #5 on our month long trip – Vietnam! This marked our entry to Southeast Asia, aka backpacker’s paradise. We instantly understood why so many budget travelers flock to the area. Everything is super cheap, the streets are bustling, and the culture is completely unique.
We had a few days in Hanoi, and we will always remember it for two things: coffee and motorcycles. (Tommy would also add banh mih sandwiches to the list!) They’re everywhere, in every variety imaginable!!! Hanoi was one of the first places we really wandered around, just trying local specialties and absorbing the culture, instead of focusing on the most famous attractions we could visit. Of course, we did check out a few of the main sights as well, but quite honestly our afternoons spent wandering from cafe to cafe were one of our favorite parts of the whole trip. Keep reading to experience this vibrant, crazy city with us!
After our short, activity-packed trips to Xi’an, Harbin, and Seoul, we were ready to slow things down a little. Luckily, we had 5 days to explore Tokyo! During our week in Japan, we were again amazed by how different the culture was from China despite their relative proximity. Almost everything about their lifestyle seemed the opposite of China’s. The streets and buildings were immaculately clean, and the people were always polite and orderly. No one was spitting on the street or trying to jostle their way into an already-full subway car. Instead of throwing their litter on the streets, the Japanese carefully tuck them into their purses or briefcases to be disposed of at home. And the toilets!!! No more filthy squat toilets for us! Instead, Japanese toilets gentle ambient noise when you sit down and are equipped with adjustable bidets and dryers. Such luxury. The only downside to Japanese culture was that we constantly felt like we were committing some unknown faux-paus, but who cares when everything is so clean! We took on Tokyo at a little slower pace than the rest of our trip, but still got to see a lot of this insane metropolis. Keep scrolling to hear about our highlights!
After Xi’an and Harbin, it was finally time for us to leave China! After spending the past 5 months in the same country, we’d forgotten how disorienting it is to deal with new language, currency, and cultural norms. We were a little embarrassed to not even be able to say “hello,” “sorry,” or “thank you.” Still, we were excited to dig into the new culture and explore as much as we could in our limited time. While the city of Seoul was amazing, the highlight for us was definitely our day trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA). This is part of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates North and South Korea. We learned so much about the politics between North and South, and came away feeling like we had just visited a part of current history – who knows how long the JSA and DMZ will be present, and what the future holds for the formerly unified country? Keep reading to hear more about this eye-opening experience, and to find out what else we did in Seoul!
“You’re going to Harbin? It’s very, very cold there!!!” We heard variations of this (and advice on what to wear) over and over again leading up to our trip. Tommy and I just brushed it off. “Oh, we’re from Minnesota. It’s very cold there, too.” Little did we know… Harbin seriously is next level cold. Our faces constantly hurt. We layered up like chubby Chinese babies for even the shortest journeys outside. Our fingers and toes were always a little numb. And yet, it was completely worth it – because we got to explore the magic that is the world’s largest ice and snow festival! In addition to this, Harbin has a unique Russian culture due to its proximity to the border which was really interesting to experience.
Xi’an is an ancient city in central China famous for its terra cotta warriors, Muslim Quarter, and historic wall that still surrounds the original citadel. We saw all this and more (read here), but what really stands out in my memory from this part of our trip occurred not in Xi’an itself but in a small town a short train ride away. There we completed “the world’s most dangerous hike” (a dubious, but catchy title) at Huashan (Mount Hua) and found ourselves stranded on top of the mountain with a night train to catch!