Honja: Backpacking Through Asia, Part I


On January 8th, I sat with Host Mom and Ye Bin at the kitchen table, reviewing my itinerary for my winter break trip. I will be in this city, in this country, on this day, I said, pointing at the organized spreadsheet I had printed for them. These are my flights, these are my planes, these are my ferries. This is how you can contact me because I don’t have an international phone plan. Ye Bin nodded, listening intently, then looked in the living room.

“Where is your suitcase?”

I picked up a small hiking backpack that fit within AirAsia’s 7 kg carry-on limit. Ye Bin raised her eyebrows, probably thinking about the two oversized suitcases I had brought with me to Korea. But I decided to pack sparingly for my 27-day journey, hoping I would have just enough room for souvenirs.

Host Mom asked me in Korean when I was meeting my friends.

“No friends, just me.”

HONJA?!”  Alone?!

Maybe I shouldn’t have waited until the last minute to mention that. I could almost see Host Mom’s thoughts. She’s lucky she can get by in Korea–what’s she going to do by herself in southeast Asia?!

I’ll be fiiiiine, I assured her. Enjoy having some time away from me.

So I left. Honja.


I arrived in my first destination, Vietnam, mid-afternoon on January 9th. While I was in the taxi from the Hanoi airport to my hotel in the Old Quarter, I was reminded of my first trip to Florida when I was a little kid. The air was thick and humid, like walking through a cloud. The sky was still gray from the last thunderstorm. Palms trees lined the highway, swaying gently with the breeze.

Then, nestled among the palm trees and the street signs, I saw this:


And I remembered that I definitely wasn’t in Florida.

Of all the places I’ve traveled, Korea included, I never experienced as much culture shock as I did in Vietnam. I have visited a few countries, but most of my travels have been to urban areas in developed countries or to beaches in tourist-friendly areas. Depending where I was in Vietnam, I often thought I could have just as easily been in New York City, rural China, or North Korea.

It was the “North Korea” part that was most surprising. I knew, of course, that Vietnam is a communist country, one of the few that remains since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But I think the political presence, especially the omnipresent posters and banners with Ho Chi Minh’s face and the hammer and sickle, was so much more blatant than I expected. Propaganda exists everywhere, but the cult of personality around a political leader felt like a scene from 1984.

When I arrived at the bustling, chaotic Old Quarter, I stood at a street corner for a solid five minutes, trying to figure out how to cross the street to reach the hotel. There were no traffic lights. No crosswalks. It was like a giant game of rock-paper-scissors, except it was pedestrian-motorbike-car (I think the “rules” were that motorbike beats car, car beats pedestrian, pedestrian beats motorbike). Usually, the speeding motorbikes swerved around the pedestrians while the cars ambled down the road like slow, lumbering beasts. Eventually, I followed the locals and just started walking, but I wanted to close my eyes every time I crossed a street.

My sightseeing started the next day. Outside of the Old Quarter, I went on a walking tour and visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Presidential Palace, and the Temple of Literature. When I walked through the heavily-guarded mausoleum and saw the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the room was completely silent and the tourists were forbidden to take pictures. Although the wax-like figure lying in the open coffin was probably fake, the air of solemnity underscored the reverence that the Vietnamese had for their former leader. It was an interesting, though eerie, experience, and I was eager to get away from the unsmiling armed guards.

Though I enjoy visiting the major attractions of a city, my favorite part of traveling is going on walking tours and getting a sense of the local history and perspective. Listening to the Hanoi tour guide, I could hear how proud she was of her country and its history. It was fascinating to listen to her talk about hundreds of years of Vietnamese history, though when I looked at the billboards and communist banners on the street, it felt like Big Brother–or Uncle Ho–was watching our every move.

Before leaving the capital for central Vietnam, I took an overnight trip to Halong Bay on the northeast coast. I explored a cave, cruised around the islands, and visited an oyster farm to learn how pearls were harvested.


While on the small ship in the bay, I also met many other travelers from countries like Singapore, Korea, Germany, and Australia. Listening to the conversations around me, I realized that this was the first time I really saw English as a lingua franca. It wasn’t somebody speaking a different language to accommodate me–it was someone from Germany speaking with someone from Argentina, or a man from China speaking with a woman from Vietnam. I was reminded that although English has a controversial and sometimes unsavory history as an imperialistic language, it can also play an important and positive role in modern cross-cultural communication.

After I returned to Hanoi, I took a plane to Hue, where I visited several emperors’ mausoleums and the Imperial City, the former capital of Vietnam prior to French colonization.



The next day, I traveled to My Son Sanctuary and the city of Hoi An. My Son is the site of the ancient Cham civilization, which was known for its devotion to Hinduism. Think of My Son as the Angkor Wat of Vietnam. Many of the Hindu temples at My Son were destroyed during the war, and there were still deep craters from where the bombs fell. Some temples were restored or still fully intact, while others had been completely devastated. I realized that the further south I traveled, the more I would learn about Vietnam’s perspective of the war.

On a lighter note, Hoi An was only two hours away from My Son, and it was my favorite city in Vietnam. Tailors’ shops lined the streets, offering custom-made suits, dresses, and blouses. Shopkeepers sold conical hats, silks, lacquer-ware, and ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress. Hoi An had the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, but was much more pedestrian-friendly. Situated close to the river, the downtown area featured yellow buildings modeled after French chateaus, pink and green Chinese temples, traditional Vietnamese houses, and a bridge styled after a Japanese pagoda. The beautiful architecture was steeped in different cultures, each one with its own story of how it influenced Vietnam. I wished I had more than a day to explore.

At this point, I was about halfway through my trip to Vietnam. After my day in Hoi An, I took a flight to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City for my last few days in the country. Before exploring Saigon itself, I took another overnight trip further south to the Mekong Delta in order to see traditional agricultural life in Vietnam.


I visited farms that made rice noodles, honey, and coconut products, and I also took a boat ride around the Cai Rang floating market. The floating market had dozens of wooden boats, each with different goods to sell, including clothing, fruits, vegetables, and coffee. Local people would wake up early and ride their small rowboats around the river, visiting the larger boats and purchasing the goods they needed for the day. The merchants’ boats had high wooden poles where they would attach a sample of the goods they were selling. I saw onions, watermelons, pineapples, and t-shirts swaying high above the boats. I had never seen a market like this in Korea!

After this brief rural trip, I returned to Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam. Saigon’s towering skyscrapers and rushing crowds reminded me of the streets of New York City, but with motorbikes and communist banners. The traffic was almost as bad as in Hanoi, but at least there were traffic lights and crosswalks.

I spent my last two days in Saigon. On the first day, I explored on my own and went shopping for souvenirs for my host family and co-teachers. Here are a few pictures of Independence Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral, both heavily influenced by French architecture.

After spending a few hours walking around, I sat down on a nearby bench to check my map for directions back to my hotel. Less than a minute later, a young Vietnamese woman who looked about my age asked if she could sit next to me and practice her English for a little while. We spoke for about half-an-hour, and our conversation was the highlight of my time in the city. I learned that the young woman was from the countryside, a few hours away from Saigon. She was the oldest of eight siblings, and her family had worked in the rice fields for generations.  She was the first in her family to go to university, and she was studying tourism and English because she wanted to be a tour guide.

“But work will be hard for me,” she told me. “I am a woman. When I get married, I will be expected to take care of my husband and my family. That is what a Vietnamese woman is supposed to do.”

I have heard similar attitudes expressed in Korea, especially among my female students. The same is true of some communities in the U.S. and in many countries around the world. Living and traveling in Asia has given me a much broader perspective of women’s issues and the ways in which gender inequality manifests itself in different countries and cultures. Women’s rights still have far to go in most countries, especially developing countries like Vietnam and strict patriarchal countries like Korea. Listening to the young Vietnamese woman’s story, I felt a much greater appreciation for the family, friends, and mentors who have encouraged me to pursue study, travel, and a career, without regard to my gender. If I have some more flexibility in my teaching next semester, I would like to incorporate some of these issues, and especially encouragement for my female students, into my lessons.

For my last day in Vietnam, I took a walking tour of Saigon and a half-day trip to Cu Chi, the infamous Vietcong stronghold. This was, by far, the most emotionally draining part of my trip. I visited the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum, which was formerly called the Museum of U.S. Aggression–to give you an idea of what was inside. The war museum was filled with pictures of the aftereffects of chemical weapons, and each exhibit offered the Vietnamese history of the war. The most common words in the exhibits were “imperialist,” “aggressor,” and “agent orange,” paired with pictures of children and elderly men and women with life-altering deformities. It was difficult to watch.

Later that day, I crawled through a Vietcong tunnel in Cu Chi and saw the deadly guerrilla traps that caused the deaths of so many U.S. soldiers. I saw examples of the types of weapons each side had used against the other in a war that neither had wanted to fight. In fact, the little I learned about Vietnam in my high school history class focused more on the protests at home than the bloodshed on the battlefield.  It was an uncomfortable realization that I could tour a former war zone, in which so many of my own countrymen and this nation’s citizens had perished. It was also strange to realize that, as far as I could tell by the accents around me, I was the only American in the group. I didn’t talk much that day.

With the exception of the war museum and the tunnels, I encountered fairly little anti-American sentiment while I was in Vietnam. Several of the guides from my walking tours explicitly said that Vietnam no longer considers the U.S. (or any western country) a political or military enemy, but an ally. As I returned to Saigon from Cu Chi, the guide for the day said that much of Vietnam’s healing process in the years after the war came from Buddhism, a religion that preached acceptance and letting go of the past. But I know this dark chapter of history will never be forgotten by either the U.S. or Vietnam. I am hopeful for the continued healing of people affected by war, past and present, and that one day we can learn enough from history to not repeat the mistakes and violence of the past.

As I boarded the plane from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok, I thought of the last ten days I had spent traveling. This trip was one of the most thought-provoking experiences I’ve ever had, for it exposed me to different political and cultural views, as well as new perspectives of my own country. I think this trip has also given me a deeper appreciation for Korean culture and history because I have experienced a small part of another Asian culture–one that has taken a vastly different path over the last few decades.

In ten days, I traveled more than 700 miles from north to south–and I was less than halfway through my winter break. Luckily, I was going to travel at a much more leisurely pace for my two-and-a-half weeks in Thailand.

And for that, you’ll have to read Part II.



One thought on “Honja: Backpacking Through Asia, Part I

  1. Pingback: The Hanbok Saga – Janine in Korea

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