Korea: Full of Heart and Seoul

When I was just a baby, I was adopted from Korea for a new life in America. This week-long trip to Korea was my first time back in the country since I was five months old! And what better company to share this experience with than my mom and brother Dave? As luck would have it, our flights landed 10 minutes apart so we met at baggage claim in Seoul’s airport and made our way to the apartment we rented in Itaewon.

The next morning, we were all tired from our long travel day (especially my mom and brother) but we powered through and took a taxi to a Korean cooking class I had booked. Halfway there, I realized that I hadn’t booked it for that day, but for the next day – oops. We showed up to O’ngo anyway and they were so nice and accommodating they let us have a private cooking class instead – right then and there!????????Just like any good cooking school, our class started with a tour of the local market where we learned about traditional Korean dishes and ingredients. We walked back to the classroom kitchen to get started on our two dishes – bulgogi (thin pieces of grilled sirloin – literally translating to “fire meat”) and bibimpbap (mixed rice with vegetables).???????? ????????Our first order of business was to prepare the marinade for the bulgogi. We chopped green onions and garlic, minced an Asian pear and added black pepper, salt, soy sauce, sesame oil and a bit of sugar to the bowl of thinly sliced beef sirloin.???????? ???????? ????????While the bulgogi was marinating, we got to work on the Korean classic bibimbap. We blanched the bean sprouts and spinach and seasoned them to our liking and then pan-fried the carrots and bracken adding sesame seed oil and soy sauce to taste. A serving of sticky rice lined the bottom of a stone bowl while we added each of the veggies on top. The stone bowls were heated over fire and finally topped with an over easy egg. I mixed my bibimbap together so the egg would continue to cook and so the rice on the bottom would get nice and fried from the hot stone bowl.???????? ???????? ????????While the stone bowls heated, we cooked the bulgolgi meat with onions and mushrooms until everything was ready to eat. Both dishes were so delicious. Besides, it always tastes better when you make it yourself!???????? ???????? ????????Looking back, I think it was the best meal we had in Korea. The cooking class was a great introduction to Korean food and a great first meal together.????????We walked around the neighborhood after our amazing lunch and then were so tuckered out, we made our way back to relax at our Korean apartment. As if we didn’t get enough bulgogi during lunch, Chris and I had a huge order for dinner that night which was accompanied by tons of little Korean side dishes.???????? ???????? ????????The next day, we walked through Namdaemun, Korea’s oldest and largest market dating back to 1414, for more eating of course! The best were the piping hot Korean pancakes and dumplings but the hotdogs weren’t bad either.???????? ???????? ???????? ???????? ???????? ????????We walked to Namsangol, an old hanok village, to have a look around at restored traditional Korean homes. We were wandering by just in time to see the taekwondo exhibition. Check out those Korean ups!???????? ???????? ????????The next day was one of the most memorable moments I’ve had on our entire trip. My mom had arranged a visit to Eastern Social Welfare Society, the adoption agency and orphanage which cared for me while I was going through the process of being adopted. We met the post-adoption agency manager, Jeon, who gave us a tour of the welfare society.

We were all a bit overwhelmed when we entered the hallway which led to three large rooms full of 80 adorable Korean babies waiting for foster homes and/or to be adopted. Each of the rooms had bassinet after bassinet after bassinet and each one was occupied by a beautiful baby. We first entered the infant room and although there were about 25 infants in there, every single one was sleeping. The woman watching over them in the room was a miracle worker! After a few minutes, a few woke up and we were able to hold them, feed them and put them back to sleep. We have some really sweet (and heartbreaking photos) but have agreed not to post them to protect the babies’ privacy.

We walked to the next room where the babies were a few months older. They were absolutely adorable. Space in the room is tight and some of the babies were doubled up in cribs but every single one of them looked well cared for. Leaving the lone woman there to care for all of the babies was so hard!

We walked around a nearby university campus neighborhood and then Chris and I spent the remainder of the day at Changdeokgung Palace which was home to one of the historic Korean kings.???????? ????????The next morning, we checked out of our apartment in Itaewon and made our way to the War Memorial of Korea. Inside the museum were displays, replicas and artifacts from every war Korea played a role in. There were also hundreds and hundreds of Korean children visiting the museum that same day. Every school is Seoul must have been at the museum!???????? ???????? ???????? ????????When my mom was first planning on meeting us in Korea, the welfare society said that they would be able to arrange meetings with my foster mom and even my birth mom if we were interested. I decided that the experience may be a little heavy and thought that it would be nice for my first trip back to Korea to be focused on learning more about the country and culture so we declined the offer. Well, after our time at the orphanage, I couldn’t stop thinking about those few women taking care of all of those babies. There was literally one lady for every 25 babies and they were all so well taken care of. After seeing the love, patience and kindness of the women, I felt like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to thank my foster mom for taking care of me. I emailed Jeon from the welfare society to see if it was too late to arrange a meeting with my foster mom and luckily, it wasn’t!

So after the museum, we all went back to the welfare society where my foster mom was waiting to meet us! Her name was Ms. Lee and she was the coolest elderly Korean lady ever. Jeon acted as our translator and we sat and chatted with Ms. Lee for a good while. In addition to taking care of her own three sons, Ms. Lee has taken care of 60 orphaned babies in her lifetime, myself included (for five months before I was adopted to the U.S.). She is an angel! Ms. Lee is getting older so I’m so grateful that we were able to spend time with her and thank her for taking such good care of me.???????? ????????For our remaining days in Seoul, we moved into a hanok, a traditional Korean house, in the neighborhood of Insadong.????????We booked our stay on Airbnb and our host Alice was so sweet and her home was so cute and comfy. My mom loved learning about Korean life through Alice so it worked out perfectly for her to stay at home while Chris, Dave and I went to the DMZ the next day.

The DMZ, or demilitarized zone, is the four kilometer buffer on the border of North Korea and South Korea. If you can believe it, tours run to the JSA or Joint Security Area which is the only place that North Korea and South Koreans hold meetings together and is heavily guarded on both sides.????????We met at a fancy hotel in downtown Seoul and hopped aboard a bus to the DMZ. As we started to head north towards the border (just 40 kilometers from Seoul), our tour guide goes through the list of security precautions. “No pointing! No talking! No cell phones! Stay in line and no running! If you run, North Koreans shoot you! Smile because North Korean soldiers will be photographing you!” The debriefing really got the blood pumping…we were excited!

We reached the South Korean military base closest to the border where we were transferred to a military guarded United Nations bus. The bus pulled up to a large building which we walked through in two perfectly even lines. We exited through the rear of the building and there we were, standing in front of North Korea! The blue buildings belong to the UNC (United Nation Committee) and the gray building belongs to North Korea. Just standing there, you could really feel the tension.???????? ???????? ????????The area is heavily patrolled with military guards who all take watch and face North Korea. We were told it that it wasn’t likely we would see any North Koreans because they usually just hide behind the blinds and take pictures but we were lucky because we saw one standing on the stairs of the North Korean building! He stared at us through binoculars the entire time – very exciting!SONY DSCWe then entered one of the blue UNC buildings where conferences and discussions take place between the two countries. Because the UNC building straddles the border, you can step foot in North Korea! The last photo of me is when I was on the North Korean side. You can see the concrete slab that serves as the actual border from the window.???????? ???????? ????????The remainder of the tour was sombering as we learned about the living conditions in North Korea and were taken to a few memorials where varying “incidents” have occurred between the countries. After the Korean War, many Korean families were separated. There isn’t any communication between the two so bridges are often covered in prayers for their loved ones.???????? ????????The following day was our last full day of our round-the-world trip! We started by walking through the streets of Gangnam, the fashion capital of Seoul, where we sat and people watched from the local coffee shops. And while in the famous neighborhood, we had to break it out Gangnam-style!???????? ????????In the early evening, we went for a short hike to the N Seoul Tower for 360 degree views of the city. The city is incredibly vast and extends as far as the eye can see in all directions. We visited the observatory at the top of the N Seoul tower and were able to see the city at night – a real beauty!???????? ???????? ???????? ????????Chris and I made one last stop in Korea. Our cab dropped us off in the neighborhood of Insadong where we planned to meet our friend Joonshik whom we met on our overland trip in Africa. Joonshik and his girlfriend Insun met us for a bowl of ‘dongdongju,’ a traditional Korean liquor which you ladle into cups, and a Korean pizza (seafood pancake).???????? ???????? ????????We went to two more bars in Seoul, one that was underground and the last was a rooftop for some local Korean brew. It was so good to see Joonshik and meet his girlfriend.????????After visiting 26 countries around the world, we couldn’t pass up the chance to go back to my motherland! It was so much fun to learn more about my Korean roots and a great way to end our round-the-world trip. I don’t know when, but I know I will be back to visit Korea!

Wow – after nearly a year on the road, our round-the-world trip comes to an end! Although our international travel is over for the moment, we still have a couple of weeks left to travel across the U.S. Coming home is incredibly bittersweet. We have a lot to look forward to as we integrate back into American life, especially seeing our friends and family, but we will definitely miss the life we’ve grown accustom to over the past year.

It’s been a wild and crazy journey and we feel very blessed for the entire experience. I cannot think of a better way to spend our first year as newlyweds! Thanks for everyone’s love and support over the past year. We’ve had an incredible time and are ready for our next adventure to unfold!


Central Vietnam: Hue and Hoi An

After an uneventful overnight train from Hanoi, we arrived the next morning in Hue (pronounced “Hway,” not “Huey”). We checked into a guesthouse and were off to explore the Citadel – a compilation of war monuments, relics, and government buildings from the former imperial city. We neglected to bring a guidebook or to research much about the Citadel so the extent of what we can share about the experience is the few photos below.DSC00608 (1024x681) DSC00636 (1024x681)The next day, we rented motorbikes to see the outlying sites around the city. This was Andy’s first time on a motorbike and he was a natural! We devised our own motorbike route and passed a village that made incense on our way to our first stop.???????? ????????We dismounted our hogs at the Tomb of Tu Doc. Tu Doc was an emperor from the 1860s who had 104 wives but no children (lucky or unlucky?)! It was interesting walking around the grounds, but it was so hot and humid outside that we decided to forego our next stop at another tomb to enjoy riding around the backcountry on our motorbikes (by far the best part of the day).????????Our last and favorite stop was Ho Quyen, an old combat arena used to fight elephants against tigers. The elephant is a sacred symbol in Asia so the tiger’s claws and teeth were often removed to guarantee the elephant’s victory. The pictures we took aren’t great because we could only look at the arena through the closed gates so you’ll just have to use your imagination of what a fight would have looked like back then.???????? ????????Our guesthouse was in close vicinity to some of the coldest beer (less than 25 cents a glass) and the most delicious pho bo we’ve had in Vietnam. The beef noodle soup was so fresh and served with hot doughnut-like pastries. So so good!

After two nights in Hue, we took a hot and mosquito-ridden bus to Hoi An. The plus side was the pretty scenery along the way.????????Hoi An is HOT so we splurged on a fancy guesthouse with a swimming pool on the outskirts of town for $10 per person a night. The pool, free bicycles, breakfast buffet, swanky marble bathroom and freezing air-con made it well worth it for the next four days.

Hoi An beams with vibrant colors of daily life. Local markets, street hawkers, custom tailor shops and restaurants line the streets. The downtown area is so quaint and pretty you can’t help but fall in love with the small riverside city.???????? ???????? ???????? ????????Even at night, Hoi An sparkles. Lanterns in the trees, along the bridges, streets and even in the waterway light up to make the town glow.????????Hoi An is also where we’ve found the cheapest bia hoi to date – 3,000 Vietnamese dong buys you a fresh glass of beer.  The exchange rate is about 21,000 dong to 1 USD so one beer would set us back less than 15 cents.???????? ???????? ????????Almost every day we stayed in Hoi An, we’d take the free bikes from our guesthouse and ride down the street through fields of rice paddies to the local beach. The ocean water from the South China Sea was warm and perfect for swimming. Aside from the faint mountains in the background and cute circular fishing boats, it seemed to resemble the beaches in North Carolina, especially Carolina Beach.IMG_1188 (1024x768) IMG_1198 (1024x768) IMG_1205 (1024x768)On our last day in Hoi An, we were picked up from our guesthouse by Secret Garden Cooking School for a private Vietnamese cooking class. DSC00814 (1024x681)Our guide, Loan, took us to the daily market to teach us about local Vietnamese fruit, spices and to tour the chaotic fish market. We took in our surroundings and watched as live snails and crabs tried to escape while eels swam in shallow bowls of water. Squid, shrimp and fish of all shapes and sizes were available for sale.???????? ???????? ???????? DSC00797 (1024x681)We walked back to the Secret Garden restaurant where our class was held and met our chef, Cuc, who has worked at Secret Garden for more than 10 years. Loan and Chef Cuc explained all of the vegetables, herbs, spices and ingredients we would be using. DSC00818 (1024x681) DSC00825 (1024x681)We sliced and diced garlic, shallots, shrimp, pork, lemon grass, carrots, lime leaves, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes into very fine pieces to bring out their individual flavors. DSC00809 (1024x681) ????????The first dish we started was a marinade for the chicken we would grill. The marinade was made of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper and tumeric. We set it aside to marinate while we worked on the other three dishes.DSC00831 (1024x681)DSC00830 (1024x681) DSC00834 (1024x681)We moved on to the fish in banana leaf dish. We started with whole pieces of mackerel and Andy added the same spices used in the chicken marinade as well as fresh chilis and wood ear mushrooms. The tumeric turned everything a neon yellow color but it smelled so good! Chris helped wrap the concoction up in a fresh banana leaf for grilling.DSC00829 (1024x681) DSC00828 (1024x681) DSC00832 (1024x681)Next, we worked on braised eggplant in claypot. I fried each piece of eggplant as we added the spices, herbs, fish sauce, oyster sauce, tomatoes, onions and basil.DSC00836 (1024x681)The last and our favorite dish to make were the fresh spring rolls. We started with the spring roll filling which was comprised of pork, shrimp, wood-ear mushrooms, carrots, shallots and spices.???????? ????????The best and most interesting part was making the rice paper from scratch. The process starts with boiling a pot of water. On top of the pot is a stretched layer of silk. The liquid rice paper is ladled on top of the silk and spread into the shape of a circle. You put the lid on to steam the liquid for just a few seconds before peeling the thin layer of now solid rice paper off with a wooden instrument resembling a large hooked chopstick.???????? ????????We placed the fresh rice paper roll on a lightly oiled plate before adding the meat and veggie filling and proceeded to roll them up like mini burritos. We each had a turn at this process and each of ours turned out a little different. We added a bit of sauce for dipping, fried onions, fresh mint and lettuce before digging in. They were absolutely delicious! One of the best and most fresh spring rolls we’ve ever had.???????? ????????Chef Cuc and Loan fired up the charcoal grill for us to put the fish and chicken on. It’s been so long since we’ve enjoyed food off the grill – the anticipation was killing us.????????We were taken to our table for drinks and they brought the dishes we created hot off the grill. It was all so good and tasted so much better because we made it ourselves.DSC00879 (1024x681) ???????? ????????The Secret Garden Cooking School was a great way to end our time in Hoi An. We left with happy bellies, new cooking skills and a new appreciation for Vietnamese food. Our instructor and chef were incredibly kind and enthusiastic about teaching us. We would have liked a little more interaction with each dish but overall, it was a great experience. If you are ever in Hoi An, see if you can book a cooking class with Secret Garden or stop in to eat at their restaurant. It’s in such a beautiful location and the food is delicious!DSC00813 (1024x681)We enjoyed one last swim at our guesthouse before our transfer took us 30 minutes away to Da Nang, the next town over. From there, we caught an overnight train to Nha Trang for some more beach time!

Disclosure: We received complimentary cooking classes in exchange for sharing our experience at Secret Garden Cooking School. These views and opinions are completely our own.