Getting attacked by squirrels in Central Park.

I was sad when I left Sydney. During my time there, I had made some really good friends. One in particular was my running buddy. Despite our cultural differences– she’s from Denmark, I’m from the US– we got along really well. It was one of those friendships that would last a lifetime.

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She wasn’t kidding. Several months ago, her family planned a trip to New York City this October. New York City isn’t too far from Boston, so I made a vow:

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And I, too, was serious. My friend gave me the dates that her family would be in New York. I booked the bus tickets. I could only visit her for two days, because school– but it was better than nothing.

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So that’s how I, Vy, was adopted by my friend’s Danish family for the weekend.

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And it was an interesting experience for all of us. I’m used to traveling out of the US and having to adjust to new cultures. Now, the roles were reversed. I’ve been to New York countless times since I was young. My friend has never been to the States before.

Watching someone from a different country react to the US with is highly amusing. In the hopes of sharing my amusement, I present to you…

MY DANISH FRIEND GOES TO NYC

And gets surprised by a bunch of things

 

1. Copious amounts of sugar.

Americans, for some reason, like to put extra sugar in just about everything. Other countries are not used to this. My friends were no exception.

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2. Jamba Juice.

Some foods weren’t as disappointing, though. When I met up with my friend, she enthusiastically told me about a great breakfast place her family went to.

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Sometimes I forget how many fast-food chains are only common in the US. I was expecting her to name some fancy, NYC-exclusive froyo shop, but no. It was Jamba Juice.

3. Times Square.

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4. Everything is tall.

My friend hails from Denmark and has traveled much of Europe. She’s seen a lot of cities. She’s even been to Sydney. But they don’t really compare to the skyscrapers of NYC.

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The scale of everything in NYC is simply bigger. She excitedly described to me some of the stores her family visited.

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I, the United States native, wanted to impress her even further. At the Rockefeller Center, I pointed out one of my favorite childhood stores.

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5. Everything is cheap (in comparison to Denmark).

By my standards, shopping in Manhattan isn’t cheap. I’m used to being in the ‘burbs, where the strip malls are plenty and the sales are season-round. In Denmark, though, consumer prices are sky-high. America seemed like a bargain basement to my friend and her family.

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They knew this would be the case, and came prepared.

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We all felt a bit bad for the men of the group, since shopping isn’t their thing.

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But, how often would these gals get to shop in the US? They took advantage of the opportunity.

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6. And finally, the squirrels.

My Danish friend and her family visited Central Park. Do you know that Pixar movie, Up? And the one character, Dug?

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It was kind of like hanging out with six Dug’s.

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I didn’t get it.

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My friend and her family even tried to unload their ultra-sweet Dunkin’ Donuts on the squirrels.

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But those cute little guys are feistier than they appear.

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Yep, it was a fantastic weekend. It was refreshing to see a foreigner visit my home country, rather than the other way around. Though I too had my own moments of surprise. We visited two locations in New York that I had never been to before.

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The next location was even more stunning.

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And, of  course, it was great to see my friend again. She’s the greatest! I swore to visit her.

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So, hopefully, we’ll have more of this happening in the future:

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Central Park!

Brooklyn Bridge!

Brooklyn Bridge!

Top of the Rock!

Top of the Rock!

Because some friendships can span continents!

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Screw castles, I want to live in a Vietnamese temple.

As my family and I traveled through Vietnam, we started to notice a theme.

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Buddhism is strong in Vietnam. Temples pepper the Vietnamese landscape with the same frequency as churches in Europe. These temples can reach the same vastness and elaborateness of churches in Europe, and they consequently draw in large numbers of tourists.

My family and I  became part of these visiting tourists.

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Elaborate dragon railing!

Elaborate dragon railing!

Massive bonsai!

Massive bonsai!

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The temples we visited were in all sorts of locations. Chùa Linh Ứng was on top of a mountain, overlooking the towns around it.

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I highly doubt it’s convenient to build a temple on top of a mountain. Regardless, many of the temples we visited were on mountains. And these temples could get massive. 

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Not only were the temples on mountains, they were sometimes in the most remote mountains possible.

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The temples were not only on mountains, but in mountains…

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And were often impeccably well-kept.

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Some temples were ancient. Literally, ancient.

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We visited so many temples that they began to blend into one another…

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…and eventually, my sister and I began assuming that everything was a temple until proven otherwise.

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We were just overwhelmed by the sheer number of temples we visited, though. Don’t get me wrong– all those temples certainly did not look the same…

Chùa Một Cột, or the One Pillar Pagoda, in Hanoi.

Chùa Một Cột, or the One Pillar Pagoda, in Hanoi.

At Chùa Bái Đính, aka the Bai Dinh Temple.

At Chùa Bái Đính, aka the Bai Dinh Temple.

One of the many boats used to ferry visitors to Chùa Hương, the Perfume Pagoda.

One of the many boats used to ferry visitors to Chùa Hương, the Perfume Pagoda.

At Chùa Linh Ứng, near Đà Nẵng city.

At Chùa Linh Ứng, near Đà Nẵng city.

…and were in fact some of the most incredible structures I have ever seen.

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So I might not be living in one of these grandiose temples anytime soon. Still, the temples of Vietnam are definitely worth a visit. Whether you’re Buddhist or not, the size, diversity, and beauty of these temples are really a sight to see!

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The tourist trap

Vietnam likes tourists. Tourism boosts the economy and creates jobs, after all. Apparently over 7 million people visited Vietnam in 2013 alone, a number that has been growing each year.

People have been trying to capitalize on that tourism. All sorts of hotels, entertainment centers, and luxury shops seem to be popping up around the country. As foreign travelers in Vietnam, my family and I got to experience the full force of the Vietnamese tourist traps.

You see, back in December, I met up with my family in Vietnam for the trip-of-a-lifetime: a three-week journey in Vietnam. My parents have been planning this trip for years, but expensive plane tickets– and a lack of school vacation time during the winter– hindered their efforts. Finally, since I was going to be on that side of the world anyway, my family decided that they might as well make our trip finally happen.

This wasn’t just going to be any family vacation, either. Oh no. My parents booked a massive tour through Saigon Tourist, starting from Ho Chi Minh City and going all the way up north to Hanoi. Hotels, meals, and destinations would all be arranged by our tour. It was a pretty unusual arrangement for my family, since we typically plan our vacations ourselves.

As a result, we got a different sort of trip from what we’re used to.

“Saigon Tourist,” as we should have expected, is, well, touristy. The company knows that the people using Saigon Tourist have money. They’d also like their tourists to spend that money. One of the first destinations on our tour, for instance, was this place.

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That place, we found out, was the “Rang Dong Wine Castle,” the first and only castle in Vietnam. Fashioned after the valleys of Napa, California, the castle was built and opened just a few years ago. Inside, we were treated to an informational video and a tour.

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We even took a tour of the wine cellar.

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fire

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It was clear that the place was only built for show. Even the small vineyard outside was struggling in the hot Vietnamese climate. In the castle, finely dressed employees carried signs advertising the various luxury Californian wines we could buy.

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That was the beginning of a series of luxury shopping sessions. During our tour, we visited a silk shop…

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…a sculpture store…

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…a sand art store…

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…an embroidery store…

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…and even this one that sold weaver bird’s nest. The store claimed that the birds’ nests (made from the bird’s own saliva) had medicinal properties, and sold them at an extremely high price.

That converts to about $300 per pound. No joke!

That converts to about $300 per pound. No joke!

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But I didn’t mind all the shopping. While the stores we visited were certainly touristy, each one carried something unique and new to me. I actually enjoyed visiting each one despite the premium tourist prices.

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Made from bamboo roots!

Shopping isn’t the only way that the Vietnamese locals have capitalized on tourism. Resorts have sprung up around coastal areas, serving tourists who need a trip to the beach. Some resorts have been successful, but many others have long since been abandoned.

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My favorite places, though, were the amusement parks. 

That’s the best term I have for them, anyway. I don’t mean the sort of amusement park you’d find in the States, like Six Flags, Disney World, or Cedar Point. No, these places were a an odd assortment of random entertainment. I’m not sure how to describe it. The best I can do is show what I mean. For instance…

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In Đà Lạt, Vietnam, one of the most popular tourist spots is a place called Thung Lũng Tình Yêu, or the Valley of Love. For a admission fee, you can come in and enjoy the attractions (all which cost extra, by the way.)

For instance, with your loved one, you could

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Another park in Đà Lạt is Thung Lũng Vàng, or the Golden Valley. Here, you could

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There was one park that was particularly memorable, though.

We drove into the amusement park intending to just have lunch there. We had some time, though, so our group insisted on seeing the rest of the sights at the park. Pushing past the people at the entrance…

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…we walked down the deserted path. Huts of tables and chairs lined the road, obviously unused.

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First, we encountered a ball pit that I probably wouldn’t let my kids play in.

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A lovely, but somewhat random, garden followed.

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All sorts of statues and swings added to the decor.

Like this super cool dragon!

Like this super cool dragon!

For a fee, you could try the shooting gallery to win a pack of gum.

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There was a crocodile pond where you could pay to feed the crocodiles. It made me rather uncomfortable– after what I had seen in Australia, it was obvious that these crocs were overcrowded and unhealthy.

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The weirdest part, though, was the foot spa.

For a dollar, visitors could opt to have their feet “massaged” for a half hour. Amazingly cheap, right?! Probably because these little guys were going to be our masseuses.

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You see that right.

Fish. 

I’ve heard of these “Doctor Fish” before. They exist in the States, although they’ve been banned in many states for health and humanitarian reasons. Vietnam, it seems, doesn’t care much for strict regulations. Here, we paid our dollars and stuck our feet straight in.

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Having fish nip at your feet tickles like no other, man. We soon started a contest of who could attract the most fish to their feet– the fish swam away if you moved, so to accumulate a lot, you have to stay completely still. That’s no small task if you’re tickle-sensitive.

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I eventually got the hang of it, though.

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We left the amusement park entertained, but a little confused.

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Indeed, a lot of the places we saw in Vietnam felt a little like that. Children’s rides rusted and broken down by the street. Entire shores full of crumbling, vacated resorts. Other spots of eccentric, disjointed entertainment clearly targeting your wallet.

No matter where we went, though, it was always intriguing. Behind every shooting gallery, every rusted children’s ride, was a person trying to make ends meet. And where else could you get a $10 horseback ride? The amusement parks really were, well, amusing. 

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Tourist traps usually have a negative connotation. They lack authenticity. They’re designed to take your money. All of this is true. Yet sometimes, they become an experience all their own. When I think about it, I sure wouldn’t be able to find any of that stuff in America.

Yes, I’ll admit it: I was ensnared in the Vietnamese tourist trap. And I’d gladly be caught in it again.

Vietnam is breathtaking, in more ways than one.

Boy, have I been neglecting this blog lately. I’ve been wicked busy what with flying to Australia, moving in, and registering for classes! Sorry about that!

Vietnam is a country of both incredible scenery and unbelievable pollution. As I mentioned previously, the roads are so smoggy that it’s common to wear masks while driving around. Tap water is not safe to drink. I was shocked by some roadkill I saw on the street:

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But Vietnam, for all its problems, is an amazingly beautiful place. My family here was kind enough to take me to a beach resort in Bình Thuận, a province north of Ho Chi Minh City. We rented a bus with another family and enjoyed the 4-hour drive through the countryside.

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A dragonfruit farm.

A dragonfruit farm.

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The word “resort,” for me, at least, implies a sort of luxurious hotel where all entertainment is provided. Our resort was more of a hotel, though it did have some fun features that we certainly enjoyed.

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The area is famous for its beaches, so I was very excited. I was a bit surprised by the amount of litter on the beach, though.

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And the ocean was completely filled with odd red bits. I’m not sure if this was from human or natural causes, but either way, the murky water left your body unnaturally sticky.

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My family quickly tired out the pool and karaoke, so we decided to sight-see elsewhere.

Luckily, nearby was Núi Tà Cú, or Tà Cú Mountain. The mountain is about 2,129 feet tall and is a popular tourist attraction. And I was about to find out why.

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Tà Cú Mountain is home to a Buddhist temple, though it used to house a previous queen. If you can get up the stairs…

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…you’ll be welcomed by three large statues…

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…and this incredible temple.

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What amazed me the most, though, was this 45-meter long statue of a reclining Buddha. I honestly thought it was a building at first.

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Afterwards, we paid a visit to the Ke Ga lighthouse. Since the lighthouse is on an island…

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…we stuffed what was probably too many people into one of these traditional fishing boats.

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In order to get to the top, we had to climb up a rather intense set of stairs.

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But the end definitely paid off.

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How can such unbelievable natural beauty exist in the same place where we found dead cockroaches under the bed…

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…or pay for a hot spring where, upon entry, we found most of the pools totally empty?

A hot spring for feet-- completely empty.

A hot spring for feet– completely empty.

I was only there for a week, but I already sensed it: Vietnam is a country of contrasts. There’s abject poverty and extreme wealth. I saw equally shocking beauty and squalor. It’s a country struggling with its chaotic history and difficult government. It’s a country still growing into its own.

And when I was there, I also sensed without a doubt: Vietnam was my country. For all its problems, Vietnam is an incredible place– and I admit, I’m proud to be of Vietnamese descent. I already can’t wait to return in December!

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Though I can stand a few more months of listening to people with Australian accents.

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(Australia’s pretty cool, too.)