Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halong Bay Day Trip

We booked our Halong Bay excursion through our hostel, Little Hanoi. They gave us the option between 'deluxe' or 'standard'. The main difference really was the space you get on the bus to the port. There is about a $12USD difference but if you are tall, or not the stereotypical Asian size, then I would suggest upgrading. The deluxe van we had was just enough leg space for me but unfortunately, for my two tall companions, it was not so comfortable.

The trip started at 9am, with a pick up from our accommodation, and we got back about 9pm. A full day away. Our guide was a young, local Vietnamese man. Very handsome, but as we ran into other tours we noticed that this was a trend among tour guides. We joked that maybe that's a requirement the tourism company had if you were to become a tour guide for this area.

Our guide spoke very good English, was very personable and very knowledgeable. Unfortunately, I can't really remember the exact time it took for us to drive from downtown Hanoi to the port, but I'm going to guess it may have taken a couple of hours. Our guide did give us some information as we did hit important parts of the city as we drove.

Once we got the port, we were told to stay in one spot while our guide sorted our tickets. The terminal looked relatively new and was surrounded by many old -style Junk Boats for the tourists to board. The wait here took only 20 to 30 minutes and then we were off. Unfortunately, we had a bit of a hazy day so the visibility wasn't as great as we had wanted it to be but the scenery was still beautiful.

The bottom area of the boat was the eating area and had about 8 to 10 cubicles that could sit 4 people comfortably - 6 to 8 people if you wanted to squish - and the top area was an open style where you could lay down and bathe in the sun, or just sit and enjoy the view. We were served lunch as part of the tour and it was delicious! There were an assortment of Vietnamese dishes put on the table and you just helped yourself, sharing with whoever you are seated with. Drinks were not included but they were very cheap (unless you wanted to get a bottle of wine, which we did. They don't serve glasses FYI, you need to purchase the whole bottle).

We got to see the typical tourist spots such as the floating village, which I though was pretty neat. It had a school, a restaurant and a medical centre. We were also told of what their tradition is if one of their village members passes away. Definitely ask your guide about that if you head there. Very interesting.

The boat docks for about an hour or and you can either relax there or on the little floating jetty. Or else, you can hired a kayak for an extra 20,000VND (only two person kayaks) and explore. There is supposedly an amazing cave you can kayak through (you pay an entrance fee of approximately $1USD) but as the water level was low we couldn't enter.

The last stop we made before heading back was the highlight of my trip - Sung Sot Cave (limestone cave). It's hard to describe the enormity of this cave, it's one of those places that you just have to see yourself. I've tried to attach photos of the inside but it really doesn't do it justice. Also, my camera wasn't a high quality one so I couldn't really capture the true essence of the place.

We had to take a train that night to Sapa, and were a bit limited with time. We told our guide of our situation and he ensured that we were one of the first ones dropped back to allow us to get to our next destination on time.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jeju Island

During one of South Korea's national holidays - Chuseok, which is their equivalent to Thanksgiving, I finally made my way to one of the most popular destinations in this country. Jeju Island has an international airport that connects to pretty much all of the airports in South Korea as well as China, Japan, Mongolia and most recently, the Philippines. This is a good little place to head off to if you want a short getaway.

As we only had four full days here we tried to visit as many must-see places as we could. While I felt like I got the most of what Jeju had to offer, I know that there were still a lot more activities and attractions we didn't get to see.

Also, if you have the time I would recommend renting a scooter or motorbike. It is the easiest way to get around the island. Cars are available, too but they do sell out fast and you will need the help of a Korean speaker.

This mountain is the tallest mountain in South Korea. It stands at 1950m above sea level. All trails to head to the peak close sometime between midday to 2pm, as the walk does take a good bit of time. We started in the Jeju City entrance and came down the south side towards Seogwipo.

*Sunset at Hyeopjae Beach*
Beautiful white sand beach and easy camping grounds. Situated on the west coast,  if you do manage to rent a scooter you can make your way here and stop at a few temples and waterfalls along the way.

*Sunrise Peak*
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a beautiful location and if you are camping, this is a great spot to pitch your tent. I would definitely recommend getting up for the walk to the peak and see the sun rise.

*Udo Island*
One of the most amazing beaches I've been to here in South Korea. There is also a Chilean lady that has a little food stall that sells delicious empanadas. Here you can also rent bikes, scooters or ATV's.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

South Korea's mysterious island- Ulleungdo

Ulleungdo is a small island off the east coast of South Korea. It is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. It is known as an island full of  mysterious beauty with a subtropical climate surrounded by clear, emerald waters of the East Sea. It is most famous for it's hiking, fishing and it's seafood (mainly it's abundancy in squid) and also for it's special dish Honghapbap 홍합밥  (mussels on rice).

As the island has no airport the only way to get there is by ferry. Unless you live in the provinces near the two main ports (Mukho or Pohang) you usually would need more than just a weekend  due to travel times. This is to give you a rough idea on what you could possibly do or see in 3 or 4 days.

Ferry from either Mukho or Pohang. Ferry tickets range average roughly 120,000 won and travel time is roughly 3 hours or a little more depending on which port you depart from.

I took the 0820 ferry from Mukho, and departed the island on the 1300 ferry time.

As a foreigner, bring your passport as they may request to see this along with your ferry ticket.

From what I saw, you can take a car on the ferry (from Pohang only). However, as the island is very, very hilly I would only recommend taking your car if you know it can handle these kind of drives. There is a car rental office on the island but their English is very limited so this is best if you can either speak Korean yourself or have someone with you who can.

There are taxi's available at most larger cities but again, English is very limited. There are regular buses that go around the island. The main port on the island is Dodong. While there is a bus that goes pretty much around the whole island (from Dodong to the main areas) it only goes in one direction, towards Taeha. If you want to go to the city towards Cheonbu (the opposite direction of Taeha) you will need to ride the bus around the island to get here. Total bus times are around an hour to hour and half and costs between 1,000 won to 1,500 won depending on where you are going.

Dodong Port
This the the main hub of Ulleungdo. The main ferry terminal is here and where most of the accommodation and restaurants are located. As it is easy to get around the island I would recommend just spending your nights here. Night life is pretty much non-existent but there are noraebangs (karaoke rooms) available and you can check out the live fish markets at night.

There are many Korean style restaurants available on the island, all which are relatively the same price and quality. However, my favourite Korean restaurant was located nearly next door to Bada Seom Motel on the bottom level. Good Honghapbap and delicious side dishes.

There is a coffee shop a few shops down walking back towards the port, called Namu. Coffee is pretty good and I think this is the only coffee shop in the area.

Mamma Parks Pizza
One of only western style restaurants I saw in this area. It is located right next to Ulleung Hotel and serves a variety of delicious donkatsu (crumbed pork), pizza, steak and drinks.

Fried Chicken
One of the best spicy sauce fried chicken I've had here! There are other options of chicken available here too. The interior isn't the most pleasing however the food makes up for it.

This is just a couple shops away to the left of the chicken shop. It has one of the best jjajangmyeon I've had (seafood or original) plus other Korean dishes at cheap prices.

If you want to try some raw seafood, walk towards the Haengnam Lighthouse on the shore walkway and you will come across a seaside restaurant. A tray for 2 starts from 40,000 total and it's a beautiful location for a moonlit dinner.

There are some hotels available on the island.  However for something cheaper you can opt to stay in one of their motels or pensions. Unfortunately, there are no hostels. I had trouble finding any online websites for these places and if I did, none was in English. To book accommodation, I would recommend getting a Korean friend to call on your behalf.

I stayed at Bada Seom Motel, about a 5 minute walk from the ferry terminal in Dodong. Rooms are very clean and airconditioned. You can choose between a western-style room (with a bed) or Korean ondol-style room (mattress on the floor). For a room with a bed it costed us about 70,000 won a night split between two people. Of course, this was peak season prices so it could different at different times of the year.

The owner of the place did not speak a word of English however, she still managed to find us an English map and gave us very good ideas on which places were the best to visit.

The bus stop is also located right next door, too.

Day 1:
Take a bus to Bongnae Waterfall. Entrance fee is 1,200 won. From the entrance it's about a 20 minute hike to the waterfall.

Take a bus down to Jeodong Port. From here, beside the fishing port is the entrance to Chotdaem seaside walk and Chotdaem Shore staircase.

From here you can also visit the Haengnam Lighthouse before joining onto the Haengname Shore Walkway which takes you back to Dodong port.

Day 2:
Hike up to the highest peak of the island, Seonginbong. Walk the main road and follow the trail to the entrance of the park. The peak is 987m from sealevel and recommended hiking time is about 3 hours 15 minutes. There is one very small restaurant stop along the way otherwise I would recommend you bring some kimbap or snacks for the road, and lots of water. The first part of the hike from this entrance is a lot of uphill warned!

Once you get to the peak you can go back down via Nari Basin. The walk down takes roughly 2 hours and there are a lot of stairs!

Form Nari Basin, take a bus down to Cheonbu and then transfer to another bus to get back to Dodong.

Day 3:
Up the hill from the port you can find Dokdo museum, which has a lot of maps proving how Dokdo is Korea's island, not Japans. From here you can take a cable car (7,500 won) up to another peak which has a viewing platform giving you a beautiful aerial view of Dodong and the surrounding peaks. On a very clear day you will also be able to see the outline of Dokdo in the distance.

Right next door is Yaksu Spring, which is natural mineral water from the mountains of Ulleungdo. This water  is supposed to have health benefits (as do most of Korean things!). The water tastes carbonated and bitter so I wasn't much of a fan.

Day 4:
Ulleungdo does not have any sandy beaches, however, the most famous one on the island is called Jukam (or Jugam) Mongdol Beach, a little past Cheonbu. Take a bus to Cheonbu and you can either walk a further 20 minutes or wait for a connecting bus.

Here supposedly has the clearest waters and there are no bigger rocks by the shore which allows you to be able to swim out quite far.

There is a very small town nearby however no restaurants. There are a couple seafood restaurants in Cheonbu otherwise I would bring snacks for the trip.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

East coast travel- Busan to Gangneung

If you have a week free and want to see the best of the East coast of South Korea, here is a small itinerary you can follow.

1) Busan
- Haeundae Beach
- Gwangalli Beach (Gwangalli Bridge, Beached bar for those New Zealanders)
- Haedong Yonggungsa Temple
- Beomosa Temple

Accommodation: Ice Motel (Haeundae), Friends Guesthouse (Gwangalli), Pobi Guesthosue (Haeundae).

Busan to Gyeongju: there are two options. You can get a train from Haeundae Station to Gyeongju Central station for about 5,600 won. Otherwise, from Nopo Bus Terminal (end of the orange line,Line 1) you can take a bus that costs about 4,800 won and the drive takes about an hour and 20 minutes.

2) Gyeongju
- Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple (Entrance fee 4,000 each. From the bus terminal take bus 10 or 11 to Bulguksa, comes roughly every 30 minutess. Across from this bus stop take bus 12 to the Grotto, comes roughly every hour.)
- Daerungwon burial mounds (1,500 won entrance fee)
- Anapji Pond (1,500 won entrance fee)

Accommodation: Homo-Nomad Guesthouse. Close to Daerungwon and Anapji, about 10 - 20 min walk away but further away from downtown Gyeongju. Owner speaks good English and is very helpful.

Gyeongju to Gangneung: There is only one 'direct' train a day that leaves 11:06 and arrives 17:17 into Gangneung. The cost for this is 21,700 won. Otherwise there are 3 buses a day and is coastal. However, the cost for this is about 35,000 won and takes about 7 hours, 20 minutes give or take.

Gangneung to Jukdo Beach (Yangyang):  Take a bus from Gangneung to Jumunjin (2,100 won) and then from the station look for a green intercity bus number 322. This will take you towards Jukdo and costs about 1,650 won. Get off when you hear Inguri Elementary (잉구초등학교: Ingu Chodeung Hakgyo) or you can get off at the night 1 or 2 stops.

Accommodation:  Blue Coast (one of the few surf shops and hostels in this area).

The waves here are seasonal and are usually more often during Autumn and Winter.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Top 3 beaches on South Korea's west coast

In my opinion I think these are the top 3 beaches on the west coast of South Korea.

1) Mallipo Beach (만리포해수욕장)
Located in Taean-gun, Chungcheongnam-do province.

2) Seonyudo (선유도)
A little island off Gunsan.

3) Daecheon Beach (대천해수욕장)
Located in Boryeong-si, Chungcheongnam-do province.

(Not the clearest photo. This was taken when the beach was overrun by people due to the annual Mud Festival held here every summer)