We have a saying in Vietnamese: “The further you go, the wiser you are”. It can be roughly interpreted as the importance of exploring the big beautiful world out there, instead of glancing at the sky from the bottom of the well like the frog in the famous Chinese tale.
I did not want to be the ugly old frog, so I moved from the second most populated city, the capital of Vietnam – Hanoi to the sixth largest city, the capital of Jeollanamdo province, South Korea – Gwangju. And here are the three interesting meeting points of two cultures I have discovered that probably have not been disclosed to you before.
1. THE ONE FOOD STORE THAT ALMOST EVERY STREET HAS
In Hanoi, it is definitely a Pho restaurant. For the foodie newbies, Pho is unarguably the most famous national dish in the entire Vietnamese cuisine. One important note is Pho actually implies the noodle, not the soup. Interestingly, while the noodle’s name has got the distinctive dish its reputation, the broth is actually the feature that kicks in the nuts of your tongue so you would never forget. The magical soup is a stewing of herbs, beef bones and flank. Depends on what floats your boat, your bowl can be either be served with chicken or beef. It is believed that Pho originated from our ancestors or so-called the “Pho artists” from either Hanoi city or Nam Dinh city (90 km South-East of Hanoi). That is the reason why when you browse around Hanoi city, you can spot a great deal of Pho Nam Dinh restaurants.
If Pho is dispensable in every corner of Hanoi city, traditional Korean restaurants (식당) are all over Gwangju. Normally, the smaller the restaurant, the cheaper the food. A fascinating distinction about these restaurants compared to restaurants in Hanoi is that visual displays of different dishes are usually placed on the walls; whereas in Hanoi, food pictures are usually printed on the menus in fancy restaurants, not in a Pho restaurant. Needless to say, diners without Korean language ability are most of the time saved by these tempting cuisine images to choose what they want. Korean food is substantially unique and vivid. With affordable choices, these typical Korean restaurants offer a range of diverse meat types and fresh vegetables cooked in abundant techniques that would make you fall in love instantly.
2. BUT FIRST, LET ME TAKE A COFFEE!
“Pali-pali” (빨리빨리) is a common Korean expression which means “Hurry up!” or “Faster!”. So frequently said, it has developed into a lifestyle where everything must be done quickly, women run marathons to works on high heels and public transportations are almost always on time to the last second. That explains why take-out drinks on the way is mundane in South Korea and Gwangju is not an exception. No matter what weather it is or the routine people are set for that day, take-out drinkers are easily spotted in almost any scenery. The lifestyle can also be proven statistically as according to Korea’s Ministry of Environment, about 700 million disposable cups were used by the country’s 16 major coffee and fast-food chains in 2012 and the number is increasing.
On the other hand, Vietnamese people tend to take time on their coffee. It is such a common thing to ask your acquaintance: “Hey, want to grab some breakfast and coffee together?”. This usual part of the day often lasts for an hour or so when both parties enjoy morning dishes (typically at a Pho restaurant) and head to a nearby càfe. If in Gwangju people hold their take-out cups walking on the street in fast pace, then in Hanoi, people drink coffee in a sedentary style, on the sidewalks surrounded by rapid traffic lines. This particular characteristic has been a significant color added to the culture picture of Hanoi. Sitting on the sidewalks on plastic chairs while sipping your coffee seems like a cool thing that does not seem to get old anytime soon.
3. A WALK IN HISTORY
Let’s take a moment and appreciate the fact that without our historic heroes, we might not have the privilege to enjoy Pho, barbecue Korean beef or morning coffee in our daily course today. That is why Gwangju city built the May 18th National Cemetery as a way to treasure the fallen victims of the Democratic Movement against the national dictatorship in May 1980. Every visit to the establishment is guaranteed to be heart-wrenching. One of its features is the gallery exhibition informing the massacre in graphic details which is painfully touching. Every face, every story and every angle deliver a significant message of how hard people fought for democracy. Another memorable point of the place is the cemetery itself where the Movement’s heroes rest in peace under the Memorial Tower which symbolizes the resurrection of Life. A walk in this monument is an observation of a turning point of Life in the history.
If Gwangju is proud to have one of the most important historical attractions in South Korea, Hanoi is proudly home of our Supreme Leader’s Mausoleum – Ho Chi Minh. UNESCO recognized him as the one who “devoted his whole life to the national liberation of Vietnamese people…”. Visitors from around the world usually have to wait in a miles-long queue to get to see his embalmed body. Despite Hanoi’s critical weather of 40oC heat or 6oC cold, the line of eager admirers with high respect for Uncle Ho never ceases to be formed. As a matter of fact, before he died, Ho Chi Minh stated in his will that he would like to be cremated, for his ashes to be scattered and that land can be used for agricultural purposes. However, to commemorate his dedication to the country, the Mausoleum was built against his will so that he can see Vietnam being united and generations of Vietnamese people and international friends can come and visit him.
There you have it, a clash of two cultures from two incredibly vivid cities of Vietnam and Korea.
Like Vietnamese people said: “The further you go, the wiser you are”. The world is big. So what are you waiting for? Go explore!
By Nguyen Thanh Huong, ASEAN Correspondent from Vietnam