PHOTOSPREAD: SOUTHERN VIETNAM

The sound of paddles slicing through the green waters of the Mekong Delta. The sticky heat of the canopied jungle on my skin. The cool, refreshing taste of young coconut water. The summer song of the cicadas. The sweet scent of incense at Vĩnh Tràng Chùa, a Buddhist place of worship…

There is no other experience quite like a journey to Vietnam, a country in southeastern Asia. In June 2018 (half a year ago?! crazy.) I had the wonderful opportunity to visit southern Vietnam. I spent about a week in its capital, Ho Chi Minh City, immersing myself in local culture and history, valuable lessons that can’t be taught in a traditional classroom.

The raw beauty of Vietnam lies within its gorgeous landscapes, shaped by the destruction of war and the modern resilience in its aftermath. My newfound appreciation for the strength of Vietnam’s beautiful landscape and people manifests itself in this series of photographs, all shot on my iPhone. What I fail to describe adequately with words, I hope to make up for with my photos.

Hẹn gặp lại, Việt Nam.

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WINTER IN GERMANY

Imagine– the warmth of roasted chestnuts seeping through your gloves, the enticing smell of currywurst wafting in the air, and the low murmurs of seasons greetings in German. Visiting the Christmas markets in Germany has long been a dream of mine. This winter break, I finally had the chance to cross it off my family’s bucket list!

Germany, known as Deutschland to native Germans, is located in central-western Europe. It has 16 states and a population of 82 million, making Germany the most populous country in the European Union.

Reichstag
German flag waving over the Reichstag, photo courtesy of google images

The main language is of course, German, though visitors will find that most Germans can speak at least ein bisschen (a little) English. They will understand if you ask, Sprechen Sie Englisch? Do you speak English?  However, it is still useful to know simple phrases and words such as bitte or dankeschön, so that you can read signs, ask for directions politely, and thank others for helping you.

In December, Germany is quite cold, but not quite cold enough for the ground to freeze over and the sky to create blizzards. But it is still chilly enough to just barely reach the negatives in centigrade, which is practically unheard of from where I live. It even snowed a little during my first morning in Berlin! To stay warm, layering is definitely key! I felt adequately prepared for the weather with thermal underwear, cozy knit sweaters, an outer coat or jacket, waterproof Timberland boots, and a grey scarf and hat. I’d also recommend investing in a quality down jacket–they’re sooo warm!

During my holiday, I stayed in Berlin’s Stadtmitte, with easy access to the historical roads of Friedrichstraße and Französischestraße. Transportation is simple and without headache–there is an underground U-Bahn station every block or two, and it works in similar fashion to subways and metros. There is the occasional busker, with his violin or accordion. Be wary of pickpockets, especially during rush hour!

Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt square happened to be right by where I was staying. There, in front of the Konzerthaus (concert hall), was a Weihnachtsmarkt–that is, a Christmas market. (Weihnacht: Christmas, markt: market)

My first full night in Berlin consisted of copious amounts of food and three steaming mugs of Glühwein (mulled red wine spiced with cloves and cinnamon), shot respectively with Amaretto, Cointreau, and rum. Rest assured, not all of it was for me! The hot drinks seemed to banish the frigid air around us, if only for a moment.

To make the most of your Christmas market experience, I’d suggest going with family or friends. It’s not something you’d want to experience alone! You do have to pay €1 (~$1.20) to enter this Christmas market in Berlin’s bustling city center, but most others are free entry. Be sure to try the Glühwein and the famous currywurst! The mugs that are used to serve the mulled wine are collectible and vary in design year to year. You can opt to keep your mug as a souvenir or return it to get your deposit back. (You pay the deposit when you buy the drink.) I’d also suggest purchasing some hot, roasted nuts to crunch on as you watch the Christmas carolers sing on the steps of the Konzerthaus. Another delicious traditional treat to try would be the Quarkbällchen. It seems strange in name only, and it looks like a large donut hole topped with powdered sugar, but I guarantee you that it tastes better than a donut!

Though I had a wonderful time in Berlin’s Christmas market, I’d recommend Dresden’s Striezelmarkt to anyone looking for THE essential Christmas market experience. Dresden’s Striezelmarkt is the oldest known Christmas market in the world. Founded in 1434, the Striezelmarkt was originally a one-day market for locals to buy fresh food for Christmas dinner after pre-Christmas fasting. I had the opportunity to take a day trip with my family to Dresden, a two hour train ride from Berlin Hauptbahnhof to Dresden Hauptbahnhof.

The Striezelmarkt is beautifully decorated, and each booth has its own unique Christmas decor. Some of them are even animated! I saw a toy train making its way around tracks laid around the top of one booth, and another had a small bear riding a unicycle across a tightrope. Dresden’s Christmas market is also home to the largest Christmas pyramid in the world (14m tall!), shown below. The food is quite similar across all the Christmas markets I’ve visited. There is always an abundance of roasted chestnuts wrapped in paper, candied nuts, Glühwein (sometimes spiked with spirits), currywurst and bratwurst, pommes frites, Quarkbällchen, and gingerbread hearts with frosted inscriptions that read ich liebe dich (I love you) or Frohe Weihnachten (Merry/Happy Christmas). Visitors can also purchase goods such as warm hats and socks, utensils made of wood, glassware, and hand-poured candles.

My father found a café called Viba situated in a building with an amazing view over the Striezelmarkt. I had a rich heiße Schokolade (hot chocolate) and a bite of sweet Apfelstrudel (apple strudel). Our waitress didn’t speak much English but we got by just fine, with my father’s German and my own flimsy attempts.

The Christmas markets were mostly an evening affair, so during the day, I did just about every other touristy thing. I visited the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, sat down for some afternoon tea at Einstein, and took a trip to Potsdam to see Sansoucci Palace, once owned by Frederick the Great of Prussia. For the history buffs, the Pergamonmuseum and Neues Museum hold a wealth of artifacts, including a reconstructed Ishtar Gate and the famous limestone bust of Nefertiti.

In short, I had the most wonderful time in Germany during this past holiday season. I find that the famous Christmas markets of Germany are quite like the busy night markets of Taiwan, only neater and more beautifully decorated. If you’re willing to brave the cold to experience something truly magical, visit Germany in December and take a stroll through the Striezelmarkt with a mug of steaming Glühwein in your hand.

By the way, I apologize for the lack of photographs. I took way too many videos and ended up making a short travel vlog of the whole experience (not just the Christmas markets!) which you can view here. Next time, I’ll be sure to take equal amounts of video and photo when I travel! There are so many places that I have yet to see and learn about. Countries close to the top of my “to visit” list include Iceland, Italy, Peru, New Zealand, and South Africa. What are some countries you wish to visit this year?