We were so excited when we got our tickets to Vietnam on very short notice that we never really made much of the terribly inconvenient and tiring route we’d have to take. The Star Alliance, which counts Delta and Korean Air as part of its circle, will always "award" you the most circuitous route they can find, and never expect to fly anywhere directly, without stopping, though Korean Air has daily flights from New York to Incheon in about thirteen hours, Delta routed us this way:
JFK to Las Vegas; Las Vegas to Korea; Korea to Ha Noi. Return trip via L.A. Yes, we were surprised to find we’d have to connect in Las Vegas with Korean Air, but apparently, many folks from Korea are now flying into Las Vegas for, um, gambling? shopping? perhaps it’s the museums.
Anyway, we’d have about an hour to make the connection, then we’d arrive at Incheon and not depart until the next evening. Why? Because the flight, which departs to Ha Noi daily, would leave before we could arrive from the USA. I have been a loyal Delta flyer for many years, but this is beyond asinine. You cannot even suggest to Delta that they give you a direct route.
Thus, I began to make plans in New York on how we could spend a day in Seoul. It never occurred to me to check the distance between Incheon and Seoul, nor did I bother to look up the distance of a particular shrine that was recommended by my acupuncturist, who is Korean. All he said was to hail a cab, and give them the name of the shrine. It is so well known, we’d be there in no time. I will not fail to mention that said acupuncturist hasn’t been to Korea in at least 20 years, and his memory may have gotten dim.
I remembered our experience at Changi Airport when we had a longer than expected layover, and decided we’d probably spend the night at the transit hotel at Incheon. Well, it was sold out, so that made it impossible.
There is also a hotel called Incheon , but don’t let the name fool you. It is outside the actual framework of the airport. Dealing with where to stay became secondary when we realized that our luggage was lost. Since we arrived at 6am the next day, the airport was not exactly teeming with staff, so it was increasingly difficult to find someone who could help us. Let me explain that Incheon Airport is humongous. The majority of personnel do not speak English, and that really shocked me. Thankfully, the people in the offices and behind some of the counters have the basics. We had to find the Korean Air offices that deal with lost luggage and see what they could do; we also stopped in with our friends at Delta, and though they were terribly helpful, they at least confirmed to us that our luggage had never left New York. I understood that they were trying to route the luggage through L.A. where daily flights occur, rather than thru Las Vegas, where there are flights twice a week. Korean Air gave us KRW938,000 (a dollar is worth 938 won, so about $100) for our pain and suffering. That actually took care of our food for the 2 days we were there.
After a concerted effort to try to depart Korea a day earlier, and have our luggage forwarded to Ha Noi, a very alert Korean Air agent reminded us that our Visa did not allow for an earlier arrival to Vietnam. I am grateful for that, in retrospect, as our arrival in Ha Noi was a bit bizarre to say the least.
At that point, we were ready to find a hotel and collapse in it. So, the Sky Hotel happened to us. As check out was at noon, we decided to return to the airport and check out the shopping, use the Internet, and of course, check the baggage arrivals.
Thankfully, the luggage had arrived, and we had to retrieve it at some distance from the offices on the third floor, but relief overcame annoyance. We proceeded to check in immediately, even though we were eight hours early for the flight just to get rid of the bags. Now we’d have time to appreciate this state of the art airport. One thing I did notice is that for such an enormous airport, it does not seem to move a commensurate number of people. The only time you see a crowd is when people are boarding at a gate. Otherwise, the foot traffic is quite light.
For those of you in transit for a couple of hours or so, there is a transit lounge on the 4th which has boxy armchairs and wooden tables, and if you’re savvy enough, you can configure something that can support a horizontal body. A snack bar (unopened when we arrived) is also present for quick bites, or a drink, but nothing earth shattering. Instead, we went downstairs and I had a delectable cream cheese bun with Earl Grey Tea. Korean buns are all the rage in New York, and more and more patisseries are opening in Queens featuring these amazing buns with gorgeous stuffing. The Internet station is on the second floor, and for 3,000 won (about $3.20) you get an adorable orange and white cyber pass for an hour. Except for the numbers and the company name, everything on that card is in Korean. On to the shopping!
There must be a tremendous demand for Korean seaweed. Not only can you buy it in almost every shop that has foods, but also there is a stall completely devoted to seaweed and every shape and form you can imagine. Also extremely ubiquitous is Korean Ginseng, recognized by most to be superior to its competitors, and Royal Jelly. Don’t count on buying any books at the GS Bookstore: they are all in Korean. Also, contrary to what I had read, their cultural magazine called Seoul , and which is published in English, was not available. Also surprising was a pharmacy on the premises: I tried to get some Motrin, but all they had were boxes of 10 caplets of generic ibuprofen.
Major American and European brands share the space on the third floor, and I will list a few for you, though I am not particularly interested in any of them: Gucci, Bulgari, Ferragamo (I do love his shoes!) Chanel, Max Mara, Samsonite, Cartier, Swatch, Coach, Escada, Rolex, Boss, Versace, Hilfiger and Dior. Also interestingly different were the displays of refrigerators at the airport. And of course, you can find liquor galore, perfumes and cosmetics, electronics (no bargain), tobacco products, chocolates and other sweets.
One of the most interesting features of Incheon Airport is its Korean Wave Cultural Center. For the uninitiated, the country’s photos, video images, and personal belongings of famous Korean actors and pop musicians represent the Korean Wave. The trend is one of the strongest in Asia.
Another memorable moment was spent trying to call Ha Noi from a public phone at the airport. Forget your phone card, it doesn’t work here at all. You will have to purchase one of their phone cards, and you really need to follow instructions very carefully, lest you get a female voice on the other end, most likely telling you that you’re an idiot. In general, I would say that if I ever return to Korea for a visit, I would not do it in December, as the temperature is downright cruel. I also would not plan my duty free shopping at Incheon, as I like to find real bargains. I’m sure that Seoul would give me something to write home about.