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My favourite neighbourhood

IMG_7174A barber sits at the end of a small alley, meticulously cutting hair. The tools of his trade are set out below the dangling rubbery pink roots of the Tropical Angel Hair vine, a fitting environ for a man in his profession. He glances into the black-speckled mirror as I pass, and in the reflection I see Hanoi’s iconic peeling yellow paint on a wall of the colonial mansion behind.

As a part-time tour guide of Hanoi’s French Quarter, I often field questions related to the city’s colonial past. Last week, an eager woman asked about the fading yellow colour painted on many of the older buildings. “All yellow with green shutters,” she pointed out excitedly. Realising I had no answer for this most obvious of questions, I decided to do a little digging. It turns out that many of Hanoi’s French residents originally came from the south of France, where the yellow-green colour scheme was popular. In an attempt to recreate their homeland, they built exact replicas of houses, including adopting the colour palette. On top of this, the houses owned by elite Vietnamese families were also painted yellow as a sign of wealth and prestige.

IMG_7154This leads me back to the location of the barber – one of my favourite neighbourhoods in the city. Just south of Hoan Kiem Lake but north of Thien Quang Lake is a small pocket I refer to as the Ha Hoi neighbourhood, Ha Hoi being one of the area’s main cross streets. The area is a favourite on my walking tours for its small winding roads, flower-filled courtyards, unique architecture and cute cafes and clothing boutiques. It is where I go to escape Hanoi’s chaos when I need reminding of why I love this city.

IMG_7186A friend and historian, who is currently writing a book about the neighbourhood, calls it Hanoi’s ‘VIP Quarter’ for the grand, modernistic villas built by elite Vietnamese in the 1930s and 40s. Embracing what is known as an international style, these post-art deco houses are boxy and asymmetrical, often with features such as circular porthole windows, flat rectangular awnings, curved walls and spiral staircases. These houses were the first generation of buildings designed by university-trained Vietnamese architects for Vietnamese clients. The designs weren’t French, nor were they Vietnamese: they belonged to the world. The development of this area came at a dynamic time for Hanoi and the design is indicative of a society reaching out to a global future.

The ‘VIP Quarter’ of the 1930s would have looked different to the Ha Hoi area of today. Streets were quieter and the population was smaller. However, the area still retains a certain charm and history that is lost in other parts of the city.  Even with the rapid changes Hanoi has undergone in the past few decades, there have been no major developments in this area. “A bit busier and more crowded, but still looking pretty much the same as when I was a little girl,” says one resident, who has lived in the area for nearly 60 years.

IMG_7156Drinking tea at a small stall near the barber, the area seems timeless. Sure there are motorbikes, modern signs and people on cell-phones; all the benefits of progress are here. But there is also comfort in the enduring images of washing lines hung between old buildings, small street-side tea stalls where nobody is in a rush and ladies in conical hats cruising down the road on push-bikes. At the end of the street the barber works, always busy, cutting hair under the shade of the Angel Hair Vine, as he has probably done for 50 years.

This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on December 2nd, 2014, click here to see the original.

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Sapa Art Festival

IMG_4407After a last-minute decision to participate in the 10km leg of the Sapa Mountain Marathon, my husband and I braved the rocky night-train north for some clean air, a little exercise and, as it turns out, an introduction to the art of northwestern Vietnam. The run was steep, muddy and gruelling – but far more interesting was the launch of the first Sapa Art Festival.

IMG_6981Hosted at the Sapa Tourist Centre, the festival opened with a flurry of speeches by local dignitaries. In spite of a thick fog and steady drizzle, visitors were greeted by an open fire. Inside the centre, French doors were pushed open to let visitors through. The visitors paused every so often to appreciate the original paintings and photographs by the region’s most talented artists.

As I warmed myself by the fire, one painting in particular caught my eye. It was an impressionist scene of rolling greens, blues, purples and blacks. Up close, the painting resembled a series of sharp brush strokes and scrapings, but from afar it morphed into a soft swirl of mountains and rice paddies. The painting’s artist, Pham Phan Hoang Linh, perfectly captured the intricacy and changeability of the mountain terrain. The highlight of the exhibition was a bright room filled with student paintings depicting everyday scenes from the area, such as a woman soaking in an herbal bath, a young boy riding his buffalo and a pot-bellied pig trotting through a farm.

IMG_6985These small snippets of daily life in the northwest are curated by Bridget Marr, the founder of the art festival and artist-in-residence of Sapa Rooms. More than a hotel, Sapa Rooms is a social enterprise that seeks to improve the lives of minority women and children in the region. The new artist-in-residence program, known as Art for Community, provides room and board in exchange for art projects that contribute towards these initiatives.

“The program supports the belief that the arts are an integral part of a healthy culture, and that community-based arts provide significant value both to communities and artists,” said Pete Wilkes, founder of Sapa Rooms.

I caught up with Marr the following morning in her top-floor studio at the Sapa Rooms guesthouse. The rain had cleared and the open windows by her desk afforded views across Sapa’s rooftops and down a steep mountain valley. Originally from the United Kingdom, Marr spent two years in Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An before beginning her four-month sojourn in Sapa.

“For me it was always about helping Sapa Rooms achieve their goals rather than producing my own work,” said Marr, who still found time to produce soft watercolour paintings depicting the hills and villages of the area.

With the sun shining, I later took to the streets around town to visit a few artists’ studios and galleries. As part of the festival, local artists opened their doors and invited guests to take a look inside. From amateur to professional, oil to watercolour, the rooms were filled with the life and colour of the region. But for me, nothing came close to the beautiful colours and techniques used by Pham Phan Hoang Linh. So with only a few hours of cool mountain air remaining, I returned to the Sapa Tourist Centre ready to buy. As Linh carefully removed her painting from the frame, we chatted briefly in broken Vietnamese and English. “I like painting and living in Sapa,” she said as she presented her rolled-up canvas. “It is a wonderful place for art and I hope to stay forever.”

IMG_7025This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on November 5th, 2014, click here to see the original.

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Co-working

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My dog Marmalade and I have taken to having long conversations in my home office. I sit down with a cup of tea, her with the latest bone she’s working on, and we discuss work.  Sure the talks are kind of one-sided, but her eyes tell me what she’s thinking – unfortunately they are usually saying “let’s go for a walk” or “feed me” rather than “great article” or “that chapter needs more work.”

I love my work. It affords me ultimate freedom and every week I learn a little more about Hanoi and Vietnam. But there are days, when my entire to-do list involves desk work, that I miss the interaction and stimulation of an office environment. That was until I discovered Hanoi’s very own co-working venue, ClickSpace, and realised I was not the only independent worker to feel this way.

From the outside ClickSpace looks like any other house in Hanoi’s Tay Ho area. But inside the pale yellow exterior, the building has been transformed into three floors of office space where anyone and everyone, no matter their profession, can rent a desk and get to work. “Co-working is a social activity,” says ClickSpace founder Jason Lusk, “and Hanoi-based freelancers and entrepreneurs are discovering co-working in a big way.” It allows independent workers, like myself, the opportunity to be part of a group.

With increasing numbers of jobs offered online, many people around the world are finding they miss the companionship and inspiration of an office environment. “You don’t join a co-working centre because you need a desk. You co-work because you enjoy meeting interesting new people, finding new collaborators, eating lunch with new friends, and – most importantly – feeling some peer pressure to get some work done,” explains Lusk.

After a quick introduction from Hai Anh, ClickSpace’s bubbly operations manager, I make my way up to the second floor. The “productive area” Hai Anh explained. Surveying the large room filled with desks, power outlets and Wi-Fi signs, I set up at an empty space near the window. Except for the sounds of clacking keyboards and the whir of the air-conditioner, my workmates are quiet.

The great thing about freelancing is that you can make your own hours, and as long as you meet deadlines, nobody cares when or where you work. There is no one hovering over your shoulder making sure you don’t slack off – although on the flipside there’s no one hovering over your shoulder stopping you from slacking off. On the introductory tour, Hai Anh showed me a large kitchen where people can hang out and drink, and I briefly contemplated checking out the beer-stocked fridge, but decided that’s a slippery slope at 11am. Opting to wait until ClickSpace’s weekly Friday happy hour that evening, there was nothing else for me to do but work.

On a break in the small outdoor area that doubles as scooter parking, I chat to a few people casually standing around sipping Diet Coke. “I’ve been working at ClickSpace for about three months now,” says Cuong Ha, the managing director of Insight Frog, a new responsible tourism group. “It really cuts down on start-up costs and gives us a place to work together until we’re more established.” When I arrived earlier that day, three members of the Insight Frog team were holding a meeting on the couches of the ground floor.

One of my favourite things about working as freelancer in Hanoi is all the interesting people I meet. As cliché as that sounds I really feel that the city is a hive of creativity and constant inspiration. Spending a day at ClickSpace reinforced this feeling. Lusk agrees: “Hanoi is brimming with software engineers. It has thousands of creative workers. Moreover, it has become a top destination for foreigners and digital nomads who like the city’s chic, gritty energy.” I left ClickSpace that afternoon not only feeling decidedly cheerier than I do after a day in my home office, but also feeling more productive.  I guess my long chats with Marmalade will be coming to an end.

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This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on October 7th, 2014, click here to see the original.

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Souls of Sugar Street

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“The gates of hell have been opened and now the spirits are arriving,” whispers my guide as the Buddhist monk in front of me spins and chants. I glance around the room anxiously. Spirits from hell, where am I? Draped in flowing robes, the monk lights a fistful of incense over a burning candle and waves the sticks over the display of flowers, food and images of Buddha. Gathering the incense in one hand and his red-and-gold robes in the other, he sweeps from the room and crosses through the carved wooden doors leading into the courtyard. I watch as the last of the aromatic incense smoke, a link between the human and spirit worlds, spirals and curls towards the ceiling. The ceremony is over. The ghosts have arrived and everyone is feeling a little more superstitious.

With the arrival of the annual Vu Lan Festival, Hanoi’s streets are once again filled with people burning offerings in the name of ancestor worship. Making my way along streets lined with paper goods ready to be burned into the next life, I see families crowding their local pagodas to pray for the souls of their ancestors who have not yet made it to heaven. “Everyone goes to hell when they die because everyone does something bad during their life,” explains Co Chung, my Vietnamese teacher and guide for the day, “but this month the doors are opened and we pray that our ancestors will be received in heaven.”

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It is a hot, humid morning when I join Co Chung at Cau Dong Pagoda on Hang Duong, or Sugar Street, in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Following her down a small hallway, we enter the main room of the pagoda where a crowd is already assembling around two men drumming softly on the floor. Flashing coloured lights throw red and green streaks across their faces.

Purple and yellow flowers overflow from the central display. Cardboard images of Buddha sit nestled between towers of boxed orange juice, Coca-Cola, Custas biscuits and La Vie water. There are five elements that make up a temple display: candles with incense, fruit, flowers, sweets and drinks. Co Chung explains that the food and drink are chosen for the colour of the packaging rather than their contents. Of course, the pyramids of red Coca-Cola cans fit perfectly amongst the colourful display.

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Sitting cross-legged on the pagoda floor, my legs begin to go numb just as the head monk arrives. Taking his place on the floor in front of us, he glances in my direction before speaking with Co Chung. Feeling self-conscious with my camera and notebook, I ask if it is OK for me to take photos. Co Chung nods and smiles. “Vietnamese people want foreigners to learn about our pagodas and why they are important to us,” she reassures me.

Then the chanting begins. This is not my first experience with pagoda chanting, but it is the first time I’ve had the best seat in the house and the first time I’ve heard a monk with such a beautiful voice. The sound of the monk calling the souls echoes around the room. First he calls the parents and children, then the husbands and wives. Some people begin praying and others whispering; a few women in the corner pull out their smartphones to snap pictures. When the monk calls the souls of the mothers, however, a strange stillness washes over the crowd. Melancholy hangs in the air. The shoulders of the old woman beside me begin to shake and tears stream down her face. Co Chung explains that this is a scary time for mothers, when special prayers and readings are dedicated in their honour.

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All of a sudden it’s over and the spirits are among us. Retrieving his iPhone, on which he was following the traditional Chinese character script, the monk briskly makes his way out of the room. It’s time for lunch. Under the watchful eye of Tran Hung Dao, one of the Vietnamese heroes worshipped at the pagoda, we feast on rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves and sweet rice che. The monk appears in a long window behind us, talking and joking with Co Chung and her family. The rain that has been threatening all morning finally starts to fall and from his post at the window, the laughing monk begins to sing softly to the damp garden. Lunching with ghosts is more peaceful than I imagined.

This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on September 2nd, 2014, click here to see the original.

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Responsible Travel Vietnam

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Growing up, I was lucky to have parents who not only loved to travel but who loved to travel off the beaten track. We would hike for days through remote landscapes, visit lesser-known destinations and stay in small locally-run guesthouses. Now I’m not going to lie, as a kid I wasn’t such a fan of this. Lying in my tent, praying a bear wasn’t about to rip into me, I would dream about the big shiny international hotels we passed in cities. I didn’t want to stay in a shack my parents thought had ‘character’, I wanted the generic interior, soft bed and tiled bathroom of a nice hotel room. However, a funny thing happened when I started traveling independently, I stayed in those I-could-be-anywhere-hotels, and I hated it. They were generic, boring and I never felt I actually connected to the place I was visiting. So, despite becoming scarily similar to my mother, I now spend hours planning holidays; seeking small, locally-run, guest-houses that embrace the local community, culture and environment.

When I first moved to Hanoi over a year ago, I found very few of these establishments. Sure there were small hotels run by local people, but few were consciously embracing the principals of responsible and sustainable travel. Although there are organisations working hard to increase the market in Vietnam, they seem few and far between. Developing sustainable tourism businesses takes time and these initiatives are still in their infant stages. Or so I thought until I met Pete and learned about the Tet Lifestyle Collection.TLC1

On a grey Hanoi morning, with rain streaming out of the sky, I arrived, a little soggy, at Tet Décor Café on Dang Thai Mai Street in Hanoi’s Tay Ho district. Snagging a table near the floor-to-ceiling windows, I settled in to watch the red, orange and white koi drift lazily through the courtyard pond. Admiring the Hmong textiles draped over wooden tables and walls lined with various handicrafts, I was joined by Pete Wilkes, founder and manager of the Tet Lifestyle Collection, the umbrella company to which the café belongs. Although I was there to interview him about the Collection’s newest venture, Backyard Bia Hoi, we settled into an easy conversation about Hanoi, travel and why he decided to move to Vietnam and start a travel company rooted in community development and responsible tourism.

“To me, responsible tourism is about traveling with generosity,” says Pete, “and we want to make it easy for people to give back to the community they are visiting.” Pete and his team hope to not only give visitors a unique experience but also create a community within the organisation and build spaces where people feel they can connect.SONY DSC

Relaxing into the colourful cushions handmade by the women that attend the Collection’s regular life-skills and handicraft workshops, I decided to stay on for lunch. Whiling away a pleasant hour, happily enjoying my avocado and mushroom on toast, I paid extra attention to the food on my plate. All meals at Collection properties are made with ingredients that have either been sourced locally or grown on their 65-hectare farm in Soc Son, 40 minutes from Hanoi. The Fragrant Path farm will soon be opening its doors to regular overnight visitors who will have the opportunity to enjoy a weekend of northern Vietnam’s peace and tranquility, while hiking in the hills and feasting on the farm grown produce. My parents will be visiting for Christmas and I immediately knew that this was just the ‘character-filled’ type of place they would enjoy. With eight properties in the north and plans to expand nation-wide, it seemed that the Tet Lifestyle Collection is exactly what I was looking for.

This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on August 4th, 2014, click here to see the original. Photos courtesy of the Tet Lifestyle Collection.

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My Designer Dog

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I open the bedroom door with trepidation, preparing myself for the worst. Peering cautiously around the doorframe I see her sitting patiently on the floor, tail gently wagging, a slight drool of excitement emanating from her thick, pink tongue. I notice the picture, previously leaning against the wall, now knocked over but luckily still intact. Relief washes over me as I make my way gently towards her, no sudden movements. Her dark eyes fixate on my sleep-crumpled face and I swear she is smiling as she slowly stands, stretches and proceeds to release a steady stream of urine onto the wooden floor boards. And so commences another day of Hanoi puppy parenthood.

Marmalade has now been part of the family for a total of seven nights. That makes it one week of living my lifelong dream of owning a puppy and one week of running around after 22 pounds of slobbery, stinky, hair-shedding, paper-chewing, golden retriever mess.

Recently, Marmalade and I ventured out to the nearby park for some serious puppy socialising which, according to Ceaser Milan, dog whisperer and my new guru, is essential puppy protocol. My neighbour, veteran dog owner and all round canine expert, fills me in on the comings and goings of the park. “It’s not just about the socialising and exercise, it’s also about showing off your dog,” she says. This becomes apparent as we are approached by a woman and her two daughters. “What is she?” she demands, her daughters gleefully descending on Marmalade who is chewing her way through the wire fence. “A golden retriever,” I reply, watching her abandon the fence in favour of rolling in the mud. The woman nods in approval, looking at the rolling muddy mess, “very nice, very nice dog”.

photo(3) A few months ago, in my pre-puppy days, I met a college-aged girl walking her Siberian Husky. His name was Lam she informed me, short for Lamborghini. As I glanced around at the other dog owners assembled in the park, I realised that buying a dog in Hanoi is much like buying a new car, only the car won’t chew your furniture. I had entered the world of the designer dog, where the big and fluffy take the bone.

First up we have the Chihuahuas and Miniature Pinchers; like a reliable Hyundai, the pups are compact, convenient and low maintenance. These dogs enter into the dog world with minimal fuss and money required.

Then there are the Poodles, energetic, dependable and the most common canine to roam the grassy slopes. These breeds are the high-end Hondas of dogs. They show a certain level of prestige and status with the right touch of fun.

Moving up, we have the mid-size breeds. Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Huskies. These fluffy, playful mounds of happiness are like a nice Mercedes. Dignified and classy, but with plenty of torque, they attract all the right attention.

For the macho types there are the shepherds and pit-bulls. Nice-looking dogs with a quality build and unparalleled strength, these are the equivalent of the Hummer.  Unnecessarily large and powerful, they are tough, they are alpha and they want to make sure everyone knows it.

Finally we have the rare and expensive breeds, the Rolls Royce of the Hanoi dog scene.  “I saw a Tibetan Mastiff once,” says my neighbour, “rumour has it they go for over a million dollars in China so imagine how much they cost here.” This breed is all about show and the high price tag ensures they are always top dog.

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As I sit here finishing this column, my phone rings and my husband’s frantic voice comes through from where he’s walking Marmalade. “She’s eating plastic, what do I do?”  After some fumbling on the other end of the phone, the line goes dead. A few minutes later he calls back. “Crisis averted, I got it out”, he says proudly. “Oh no, wait a sec, Marmalade, no, stop that, gotta go.” Shaking my head as I hang up the phone, the status associated with Hanoi’s dog scene makes me laugh. In the end a dog is a dog, no matter the breed they are always going to wee on the floor.

This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on July 3rd, 2014, click here to see the original

 

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New plan…

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It has not been my intention to ignore my blog, it’s just that I don’t seem to be very good at it.  This conclusion was reached after realizing that my last post was well over two months ago (and then again two months before that). It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing. Actually, as it turns out, I love it. The problem is that between writing for magazines and working on my book, I’ve become too lazy to write on my blog. But I have a plan. I’ve started writing a regular column (Letter from Hanoi) for a magazine called AsiaLife and I’ve decided to start including what I write there on here (after it’s been published). So to make a start I would like to share June’s column about religious buildings in Hanoi:

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Passing a colourful flag fluttering at the end of a dark narrow alley, we reluctantly entered the damp corridor. Cold concrete walls pushing in on both sides gave way to a steep curving staircase, which shielded the busy kitchen beyond. As kittens frolicked on the steps, we followed our guide upwards to the small room on the first floor. Smelling of incense and fried garlic, the room quickly became crowded as the group glimpsed the display of plastic flowers, smoking joss sticks and piles of Choco-pie offerings. Three women sat mending clothes on the mats in front of the shrine, seemingly oblivious to the 10 foreigners who had assembled in the small room. Tucked up here, away from Hanoi’s hustle and bustle, there was a sense of calm and reflection.

Earlier that day I joined one of the regular walking tours offered by Friends of Vietnam Heritage (FVH). Led by local history buff Jura Cullen, the walk explored some of the many chua, den and dinh scattered throughout Hanoi’s Nha Tho (Cathedral) neighbourhood. Prior to this walk, I was unaware that there are three primary types of buildings associated with worship, all of which I incorrectly identified as pagodas, or chua in Vietnamese. In addition to chua, there are den, non-Buddhist temples, as well as dinh, communal houses that usually include shrines to Buddha, local heroes and other gods. Our first stop, the temple with kittens on the stairs, was a dinh.

IMG_5547 Back downstairs, past the now-sleeping kittens, we emerged into the familiar jumble of cafés, tourist shops and hawkers. Leading us down another alley marked by colourful square flags (signifying the path to the temple), Jura guided us towards an old den, tightly surrounded by a group of concrete tube houses. As I peered through the locked gates, I was surprised to see a large green courtyard beyond the central shrine. Although den such as this one look similar to chua, the architectural design is slightly different. Sometimes including a small shrine to Buddha, the den is primarily a place to worship Confucius, various Taoist divinities, familial ancestors and local heroes.

Our final stop was the newly reconstructed Chua Ba Da just off Nha Tho Street. Though founded in the 11th century, the current pagoda building is largely brand new. “As a sign of respect, temples are regularly renovated and rebuilt using new and recycled materials,” says Jura. When dating pagodas, it is not the age of the actual structure that is significant, but the historic and sacred foundation that it sits upon.

IMG_0081Once inside, the unique chua architecture was clearly visible. Divided into three rooms aligned along a vertical axis, each room supported an individual pitched tiled roof. The first room, a reception and prayer hall, along with the third room, a private area for the monks, supported roofs of the same height. The middle room, housing the shrine, buttressed the highest roof of all. Although Chua Ba Da displays a typical Vietnamese chua design, Jura cautioned against sticking to definite rules when studying the chua, den and dinh. “Although we can make a few generalisations about the architecture and religious symbolism, there are always exceptions to the rules,” she says.

IMG_5544In addition to religious structures, Jura also pointed out many of the intricate architectural details, such as small carved balconies and barely visible windows, which line the area’s many crumbling facades. All but obscured behind the clutter of clothing lines, telecom wires and peeling yellow paint, these details are easy to miss if you don’t know where to look. After a year of walking these streets daily, I am still excited by hidden details that have previously escaped my notice. Now, thanks to Jura and the FVH team, I am inspired to continue walking, discovering and learning.

FVH is a volunteer group working to preserve and advance Hanoi’s culture and heritage. Jura Cullen offers walking tours independently and through FVH. For more information, visit the website (Fvheritage.org), contact Jura at jura.cullen@cantab.net.or check out her blog: Hound in Hanoi.

This article originally appeared on June 4th, 2014 on the AsiaLife website, click here to see the original