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Hen Gap Lai Ha Noi!

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Hanoians are famous for nostalgia. Being the great storytellers that they are, there are myriad poems, paintings, folk tales and other art forms depicting the sentimental beauty attached to this city. Despite – or sometimes because of – the drastic modernisation witnessed over the past few decades, there remains a pride in the certainty that Hanoi is, and always has been, a city of unsurpassed charm and romance.

From the moment I arrived in April 2013 I, too, found this charm impossible to resist. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of aspects of life in this city that irritate me. Truth be told, there are moments when I have wondered what it is with the sprawling suburbs, crowded streets, temperamental weather and questionable driving techniques that allows this city to still be considered charming. In the end, however, Hanoi is a good seductress: she woos with imagery and flirts with imagination, captures hearts and stimulates minds, persuading one to overlook her flaws.

IMG_0558Upon a recent rereading of my early blog posts, I discovered that I still get a kick out of many things I originally loved about Hanoi.  From babies in bicycle baskets to unidentified squealing animals toted around on the handlebars of a scooter to toads in a bowl on the footpath – a new take on toad-in-a-hole – there are some Hanoi quirks that never cease to enchant me.

As my day of departure nears, I find myself in limbo. I have not yet left – although by the time this is published I will have – but I’m not quite here anymore. Unable to fathom a life back in the US, where my days won’t begin with dog walks through parks of dancing couples, nor end with beer drunk on tiny plastic stools, I don’t want to start packing up my home. Yet I already feel that my too brief participation in this city is over. I will lead my final walking history tour for Friends of Vietnam Heritage, submit the last of the magazine articles, hand over my projects and finish my final column.

IMG_0103Summer is commencing as I book my flights and fret about moving details, such as how much we will have to pay for the furniture our dog, Marmalade, has chewed. Winter drizzle is turning to heavy rain showers, the damp street drying quickly in the hot sun. Perhaps it is these changes that give the city her charm. Seasons change in cities around the world but in no other have I felt and smelled and seen the changes as intimately as I do here. I cannot think of a more succinct way – nor a more nostalgic one – to sum up my time here than to highlight my favorite parts of the seasons. Hen gap lai, Ha Noi!

Summer
Feel – Damp, always. Bare legs sticking to taxi seats, sweat running down my back as I ride the scooter.
See – Lakes of lotuses flowing in the morning sunshine.

Autumn
Feel – The rare combination of sun and low humidity as I walk Marmalade in the park. Hanoi actually looks like the postcards.
Hear – The sound of “Ai ca phe nao!” echoing through empty streets at midnight.

Winter
Feel – Fog — and pollution — and endless drizzle turning the city into a watercolour painting as the liquid sky hangs heavy overhead.
Smell – Cold dampness penetrating through cracks in the windows, seeping into furniture and making everything smell of mothballs.

Spring
Feel – The happiness of spotting bicycles laden with mounds of floral colour, the yellow roses smiling at the still sleeping lilies.
See – Trees laden with orange fruit and spindly branches full of pink blossoms weaving their way through traffic.

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This article first appeared on the AsiaLife website on May 22nd 2015, click here to see the original.

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Hanoi’s Song Birds

Thank you to Jura Cullen for the photos. More of her work can be seen at http://juraphotos.com/

Thank you to Jura Cullen for the photos. More of her work can be seen at http://juraphotos.com/

Delicately adorned cages hang from a tree on the bank of one of Hanoi’s many lakes. Barely audible above the roaring traffic, a fragile tweet glides across the water. It is a sight and sound familiar to all those who have spent time in Vietnam. Undeniably romantic, the caged birds are both beautiful and tragic. A remnant of ‘old Hanoi’ – a slower, quieter version of the city – this image is one only perceivable at certain times and in certain places, such as misty lakeside mornings.

Yet whenever I see these birds, I can’t help but hear Alicia Keys’ song Caged Bird:

That’s why I say that I knowIMG_5090
Why the caged bird sings
Only joy comes from song
She’s so rare and beautiful to others
Why not just set her free?
So she can fly, fly, fly
Spreadin’ her wings and her song
Let her fly, fly, fly
For the whole world to see

Perhaps I’m being a little dramatic. Keys is singing about the pressures of fame, and the Maya Angelou poem upon which it is based connotes racism and oppression. Hanoi’s bird owners, however, would vehemently deny any cruelty on their part and likely be offended by the insinuation that they do not care for their birds’ welfare and happiness. Still, the symbol of the caged bird is a powerful one.

“In Vietnam, the sight of bird cages paints the traditional picture of a rich man relaxing with his birds,” says Le Quy Minh, an expert on native bird life and one of Vietnam’s leading birders. “Birds are expensive and time-consuming and those that keep birds do so to show that they are able to lead the life of a relaxed, romantic, rich man.”

However, Minh argues that just because song birds are perceived as a part of Vietnam’s long history and rich culture, this time-honoured tradition doesn’t make the act of keeping them as pets right.

Sing like a bird…

P1060741A friend who had been privy to the famous bird singing competition hosted by the Thien Quang Lake Bird Club recently explained a few of the particulars in bird care and competitions. Not only do birds require special food and grooming with warm water twice a day but the process of training a bird to sing beautifully is one of great care and technique.

Young birds are placed near the elder birds so they can learn from their superiors. It is important, however, not to put them too close. The young winged pets risk not only straining their voices when they try to match their superiors but they may also become self-conscious in their lesser ability, causing them to suffer an inferiority complex and rendering the birds mute. Unable to compete in the prestigious competitions, these creatures become essentially useless to their owners.

Learning about all the care and support made me almost believe that the life of a songbird is not so bad. After all, owners are spending considerable time and money ensuring the birds’ welfare; surely they only want the best. They love the birds. They dote on them. These pets can be worth thousands of dollars, with rumors of particularly rare birds selling for over a billion Vietnam dong (near USD $500,000). And then there is the cage, an often elaborate work of art crafted out of anything from bamboo to elephant tusk for materials. There is even a Vietnamese saying that developed from this: “Valuable birds have to live in beautiful cages.”

But then I remember that these birds were once free.

“The majority of song birds are captured from the wild,” explains Minh. “It is believed that wild birds have stronger and more beautiful voices, as they have grown up hearing the sounds of nature.” Now kept in cages and trained to compete in competitions, they are no longer  free; even the most beautiful cage is still a prison.

“People need to change their mindset. Just because it’s a small part of our history, it doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t mean we can’t change,” says Minh. “You don’t see people walking instead of driving a motorbike just because walking is more traditional. Bird owners can find new hobbies.”

Despite the beauty of the bird cages lining Hanoi’s streets and my fascination with the culture of bird keeping, I can’t help but agree wholeheartedly when Minh says that it is always “nicer to see the bird fly freely”.

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This article first appeared on the AsiaLife website on April 19th 2015, click here to see the original.

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Heaven on Earth: Vietnam’s Newest World Heritage Site

IMG_7416 (600x800)Sheer cliffs surround the boat in every direction. Limestone karsts sprouting with dense vegetation tower above.  I see nothing but nature and hear nothing but silence. Bobbing on the water, the captain slowly steers the boat to what looks like an impassable tangle of rocks and vines. Not until we are a few metres away do I see our escape: a cave, less than two metres high, emitting only darkness. We are going in.

Welcome to Trang An, Vietnam’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place where the water is crystal clear and pink flowers bloom along the shallows. Temples rest on a precipice of rock and water. Here, for 30,000 years, people have lived amongst these limestone giants. To the unfamiliar, this area is a maze of confusing waterways and impassable hills, a place where one could easily disappear from the world. However to the emperors of the 10th and 11th centuries, this was the ideal setting for a capital city where the inhabitants could be controlled and enemies rebuffed.

This combination of stunning natural beauty and ancient history has led Trang An to be recognised as Vietnam’s eighth World Heritage Site. Unlike the previous seven, Trang An is notable for being the only UNESCO site in Vietnam to be classified for both its cultural beauty and natural integrity.

IMG_7330 (800x600)At the ticket office, we are met by the sight of thousands of wooden boats bobbing along the shoreline. Stepping gingerly into the closest dinghy, we are greeted by a young woman whose ability to paddle three adults – all in the midst of Christmas feasting – for three straight hours left me in awe of her strength. What followed was a string of beautiful caves of varying heights and lengths, interspersed with scenes of a peaceful beauty that can be hard to come by in Vietnam.

Dubbed ‘Halong Bay on land’, Trang An’s landscape is reminiscent of its coastal World Heritage neighbour. Dominated by similar karst geography, Halong Bay and Trang An both provide a stunning backdrop to a tranquil boat cruise. Unlike Halong, however, the boats at Trang An are small, seating no more than five adults, and weekday crowds are minimal. We emerged from a particularly low cave opening and into a small cove ringed by flowering reeds and waterlilies. The steep limestone cliffs block all outside sounds. Underwater reeds stand tall in the clear water beneath our boat, their green spongy limbs waving gently in the current as we paddle past. Brown-and-gold fish dart between grass, their scales glinting in the sunlight, before plunging into the shadows of the towering hills above. Water movement is imperceptible, with the steep hillsides, plunging valleys and clear sky mirrored in its glassy surface. It is as though a parallel world of deep crevices and underwater mountains exists just below our feet.

IMG_7419 (800x600)A parallel world does, in fact, describe how it seemed as we floated through the caves of Trang An. The journey through the first hollow felt like stepping through the back of the wardrobe and entering Narnia. We were suddenly transported into a beautiful, magical world. So at odds with the industrial limestone factories that dominate the Ninh Binh landscape, this small pocket of serenity is surprising.

IMG_7343 (800x600)With more and more visitors flocking to Vietnam’s World Heritage Sites, I worry that Trang An will suffer the consequences of unchecked mass tourism. We can only hope that tourism officials will learn from the experiences of other popular tourist destinations and ensure that this place remains as close to paradise as it was on that sunny afternoon in late December.

As our boat paddled slowly back towards the ticket office and the noises from surrounding roads and villages returned it was as though we were emerging from the wardrobe. Tranquility and history can be experienced at the Trang An complex and I hope that its designation as Vietnam’s newest World Heritage Site will help the area retain its magic.

IMG_7385 (800x600)This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on February 5th 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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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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Mưa

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This morning dawned wet and misty. Despite my scepticism back in November, winter really does come to Hanoi and while it may not be below fifteen degrees celcius there is a definite chill in the air that isn’t helped by the perpetual greyness that hangs over the city.  But today it isn’t so bad, I believe that the hazy sky is the damp fog and not the thick cloud of pollution that it seemed yesterday.  Setting out for the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient in the morning drizzle – they have some English books on colonialism I find interesting – I was reminded of what is so charming and so irritating about this city.

The pavement is slick with the built up grime that had turned mucky in the wet air and my foot slips continually on the uneven pavement. I’m blocked at corners by the crowds of people, men who spend their days drinking at cafes and smoking are scattered on small stools across the footpath and women hawk fruit, fried dough, and steaming bowls of some variation of the millions of noodle soups that staple the diet. I’m heading for the old French quarter and the sight of the decaying buildings intrigue me; the fading glory just visible beneath the black layers of dirt, broken shutters and lines of laundry hanging from the windows. I deliberately walk a certain way so as to visit my favourite buildings. I wonder who lived in them when they were new and who lives in them now. I also walk a certain way so as to avoid streets I know to be a mass of scooters, garbage, and the inevitable rat. This morning is a ratty morning and I don’t enjoy the way the scamper through the gutters, an occasional dead one washed up in the rain water. On mornings such as these, in the streets less frequented by tourists, all modernity slips from the city and it seems to go on as it must have a hundred years ago. Then I’m catapulted back into the present by a scooter tearing down the footpath.

I arrive at library to find it closed. They had changed their hours again and I stand in the small back street wondering where to go next. My computer hangs heavily from my shoulder and I’m reluctant to go back to my study now that I’ve made the effort to go out. I make my way to a café up the road and am reminded of what is so unfavourable about walking Hanoi’s streets. I dash across the road to avoid the bus hurtling around the corner against a red light. A scooter backs onto the footpath, narrowly avoiding my foot. The driver gives me an unapologetic stare, surprised anyway is actually usually the pavement to walk on. A man pisses in front of me and a woman sweeping rubbish throws it into the street without looking. All within the space of two blocks. Hanoi looses is charm at this moment and I long to walk, on the clean uninterrupted streets of home. Then I smell the sweet tangy scent of the kumquat fruit that has been squashed as people remove their Tet decorations and see the colourful Buddhist flags fluttering along the street and I am again reminded of what is so special about the city. If it wasn’t for the bad, the good would not be so sweet. 

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Moon Bear, Sun Bear

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Sun Bear at Tam Dao Sanctuary

Last Friday was spent in the misty hills an hour and a half outside of Hanoi. It can be hard to imagine they exist so close to to the city, especially since they’re often hidden behind a curtain of pollution, but if you take a drive to the north there they are, small steep hills rising steeply out of the flats of the Red River Delta. The change in environment is rapid. With one swift turn the road turns off the straight flat highway and winds upwards, concealing the agricultural fields and industrial areas behind steep forested hills.

Moon Bears at Tam Dao

Moon Bears at Tam Dao

I was there to visit Animals Asia’s Tam Dao Bear Sanctuary, a veterinary hospital and rehabilitation center that takes in Moon and Sun bears which have been kept in captivity for decades so bile can be extracted from their stomachs. I’m not going to dwell on this distressing treatment of animals for a product that is not only worthless but can also cause serious harm to those who use it but if you’re interested in learning more, please click here.  What I did want to share was a few photos of these gorgeous, charming bears which are now able to live in the peace and relative freedom that the reserve allows them. I was hesitant to visit the Sanctuary as I expected horrible scenes of distressed bears in cages but it was fun to watch the recovered bears play in the gardens that are built for them. Unfortunately the bears cannot be released into the wild due to physical and psychological problems, as well as the absence of a safe place to release them.

Moon bears (Asiatic black bears) are named for the white moon shaped crescent on their chest. Each bear has a unique crescent and, as I came to witness, a unique personality. Sun bears a smaller with a shiny black coat and a yellow crescent and nose, they also have a ridiculously long tongue.

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Sun Bears playing

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Moon bear eating a carrot

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Finally , I just want to say that we feel very lucky that Typhoon Haiyan bypassed us last weekend and our thoughts are with all the people in the Philippines who have lost friends, family and houses. However, I also want to acknowledge all the people who have been victims of the recent flooding in central Vietnam, current reports estimate that approximately 30 people have died with 100,000 houses submerged and  over 80,000 displaced.