Ha Long Bay

I wasn’t able to enjoy the surreal views of Ha Long Bay my first time there, nestled in my mom’s cosy uterus. So I went back, ready to be blown away by the hundreds of rocks emerging from the turquoise sea. I wasn’t disappointed.

There’s something magical about this little corner of the world… So magical the Vietnamese have a mythological explanation for it: under yet another Chinese invasion, the Vietnamese were helped by the dragon whose tail struck the water. Hundreds of rocks emerged for the Chinese ships to collide with before sinking to the depths of the sea.

A little throwback to 1993. Vietnam had just recently opened its door to foreigners. My parents and grandparents stayed on a small boat and drifted through the bay, sleeping under the stars huddled in blankets. Ha Long Bay was peaceful, and quiet, and fully theirs to explore.

I will only ever be able to experience this through my grandfather’s home movies, because Vietnam has drastically changed in the past 20 years and such adventures are simply left for me to imagine them. The two day cruise through Ha Long Bay remains nonetheless a wonderful opportunity to be wonderstruck before nature.

Our trip was unfortunately cut short by the threatening typhoon that disrupted the following part of our journey down South but we made the most of our time on the cruise, sipping on mango juice at sun set.

About nature and culture in Sapa

I’ve been back for 10 days, and keep returning to my photos from Vietnam hoping they will allow me to relive it all over again. I loved taking photos of Sapa, and witnessing the way people live in the mountains. It’s a life which embraces being different and yet is also submitted to change, and not necessarily for the better.

It’s obviously nice to tell you about all the wonderful things we saw when travelling. But every place has two sides: Parisian macarons hide a high rate of homelessness, Oxford’s beautiful libraries are hosts to numerous mental health issues. Vietnam is no exception to the rule.

One of the things that struck me the most when trekking in Sapa was the amount of plastic left to *never* decompose in nature. Plastic water bottles, candy wrappers, you name it. Maybe I’m too naive, but I couldn’t believe it. How could people step into such a majestic part of the world, and think it would be ok to literally trash it? I guess the answer lies in education (the answer always lies in education) but also decisions on a governmental level to protect, and enforce this protection of the environment and the community it hosts.

I wish I’d gone to Sapa 30 years ago, back when my grandfather would take incredible risks to venture in those mountains in order to meet isolated ethnic groups and to help them preserve their culture. Before tourism crept its way via train lines, concrete roads and motorways. Its impact is undeniable. Plastic trash found in rivers, on the side of paths and all around villages is a mere witness of this.

We trekked with women of the black hmong group who told us about their daily life, and who impressed us as they climbed up and down the steeped hills effortlessly in their simple rubber shoes whilst we required taking numerous breaks. They showed us the traditional and handmade items of clothing they wear based on the woven pattern that is unique to the black hmongs. The design and combination of colours of these patterns, paired up with the indigo dyed fabric is as sophisticated as many designs showcased in fashion weeks around the world. And I found such items all the more precious for the time and hardwork put into them; I understood why the black hmongs felt this craft, embedded in their marginal culture, was something worth preserving.

Later on, I learnt tourists could hire the traditional outfits of the black hmongs and other groups that have made Sapa their home for centuries. They then trek around, pretending to be black hmong, giáy or tay for the photos. For those who just fancy bringing back a souvenir, they can purchase traditional items of clothing, such as skirts, in the tourist shops some villages have been reconverted into.

I feel this is stating the obvious here, but all of this is quite problematic. Jumping on the cultural appropriation police bang wagon isn’t the point. It’s one thing that Vietnamese or Chinese tourists want to “dress up” like an ethnic group, the change it is causing within the culture of such ethnic group is another, and that’s what’s really at stake.

Let me explain: it would cost too much time and money to provide tourists with the real, handmade items. So the people living in Sapa have resorted to developing a business with factories in China to “counterfeit” the clothes. But purchasing fake black hmong skirts isn’t the same as purchasing a fake Louis Vuitton bag. What we noticed, and what our guide and the black hmong women we met confirmed, is that the children have started wearing the counterfeited traditional clothes themselves. After all, it’s cheaper and less time consuming than learning how to make it yourself. And this gets you wondering… “well what’s the point then?”. How real is this isolated life in the mountain where their culture is supposedly being preserved? People like to debate about the label “authentic”, but again, I don’t think it’s what really matters. What we should really ask is: what can benefit the people who choose to maintain a traditional life in the mountains as we make this area less and less isolated? Yes concrete pathways are not “authentic”, but they make the lives of the locals easier: imagine having to trek up and down these mountains in monsoon season? However, tourists encouraging a market that counterfeits major cultural aspects  that changes the way ethnic groups relate to their own culture, to the point of making them turn away from it, is devastating.

Visiting Sapa wasn’t just an “in awe” experience, it was also a wake up call about how much we must work on teaching how to respect both nature and culture.

On that note, here are some more photos I took, including a few photos of children on their way home from school.

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Head in the clouds, Sapa

I’m back. For real. This summer has been one of the strangest times of my life I believe… Making it past finals, dropping my productivity level to –100, graduating, feeling bored, getting nostalgic about Oxford, wanting to do it all over again, having too much free time to overthink finals results, wondering what I’m possibly going to do with my life. All in that order.

My only salvation from this post-partum spiral of emptiness was travel.

I feel so lucky and grateful I was able to escape from London, a place I’ve come to associate with this gloomy emotional cloud of turmoil.

And I realise I’ve documented none of it over here. Not that I was unable to, you know I never stop taking photos. The truth is: I just got lazy. As paradoxical as this is going to sound: I had too much free time. I didn’t know what to do with it. I had no urge.

That urge to do things, to be active, to create… I wanted it back.

The summer reached to an end, and everyone went back to their productive lives. This was going to be the first autumn in my life where nothing pre-planned would be waiting for me. “La rentrée” (back to school in French), has always been a big thing in my life. Probably because I’m French: turn on the TV in September and that’s all French reporters will be talking about. I should add that since the age of 3, “la rentrée” was probably one of the most steady events in my life. Moving around with my family, the country and school were often different, the process was the same. It was always the beginning of an upcoming year, during which I knew I would be given a frame to grow as a person. The frame is now gone.

After école primaire there was collège, after collège there was lycée, and after lycée there was uni. It was comfortable, always knowing what the next stage would be. Now there’s just a void. And this year, I’m going to have to learn how to fill it, without a frame, just an urge. An urge to make myself a place in this new life.

So I took off to find that urge again, and I flew to Vietnam with my mom.

I’ve been going to Vietnam since I can remember. My mom left everything she knew when I was born, but she never gave up on who she was and where she came from. So every year we returned to Saigon. I would sing with my aunts, be spoiled by my grandparents, run downstairs to ask my friend Chị Giang to play with me. A few years passed and my sister came around which made it all even more fun (although, there are too many photos of us wearing matching outfits playing in Vietnam together…).

We wouldn’t always stay in Saigon. My grandfather took me to Huế where he was from, I visited so many places such as Hanoi, Đà Lạt, Nha Trang and the list goes on. But that was a long time ago. After a while we started going less and less. And when we would go to Vietnam, it was such a long trip (flying Congo-France-Vietnam is a) costly, b) a very long journey) we would just stay in Saigon to spend time with family. So I don’t remember very well the places I visited during those childhood holidays. A few  rocks emerge from the waters of my memory and I see myself by the lake in Hanoi listening to the story of the sword and the turtle. But nothing is as clear as the pictures in the photo albums.

I had to go back and not only rediscover those memories but create some.

Sapa was our biggest discovery.

Getting on that night train from Hanoi, we didn’t know we were heading to one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen. Heck! We didn’t know we’d make a great encounter and spend the rest of the night getting to know Em An and his grandmother.

Early mornings are always surreal. You’re never sure you’re really woken up. The drive from Lào Cai to Sapa at 5am was like a dream: we watched the sun rise over the mountains as we made our way up into the clouds.

We trekked the rest of the day; we met Nkauj Rhuv Tees and other women from the black hmong tribe, we watched children play and bought all the handmade bracelets we could. Along the road we gazed at the rice paddles and the hardworking people harvesting rice with the help of buffaloes. I’ll stop now and let the photos speak for themselves.


[totally not sponsored but if Hype would like to give me money I am in no position to say no]