Winter Wonderland in Chamonix

My dear friend Juliette has been inviting us to her family’s holiday house in the Alps for as long as I can remember. And somehow we’ve never managed to organise it. But unemployment is bliss in that it gives me all the free time in the world to do some travelling and spend time with friends (granted the flights are cheap) so I don’t have to think about the fact I’m unemployed.

A couple of weeks ago, Megan and I finally stepped into Juliette’s Winter Wonderland. We spent a weekend wrapped up in blankets by the fire, playing boardgames and drinking Nutella hot chocolates while the sky would not stop pouring snowflakes.

Crisp and airy waffles for breakfast, red wine spiked stews for dinner and some fondue savoyarde along the way, I must say I was in heaven and wished for the weekend to go on. But as ever, I have the photos that take me back to the cosiness of that living room, and of course the epic igloo we built.

 

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.

Late postcard from Copenhagen

It’s nearly December, and everyone asks me if I’m feeling Christmasy yet. The answer this year is “no”. Partly because it’s been Christmas in London since September 30th, partly because I didn’t attend my college Christmas Oxmas dinner this time, partly because I’ve been brooding since I’ve gotten back from Vietnam.

Instead, I already count the days to summer.

I roll my eyes when someone claims to love winter, and the layers, and the hot drinks… As much as I love hot chocolate, I’d rather have an iced latte on a hot sunny day and take long walks past 8pm while the sun sticks around a bit longer.

It probably doesn’t help, but this I-hate-winter-and-my-life-is-a-mess mood has made me dive into old photos from August. Julien and I travelled to the land of HYGGE for our very first time and spent a few days exploring Copenhagen, sipping Joe & the Juice cups (how authentic!), cycling around and gaping at the prices (and that’s to say, coming from London!).

My friend Jess recently pointed out how I/we have a tendency to talk about, judge and mock “tourists”, systematically excluding ourselves from such a group when most of the time we ARE tourists. Well Jess, I’m not going to be a hypocrite this time! I fully embraced the tourist experience in Copenhagen, and it was great.

Julien and I walked along Nyhavn (which I still can’t pronounce) too many times, we had a look at the statue of the Little Mermaid, cycled around Kastellet, spent an afternoon on crazy rides in Tivoli, had breakfast at Grød for the sake of Instagram, climbed up the tower of Church of our Saviour, got in and out very quickly of Christiana, enjoyed some -super expensive- street food on Papiroen, kayaked along the canals (that was an adventure the bumps on Julien’s head will never let me forget) and visited the Hirschsprung collection.

A video of the trip over there :)

And the photos over here … (all shot on film)

     

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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