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South East Asia 2010

22 Aug

Here is a video from our trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Filmed in October 2010, edited this weekend and the start of a new tradition. Enjoy!


South East Asia 2010 from KateHarmon on Vimeo.


Music – Generator 1st Floor, The Free Lance Whales 

“TrekkShopping” with the Hmong Women

31 Dec

Sapa Northern Vietnam

Trekking and shopping are generally two activities I consider mutually exclusive, but for the women of the Hmong and other indigenous tribes in Northern Vietnam, they are as intertwined as the rice paddies are to the mountains.

The mountainous area surrounding the small town of Sapa is a combination of stunning natural landscape, human ingenuity, and deep-seated cultural roots. Set against a backdrop of the tallest mountain in Indochina, the hills have been transformed into hundreds of man-made rice terraces. The vast cultivation of nature’s most beautiful crop upon mountain after mountain was a marvel to my modern world eyes; as was the time and intricacy that goes into the traditional clothing and crafts produced by the tribal women.

We arrived in the crisp early hours of morning and were immediately adopted into a small group of Black Hmong women, who took it upon themselves to stay with us the remainder of our three day stay.

As soon as our bags were dropped off, the women began us on their tour of the little town. They pointed out the sights, steered us clear of over-priced shops, taught us about their clothes and tribes, and were fascinatingly inquisitive and giggly. As the early morning warmed into the afternoon we informed our new girl gang that we needed to prep for that day’s trek. That was precisely the moment we realized that the large woven baskets our new friends carried on their backs were not in fact full of vegetables or whatever sundries we had assumed and simultaneously the moment that we realized we had indeed underestimated “souvenir space” in our packs.

It seems their laborious sales tactics and patience in befriending every customer must have stemmed straight from the lengthy hand-made production process itself.

At a higher altitude, they cultivate hemp and use it to produce their fabrics. Nearer to their homes, neat plots of indigo plants are grown, which to my amusement were not at all blue. After the fabrics are dyed then dried over and over again, they begin the embroidery. The details and attention that go into each garment, pillow case, bag, hat, or blanket is amazing. They also produce hand-made silver which they carve and craft into bracelets and earrings. All Hmong women begin to wear earrings early in life and the size seems to grow with age.

Our group of Hmong women and young girls remained with us until our last day. We trekked over 40 kilometers together as they walked us along the hills sides on narrow ledges of the rice terraces. They took us to their waterfalls and schools. We took turns inquiring about one another’s lives and culture.

We stayed overnight in their village and woke to the same crowing roosters. They even walked with us back into the small town of Sapa on the day of our departure. As we waited for the bus which would take us to the overnight train ride awaiting us, we thought surely our purchasing had come to an end. We made one last attempt to refuse anymore of their hand-made goods by informing them that we were quite honestly out of cash. At which point one of our faithful friends told us “if you don’t have the dough, the ATM is right over there”.

So, a big thank you to our wonderful new friends for your hospitality and care.  We won’t forget the beauty of your homeland and we certainly can never forget learning how to shop while trekking through beautiful Northern Vietnam.

Halong Bay

27 Nov

Halong Bay Vietnam

Holy Hanoi: a sensory overload pho sure

17 Nov

Sitting down to write this post I find myself saying the exact same thing I did when I stepped out of the airport taxi into the center of the Old Quarter distract: “Where the hell do I begin” to be honest I think that was my second sentence that actually followed “so, we have to cross that traffic with this luggage; how good were you at playing Frogger?”
Okay then, just as I did in the Old Quarter, Hanoi : I’ll start with traffic laws. There were none. There weren’t stop signs or cross walks. There weren’t traffic lights, not red, green, yellow or blue. There were seemingly no police officers or traffic cops or crossing guards. There was no end to the honking. There was no law and no order.  However, there seemed to be some rhyme and reason within the chaos. Most of the time the streets were like a perpetually moving organism and as long as you didn’t collide with it; it somehow seemed to keep spinning.

Other times, it came to a complete halt with you stuck in a van, trapped in the middle of an intersection, surrounded by hundreds of honking cars, weaving scooters, bell ringing tricycles, pedestrians with no sidewalk, push carts and pull carts, and ladies carrying huge baskets of fruit, all of us heading to some destination and no one getting there anytime soon.

After successfully crossing the street and therefore feeling as if we had completed an amazing race challenge, next up was finding food. I’m sure that Anthony Bourdain would have just sat at any one of the hundreds of “restaurants” that occupied literally every side walk, but as a recovering vegetarian I was a little suspect, but fortune favors the brave. We sat down on the tiny little step stool next to the miniature card table.  We didn’t need to order because she was only serving one dish and a damn fine dish it was. Bun Bo, immediately became our favorite Vietnamese dish.

Image courtesy of Eat Drink & Be Merry

Served with two draft Tiger beers, our “restaurant” also became a perfect place to pause our turn on Frogger, take in the sights, smells, and sounds; and watch the beauty buzz by us as we sat on the tiniest of stools, on the sidewalk in the middle the Old Quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The Floating Village

9 Nov

It poured rain in Siem Reap all night long, so when we woke up we didn’t want to risk using a day of our Angkor Wat pass with less than fair weather. Instead, we told our TukTuk driver to just take us somewhere other than the mystical and awe-inspiring ancient ruins of the once scared city.  He did just that.

Floating Village Houses

We paid our 15$ fair and were the only two to board our small boat. Our driver/guide was a high school student working through his lunch break driving his uncle’s boat. He began by pointing out some points of interest, “That is the floating gas station. That is the floating Catholic Church. This is the floating alligator farm.” “The what? Never mind, why?”  Just then a  young boy rowed up to our boat in a huge cooking pot with an eight foot python wrapped around his body asking for one dollar and it was more than difficult to smile and say no. Our guide had explicitly told us not to give any money to begging children because “making money” for their family simply meant they were being kept out of school to do so.

Our tour continued on through the 100 or so floating wooden houses, shops, churches, and schools and we were shocked to see that most of the homes had a dog and many had televisions that were really quite modern considering the fact that we were looking at one or two roomed wooden shacks build on stilts in the water. “There is a floating basketball court. Oh, and that is the orphanage and school”. Driving at a very slow pace it took only half an hour to go all the way through the village which ended as the small water way opened up into the Tonle Sap Lake (the largest freshwater lake in S.E. Asia).

Floating Village House

We floated on the lake for awhile while our driver laid out the reality of the residents in the village.  The boat drivers, who lived on land, were paid a small salary from the 15$ fee but mostly it went to the government and whether any of it actually got back to the floating village was questionable. He explained that the villagers actually picked up and moved further toward the lake in the dry season and back again when the rains started. Clearly they were there because purchasing or renting land was not in their budgets. Many of them were fishermen who traveled far out into the lake to cast their nets and during the storms of the rainy season some just never make it back.

On the return back through the village our guide asked if we were interested in visiting the orphanage school, as teachers, it was the only place we were interested in. We stopped by the floating general store to buy some things for the kids and quickly realized yet again that we wished we had been more prepared for where we ended up that day.  Due to transporting costs and a little “tourist charge”, we spent 50$ on two large cases of Roman Noodles and 24 pencils before heading to the school.

The entire school was like a floating wooden dock about the size of a tennis court, in which more than 150 kids lived and went to school. We dropped off the food and pencils with the teacher, eyed the classroom, and then eased our way out onto the “playground” with the kids.  The kids spoke zero English and we clearly had no knowledge of their language so the connections began with the universal high five. Not long after that, our bodies seemed to have turned into small jungle gyms. A little boy with deep eyes and a dirty face literally climbed up my leg and wrapped his arms around my neck. I spun, dipped, and twirled him around and as I went to set him down again quickly realized he had no intention of letting go, so the remainder of the afternoon was simply spent hugging.

In the end, we left leaving a little little food, some pencils, a thousand hugs, and a piece of our hearts in the orphanage in the floating village, next to the town of Siem Reap, shadowed by the majestic ruins of Angkor Wat.

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